On This Day in History: January 22
The Battle of Rorke's Drift
Three decades prior to playing the best Scrooge ever alongside a bunch of Muppets, Michael Caine starred as a young officer in the 1964 film Zulu, which tells the tale of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in somewhat accurate detail. That detail being that a small number of men with guns in a fortified position can hold off thousands of enemy soldiers bearing only spears and flimsy shields.
--On This Day in History Shit Went Down: January 22, 1879--
Britain was doing its thing invading places that didn’t belong to them and the Zulu warriors were less than pleased. On January 22, 1879, 20,000 Zulu attacked 1,800 British troops in what would later be called South Africa and massacred the fuck out of them at the Battle of Isandlwana. But that was in the open, and the Brits were overwhelmed because they couldn’t set up a defensive perimeter. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift began later the same day, and this time, they knew they were going to be attacked and had time to prepare their fortification at the mission station they occupied.
It was about 150 defenders vs. close to 4,000 Zulus, and it was a brutal engagement that lasted into the night and early morning. Although technically it was the Zulus who were defending their homeland, because fuck colonialism.
It is difficult to describe the chaos, which is why I mention the movie, because it delivers a good representation. Zulus considered the rifle to be “the weapon of a coward.” And they charged into death wielding their spears toward the British lines again and again and again, only to be shot down repeatedly. I’m not sure bravery is the right word to describe that.
By the morning of the 23rd, the Zulus had left the field. The battle left 351 Zulu dead, and approximately 500 wounded. It is rumored that most of the Zulu wounded left behind were then murdered by the British as payback for Isandlwana. One trooper’s account proclaimed, “We were very bitter and did not spare wounded Zulus.” The defenders at Rorke’s Drift had only 17 killed, and 15 wounded.
For those at home in England, in the wake of the massive defeat at Isandlwana, it was important to proclaim the defenders of Rorke’s Drift heroes to perpetuate the idea of the superiority of the British soldier. As a result, a whopping 11 Victoria Crosses (the highest award in the British military system) were given out. In the aftermath, the British took the Zulu much more seriously as a foe and sent a far more heavily reinforced second invasion that led to a decisive defeat of the Zulu, enabling Britain to fuck over yet another portion of Africa for decades to come.
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