Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

Facing Fearful Odds

But while the Orange Free State was prospering, the South African Republic was full of strife and trouble. The country was badly ruled. The Boers quarrelled among themselves, and were often at war with the natives. They had no money, they had no trade. The farmers, indeed, had enough to live on, but the government had no money to spend on the country. They had nothing with which to make roads or railways or bridges, for no one paid their taxes, some because they could not, others because they would not. The country became a refuge, too, for wild, bad men who wanted to live without law or restraint, and they made the confusion worse.

News of the wild turmoil of the South African Republic at last reached England. There it was said that the Boers had shown that they could not govern themselves, that they ill-treated the natives, that slavery was allowed. All sorts of stories were told, until people began to believe that the Republic was not only a disgrace to civilised people, but a danger to peaceful neighbours. It was also said that the Republic was trying to get a port on Delagoa Bay. That, of course, might hurt British trade.

So Sir Theophilus Shepstone was sent to talk to the Boer people and see what could be done. Many of the Boers were very tired of misrule, and Sir Theophilus was received with great rejoicing, although the people did not know what he had come to say or do. After a little time, however, he told the President that if he did not govern his country better he would be obliged to declare it a British possession.

To this, of course, most of the Boers objected. They wanted to have nothing to do with British rule. But they were weak, they were not united, and so on 12th April 1877 the South African Republic was declared to be at an end. The Union Jack was hoisted at Pretoria, and the name of the country was changed to the Transvaal, which means across the Vaal. Then at once British troops poured into the country, and took possession of the chief towns.

The state of the Transvaal had been bad enough, but in spite of that the farmers would not have British rule. They wanted to be left alone to govern their own country well or ill as they liked. Twice they sent messengers to England begging that Sir Theophilus Shepstone's proclamation might be recalled and their freedom given back to them. But the British Government would not listen, and the Union Jack continued to float over Pretoria.

One of the reasons that Sir Theophilus had given for annexing the Transvaal was that the Zulus were ready to fight the Boers—that indeed they were only kept in check by British power. The Boers did not believe that, but very soon a Zulu war did break out. It was, however, more against Natal than against the Transvaal.

Panda, you remember, had been recognised as king of the Zulus by the Boers after Dingaan's death. He too was now dead, and his son Cetywayo ruled. Cetywayo was a clever and warlike savage, more like Tshaka and Dingaan than like Panda, and under him the Zulu army grew great and well disciplined. It was more dangerous, too, than Tshaka's army had ever been, for by this time many of the natives had succeeded in getting guns.

For some time, however, Cetywayo lived quietly at peace with the British. But as time went on it became more and more plain that he wanted to fight. His young braves were anxious to "wash their assagais in blood," and as Zululand was shut in between the sea, the Transvaal, and Natal, it was only against white people that he could fight.

For a long time Sir Bartle Frere, who was now Governor of the Cape, tried to keep peace. But at last Cetywayo became so daring and insolent that it was no longer possible. Sir Bartle then gathered an army of soldiers, colonists, and friendly blacks, and sent them to fight the Zulu king.

The Transvaal Boers were asked to help too; but they were still too angry about the loss of their freedom, and only a very few joined. But even without their help, it was believed that the army was quite strong enough to crush the savages. Unfortunately, however, Sir Bartle did not know how strong Cetywayo's army was.

About ten days after the war began, the British were encamped at the foot of a hill called Isandlwana, which means the Little Hand. Here part of the army was left while the commander-in-chief with another part went forward a few miles to examine a native fortress.

The British had been warned by the Boers to be careful how they trusted themselves in the land of the Zulus. But no one listened to the warning. The camp was not fortified in any way, the baggage-wagons even were not laagered in the usual Boer fashion, for the British did not believe that there were any Zulus near.

But meanwhile a great army of twenty thousand savages was swiftly and silently closing round the camp. Too late the British awoke to their danger. They were surrounded by black, exulting hordes. It was a fearful fight. The British stood to their posts and fought till they could fight no more. They fought till they had no powder or shot left, and it became a hand-to-hand struggle with bayonets and clubbed rifles against the short stabbing assagais of the savages. Hundreds had fallen beneath the British fire, but hundreds more came on. In wave after wave the Zulus broke upon the British camp, and above the crash of guns rose their fearful war hiss, their shouts of triumph.

To a man the foot-soldiers fell where they stood. A few mounted men made a dash through the swarming savages. But most of them were shot down even as they fled. In an hour all was over, and the camp of Isandlwana was in the hands of the plundering, rejoicing Zulus, and eight hundred white men lay still and silent on the ground, with at least six hundred friendly blacks. In an hour the camp at Isandlwana had been wiped out.

Meanwhile two horsemen who had escaped galloped madly back to carry the awful news to Rorke's Drift, where another part of the army was stationed with the stores and a hospital for the sick. Drift means ford, and Rorke's Drift was a crossing or ford over the Buffalo River.


"Thus did a hundred men keep three thousand savages at bay."

The men rode hard, but it was after three o'clock in the afternoon before they reached the camp. Then as soon as they heard the news the soldiers there began to fortify the position as best they could. There was little time and little material, but they used what they had. Wagons were lashed together, bags of grain, biscuit-boxes, packing-cases, were piled so as to make a breastwork. The store-house and the hospital were loopholed. Everything was done that could be done in the short time; but before the preparations were finished the Zulus were upon the camp.

