Thursday, April 26, 2012

Zulu War ancestors?

Over 130 years after the event, the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 continues to exert an extraordinary fascination for people worldwide, and particularly for family historians. For anyone tracing an ancestor believed to have served in this conflict, there's no shortage of contextual material. Contemporary accounts such as The Story of the Zulu Campaign by Ashe and Wyatt-Edgell, published in 1880, bring us the immediacy of events described by eye-witnesses in letters and diaries. New books by today's eminent authors appear at regular intervals, offering the results of more recent research, while Donald Morris's immensely readable narrative, The Washing of the Spears, first published in 1966, is still popular.

There have been two big-screen portrayals of key events during the Zulu War: Zulu, released in 1964, brought to a mass audience the defence of Rorke's Drift, in glorious technicolour. Despite some flaws, the film remains an enduring classsic. In 1979 the battle of Isandhlwana was the focus of a film entitled Zulu Dawn. Whatever our opinion of the historical accuracy of these productions, they undoubtedly encouraged interest in the topic. TV programmes have also made their contribution and internet enables us to access material on diverse aspects of the campaign.

From the family historian's viewpoint, unless an ancestor achieved an unusual degree of fame, e.g. by being awarded the Victoria Cross, you're unlikely to find his biographical details conveniently mentioned in published sources. Be prepared for some genealogical foot-slogging - particularly if all you have to start with is a family story of dubious provenance.

We've all had the experience of inherited family information passed down through generations, often embellished and gradually accepted as fact. 'My ancestor fought at Rorke's Drift' is akin to that other well-known claim, 'My ancestor was on the Victory at Trafalgar'. It has been suggested that if all the people said to have been serving on Nelson's flagship during that historic battle really had been on board the vessel would have gone down due to sheer weight of numbers. Similarly, if every ancestor believed by his descendants to have been at Rorke's Drift was truly one of the small group of about 150 men who defended that outpost on 22/23 January 1879 - the British would have outnumbered the Zulus and history would read quite differently.

Your fighting forebear may or may not have been at Rorke's Drift. The fact is that the defence of Rorke's Drift captured public imagination to such an extent that for many it has become virtually synonymous with the Zulu War - there were, of course, other battles. The first step for the family historian is to verify that the ancestor did actually serve in the campaign. This isn't as easy as it sounds: there are several sources including:

1. Lieutenant Chard's list (at the Museum of the Royal Regiment of Wales, Brecon).
2. Colour Sergeant Bourne's list (also at the Museum of the Royal Regiment of Wales, Brecon).
3. Bourne's amended list.
4. Major Dunbar's list of January 1880.

From these, various more recent compilations have been produced.

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