Wednesday, 29 July 2015 07:43

Rob Caskie at Brettenwod Coastal Estate

Rob Caskie with Jess Rob Caskie with Jess

On Friday 10 April, almost 200 Brettenwood Residents and Guests gathered with their picnic blankets and baskets at the Estates Woodlands Amphitheatre for an evening of epic storytelling under the stars by internationally recognized storyteller Rob Caskie, who captivated the audience with his detailed description of the Battle of Isandlwana.



Who would ever have conceived that Great Britain, at the very height of her Victorian might, would suffer an ignominious military defeat at the hand of Zulu warriors in 1879?

The unpopular war expected to be over in 3 weeks, dragged on for nearly 7 months. As the sun set on Britain’s military career, the sun overhead went dark in a 70% eclipse. The mountain of Isandlwana looks uncannily like the Sphinx, adopted as regimental insignia by the 24th Regiment of Foot having fought Napoleon along the Nile in 1801. Little wonder this battle piece enjoys such profile around the globe, and rightly so.

Britain proposed a confederation for South Africa in 1877, and the mighty Zulu army stood as a major obstacle to that plan as far as British officialdom was concerned. In December 1878, the Zulus were issued with an ultimatum demanding the dissolution of her army within thirty days. The Zulus were never expected to answer the terms of the Ultimatum, and in January 1879, fifteen thousand men invaded Zululand, broken into five columns.

The massive central column (Column number three), comprised 4,850 men, 4,500 oxen, 500 horses and mules, 220 wagons and carts and 850 tents, decided to camp on the eastern side of Isandlwana. The camp was not entrenched, nor laagered, with plans to move forward in 48 hours. News began to arrive that the main Zulu army had been found in the hills to the south-east of the camp, at Phindo and Magogo mountains. The British commander, Lord Chelmsford, thereupon split his force, moving out to the front with 2,700 men and 4 cannons, leaving Colonel Pulleine in charge of the camp. Pulleine had never been in battle before, but was a sound logistical officer.

In the dawn of Wednesday, 22 January 1879, lookouts reported Zulus on the Nqutu plateau and heights to the north of Isandlwana. Pulleine created a firing line dictating the north and east quarter of the camp - no defence on the south and western sectors. Zulus seemingly disappeared, and the whole situation relaxed. At 10am, the firing line was reconstituted – men standing in groups, in 40 degree centigrade heat. Imagine them in steel-shod boots, blue woolen trousers and red serge tunics, many having walked from Cape Town via Kimberley and the Eastern Cape over the previous four years. The 24th Regiment of Foot at Isandlwana were largely veterans of war, supported by their artillery, and many white and black Natal colonial reinforcements.

When Colonel Durnford of the Royal Engineers arrived at Isandlwana around 10.30am, with three hundred well-trained mounted Basuthos, he immediately identified the threat posed by Zulus to the north of the camp. In response he sent a patrol of forty horsemen, commanded by Raw and Shepstone, to investigate that threat, whilst he rode off eastwards with two hundred and fifty Basuthos and a rocket battery. Raw’s patrol pursued a herd of black cattle, and galloped into a quite unimaginable scene. Sitting in silence along the line of the Ngwebeni stream were nearly forty thousand Zulus of the main Zulu army, only 8km from the British camp! In that moment of madness, and that moment of magic, at 11:30 that fateful morning, Raw and his men fired volleys into the packed black mass beneath them. With those first shots the battle began.

Zulus poured out of the ravine, pushing Raw’s men back towards the camp, and spreading out in the famous horns of the bull formation perfected by Shaka. Twenty five thousand warriors supported by fifteen thousand teenage boys and women. The left horn pushed Durnford and his men back across the valley floor, eventually taking cover 2km from the wagon park, in a washed out donga. The right horn raced around the back (west) of Isandlwana blocking off the wagon track back to Rorke’s Drift-none of the men in the camp were aware of this.

Imagine the moment when a young groom called John Williams, from Carnaerfon in Wales wrote in a letter to his mother: “Mother, never in my life have I beheld a more appalling spectacle. My blood ran cold as the hills to the north of the camp turned black with Zulus as they stepped out onto that ridge. As one they began to drum their feet into the ground, and pull their shields out to the left to give the illusion of their numbers having doubled.”

Nsthingwayo ka Mahole Khoza, the 70-year old Zulu commander, gave his men the order to attack the camp. Durnford’s men were forced back towards the camp, running low on ammunition, leaving one hundred and seventy British soldiers attempting to support their withdrawal, exposed and on foot. Despite their gallant resistance the Zulus tore them apart in minutes. Zulus fighting for the British, in the form of the Natal Native Contingent, fled, and as they crossed the wagon park, they saw the Zulu right horn sprinting up to meet them. Pockets of white and black resistance were trapped like schools of sardines in a sea of black, between the closing horns of the Zulu army.

The main Zulu attack faltered in the face of staggering rifle and canon fire. The old commander of the Mcijo regiment rallied them, screaming “Don’t run. Don’t run – the King gave us no such order.” As he fell, killed by a British bullet, the Zulu warriors surged forward, pushing the British soldiers back towards their standing tents. We will never know why the order to strike the tents was never given. When the soldiers were pushed back into their standing tents, the slaughter began in earnest.

In the dying moments of the battle Pulleine dispatched the Queen’s Colour in the hand of the Adjutant Teignmouth Melvill, ordering him to take it to a place of safety. In ninety minutes, 1774 British soldiers on ground of their own choice, were taken apart like a cheap Chinese clock, by the mighty Zulu army, leaving 1329 British dead. It cost the Zulus dearly - around 3000 warriors lost their lives as a result of this battle.

King Cetshwayo, who never wanted a war, cried, saying the British had thrust an assegai into the belly of his beloved nation. He sued for peace, but the British were determined to rescue a reputation left in tatters at Isandlwana. It came with the awful, final, ritual battle of Ulundi on 4 July 1879, and saw the old Zulu order smashed forever.

Rob Caskie Engaging Storytelling

Storytelling may seem like an old fashioned tool, today - and it is. That’s exactly what makes it so powerful. Life happens in the narratives we tell one another. A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts. Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.

When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts – by first attracting their brains. Since 2004, Rob has presented extensively in the United Kingdom and South Africa to both corporate and private clients. His achievements were recognised with the honour of being invited to speak at the Royal Geographic Society in London to full houses.

Rob believes there are powerful lessons to be learnt from the remarkable stories of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, which resonate especially with audiences today. Always confident with people, Rob thrives on the challenge and reward of entertaining audiences in the theatres of their imagination and transporting them via the power of a story well told.

Rob has a DVD and book on the Battlefields for sale and regularly conducts battlefield tours.

Rob Caskie +27(0)82 400 0470 | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. |