Arthur Kennedy arrived in Harrismith like a dwarrelwind. Why we were so lucky as to get Arthur to our town I don’t know, but I think his wife Zita had family here. I think she was related to the Kerkenberg mountain van der Bosch’s? Someone who knows must help me here.
He opened a motel on the N3 on the south-east end of town – at the Jo’burg-Durban-Bloemfontein junction – or the Warden-Swinburne-Kestell junction you could say if you weren’t going to drive far.
The motel – Kennedy Motel – was going to have a restaurant suspended over the road so diners could watch the road as they munched their mixed grills. All the Durban-Joburg traffic – the busiest rural freeway in South Africa by far – would have to drive underneath them. But meantime the motel and petrol station had to be built, plus all the rooms – the chalets. A cable car to the top of Platberg was also in the pipeline, according to Arthur. Big plans!
The Kennedy family stayed right on-site in novel half-round semi-portable wooden bungalows above the building site and below the track that was an extension of Vowe Street, below the SE end of Hector Street. Arthur was very hands-on and was deeply involved in everything. He made the cardinal apartheid error of starting to pay his workers more than the “known” Harrismith wage which, according to Steph de Witt, got 5ft 6 inch Arthur a visit from 6ft 4 inch Koos de Witt, Steph’s Dad. Steph says Koos found Arthur in a foundation ditch. He jumped in next to him and “explained” to him in international language how he was not to bend the “local rules” of wage exploitation.
Later he built a triangular house of wood above Vowe Street – a huge novelty for the town. It was next door to the du Plessis home, and Pierre and I hopped the fence and inspected it while under construction. The bathroom had a novelty in it which we hadn’t seen before. We didn’t know it was called a bidet, but we spotted right away what it was for. HaHaHa! Our schoolboy humour kicked in. Arthur’s initials were AW (were they? or did we invent that?) and we proceeded to call him Arse Washer after that bathroom furniture that so tickled our crude funny bones. We weren’t always Methodist-polite, ’tis true.
He even became a town councillor, this foreign rooinek in the vrystaat! If America could have a President Kennedy at that time, why couldn’t we have a possible future mayor Kennedy? Quite a guy was our Arthur!
The Cupboard Snake
For a while the Kennedys lived in the middle of town – in or near the house where Nick Duursema lived, near the circle in Warden street, just down from Arthur Grey’s corner store. That’s where the puff adder landed on top of the bedroom wardrobe.
The first and last puff adder I saw ‘in the wild’ was in Hector Street outside our house in about 1965 when – ware vrystater that she was – Mother Mary ran over the poor thing in the blue VW OHS 155. Doelbewus! Swear! The old man was called out from the pub. He came home, caught it and put it in a box which he gave to Zita Kennedy to give to Tommy van den Bosch. Maybe he’d first stunned it with a blast of cane spirits breath.
Tommy lived against the slopes of Kerkenberg and wore a cowboy hat and played the guitar. He’d sing you a mournful – or toe-tapping if that was your poison – cowboy song at the drop of a hat. His cowboy stetson hat. He collected snakes and took them to the Durban snake park who paid him by the foot. They estimated this puffy at five foot, though of course that length may have grown over time! SSSSS – Snake Stories Seldom Suffer Shrinkage.
That night in bed just before lights out Arthur Kennedy asked Zita “What’s that box up on the cupboard?” She hadn’t finished telling him and he was already out in Bester Street opposite the ou groot kerk near the traffic circle in his tiny pie-jarm shorts shouting “Get that thing out of there ! I am NEVER going into that house again until that thing is gone!” and other earnest entreaties.
Strange fear, as he was fearless in other ways: Who can forget Arthur Kennedy dressed only in a white Tarzan loincloth – which looked a bit like a nappy – swinging right across the hele stadsaal on a trapeze above the gob-smacked and ge-be-indrukte Harrismith mense? And outdoors upside-down high on a thin pole above the skougronde? Fearless aerobatics and acrobatics.
But a snake on his cupboard? That was too much for him!
For a while he made Harrismith seem part of the wider world! A bit like this:
On the big day celebrating South Africa’s freedom from the tyranny of Mrs British Queen, Arthur gave a stunning performance on his own equipment down at the President Brand Park in front of a full pawiljoen of ge-be-indrukte Harrismith mense! Dad filmed it:
Arthur ran the mountain race and, further proving his commitment to Harrismith he married again – a second local girl – much, much younger than him.
dwarrelwind – whirlwind, tornado, breath of fresh air
Doelbewus – on purpose; Swear! ‘Strue’s God! Gentle Mary did that. In those days you did. The only thing that made you think maybe you wouldn’t drive over it was the story that it would wind itself around your axle and then climb up into your engine, then under your dashboard and THEN pik you on the foot! Swear!
ware vrystater – genuine free stater; born and bred in the free state, as was her mother before her (who would not have been celebrating the 1961 demotion of QEII from monarch to foreign tannie)
tannie – auntie
ou groot kerk – the old Dutch Reformed Church, the Moederkerk
Remember those stuffed ‘sausages’ in front of the doors as doorstops to keep the winter chill out? Some doors had huge gaps under them; some of those doorstops even had sausage dog heads, with ears, eyes, a tail and a red tongue.
The ceilings had no insulation and the windows were wooden sash or steel windows, often with gaps that let in the chill;
The black coal stove in the kitchen was lit through the whole of winter, thank goodness; A cruel boyhood confession: I murdered a few flies at this stove in our kitchen! Tore off their wings and turned them into ‘walks’ then tossed them into the stove to die! Yikes!
Here’s an old one, no longer installed, no longer black:
In other rooms our bar heater was moved to wherever we were sitting; The glowing red bars would heat the air up to about one metre away. Further than that was arctic like everywhere else. If you sat close your shins could start frying while your back froze. Ours had three bars.
Rolls of thin ‘Dunlop’ nylon carpets glued to the floorboards in the passage and other rooms; the concrete floor in the kitchen and breakfast room had linoleum covering;
On the beds lots of blankets, no duvets; If you were lucky your Mom would cut the tassles off the Standard Woollen Mills blankets and sew on a strip of smooth silk-like tape that didn’t tickle your nose! I remember some of our old pillows weighing ‘a ton’. Probably a quarter ton of feathers, a quarter ton of live mites, a quarter ton of dead mites and a quarter ton of sweat and snot! A warmth luxury was having ‘flannel’ ‘winter sheets’ rather than those smooth thin cold ordinary cotton sheets.
We were lucky we had an electric geyser warming up our bath water. You would wallow in warmth, then start dreading having to get out; Soon, though, the decision would be easy as the water cooled rapidly in those old iron baths with their ball-and-claw feet. Long winter jarmies were such a treat. Cosy. Some of ours were hand-made – machine-sewn by Mom.
Leaving for school in the mornings was jersey on, socks pulled up high, gloves on and then off you go! on your bike; Sometimes even a grey woollen balaclava. Riding down Stuart Street your eyes would water and your nose would run, so gloves and sleeves had to do snot duty; When you got to jail – um, school – you’d slide your hands off the handle-bar grips as they didn’t want to ‘uncurl’! Your bare knees would be frozen yet somehow you didn’t feel them as much as you felt your toes in your socks and shoes! Funny that.
Always coldest when the east wind blew and put a ‘blanket’ or ‘table cloth’ on the mountain like this:
I remember it like this:
OK, to be honest that’s Europe and maybe their winters are worse!
We had a horse trough in the backyard about 2m long, 40cm wide and 40cm deep. It was concrete grey but later on it got painted Caltex green. A lot of our stuff got painted Caltex green. The water in it would freeze solid. That ice would thaw a bit by day and freeze again every night. It was OK, though. We didn’t have horses.
In summer the horse trough was good for breeding mosquitoes. I was fascinated by the larvae and had farms of them in ice trays where I could watch them develop and hatch. I was a battery-farmer of mozzies. Free-range hadn’t been invented.
There’s the horseless horse trough
mozzie larva (long) and pupa (round). OK, that took this winter post into summer
Dad remembers the gymkhanas he took part in and so enjoyed in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s.
They were held in Harrismith, Eeram, Verkykerskop, Mont Pelaan and Aberfeldy; and on the farms Appin near Swinburne, Primrose near van Reenen, and Maraishoek.
The entry fee was one pound per event – and prize money was less than the entry fee!
Events included Tent pegging; Sword and ring; Sword; Lance & ring; Potato & bucket.
Races were the bending race, we’ll need to ask him what that was; and the owners race, where the owner him or herself had to ride, no hiring a jockey!
Regular participants he recalls are Manie Parkhurst Wessels; Bertie van Niekerk; Kerneels Retief; Richard Goble; John Goble; Kehlaan Odendaal; his son Adriaan and his daughter Laura; Laurie Campher; Hans Spies and his kids Hansie, Pieter and Anna.
Dad says he was the only non-farmer riding! Kerneels was usually his partner.
** internet pics ** If anyone has some real Harrismith district gymkhana pics I’d sure love to display them – with full acknowledgment of course.
We always called it The Moth Hall, and for a while it was where Dad was probably drinking. But it was more correctly called Platberg Shellhole of the M.O.T.Hs – The Memorable Order of Tin Hats. And there was an older shellhole before that one – an older ‘Moth Hall’. It was down opposite the Royal Hotel; down near the railway line.
This was where old servicemen would lie to each other and themselves in song:
“Old Soldiers Never Die;
Never Die, Never Die;
Old Soldiers Never Die;
They Just Fade Away.”
Back then they were all survivors of WW1 and WW2. Only later did they take in ever-more members from ever-more wars. And there’s an endless supply of those; the armaments industry sees to that.
The things I remember about the old shellhole was playing in the dark next to and behind the building – big adventure; And seeing 16mm movies, with big reels whirring in the dark; some were sponsored by Caltex and other companies; I remember Hatari! about yanks in darkest Africa, catching animals for zoos; It starred John Wayne, but who was he to us, back then?
and Northern Safari, about a 4X4 safari in the Australian outback with a very annoying theme song “We’re Going NORTH on a Northern Safari! We’re Going NORTH on a Northern Safari! We’re Going NORTH on a Northern Safari!” ad nauseum. We loved it!
What the folks would remember, if the truth be told, would be booze and sing-alongs and booze and skits and booze and plays; these were the order of the day. * click on the pic * if you want to read some names.
Seated on the left next to Mary Swanepoel and Trudi Else in full voice, is Harold Taylor, veteran of WW1. Under those voluminous trousers is one wooden leg. The other is buried at Delville Wood. He would take his turn standing next to the piano singing:
Mary & Trudy
Etienne Joubert remembers:
The old MOTH hall was not opposite the Royal Hotel but in the vicinity. In fact it was next to Llewellyn & Eugene Georgiou’s home. It was near the railway line below the G’s house.
I remember Ray Taylor who had some shrapnel in his head, not Harold with a wooden leg; also Uncle Jack Hunt; Arthur Gray & of course your folks. I also remember playing in the dark outside. I remember my first sip of beer which I did not like; but I overcame this in years to come to absolutely love it!
I remember the song A Long Way To Tipperary; The piano was very rickety, as was the wooden floor, which squeaked with the slightest step. On the walls were very big portraits of Winston Churchill & Jan Smuts; Dan Pienaar was also there, but smaller; and a pin-up of Jayne Mansfield. This pin up made it to the “new” Moth Hall.
One thing I did not like was helping my Old Man clean the Shellhole on a Saturday morning; the smell of stale beer & cigarette smoke remains very vivid in my memory.
and here’s Vera Lynn, 101 yrs old and still going (Nov 2018). In 2009, at the age of 92, Lynn became the oldest living artist to make it to number 1 in the British album chart.
Pierre & Erika, Jacquie, Pikkie and me. Joined by the much younger Bonita who is seeking a single, life-long, male partner and who got much invaluable advice from us wiser, more experienced – OK, old – toppies. Mainly: “Don’t”.
We had gathered in the old home town to run the annual Harrismith Mountain Race, and some us even did just that. In fact, we even won one of the trophies on offer!
Pierre and I? Well, we gave much invaluable advice as wiser, more experienced – OK, old – ex-participants on that subject, too. Mainly: “Don’t”.
We were joined in the advice department by Lyn & Sonja du Plessis, Ina van Reenen and James Bell – all in the giving afdeling, none of us in advice-receiving.
We had to wait in the post-race chill for prize-giving to receive our trophy:
OK, its true that Jacquie Wessels du Toit did all the actual winning per se, but still, it felt like a team trophy.
The weekend started off chilly, a full table-cloth blanketing the mountain and a fresh east wind-in-the-willows, as seen in this picture, but it ended off perfect, as per the top picture, taken on Sunday from the top of Kings Hill. The robots changed when we drove thru, the clouds dissolved and the sky turned blue . . . . and everybody loves me baby, what’s the matter with you?
Saturday night at Chez Doep was delicious fresh home-made mushroom soup and bread ala Erika with light smatterings of alcohol and layers of sage advice (yep, more of the same), all of which was ignored. Bonita still seeks Prince Charming and Pikkie and Jacquie are going to run again.
Hulle wil nie luister nie.
Hulle wil nie luister nie – invaluable advice spurned
invaluable – Of great value; costly; precious; priceless; very useful; beyond calculable or appraisable value; of inestimable worth; See?
Whenever I hear Jimmy Buffet singing Pencil Thin Mustache I think of my uncle Dudley, oops, my cousin Dudley.
Dudley Bain was a character and my cousin. I’d known him over the years when he used to visit his old home town of Harrismith, but really got to know him once I started practicing optometry in Durban. He was very fond of his first cousin, my Mom Mary – and thus, by extension, of me.
Dudley worked in the Mens Department of John Orrs in downtown Durban back when there was only downtown. Anybody who was anybody worked in downtown. Anywhere else was “the sticks”. Even in 1980 I remember someone saying “Why would you want to be out there?” when optometrists De Marigny & Lello opened a practice in a little insignificant upstairs room on the Berea above a small gathering of shops called Musgrave Centre.
Dapper, hair coiffed, neatly dressed, he had a pencil thin moustache and definite opinions. He was highly chuffed he now had a pet family optometrist to look after him when I first hit downtown and then Musgrave centre. Fitting his frame was a challenge as he got skin cancer and his surgeon lopped off ever-bigger pieces of his nose and ears until he had no ear one side and a tiny little projection on which to hook his glasses on the other side. He would come in for endless appointments “to see my cousin” – where’s my cousin? – for me to adjust his frames by micro-millimetres to his satisfaction. If the ladies said I was busy he’d get an imperious look, clutch his little handbag a bit tighter and state determinedly “I know he’ll see me”. They loved him and always made sure I saw him. He’d “only need a minute” just to adjust his frame, not to test his eyes, and half an hour later their knocks on the door would get ever more urgent. Then they’d ring me and I’d say “got to go”.
I would visit occasionally at their lovely old double storey home in Sherwood – on a panhandle off Browns Grove I think. Then they moved to an A-frame-shaped double storey home out Hillcrest way.
We had long chats while I was his pet optometrist and I wish I could remember more of them. I’ll add as they come floating back. (I’m trying to remember his favourite car). One thing he often mentioned was the sound of the doves in his youth. How that was his background noise that epitomised Harrismith.
Dudley married the redoubtable Ethne, Girl Guides maven. I found this website, a tribute to Lady Baden-Powell, World Chief Guide:
Olave St. Clair Soames, Lady Baden-Powell, G.B.E., World Chief Guide, died in 1977. In 1987 her daughter and granddaughter, Betty Clay and Patience Baden-Powell, invited readers to send in their memories of the Chief Guide to The Guider magazine.
They wrote:- Everyone who knew Olave Baden-Powell would have a different story to tell, but if all the stories were gathered together, we would find certain threads which ran through them all, the characteristics which made her beloved. Here are a few of the remembrances that people have of her, and if these spark off similar memories for you, will you please tell us?
Here’s Ethne’s contribution:
3 West Riding Rd., Hillcrest, Natal 3610, South Africa
When I was a newly-qualified teacher and warranted Brownie Guider in Kenya in 1941, our Colony Commissioner – Lady Baden-Powell – paid a visit to the Kitale Brownie Pack. Due to an epidemic of mumps, the school closed early and Lady B-P was not able to see the children, but she took the trouble to find me and had a chat across the driveway (quarantine distance) for a short time.
A year later at a big Guide Rally at Government House in Nairobi, the Guides and Brownies were on parade, and after inspection Lady B-P greeted us all individually, and without hesitation recognized me as the Guider who had mumps at Kitale. Each time we met in the future, she joked about the mumps.
My next encounter was some twenty years later, on a return visit to Kenya, in 1963, with my husband, our Guide daughter D. and our Scout son P. We stayed at the Outspan Hotel at Nyeri where the B-Ps had their second home Paxtu. We soon discovered that Lady B-P was at home, but the Hotel staff were much against us disturbing their distinguished resident. However, we knew that if she knew that a South African Scout/Guide family were at hand she would hastily call us in. A note was written – “A S.A. Scout, Guide and Guider greet you.” Diana followed the messenger to her bungalow but waited a short distance away. As lady B-P took the note she glanced up and saw our daughter. We, of course, were not far behind. Immediately she waved and beckoned us to come, and for half-an-hour we chatted and were shown round the bungalow, still cherished and cared for as it had been in 1940-41.
It was easy to understand her great longing to keep returning to this beautiful peaceful place, facing the magnificent peaks of Mount Kenya with such special memories of the last four years of B-P’s life. From her little trinket-box, Lady B-P gave me a World Badge as a memento of this visit which unfortunately was lost in London some years later. Before leaving Nyeri we visited the beautiful cedar-wood Church and B-P’s grave facing his beloved mountain.
My most valued association with Lady B-P was the privilege and honour of leading the organization for the last week of her Visit in March 1970. Each function had a lighter side and sometimes humorous disruption by our guest of honour. The magnificent Cavalcade held at King’s Park, PieterMaritzBurg deviated from schedule at the end when Lady B-P called the Guides and Brownies of all race groups to come off the stand to her side; they were too far away. A surge of young humanity made for the small platform in the centre of the field where she stood with one Commissioner, a Guide and three Guiders. Without hesitation, Gervas Clay (her son-in-law) leapt down from the grandstand two steps at a time and just made Lady B-P’s side before the avalanche of children knocked her over. Anxious Guide officials wondered how they were going to get rid of them all again. The Chief Guide said to them, “When I say SHOO, go back to your places, you will disappear.” Lo, and behold, when she said “SHOO, GO back!” they all turned round and went back. You could hear the Guiders’ sighs of relief.
Steve: Hilarious – I reckon every family worth its salt should have had an uncle like that. Something for the kids to giggle about in secret at the family gatherings while the adult dads make grim poker faced humorous comments under their breath while turning the chops on the braai. And for the mums to adore the company of. Good value.