With the knowledge of Isandlwana in their hearts, the soldiers set their teeth and fought with desperate courage. Again and again the black waves of savages surged up to the frail ramparts, again and again they were beaten back. Hour after hour the fight lasted. The hospital was set on fire and charged by the savages, but while one party defended the burning building, another dragged the sick men out, and the Zulus were again beaten back. In the gathering darkness the flames leaped and roared and still the fight went on. The flames died down and darkness fell, but still the fight lasted. Not till midnight did the firing slacken, and at last towards daybreak the disheartened enemy fell back to the hills around, and the fight was over.

Thus did a hundred men keep three thousand savage warriors at bay, and save Natal from being overrun by a heathen horde, mad with blood and victory.

And while at Rorke's Drift a handful of men were fighting for their lives and for the life of the colony, the commander-in-chief had turned slowly back to Isandlwana. He was still some miles off when he met a horseman spurring wildly towards him with the news of the disaster. Then he hurried towards the camp, but night had fallen before he reached the spot.

What a sight was there! As the men stood upon the terrible field and saw their comrades, from whom they had parted only a few hours before, lying dead around them, they sobbed aloud. And there among the dead, amid the ruin of their camp, they waited till dawn, with hearts full of grief and anger.

As soon as day dawned they left the ghastly field and hurried on to Rorke's Drift, not knowing what news might await them there. Anxiously they marched, but as they neared the British camp they saw that the Union Jack still waved over it. And when they heard of the gallant fight that had been fought, a British cheer rent the air.

But splendid though it was, the defence of Rorke's Drift did not end the war, nor was Isandlwana the only loss. Troops, however, came from England as fast as steamers could bring them, and at last, after months of fighting, the Zulus were defeated at the battle of Ulundi, Cetywayo was taken prisoner, and the war was at an end.

After a little Cetywayo was allowed to return to his kingdom. But he found that all his people were not glad to welcome him back, for already some of them had chosen another king. So there was civil war in Zululand, and a year later Cetywayo died, it is thought now by poison. He was succeeded by his son Dinizulu. Under him the state of Zululand grew worse and worse, till in 1887 it was taken under British rule, and later annexed to Natal.

Dinizulu was sent as a prisoner to St. Helena. He remained there nine years, at the end of which time he was allowed to return to his own land. But the troubles with Dinizulu are not quite over yet.

The Defense of Rorke's Drift

Come listen for a moment,

All ye, whose peaceful life

In even flow is ne'er disturbed

By scenes of blood and strife;

Who sit around your hearth fires,

Secure from war's alarms;

This humble lay sets forth to-day

A British deed of arms.

Left on the wild, lone border

A small but fearless band,

Guarding the watery entrance

To savage Zululand;

On the warm midday breezes,

Like thunder's distant sound,

Came the long roll of cannon

Far o'er the hostile ground,

And we wondered that our column

So soon the foe had found.

Then came two flying horsemen

Riding with loosened rein,

And the powdery dust like a whirlwind rose

As they scoured across the plain;

A few more rapid hoof strokes,

And we heard the news they bore—

"In yonder glen nigh half our men

Lie weltering in their gore.

"Our men, too soon surrounded,

Were slaughtered as they stood,

Facing their slayers to the last,

Dying as soldiers should.

How we escaped we know not,

From that fierce whirlwind's frown,

But on this post a conquering host

E'en now is marching down."

We set to work undaunted

To raise a barricade,

With mealie bags and scattered stores

A breastwork soon was made;

And scarcely was it finished,

When burst upon our sight,

Dark as the lowering storm-cloud

Sweeps the blue vaulted height,

Moving along the fair hill-side,

In vast black lines extending wide.

Rank upon rank of warriors tried,

In panoply of savage pride

Advancing to the fight.

Yes, on they came in thousands—

One hundred strong we stand,

Against the very pick and flower

Of warrior Zululand:

And how may we resist them,

Or hope to hold our own,

Flushed as they be with victory—

The greatest e'er they've known?

And eyes with lust of carnage,

Like coals through the darkness gleamed,

And bayonets crashed with stabbing spear,

Thick the red torrent streamed:

Drowning the roar of battle—

Drowning the deafening clang—

Each demon yell like a blast of hell,

Fiercer and higher rang.

Again and again we met them

Through the long fearful night,

We fought as ne'er we fought before

And ne'er again may fight,

To 'venge our slaughtered comrades,

To guard our solemn trust,

And to reclaim our country's name

Trampled in savage dust.

Piled high against our breastwork,

And scattered o'er the plain,

Four hundred of their warrior strength

Lay stark amid the slain

Lay where their fierce hot life-blood

The greedy earth had wet

Still terrible, in threatening scowl,

Each grim dead face was set.

And twelve from out our number

Their brave career had run,

Their final muster-roll had passed,

And their last duty done;

So carefully we laid them

Deep in the green earth's breast,

An alien sod above them trod;

Peace with their ashes rest!

Yes, for old England's honour

And for her perilled might,

We strove with vast and whelming odds,

From eve till morning light;

And thus with front unflinching,

One hundred strong we stood,

And held the post 'gainst a maddened host

Drunken with British blood.

Her sons in gallant story,

Shall sound old England's fame,

And by fresh deeds of glory

Shall keep alive her name;

And when, above her triumphs,

The golden curtains lift

Be treasured long, in page and song,

The memory of Rorke's Drift.

Bertram Mitford.

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