Chichester historian joins Zulu commemoration

Ian Knight
Ian Knight

Chichester-based Zulu wars historian Ian Knight has played an important role in events marking the 140th anniversary of the Zulu victory at Isandlwana and the heroic British defence at Rorke’s Drift, the latter an action which inspired the celebrated film Zulu.

A frequent traveller to South Africa, Ian was there for the commemoration of the battles earlier this year.

In 1879, Isandlwana was the first major encounter in the Anglo–Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom – events which have fascinated Ian for more than half a century.

“For the commemoration, they had two separate events a few days apart on the battlefield of Isandlwana for the 140th anniversary,” Ian said.

“I was invited to give a speech at the first one.”

He found himself in very august company.

“I was up there with the King of the Zulus, Goodwill Zwelithini and also Chief (Mangosuthu) Buthelezi (the founder of the Inkatha Freedom Party) who is now 91 and is still standing in the next election.

“I had the feeling that they wanted me to give a speech on behalf of the whole of Britain. I had no official standing at all, but I said that we were joined together by this history whether we like it or not, but that there is a good positive vibe at the moment.

“The King is keen to use our links in history to reach out to the British people and to forge a more positive relationship in the future. He is coming to the UK in July, and I have been invited to go along to that.”

For Ian, taking part in the commemoration was a landmark moment.

He was there for the centenary events in 1979 as a visitor.

“Tourism was quite difficult in the 1970s, certainly not what it is now. I had the opportunity to join a military party that were going out there for the centenary.”

The fascination is in watching a history that is still unfolding – a great sense of history in the making right now.

“What is happening now is the tail end of what happened then.

“You can look at Zulu culture and see a lot of things that are identifiable still from the 19th century, but a lot if it is changing now.

“It is on the cusp of turning into something else.

“The exact moment I was first fascinated by it was when I saw the film Zulu as a child in 1964.

“When it came out, I was seven or eight, and it opens with the devastation of the battlefield of Isandlwana and all the dead redcoats lying around and the Zulus come in and pick up the rifles.

“And I can remember in the 1960s that was just not how you expected a film about British military history to be because we always won and we were always the good guys! I remember thinking ‘What on earth is this all about, this battle at Isandlwana?’

“Isandlwana is not exactly what the film is about. Really it is about the aftermath, what happened at Rorke’s Drift. But I seem to have been trapped in that moment ever since, working out what on earth happened.

“My understanding of it all has changed a lot in 40 years. I used to write the odd magazine article about it. Since then I have written a 700-page book about it. I feel I have a deeper understanding of the complexities, both of the issues and of the battle itself.

“Rorke’s Drift is much easier to understand. Rorke’s Drift doesn’t interest me as much as it used to. But with Isandlwana, I am still trying to work things through.”

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