And funny Steve should mention that! Sheila remembers:
“After Annie’s funeral, in our lounge in Harrismith, Dudley was pontificating about something and John Taylor muttered to me under his breath ‘Still an old windgat.‘”
(Sheila to check): Dudley was the (eldest?) son of Ginger (Stewart) (eldest?) son of Stewart who came out to Harrismith from Scotland in 1878. My gran Annie Bain Bland was Stewart’s sister, so Mom Mary Bland Swanepoel and Dudley Bain were first cousins.
My first recollections are of life on the plot outside Harrismith, playing with Enoch and Casaia, childhood companions, kids of Lena Mazibuko, who looked after us as Mom and Dad worked in town. The plot was was called Birdhaven – Dad kept big aviaries – and was in the shadow of Platberg. I remember Lena as kind and loving – and strict!
What I remember is suddenly “knowing” it was lunchtime and looking up at the dirt road above the farmyard that led to town. Sure enough, right about then a cloud of dust would appear and Mom & Dad would arrive for their lunch and siesta, having locked up the Platberg bottle store at 1pm sharp. I could see them coming along the road and then sweeping down the long driveway to park near the rondavel at the back near the kitchen door. They would eat lunch, have a short lie-down and leave in time to re-open at 2pm. I now know the trip was exactly 3km door-to-door, thanks to google maps.
Every day I “just knew” they were coming. I wonder if I actually heard their approach and then “knew”? Or was it an inner clock? Here’s an old 8mm movie of the Ford Prefect on the Birdhaven circular driveway – four seconds of action:
1. Ruins of our house; 2. Dougie Wright, Gould & Ruth Dominy’s place; 3. Jack Levick’s house; 4. The meandering Kak Spruit. None of those houses on the left were there back then.
Back then they would buzz home in the tiny green and black Ford Prefect or the beige Morris Isis, not yet the little powder-blue Beetle.
Our nearest neighbour was Jack Levick and he had a pet crow that said a few words. We had a white Sulphur-crested Cockatoo Jacko that didn’t, and an African Grey parrot Cocky who said more. A tame-ish Spotted Eagle Owl would visit at night. Our next neighbours were Ruth and Gould Dominy and Ruth’s son Dougie Wright on Glen Khyber. They were about 500m further down the road towards the mountain, across the Kak Spruit over a little bridge. Doug’s cottage was on the left next to the spruit that came down from Khyber Pass and flowed into the bigger spruit; The big house with its sunny glassed-in stoep was a bit further on the right. Ruth and a flock of small dogs would serve Gould his tea in a teacup the size of a big deep soup bowl.
Judas Thabethe lived on the property and looked after the garden. I remember him as old, small and bearded. He lived in a hovel of a hut across a donga and a small ploughed field to the west of our house. He had some sort of cart – animal-drawn? self-drawn? Self-drawn, I think.
Other things I remember are driving out and seeing white storks in the dead bluegum trees outside the gate – those and the eagle owl being the first wild birds I ‘spotted’ in my still-ongoing birding life; I remember the snake outside the kitchen door;
I don’t remember but have been told that my mate Donald Coleman, two years older, would walk the 1.1km from his home on the edge of town to Birdhaven to visit me. Apparently his Mom Jean would phone my Mom Mary on the party line and ask “Do you have a little person out there?” if she couldn’t find him.
Bruno the doberman came from Little Switzerland on Oliviershoek pass down the Drakensberg into Natal. Leo and Heather Hilcovitz owned and ran it – “very well” according to Dad. Leo came into town once with a few pups in the back of his bakkie. Dad said I Want One! and gave him a pocket of potatoes in exchange for our Bruno. He lived to good age and died at 95 Stuart Street after we’d moved to town.
rondavel – circular building with a conical roof, often thatched;
spruit – stream; kak spruit: shit stream; maybe it was used as a sewer downstream in town in earlier days?
stoep – veranda
donga – dry, eroded watercourse; gulch, arroyo; scene of much play in our youth;
The film ZULU starring Stanley Baker, Michael Caine and Jack Hawkins was one of the biggest box-office hits of all time in England. It premiered in 1964 and for the next twelve years it remained in constant cinema circulation before making its first appearance on television. It has since become a Bank holiday television perennial, and remains beloved by the British public. Some pommies watch it every Christmas, year after year.
The film premiered on 22 January 1964, 85 years to the day after the event it commemorates – the battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879. Very few people know though, that it had its REAL WORLD PREMIERE in our lounge in 95 Stuart Street, Harrismith. In late 1963.
Count yourself as one of a very tiny privileged minority who’s “in the know”!
Back in late 1963 my old man showed us an 8mm movie he had filmed with his state-of-the-art Eumig camera.
Whirr whirrr whirr – those of you who watched them will remember the noise of the projector. Also maybe Thuk! Oh shit! Eina! as the film broke and had to be re-threaded in the projector with its super-hot bulb.
Super 8 Sound Projector Eumig Mark S810
He and Mom had been to Royal Natal National Park down Oliviershoek Pass to film the filming of the film ZULU.
What I remember seeing was a lot of dust and a lot of be-feathered Zulu warriors charging at some umLungus in funny red coats, falling down in a cloud of dust and then getting up laughing, walking back and doing it all over again. Mom and Dad remember being asked to stop filming, and then once they saw it was a tiny 8mm camera, just to move out of the way as they continued filming.
Thanks to the huge success of the film – which was longer than the two minutes we saw – the Battle of Rorke’s Drift has entered British folklore.
Remember, though, to take their version of the battle with a large pinch of cerebos.
The background story of the film Zulu, 54 years on
The Real History – take everything with a pinch of salt:
On 22 January 1879, at a remote mission station in Natal, South Africa, 157 men, mainly British soldiers (the number is usually downplayed, sometimes “under 100”) held off wave after wave of attacks by some 3,000 Zulu warriors (the number is certainly exaggerated – your son’s rugby opposition was always MUCH bigger than your boys, right?). Remember who wrote about the battle – jingoist reporters for jingoist newspapers.
Although the Zulus had some old-fashioned muskets and a few modern rifles, most of their warriors were only armed with shields and spears. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift lasted 10 hours (often stated as ‘over 12’), from late afternoon till just before dawn the following morning. By the end of the fighting, around 365 men lay dead, 15 (or 17) British inside the barricaded buildings they had defended, and around 350 Zulu outside them. Plus many wounded men, most of whom were murdered after the battle!!
The defences are most always characterised as ‘biscuit boxes and bags’ and paintings show the British defenders hugely exposed and vulnerable. A photo taken soon after the battle looks very different to the descriptions and the paintings: I haven’t seen a painting showing soldiers firing through holes in a stone wall.
Historically the battle was a minor incident which had little influence on the course of the Anglo-Zulu War. It might have remained a footnote in the history books or an anecdote told at regimental dinners had it not been for:
It being hailed as a victory – and then an EPIC victory, although it was actually simply a NON-DEFEAT after the truly epic defeat at Isandlwana the same day;
The number of Victoria Crosses and other awards that were dished out for the battle – probably because of the prior defeat? Not all the true heroes got VC’s and some who should not have, did. In fact the truth of the battle was probably FAR more sordid than the glorious accounts a desperate British government wanted to portray. The image of valour and nobility in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879 turned to shame when documents were uncovered which show that Rorke’s Drift was the scene of an atrocity – a war crime, in today’s language – which Britain covered up. In the hours after the battle senior officers and enlisted men of a force sent to relieve the garrison are said to have killed hundreds of wounded Zulu prisoners. Some were bayoneted, some hanged and others buried alive in mass graves. More Zulus are estimated to have died in this way than in combat, but the executions were hushed up to preserve Rorke’s Drift’s image as a bloody but clean fight between two forces which saluted the other’s courage. The Zulu salute in the film was FAKE;
AND then, and especially, for a film – ZULU – which dramatised the story and has kept it in the public mind ever since.
The story behind the film’s making is almost as remarkable as the battle it depicts(most of this account taken from talks by Sheldon Hall, Sr Lecturer, Stage and Screen Studies Sheffield Hallam University)
The principal artists responsible for Zulu were hardly Establishment figures. Screenwriter John Prebble was a former Communist Party member who had volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. His co-writer, the American director Cy Endfield, had fled Hollywood in the early 1950s after he was named as a Communist during the McCarthyite witch-hunts. Endfield’s production partner and the film’s main star was Stanley Baker, a life-long supporter of the Labour Party.
All three were committed to progressive causes, but their motives in making Zulu were not political. It is not an anti-imperial diatribe any more than it is a celebration of colonial conquest. Its main purpose was frankly commercial, but Baker also saw the story as an chance to pay tribute to his Welsh homeland. This certainly explains the strong emphasis on the Welshness of the private soldiers – one of the many fictionalised elements of Zulu that have created a myth around the battle.
Filming under Apartheid
The producers had to keep their political views in check when they made the decision to shoot the film in South Africa, then in the grip of Apartheid. There were strict, legally enforced guidelines regarding the degree of freedom permitted to the cast and crew. It was impressed upon the 60-odd British visitors that sexual relations with people of other races would result in possible imprisonment, deportation or worse. Warned that miscegenation was a flogging offence, Baker is reported to have asked – in glorious Pom tradition – if he could have the lashes while ‘doing it’. The authorities were not amused.
The main filming location was in the spectacular Drakensberg Mountains in the Royal Natal National Park, a popular tourist spot distant from any large township. But a number of incidents brought home the realities of the oppressive regime. Chatting to John Marcus, one of several professional black stuntmen employed on the film, assistant editor Jennifer Bates invited him for a drink in the bar/canteen that had been built on site for the crew. Marcus pointed out that he was forbidden by law to mix socially with whites and could not enter.
