“Why is there so much interest in the [Anglo] Zulu war of 1879,” the great orator David Rattray asked in his epic account of the battle of Isandlwana. “Why is that so much has been written about this insignificant campaign fought in an economically insignificant territory adjacent to an almost irrelevant British colony?”
I came across Rattray’s five-CD set, that he narrated about this apocryphal battle, about 15 years ago, and listened to in one go. It was mesmerising.
“The 22nd of January 1879 reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. It opens with the disaster at Isandlwana and closes with the restoration of British military honour at Rorke’s Drift,” the late Rattray said. On this one day in history, Napoleon’s last remaining heir would be killed, there were “were more Victoria Crosses awarded at Rorke’s Drift than any other battle in history” and the first two posthumous Victoria Crosses ever would also be awarded. “The battle of Isandlwana constituted the greatest defeat that Britain was ever to suffer in her entire colonial history,” he intoned in that great voice of his, adding that the war caused the downfall of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.
“Think of the consequences that change from Conservative to Whig during this period of colonial activity had on international affairs,” he said of the “spellbinding tale of this clash between two empires”.
And then, in the heat of battle, there was a full solar eclipse. “All on the same day. It’s almost unbelievable.”
When I was taught about this pivotal conflict at school, it was never told with as much emotion – nor was it as interesting. I gave up history as soon as I was offered the option, mostly because it was merely a subject that seemed to consist of memorising endless dates and distant events.
It was the epitome of the dullness of the national education system I lived through, where only my English teacher, the great Hennie van der Mescht, proved the enlivened exception.
But as an adult, I have become an ardent reader of history. When I heard the historian and author Anthony Beevor speak at the Franschhoek Literary Festival a few years ago, I started reading his excellent histories of World War Two.
In every mention of this global conflict, there are references to World War One, which historians correctly intimated would explain where the origins of WW2 and most of the current tensions in Europe originate from. They were right. So I read all about that.
Last month I read the extraordinary history of the world according to salt (by Mark Kurlansky) and have listened to countless history podcasts and audio books in the last few years. I’ve watched that excellent BBC documentary series, The World At War, and Band of Brothers, and countless History Channel doccies on a range of subjects (not just war) my teenage self could not have abided.
What is the difference now from those dark days at school when I was bored for most of my time in a classroom?
There is a lot to be said for a good teacher enlivening any subject, as Hennie did by inspiring generations of students; and ultimately becoming the head of education at Rhodes University and inspiring a new generation of teachers. Men like him, Rattray, Beevor and Kurlansky know how to engage you in what seem like dry subjects but for their flair in storytelling.
But there is also a range of new technologies that make telling a story so much more fluid, including podcasts, short video clips, and increasingly virtual reality (VR).
A few years ago I did a tour of these two KwaZulu-Natal battlefields with Rob Caskie, the spiritual successor to Rattray, who was tragically murdered in 2007. Not everyone can travel to these far-off fields but with VR this could be something that everyone could experience in the near future.
With the current debate about the importance of history – and the key context of whose history we are taught – there is no greater time to bring it alive with new technologies and great teachers.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail