Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Second Belly of the Cow

When I was about 10, a group of my friends and I went, under the supervision of one of my teachers, to help build a church and clinic in the middle of Zululand.  The place was Isandlwana (sometimes spelt Isandhlwana).  The word means “The Second Stomach of the Cow” in Zulu because of its shape.
Isandlwana Hill

This innocuous trip impacted the rest of my life.

The first impact was that I came to realize that horses and I were not destined to get along.  At the little mission station there was an old church horse.  I was told that we could take it to the local shop about a mile or so away.  I had never been on a horse before, but that did not worry me since the horse was described as “docile”.  It would look after me.  Once mounted, the first problem surfaced.  The horse had no intention of leaving the mission.  I shook the reins, slapped the horse on the side, and tried to spur it on (sans spurs, of course).  I imagined that I was a cowboy, as my grandfather had been in Calgary at the end of the 19th century.  To no avail.  Eventually an old Zulu gentleman offered to lead the horse.  So a small group of us headed to the shop, probably for a cold drink.  I remember that we kids took turns in riding the nag.

Shopping completed, I mounted the steed and turned it towards the distant mission station.  As much as the horse had been reluctant to leave the mission, it now wanted to be back.  So off it took at what seemed to me to be a full gallop – probably a mild trot.  I clung for dear life to the reins, the neck, the saddle for the duration of the journey.  Reaching the gate of its little paddock, the horse stopped abruptly, and, of course, I didn’t.  Fortunately I was not hurt as I hit the sandy ground. 

That’s enough of horses for me, I thought.  Forever.

However, that was not to be the case.  A couple of days later, we planned a day trip to Rorke’s Drift – the location of one of the most famous battles in British military history, where 139 men fought off a 4000-strong Zulu army (see 1964 Michael Caine movie  ZULU).  Eleven Victoria Crosses (the highest British award for bravery) were awarded – more than in any other battle in British military history.  The horse was to accompany us, mainly to carry our picnic supplies, but also to be ridden if we wanted.  As I had already experienced the pleasures of riding, I offered to hold the horse while a friend of mine mounted.  The horse obviously sensed my disdain for its abilities and promptly stood on my sandled foot.  It was big, and I was little.  Ow.  Fortunately no bones were broken.
I then understood where the term “nightmares” comes from - and that is the closest I've been to horses since.
Cairns and memorials to British soldiers

The second implications of this trip to Zululand was much deeper.  Isandlwana was the site of the worst defeat the British Army had ever suffered at the hands of a “native” army.  All around the hill we saw cairns of white stones, marking the spots where piles of bodies and bones of dead British soldiers were later found.  As we kids played in the dry river courses (we call them “dongas”), we found nails from ammunition boxes, buttons from uniforms, and so on.  For a boy with an active imagination it was fertile ground for countless dreams of heroism.  And coming from a family most of whose roots were from Britain, I had grown up listening to stories of gallantry in battle.
So I started to read about the Zulu Wars, as they were called.  It didn’t take me long to suspect that there was more than one truth.  Most of our history books depicted the Zulus as aggressive warriors who threatened the White settlers, and who needed to be punished.  But the more I read, the more I believed that the British were the aggressors.  Not only did they annex huge tracts of land, but they were intent (in about 1876) on imposing a Canadian-like federation under British rule throughout southern Africa, including on two Boer republics and on all the native tribes.
King Cetshwayo
The Zulu Kingdom under King Cetshwayo wanted to negotiate a settlement in which the Zulus retained their traditional lands.  But the British administrators wanted to dismantle the kingdom and diffuse the king’s power, so they sent Cetshwayo an ultimatum that they knew he couldn’t agree to.  When the deadline passed, the British army under Lord Chelmsford was sent in.

Lord Chelmsford
I’m sure Chelmsford must have thought the campaign was going to be a stroll in the park.  He left part of his force camped at Isandlwana, while he took another column to outflank the Zulu army.  What he didn’t realize is that the Zulus he was following were not the main fighting force, but a diversionary one.  The main army of about 20,000 warriors armed only with stabbing spears (assegais), clubs (knobkieries), and cowhide shields had used the terrain to encamp only a few miles from Isandlwana.  On the morning of 22nd January 1879 they attacked the British using its traditional , eventually annihilating them.  A few survivors made it back to Rorke’s Drift.
Zulu soldiers
I believe that the defeat at Isandlwana so shocked the British that to regain their honour their politicians decided they had to defeat the Zulus decisively (sounds familiar?).  When they attacked Zululand for the second time, the army did not make the same mistakes and used superior numbers and technology to inflict defeat and break up the Zulu kingdom.

Memorial to Zulu dead
My reading about "the second belly of the cow" was very influential in how I think today.  It taught me that what we read about history is almost always biased – that we need to listen to both sides of any story.  More importantly, even though I was growing up in apartheid South Africa, it opened my eyes to trying to see South Africa through the eyes of those who were not White.  And what I saw was not pleasant.  And that in turn taught me about prejudice and the harm it does.

So, thank you, Lord Chelmsford.  Without you and your blunders I may not have learned so much about the human condition so early in life.

Stan - Thursday


  1. History is written by the winners. For every "good" war, there are so many that were fought less for principle than for supremacy. The Roman Empire thrived because all their wars were fought for land, extending Rome's reach.

    The American Revolution was a "good" war because the leaders were brilliant at selling it as a war against oppression. The British set it off with the Intolerable Acts, on part of which forced colonists in Boston to house Britain's occupation force. The notion that a man's home is his castle was ripped away when the people of Boston had to feed and house the enemy.

    The US Civil War was a very good war because it was fought to end slavery, except that it wasn't. Lincoln ended slavery in a country over which he had no jurisdiction. There weren't any slaves in the north; the slaves were in the south, in the Confederate States of America of which Jefferson Davis was the president. The north was opposed to slavery and, on that basis, passed legislation in Congress that prevented slavery from expanding into the new territories that everyone knew would be states in the near future. Southern soil was depleted of the nutrients necessary for good quality cotton so the burgeoning cotton industry in England was buying better cotton from Egypt. The US/British "special relationship" didn't exist when Britain supported the confederacy.

    WWII was a very good war, at least in the European theatre. Hitler had to be stopped but the US got into it because of the attack on Pearl Harbor which was a Japanese attempt at a land grab. We got into the good war through the back door.

    The Australian film, GALLIPOLI,is the best anti-war film ever made.

  2. This post reminded me of Doris Lessing´s great African stories, e.g. This was the Old Chief´s Country.

  3. Hi Stan,

    Wonderful, informative, and so interesting. I try to see all sides of wars and situations too. You learn your history in school and then it is upsetting that it was so biased.
    My only African experience when I was growing
    up were Tarzan movies and we all thought that
    the natives were the bad guys.
    Looking forward to your next post.

  4. Another anti-war movie that had a big impact on me was Oh What A Lovely War - an adaptation of an English musical. Only available on pirated tape I think.

  5. This is wonderful information, but so sad to think of our ancestors (white men) attacking for the sole purpose of conquering and taking over. I think of these proud Zulu warriors fighting to protect their land and their lives, and these British taking it as a challenge. A sad story, oft repeated in history.