Monday, October 27, 2014

Post Anglo-Zulu War: heroes who returned to South Africa

This is a story of a Scotsman, an Irishman and an Englishman - no, not one of those stories, but of three men from different backgrounds who found themselves together on a very hot day in South Africa at the end of the first month of 1879, far from home. The men in question were George William MABIN from Bristol, Charles DUNBAR from Scotland and John CANTWELL from Ireland. Fate conspired that they were comrades on 22 Jan 1879 at Kwajimu, and these three had something else in common as well.

When the hostilities had ended they all came back to live out their lives in South Africa. One could be called the "Indiana Jones" of his time: this was Pte James DUNBAR No 1421 of B Coy 2/24th. In the various reports of the time regarding the engagement at Rorke's Drift, Dunbar was attributed as felling 9 Zulus with 9 shots, quite a remarkable act when considering the heat and conditions at the time - one Zulu was a Chief on horseback.

As far as is known he was born James Dunbar in Scotland around 1857 or 1858. His service papers are missing from the National Archives at Kew so making life very difficult for anyone researching him. To make matters worse it was known that he used variants of his Christian names throughout his life. He attested into the army on 20 June 1877 at Newport in Wales and by 15 March 1878 he was promoted to Corporal but come 22 July 1878 he was demoted to Private and given 28 days hard labour for a crime I have yet to ascertain. James Dunbar certainly got about. In Chiswick on the 1908-1909 electoral rolls it indicates a James Dunbar as living at 58 Duke Road Chiswick, at this time the person living at No 56 Duke Road was FRED HITCH VC! - was this Dunbar the man at Rorke's Drift I wonder? Dunbar gave his intended place of residence as Newport in WALES but when he left the army in 1883 I believe he came back to South Africa and lived the life of a miner, did prospecting and eventually became an overseer there.

The most we know about him was at the end of his life: in 1938 the Natal Mercury interviewed him at his last address, the Centenary Home for aged men in Durban; he was known then as Charles Dunbar. He had run away from home aged 13; it is not known if he ever returned to Scotland. Ex Private Dunbar died at Hillcrest Pinetown in Durban on 29 Jan 1940 aged 82 one of the last survivors of Rorke's Drift. He is buried in Stellawood Cemetery in Durban and his grave has been used again; he has no marker and, but for a few enthusiasts, totally forgotten - which is probably how he would have wanted it.

The next man I refer to is an Irishman who went by the name of John CANTWELL. John was born in Dublin about May 1845; his father we believe was called John as well, and he had a sister, Mary, who emigrated to Australia (Melbourne). He joined the Norfolk Regt on 6 Nov 1868 but transferred to the Royal Artillery on 1 April 1872. He was married in St Helena on 6 August 1876. By 21 Jan 1879 the rank of Gunner having reverted from Bombardier, he was the artillery storeman at Rorke's Drift. After the battle he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Cantwell's army career ended on 19 July 1887 and he gave as his intended address No 2 Phillipa St., Woolwich. Cantwell had defective eyesight but he managed to secure a job at the Gunpowder factory at Waltham Abbey in Essex. He somehow survived but on 5 November 1897 he went to South Africa as a Prison Guard; he lived at No 8 Loop St, Pietermaritzburg. He was stationed at Durban prison, where on 8 August 1898 he was seriously assaulted by a life prisoner called DUBOIS and suffered a ruptured spleen. He soon left this job on medical grounds and despite many letters which upset his employers he got a job as a toilet cleaner - he gave that up quite quickly. By 14 August 1900 he had died in Addington Hospital in Durban and as a Catholic is buried in a Catholic cemetery in Durban but to this day his grave has not been located or verified. A sad end to a brave man.

My last name is George William MABIN, born in Bristol If anyone could be called a perfect soldier it was this man. In 30 years of service he was never on defaulters parade and finished his career as a Sgt Major. Mabin first saw light on 5 October 1848. He joined the army on 29 May 1868 into the Rifle Brigade. He transferred to the General staff of the army as a Clerk on 19 May 1872. Rapid promotion followed and by June 1880 he was promoted to the rank of Sgt Major. At the time of Rorke's Drift he was the senior NCO having been promoted to C/Sgt in 1875 - some three years earlier than C/Sgt Bourne. Mabin was married on 3 Jan 1872 to Mary Elizabeth Ranger; they had 11 children, a number of them being born in South Africa. What Mabin was doing at Rorke's Drift in 1879 we do not know as he was not a hospital patient and his duties have never been stated. As a clerk he should have been called upon to produce a roll call but was not. He came back to South Africa in 1900 and lived there till his death in 1938. Mabin briefly went to live in Bristol in 1898 but came back two years later to live in William Street Woodstock Cape Town. George William Mabin who died in 1838 is buried in Maitland Cemetery Cape Town and only C/Sgt BOURNE outlived him and he died in 1945 on VE Day.

 I had intended to add to this list the name of James Langley DALTON, who also came back to live in South Africa. This man was the architect of the defence of Rorke's Drift and merits his own story.

by Graham Mason AZW Researcher

Anglo-Zulu War Medal

No comments: