Diasporational part two: The Irishman and the Zulus

kwaJimu: The Irishman and the Zulus, by Niall McArdle

note: a version of this first appeared at WorldIrish

Rorke’s Drift? It would take an Irishman to give his name to a rotten stinking middle o’ nowhere hole like this.” Private Henry Hook, 1879.

Every time I watch the magnificent Zulu, the epic account of the astonishing defence of a tiny outpost by 139 Welshmen against 4,000 Zulu warriors, the same questions always arises: how on earth did a British regiment end up in what must have seemed like the middle of nowhere, and who was this Rorke that gave the station its name?


In 1497 Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and proceeded up the west coast of Southern Africa. Standing on the deck of San Gabriel on Christmas Day, he named the coast Natal. Over the next three hundred years European invaders, traders and settlers littered the African coast, first the Dutch, then the British, changing the continent forever and sowing the seeds of the eventual conflicts in the nineteenth century that would decimate the native Zulu population.

In the 1850’s Natal was a vast British colony with perhaps 6,000 European farmers living amid 150,000 “Natal Kaffirs”. James Alfred Rorke was a typical example of an early European settler. His father – also James – and two uncles had left Clontuskert, County Galway in the early 1800s. They joined an Irish regiment – probably the Connaught Rangers – and came ashore in Africa in 1821 to suppress a Native uprising. What became of the uncles is not known, but James decided to stay in the Cape colony. He might have chosen to remain after his army commission expired, or he may have simply deserted. In any event, he travelled into the interior, married and had a son, James Alfred in 1827.

James Alfred Rorke saw action in one of Cape Frontier Wars (or “Kaffir Wars” as they were called). He and his wife Sara Strydom arrived at the spot that would take his name in 1849. He bought a 3,000 acre farm on the bank of the mighty Buffalo River. It must have seemed an idyllic place. A contemporary account describes “a pretty farm on an elevated rocky terrace, with a large house and gardens containing orange, apricot, peach, quince, fig and apple trees.” Looking north, Rorke would have seen the valley. Looking east he would have gazed upon the Nqutu mountains.

Rorke built a ford – or a “drift” as it is known in South Africa – for crossing the river. He built a little store and traded with passing white hunters and whoever else happened by.

Just across the river from Rorke’s Drift was kwaZuluZululand, the mighty nation that the legendary leader King Shaka, Africa’s Napoleon, had forged, and which existed in an uneasy piece with Natal.

Whatever the Zulus felt about the British administration, they were awfully fond of James Rorke. Rorke traded guns, liquor, trinkets and cloth with them. The Zulus had difficulty pronouncing “Rorke”; they called him Jimu and the store kwaJimu, “Jim’s Place”.

When Rorke first arrived in the area, he and his wife must have led a lonely life. The nearest Europeans were twenty miles away. Over the years other colonists arrived, and villages with names like Dundee, Newcastle and Utrecht sprung up. Because Rorke had been there for so long, he was a respected member of the frontier community, and was eventually made a 1st Lieutenant in the Buffalo Border Guard. The chief objective of the Border Guard was to prevent gun-running into kwaZulu, which must have caused Rorke some difficulty.

Rorke died in 1875 in circumstances that are still disputed. Some claim he committed suicide, others that it was an accident. One theory holds that he was drunk and playing Russian Roulette. Before he died he had sold the farm to a Swedish missionary, Otto Witt. Rorke was buried at the foot of the mountain behind the house.


Within four years of his death, the house was a mission and makeshift army hospital for passing British troops. Natal was by now in a virtual state of war with the Zulus, and Rorke’s Drift, once a peaceful trading post, stood as the first and last defense of the colony.

On January 22nd, 1879, over four thousand Zulu troops attacked the mission station, and the ensuing battle was held up as an icon of British Imperial Pluck. A massively outnumbered garrison held off the Zulus, some from their hospital beds, in fierce hand to hand fighting that destroyed any notion the Victorians had about nice ordered battles.


By its end, Rorke’s Drift lay smouldering. 20,000 rounds of ammunition had been fired. The British had sustained relatively minor casualties – seventeen were killed – but more than six hundred Zulus lay dead; the ground was covered with their shields and their blood. As the Zulus say, “the spears had been washed.”

After the battle, eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the soldiers, the most that have ever been awarded by the British Army for a single action. Private Henry Hook, who had dismissed Rorke’s Drift as a “rotten, stinking middle o’nowhere hole” that only an Irishman would give his name to, personally received his medal from the legendary British general – and Dubliner – Sir Garnet Wolseley.

3 thoughts on “Diasporational part two: The Irishman and the Zulus

  1. Great story Niall. Good background to an event that many only ever heard of because of the famous film.
    My aunt used to have a pub in London named ‘The Garnet Wolseley.’ It was tucked away in a back street, and we never found out the reason why it was named after him.
    Cheers, Pete.


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