THE GREEN, GREEN GRASS OF ... iSANDLWANA
For those of us not born in Africa, or who have yet to spend much time there, it’s probably true to say that in the landscape of our imagination Zululand is initially coloured brown. There is something in our soul that reaches back deep into our genes, to Mankind’s earliest beginnings, and somehow speaks to us in a default image of a veldt carpeted in long, waving grass – and of some species of grass that is always dry, a whispering tawny sea that shimmers in the hot, desiccating breezes and glows a seductive golden yellow in the dusty evening light. It’s an image that is reinforced by countless wildlife documentaries, and seems to be confirmed by the movies about the Anglo-Zulu War – take a look at that famous opening sequence from Zulu, for example, depicting the devastated field of iSandlwana. Or Zulu Dawn in its entirety, where the landscape is a dun-coloured canvas used quite deliberately to highlight the jagged reds and blues of the advancing British troops splashed across it, in contrast to the more sympathetic, less industrial, hues of the Zulus themselves. Indeed, just google the art that the battle at iSandlwana has produced in recent times – much of it very good – and you will see the timeless tableaux of slaughter still played out against fifty shades of yellow ochre.
So the landscape around iSandlwana looked that way at the time of the battle, right?
In fact the battle took place in January, at the height of the summer in KwaZulu-Natal, and summer is the wet season, when the weather is usually hot during the day, often with heavy down-pours in the evening. True, in the years leading up to 1879, there had been a drought across the region, and livestock and had suffered from the paucity of good grazing grass but that drought had broken just before the British invasion had begun. Indeed, the weather had turned so wet so quickly that the journalist, Charles Norris-Newman, had noted that one night in late December 1878, whilst Lord Chelmsford’s Centre Column was assembling at Helpmekaar, the rain had come down in such a deluge that several tents had collapsed and ‘one tent in particular had been erected over a pathway and it was really a sight worth seeing to witness how – notwithstanding that the occupants had dug a deep trench round it – the stream, unchecked almost, poured through the tent and over its contents. A small stream, percolating through the sand, close by one side of the camp, soon became a roaring torrent’. Over the following weeks dongas that were normally dry had carried away the surplus rain-water into rivers that had filled to bursting – on 8 January 1879 the Thukela River at the Lower Drift had risen ten feet in a single hour, and the torrent was so fierce that it ripped out a ship’s anchor which the Naval Brigade had fastened on the Zulu bank to secure a hawser in preparation for the invasion.
One consequence of that month of heavy rainfall, of course, was that the appearance of the veldt was transformed as it sprang into life again; by the time the Column had advanced to set up camp at iSandlwana on 20 January 1879 the country was painted over in the spring hues of fresh green grass.
So what did the battlefield look like two days later when the Zulus attacked and over-ran the camp? Most sketches drawn about the time suggest it was indeed a sea of grass, unbroken except for the occasional solitary acacia tree. True, the ground on the nek – the saddle of land between iSandlwana itself and the neighbouring kopje, Mahlabamkhosi (known to the British afterwards as Black’s Koppie) – is shaley, without much top-soil, and it seems unlikely that the grass has ever grown long there. On the slopes of the hill the soil is richer and the grass was longer, although the process of building a camp for 1700 men and hundreds of oxen, horses and mules would have trampled it down in the immediate vicinity, as indeed would the habit of turning the oxen out to graze each day. Yet away from the tents, and the paths worn flat by men and animals, the grass on the day was long and green, particularly out towards what would become the British firing positions and – perhaps more significantly – across the terrain through which the Zulu attack would develop. Here the grass still grows waist high in the summer, high enough to easily hide a single man who doesn’t want to be seen. Of course, the advance of entire Zulu amabutho would have been more difficult to conceal, but it’s no coincidence that the traveller Bertram Mitford interviewed several survivors of the battle in 1882 who demonstrated to him how, at iSandlwana, ‘they would rush forward about fifty yards, and imitating the sound of a volley, drop flat amid the grass; then when the firing was supposed to have slackened, up they sprung.’ Whilst the advance of the Zulu centre and left would have been obvious enough in general terms, there was more than enough long grass to obscure small movements and to add to the difficulties of those on the British firing line in trying to pick individual targets.
Why, then, does it look different in the movies? Because the art of making a historical epic is difficult enough without risking temperamental weather – most films made outdoors in South Africa are filmed in the autumn and winter, when the grass is dry, the light more even and reliable, it's easier to get around on rural dirt roads, and there is less chance of rain spoiling the shoot.
Take a look at these photos of iSandlwana and the surrounding area, and adjust your mental palette accordingly; these were all taken on 22 January 2009, the 130th anniversary of the battle, and they give a pretty good impression of how the landscape looked on the day – indeed, if anything the grass would have been longer in 1879, since the local population, and thereby grazing, is heavier now than it was then. There's more bush now than there was then, too, and for much the same reason.
Of course few of those who fought in the battle cared to recall the landscape in any detail – it was hardly their most over-riding impression of the day. There is one reference to the greenness of the grass by one who fought there, albeit a rather oblique and sobering one; nNsuzi Mandla, who had been present as a teenage warrior in the uVe ibutho, recalled fifty years later that after the fighting ‘the green grass was red with the running blood, and the veld was slippery, for it was covered with the brains and entrails of the slain’.