In the immediate aftermath of Isandlwana, grandiose historical analogies abounded. Imperial enthusiasts favoured the image of the self-sacrificing Spartans at Thermopylae. But Liberal critics of imperial policy were quick to point out that it was the Zulu who were defending their homeland against invasion. The Standard questioned the ethics of “seizing territory, not for the purpose of governing the natives in accordance with civilized principles, but to steal portions of the land, and allot them to private individuals”. The grubby realities of imperial conflict had the potential to puncture heroic myths. As the Irish Nationalist MP and erstwhile rebel Alexander Martin Sullivan explained in 1879, Cetshwayo had only done “what Queen Elizabeth did” in repelling the Spanish Armada.
Indeed, there is a good deal in this book about the cultural context and impact of Rorke’s Drift, and of its calamitous prelude Isandlwana, in which 710 British regulars were killed, mainly from the same regiment (the 24th Foot, the 2nd Warwickshires, redesignated in 1881 the South Wales Borderers), and some 500 local auxiliaries. It was the greatest loss in a single day between Waterloo and the first world war... Professor Beckett’s concise account of these twin actions is a model of readable military history.
Ian Beckett emphasises the importance of Zulu in creating an enduring fascination with what might have remained an obscure Victorian campaign. He has written a thorough, authoritative and perceptive account of two of the Zulu war’s engagements, the Battle of Isandlwana and the defence of a mission complex at Rorke’s Drift... Beckett’s coverage of the cultural legacy of the war is excellent. He is fascinating on the making of Zulu (only 240 extras were used for the location filming) and its box-office success. As Beckett observes, the 1979 film Zulu Dawn about Islandlwana “did not chime” with audiences. No one will ever be inspired by a saga of blunders and lives thrown away in an avoidable defeat. By contrast, Zulu has a universal theme: how ordinary soldiers, some wayward and unwilling, behave in the battle. No one ever mentions Queen, empire or country.