In his autobiography, Michael Caine recalls an incident in which a black labourer was reprimanded by an Afrikaans foreman with a punch in the face. Baker sacked the foreman on the spot and made clear that such behaviour would not be tolerated. Caine swore never to make another film in South Africa while Apartheid was in force, and kept to his word.
Introducing Michael Caine
Keeping watch over the tightly budgeted film was production supervisor Colin Lesslie. “I am very glad to be able to tell you,” he wrote at one point to the Embassy Pictures’ chief in London, “that in my opinion and from the little he has done so far, Michael Caine as ‘Bromhead’ is very good indeed. When he was cast for the part I couldn’t see it but I think (and hope) I was wrong.” This must have been a common reaction.
Not quite an unknown, the 30-year-old Caine was already making a name for himself on television but was becoming type-cast in working-class Cockney parts. Casting him as a blue-blooded officer in his first major film role represented a considerable risk, but it was one that paid off.
Thousands of ’em?
The soldiers were played by real soldiers – eighty national servicemen borrowed from the South African National Defence Force. And most of the Zulus were real Zulus. A mere 240 Zulu extras were employed for the battle scenes, bussed in from their tribal homes over 100 miles away. Around 1,000 additional tribesmen were filmed by the second unit in Zululand, but most of these scenes hit the cutting-room floor.
Living in remote rural areas, few if any Zulus had visited a cinema and television had not reached Natal. The crew rigged up a projector and outdoor screen, and the Zulus’ first sight of a motion picture was a Western. From then on, the “warriors” had a better idea of what they were being asked to do. Responsible for training and rehearsing them were stunt arrangers John Sullivan and Joe Powell. “The Zulus were initially suspicious of us in case we were taking the mickey,” says Powell, now 91. “After a couple of days they realised we weren’t and got into it. After that you couldn’t hold them back.”
Contrary to stories the Zulus were not paid with gifts of cattle or wristwatches but received wages in Rand. The main corps was paid the equivalent of nine shillings per day each, additional extras eight shillings, and the female dancers slightly less again. Associate producer Basil Keys remarked: “There is no equality of pay for women in the Zulu nation!”
For the opening sequence depicting a mass Zulu wedding, 600 additional background artists were brought in, including nightclub performers from Johannesburg, to play the principal dancers. During breaks in filming, they twisted and jived to modern pop records played over Tannoys, with director Cy Endfield among the crew members joining them.
The small but key role of King Cetshwayo was given to his direct descendant, the present-day Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The wedding dance was choreographed by Buthelezi’s mother, a tribal historian, and supervised by stuntman Simon Sabela, who later became South Africa’s first black film director.
History and politics
Like all films, Zulu is of its time and captures the mood of its time more profoundly than is often realised. A conservative view would see it as a hymn to gung-ho heroism, to flag-waving patriotism and the glory days of the British Empire. In fact, by 1964 the sun was already setting on the empire and undoubtedly Zulu stirred a lot of nostalgia for it. For some, that explains its appeal.
But look again. The knowledge that colonialism was in its dying fall is there in the film. The script is filled with a sense that the soldiers are in a place they don’t belong and don’t want to be. The indigenous people are not disorganised savages but a disciplined army. And the young lieutenant, played by Caine, who had earlier dismissed the enemy as “fuzzies” and the levies on his own side as “cowardly blacks”, now declares himself ashamed at the “butcher’s yard” he has brought about.
A modern awareness of racial representation means that Zulu has undoubtedly “dated”. If the film were to be remade today, as internet rumours continually suggest, it would certainly be done differently. But the absence of individuated black characters doesn’t make it racist. Though told from the British point of view, it shows that viewpoint change from dismissive contempt and naked fear to respect and even admiration. The famous (and entirely fictional) salute the departing Zulu army pays to the garrison survivors is returned with their – and our – gaze of awe and wonder.
Adapted from an article in Cinema Retro No 28 (c) Sheldon Hall 2014
Sheldon Hall is a Senior Lecturer in Stage and Screen Studies at Sheffield Hallam University. See an expanded second edition of his book ‘Zulu: With Some Guts Behind It – The Making of the Epic Movie’ – Tomahawk Press.
Cy Endfield’s epic military marathon about the Battle of Rorke’s Drift was actually shot 90 miles south-west of Rorke’s Drift in the Royal Natal National Park in the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa. It had the far more mountainous and picturesque Drakensberg Amphitheatre as backdrop, rather than the low hills like the Oscarberg at the real site of the battle.
Below see the movie backdrop, the Drakensberg Amphitheatre (left) – and the real backdrop, the Oscarberg (right):
2.Many of the Zulu extras had never seen a motion picture
Many of the Zulus who were hired as extras for the film had never seen a motion picture prior to filming and were unsure what to expect. With this in mind, director Cy Endfield and Stanley Baker, who played Lieutenant John Chard, set up a projector in order for them to watch a western, starring Gene Autry. Then the Zulus probably said “Ah, so its all bulldust?” and acted accordingly.
