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  • Writer's pictureTim and Lindsey

A History Lesson - Day 343

So here we were in an area where many battles have been fought between the Zulus, the Boers and the British. Definitely a history lesson or two today.

I was curious. What is it about battlefields that interest people? For Tim, it is that in the face of adversity, he is interested in how soldiers coped and met challenges in these strange and harsh places.

We set off early and arrived at Talana Museum just after opening time. Shirley, our host, recommended it, and I am glad that she did. It is a massive place in 20 acres of land and covering a whole range of subjects from around this area. The main building covered an in-depth explanation of the coal mining industry. One awful practice was the token system, finally abolished in 1939. A new recruit for the mines was straightaway in debt as they needed cash advances to pay for the rail fare, a blanket, billycan and boots. The mine storekeeper would issue the person tokens known as Skillivaans (Trash money) to pay for these. On payday, the storekeeper would recover his money, but the miner would then have hardly any money left for rent and food. He would have to get more token loans, ending up on the treadmill of debt and life working in the mines. This system ensured that the mines retained an almost permanent labour force – basically slavery.

From the dingy passageways of the mining, we walked into a square room exhibiting clothes, mainly ladies best dresses. I was amazed to see a display of white dresses, especially in a mining town. How did they keep them clean? The next room was about beads, not just from South Africa, but also from India, due to many Indians working in the mines here. From beads, we moved into the Glass room with small display units of uniform size each showing different kinds of design. Tim and I played a game choosing our favourite piece, and he was very good at spotting the more subtle, elegant glassware.

We eventually left the main museum building and walked into the brilliant sunlight to the small graveyard including a memorial. There was also information about a French man who created a rose and sent cuttings to friends around the world when WW2 was looming, protecting the plant. At the end of the war, he wrote to Field Marshall Alan Brooke to thank him for his part in liberating France and offered to name the rose after him. Brooke declined the offer, suggesting the flower was called “Peace” instead. How lovely. (Looking at photos on Google image, our rose does look quite different!)

One of the 23 buildings, (don’t worry, I’m not going to write about all of them!) Talana House, was dedicated to the Kwazulu-Natal Battles. I must admit that it’s not my “thing” and the fans were blowing hard, so I felt cold, which is also is not my “thing”. So over to Tim: There were many battles against the Boers, the Zulus, and the British amongst one another between 1838 and 1902. These are all well documented here with thousands of artefacts. The Battle of Talana was the first battle engagement of the Anglo-Boer war and included foreign volunteers from 10 different countries that joined the Boer Army. (I wonder why?!) After going through the detailed accounts of various key personnel, battles, equipment etc., we walked across to a small cottage “Smith’s House”, built in the mid-1800s. Talana House and Smith’s House are the only buildings that still exist on a South African battlefield from the time of the conflict. It was a quaint cottage and the current Smith family paid to have it restored. Much more my thing, seeing how people lived, and there was a lovely black and white photo of the original family with all their offspring.

We had been there long enough and time to get to Rorke’s Drift. A 30-minute drive including bumpy gravel tracks up to the area, past fields with numerous termite hills and also quite a few fields being burnt. We didn’t see anyone managing these fires, but they somehow looked in control.

At last, we arrived, but couldn’t locate where the actual battle took place. We drove all around, Google maps took us up one track, the App Maps-me took us to some scrubland. We asked around, and eventually, an elderly lady pointed to a gate leading to the Rorke’s Drift Museum. As we approached, we did find a memorial for the Zulus who were killed on that fateful night of 22nd January 1879.

We reached the museum, and two elderly men started talking with us. I chatted to Anthony, a warm and humorous local guide while Tim chatted to Phil, who served in the British Army for 41 years and happened to live near Brentwood (I have family there). Anthony told me that he visited London a year ago and while he was at St Pancreas, he bought a banana and was shocked that it cost him £1. Anthony said that 2 dozen bananas could have been brought for that price here. He roared with laughter and announced that the banana wasn’t even that nice.

The next moment, I found myself climbing into Anthony’s 4x4 with Tim and Phil. It transpired that Phil had hired Anthony as a tour guide and agreed that we could have a small tour to Rourke’s Drift. We drove off-road toward the Buffalo River, Anthony explained that a young man called James Rorke bought 1,000 acres here and set up a trading post, selling to both the Zulus across the water and the locals on the British colony side. He dug out a Drift (a ford) on both sides of the river making it easier for horses and ox-carts to cross, hence the name. This was also known as kwaJimu ("Jim's Land") in the Zulu language. He died in 1875, just 4 years before the famous battle that took place here.

Anthony drove us back, and we said our farewells before visiting the small Museum (I don’t think I could have coped with anything bigger.) Here I had a History lesson: The Zulus had just defeated the British Army at the Battle of Isandlwana and thought they would continue their assault at Rorke’s Drift garrison. Between 3,000 and 4,000 Zulu warriors arrived in the night, but unbelievable the 150 British and colonial troops stationed here were victorious in their defence. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded for their bravery. It was time to return to our Airbnb, and Tim still had a lot of reading to do of Rorke’s Drift. I am sure he will fill me in on what I missed at the two museums today, that’s if I can keep awake. Nite Nite...

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