This particular written project got percolating in my head when one of my co-editors, John Garvey, told me this. John recently asked his granddaughter whether she had Columbus Day off from school. She corrected him, “Grandpa it’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
Now that the script has been adjusted to fit the current politically self-righteous climate, it is still not worth holding out for any real reckoning. Mainstream commentary skirts the ugly big parts, the violent conquest by force of arms and by other dastardly means. These neo-revisionists prefer to find fault with the assimilation process, and how the subjugation of Native Peoples and the post occupation of their lands (North America) could have been dealt with more humanely. As always, these explanations, or rather excuses, are a day late and a dollar short. The hypocrisy oozes. It’s not unlike the people who celebrate Martin Luther King Day on behalf of the very government that had him murdered.
To cap it off, another of our Hard Crackers editors, Chris Alexander, has been tooling around the Badlands of the Dakotas and the Greasy Grass in Montana, where Custer and company went to meet their makers. Chris also visited the gravesites of the warriors and the battlefields. Not being of the religious persuasion, both Chris and I agree that if there is ever a sacred ground in the U.S., this is it (this and perhaps Harlem).
So I thought I might take on an appropriate example of what to remember on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It seems only right to honor an event when the indigenous people actually held the day and temporarily won. And it pays to broaden the horizons, to think internationally. I have chosen the battle of Isandlwana in late January, 1879. Situated in northern Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, the hill of Isandlwana was the site of the greatest defeat in history of British imperial military forces by locals anywhere in the world. It made the battle of Little Big Horn seem like a mere skirmish.
In 1879, the British Colonial government of South Africa declared war on Cetshwayo, the Zulu chieftain, and the Zulu nation. The occupiers’ justification was similar to the Weapons of Mass Destruction nonsense that was popular way over a century later in the Middle East. According to the authorities, the Zulus (a weapon of mass destruction) threatened white settler establishments and farmlands. They were regarded as a bellicose group that endangered other local native peoples, who also happened to be Zulus. That part was never honestly explained.
The Brits dispatched one Lord Chelmsford with a large army to punish the Zulus. His arrogance allowed him to split his force. He left the bulk of his troops at Isandlwana, while the rest went on the prod to seek and annihilate. This was a huge mistake. The Zulus caught the base camp at Isandlwana unawares and wiped them out. There were close to 1,300 fatal casualties on the British side.
The battle was swift and lethal. One overlooked fact is, at the height of the combat, there was a full eclipse of the sun. The killing fields became as dark as night for a short while in the early afternoon. The British troops must have been terrified, their worst moment had now come. The Zulus saw it as a sign and omen. Victory would be no doubt theirs that day. And it was. So a European army, with all of its sophisticated weaponry, was defeated by an opposing force armed with assegais (stabbing spears) and rawhide shields. What are the odds of that happening? Just about as unlikely as an eclipse of the sun occurring.
Of course, the result was not long lasting. The British forces doubled up on their arms and their manpower, and later laid waste to the Zulu strongholds at Ulundi, Intombe, and Gingindhlovu. It was a beat me once, I’ll beat you twice as hard situation. The Lakota on the American plains in the northern hemisphere paid the same price. A single victory, no matter how significant, served as the pretext for extermination or domination by whatever means available. Apart from sporadic uprisings in the next twenty years, the black population of South Africa was ultimately subdued until a new generation took care of that later in the last century.
Here’s another interesting rare tidbit. The last of the French Bonaparte royals bit the dust not far from Isandlwana. Crown Prince Louis Eugene Bonaparte received his military training in England and was attached as an observer to Lord Chelmsford’s army during the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. On a reconnaissance patrol, the Zulus got the better of him. He reportedly died of eighteen assegai stab wounds. The French working class still owes the Zulus for that one.
Fresh off their victory at Isandlwana, the Zulu Impis (regiments) set out to finish the job at the colonists’ rear station, the missionary camp called Rorke’s Drift. The Brits had a company deployed there and that was tough going for the Zulus. The defense held and the Zulus lost many warriors. Both battles occurred within two days. It might have been some of the most ferocious fighting up until the Europeans introduced World War One, with the trenches, gas, grenades and machine guns. But don’t doubt this, it was indigenous peoples versus occupiers.
A couple of blockbuster movies were made about these battles. Zulu (1963) with Michael Caine and Stanley Baker told the story about Rorke’s Drift. Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, head of the reactionary Zulu Inkatha organization, portrayed Cetshwayo. Zulu Dawn (1979) with Peter O’Toole, John Mills and Burt Lancaster dealt with Isandlwana. They might be off on the historical accuracy questions, but they are rip-roaring war films.
Let me give you a little bit of personal history about the filming of Zulu and its aftermath. It was shot in Kwazulu Natal, near Ladysmith. If you look at the credits, you will see that there is recognition of Number 5 South African Infantry Battalion (5 SAI), Alpha Company. Those guys played the extras, the British troops on the defensive wall at Rorke’s Drift, most of whom were killed in the movie.
In July, 1976, I was drafted into the same 5 SAI which was based in Ladysmith, and was in Alpha Company, the very same group that were the extras in the film, about 13 years prior. It was bad luck to be placed there. The year before (1975), 5 SAI was one of the spearhead units involved in the invasion of Angola and took and caused a lot of casualties. There were medals and dead hero memorials all over the place by the time I arrived a year later. In the Battalion Hall, there were special plaques commemorating all of those dead and wounded soldiers, and one for the filming of Zulu.
Some time during my basic training, there was a regional county fair, just outside of Ladysmith. The film Zulu was part of the fair’s show-off nonsense, and there was an exhibit with wax works lookalikes, and slides from the shooting of the movie. We (the grunts) had to provide security. So I spent a few days living in a tent and standing at attention while the local white gentry (mostly farmers) were perusing this pathetic expo. It was an easy time, and a break from the other misery.
Later on that year, we were sent to Angola. It was not quite as lethal as our predecessors had conducted just before us, but it was violent enough.
So every time I watch Zulu, I am aware of where all the British squaddies came from…my later Battalion, my later Company. I have no pride in this, but it is familiar turf for me. The geographical terrain is actually recognizable. The river (where Stanley Baker was building the bridge at the beginning) is at the bottom of the 5 SAI base camp. They used to run us across it often. It was always freezing, even in the high summer.
The price of defending a racist regime was high. The white elite knew this, as did their generals. For them, the Anglo-Zulu war was a necessary part of the conquest. They were proud of it then and were still in 1976.
In his epic novel Little Big Man (1964), Thomas Berger tells the story about U.S. dollars floating around the scene of the Little Big Horn in 1876, immediately after the victory. Young Native American kids were grabbing at them, using the paper to make toys and dolls. Berger was not wrong here. Custer did not trust his troops, and refused to pay them before the expedition, lest they became drunk and unreliable. So they were only paid in full scrip the day of departure. They were loaded with cash when they died at the Rosebud. It’s a magnificent image and it’s true. The money didn’t mean much to the victors. The scalps did.
When the Zulus overran the British Army at Isandlwana in 1879, they knocked off a slew of weapons and ammunition. The worth of these guns didn’t matter much. The dead redcoats did.
It might be difficult for Americans to grasp the full horror of their country’s genocidal history, especially when slavery is added to the equation. Young whites in South Africa might have an equally hard time coming to terms with what was ultimately done and created there. But it needs to be told honestly. Blood was spilled, rivers of it. No feel good stuff, this is what Indigenous Peoples’ Day should be about.