3. The real Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead was extremely deaf…
Played expertly by Michael Caine, this snobbish character was described by Lieutenant Henry Curling, who fought alongside Bromhead at Rorke’s Drift, as “a stupid old fellow, as deaf as a post.” Major Francis Clery, who spent time with Bromhead after Rorke’s Drift, described him as “a capital fellow at everything except soldiering”, while his commanding officer said in private that Bromhead was “hopeless”. Still, political face-saving at the time saw Bromhead awarded the Victoria Cross.
4. Michael Caine initially auditioned for the role of Private Henry Hook
This was Michael Caine’s first major film role and, although he eventually put in an exceptional performance as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, he was crippled by nerves and beaten to the role he initially auditioned for, that of Private Henry Hook, by James Booth. Interestingly, Caine was also unable to ride a horse so a member of the filming crew took his place in the scene where he crosses the stream on horseback at the beginning of the film. This explains why the camera pans down on to the horse.
5. Private Henry Hook was badly portrayed in the film
In the film, Private Henry Hook (James Booth) is placed under arrest for insubordination. He is seen lounging around in the shade and trying to pilfer free booze as his comrades prepare for battle in the stifling heat. In reality, Private Hook was an exemplary soldier and teetotal, who was also awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry. Hook’s daughter walked out of the film’s premiere in disgust at this inaccurate portrayal.
6. 11 British soldiers were given a Victoria Cross; 12 were nominated
Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne (played by Nigel Green in the film), requested a commission rather than the Victoria Cross. He was duly granted this wish and went on to become a Lieutenant Colonel. When he died in 1945, he was the last surviving British soldier from the battle.
7. Mangosuthu Buthelezi played his great grandfather Zulu King Cetshwayo kaMpande in the movie
Mangosuthu Buthelezi was the chieftain of the Buthelezi tribe when he played the role of Zulu King Cetshwayo kaMpande in 1964. Buthelezi went on to found the Inkatha Freedom Party and was the leader of the former KwaZulu bantustan. He has also held positions in the new, legitimate SA government and parliament.
EUMIG was an Austrian company producing audio and video equipment that existed from 1919. The name is an acronym for Elektrizitäts und Metallwaren Industrie Gesellschaft – “Electricity and Metalware Industry Company” – In 1982 EUMIG went bankrupt – punishment for choosing such a boring name? Its patent for the macro system in lenses was sold to the Japanese company Canon.
Thuk! Oh shit! Eina! – gosh;
umLungus – paleface; speak with forked tongue; in Africa as well as America;
I’ll add a link to the 8mm movie footage the old man took on the film set in the ‘berg as soon as I can. A new movie about the making of the film is in the offing and we have offered this seven minutes of behind-the-scenes footage to Henry Coleman the film-maker. As we have undertaken not to use the footage till after his premiere, we have forfeited a chance to repeat our 1963 scoop!! Darn!
In 1969 a bunch of us were taken to Durban to watch a rugby test match Springboks against the Australian Wallabies. “Our” Tommy Bedford was captain of the ‘Boks. We didn’t know it, but it was to be his last game.
Schoolboy “seats” were flat on your bum on the grass in front of the main stand at Kings Park. Looking around we spotted old Ella Bedford, – “Mis Betfit” as her pupils called her – Harrismith English teacher and the captain’s Mom – hence our feeling like special guests! – up in the stands. Sitting next to her was a really spunky blonde so we whistled and hooted and waved until she returned the wave.
Back at school the next week ‘Mis Betfit’ told us how her daughter-in-law had turned to her and said: “Ooh look, those boys are waving at me!” And she replied (and some of you will hear her tone of voice in your mind’s ear): “No they’re not! They’re my boys. They’re waving at me!”
We just smiled, thinking ‘So, Mis Betfit isn’t always right’. Here’s Jane. We did NOT mistake her for Mis Betfit.
Mrs Bedford taught English as second language. Apparently anything you got wrong had to be fixed below your work under the heading “corrections”. Anything you got wrong in your corrections had to be fixed under the heading “corrections of corrections”. Mistakes in those would be “corrections of corrections of corrections”. And so on, ad infinitum! She never gave up. You WOULD get it all right eventually!
In matric the rugby season started and I suddenly thought: Why’m I playing rugby? I’m playing because people think I have to play rugby! I don’t.
So I didn’t.
It caused a mild little stir, especially for ou Vis, mnr Alberts in the primary school. He came up from the laerskool specially to voice his dismay. Nee man, jy moet ons tweede Tommy Bedford wees! he protested. That was optimistic. I had played some good rugby when I shot up and became the tallest in the team, not because of real talent for the game – as I went on to prove.
Nee man, jy moet ons tweede Tommy Bedford wees! – Don’t give up rugby. You should become our ‘second Tommy Bedford’