What was the Battle of Rorke’s Drift?
By the late 1800s, the British government was planning to impose its colonial rule across the whole of southern Africa. The British felt threatened by strong, independent African kingdoms like the Zulu kingdom of Cetshwayo; they also wanted to take this land as farms for white farmers
and settlers, by force if necessary. In 1879 the British finally provoked the Zulu leader Chief Cetshwayo into war. Known as the Anglo-Zulu War, this war lasted 17 years, and included two famous battles: the Battle of Isandlhwana and the Battle of Rorke’s Drift.
At the Battle of Isandlhwana, the Zulu army defeated the British troops. But their fortunes changed at Rorke’s Drift. Rorke’s Drift itself was a very small hospital post, where just 139 British soldiers had to defend themselves against approximately 4000 Zulu warriors. The British fought from inside the tiny hospital building, around which they had built a barricade consisting of large biscuit boxes and bags of wheat (which was all that was available).
But, although vastly outnumbered, the British soldiers had more modern ammunition and far better guns, against the Zulu army’s assegais and old muskets. The battle raged all night; but the British soldiers finally defeated the Zulus, killing them in their many dozens. Many of the British died, too, but it was regarded by Britain as a great and memorable victory.
Artists have depicted this battle many times, from different perspectives – some very soon after the battle itself,
some many decades later. As there were no photographic journalists at the time, artists from Europe were commissioned to depict these battles as they imagined them to have looked – or as they wanted their (usually European) audience to see them.
Adolphe Alfonse de Neuville, a French academic painter, was one such artist sent by the English Fine Art Society to depict the battle. Although not present at the battle, he painted a version of the scene very soon after the events took place, in 1880, when the soldiers’ memories of the battle were still very fresh. De Neuville’s portrayal became one of the defining images of the Anglo-Zulu War back in Britain and its empire. Of course, he would have been inclined to depict the British favourably, since they were the ones paying him to do so.
Rorke’s Drift became important in the history of South African art, for a very different reason, eighty years later. An Art and Craft Centre was established there by a Swedish group in the 1960s. Teachers Peder and Ulla Gowenius were sent out from Sweden to teach art and (especially) the “useful crafts”.
Kagiso Pat Mautloa and John Muafangejo, two artists who studied and worked in Rorke’s Drift in the 1970s and 1980s, also made images of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift.
A hundred years after the defeat of the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift, John Muafangejo depicted this battle in a linocut. Completed in 1981, he inscribed it: “The Battle of Rorke’s Drift about 1879 between Zulus and British. Started the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. Ovangilisa na MaZulu Oaqiua 1879.” Notice how he depicts the battle, the tiny building full of British soldiers, the Zulu soldiers pressing in on all sides.
Look at the date when Kagiso Pat Mautloa made his portrayal of the battle. What had been happening in South Africa at that time? (Look at pages 18 and 19, where you will find a summarized timeline of the history of the time in which this image was made.) Might the artist have intended to evoke the struggles of children in the 1976 uprising through this image? Is there anything in the work that suggests this, directly or indirectly?
Talk About This
Let’s compare these three images of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. What are your immediate impressions, feelings, and thoughts, upon seeing each separate image?
Now look again, more carefully. What is happening in each picture? Describe the story exactly as it is told in
In each case, what would you say was the artist’s intention in making this image? Was it, for example, intended to document the precise historical details of the event, to tell the story as it happened? Was it created to convey a feeling or emotion? Was it made to send a message? Or perhaps to express an opinion on what happened?
In each case, how has the artist depicted the two opposing sides in the battle? Do you feel the artist has “taken sides”, or not? Does one or other side seem stronger, more powerful or threatening? Why do you think so?
What kind of space is created in each image? Does it show distant space, or is it close to the surface? What effect does that have on the feeling of the picture? Why do you think the artist has created this kind of space?
Describe the style of each of these works. For example, is it realistic, is it distorted or is it exaggerated?
Look at the lines and shapes in each image. Talk about the use of repetition, patterning, rhythm and flat areas next to textured or patterned areas. Describe these elements as if to someone unable to see the picture.
Do some of the lines convey movement? If so, what kind of movement? Do they sometimes seem to depict an emotion in their sharpness, angularity or jaggedness? Do the lines slice through forms? What do such lines convey or suggest?
“The picture evokes the clashing, the claustrophobic closeness, and the terrible chaos of this battle.” For which of these images is this statement true? Explain why.
“This picture tells not only of this battle, but more broadly speaks of the horrors of all wars or battles.” For which of these images is this statement true, do you think? Again, explain why.