UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Analyse a painting of a historical event

This exercise asks for an analysis of a painting of an event in nineteenth-century history. I’ve chosen The defence of Rorke’s Drift 1879 by Alphonse de Neuville (1880), now in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW.

The Painting

The defence of Rorke's Drift 1879 Alphonse de Neuville 1880  oil on canvas   181.4 x 301.5 cm

The defence of Rorke’s Drift 1879
Alphonse de Neuville
1880 oil on canvas 181.4 x 301.5 cm

There’s a much better photo and lots of detail shots on the gallery’s website: The selection started with my standard “meets requirements, can see in person”, but I also found it of particular interest because it’s a different example of British imperialism and the impact on indigenous people (see also 10-Oct-2013).

The painting depicts an incident in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. The numbers vary depending on the source, but around 140 British troops withstood a 12 hour attack by 3 or 4 thousand Zulu warriors. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded based on the action.

rorke_04The painting is large, dynamic and full of action. Huge depth has been created, from the foreground at the bottom left to the distant hills through the pass (both marked with a green x). There are lots of diagonals, with a major zig-zag leading the eye through multiple vignettes. The primary focus is on the British soliders, with the Zulu warriors occupying only a small area.

rorke_02In the left foreground, marked “1” in the diagram version above, we see the cost of the battle, and the care and concern of the soldiers for each other, ignoring their own injuries. Even in dreadful circumstances a blanket, a makeshift support and the rough protection of a box have been found for the most injured. At “2” and “4” can be seen more examples of the effort the men are making to assist and protect their wounded comrades even at the height of the battle, at the risk of their own lives carrying them from the burning building which had been used as a make-shift hospital.

rorke_03At “3” we get the most detail of the battle in progress. The defenders stand shoulder to shoulder, resolute in the face of the horde, ignoring the slain Zulu fallen over the hastily built barricade. In the centre stand men co-ordinating the defence. The soldiers are working as a well disciplined and well trained unit, some men passing forward ammunition to those fighting, shooting and using bayonets, never taking their eyes off their enemies, never faltering in their determination. Some of the defenders can be seen motionless on the ground, some arch their bodies, hit moments earlier by the thrust of a spear (although the only spears I could see were fallen on the ground or in the hands of the attacking force). Few of the British stand alone. They are in small groups across the middle ground of the picture, forming a protective barrier between the viewer and the Zulu warriors.

The attackers can hardly be seen in the smoke and dust of battle. There are two bodies of those who almost breached the defenses, and in the middle distance to the right one can be seen standing out, shaking his spear and shield, urging the tribesmen on. They are important as a mass in the picture, but the detailed rendering is reserved for the heroic British. And we know how this story ends – in the triumph of Her Majesty’s troops, fighting gallantly against incredible odds and ultimately prevailing.

The History
The battle at Rorke’s Drift was one part of the wider conflict of the Anglo-Zulu war. There are some variations in the accounts I’ve read about the origins of the war.

A bare-bones version: Sir Bartle Frere was appointed British High Commissioner to southern Africa in 1877. He was charged with creating a confederation, a new dominion for Britain. To achieve this Frere needed to gain control over the Zulu warrior kingdom. King Cetshwayo refused to disband his army or meet other demands of the British. Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford led a force into Zululand to take it by force. On 22 January 1879 a portion of the British force, around 1,700 men, was overwhelmed by the Zulu at Isandlwana and virtually all were killed. Later that same day a large group of Zulu attacked a tiny British garrison at Rorke’s Drift. The British managed to defend their position for 12 hours. Finally the Zulu left off the attack, apparently seeing British reinforcements approaching.

The details and responsibilities are less clear.

O’Connor (2006) suggests that the primary motive for the British presence was to protect the ports and thereby the Cape shipping route to India. Control of the interior was required to ensure food supplies. This was a defensive move, in case of war with Russia. O’Connor rejects any suggestion that there was an economic motive, dispossession of original inhabitants to provide raw materials and markets for British goods, on the grounds that the country was just too poor. Instead in a complex situation O’Connor believes Frere was reacting to avoid the multiple evils of “a Zulu invasion coinciding with a Boer rising and a Russian naval attack which would result in burning ports, razed farms, the route to India severed, and the destruction of British prestige” (O’Connor, 2006, p. 304).

In another version, rather than seeing the conflict as a response to the Russian threat, that threat is seen as the reason that the government in London particularly wanted to avoid a war in Zululand. Sir Michael Hicks Beach, the colonial secretary, wrote to Frere in November 1878 ‘We cannot now have a Zulu war, in addition to other greater and too possible troubles’ (quoted in David, 2011). In this interpretation Frere took unilateral action, encouraged by the ambitious British commander, Lord Chelmsford.

Even the nature of the opposing forces is unclear. Who were/are “the Zulu” and what was the nature of their kingdom? Hamilton and Wright (1993) write that it came into existence in the 1820s and rather than a cohesive entity was an amalgamation of chiefdoms conquered by the Zulu. There were periods of civil war in the 1840s and 50s, and it was in response to external threats that some unity was achieved. In this analysis, following the defeat of the Zulu army the British were able to impose a form of indirect rule, dividing any opposition by division of the land into separate chiefdoms and presenting this as liberation of the people. It was later, in the 1920s and in response to the political landscape of the time, that more Africans began to identify themselves as Zulu.

The importance of Rorke’s Drift
In terms of the war as a whole the action at Rorke’s Drift was a minor sideshow. The location had no particular strategic significance. However in terms of British public morale and imperial pride it was vital. The defense of Rorke’s Drift came the same day and immediately after the stunning, humiliating defeat of the British by the Zulu at Isandlwana which has been described as Britian’s “worst colonial defeat of the nineteenth century” (O’Connor, 2006, p. 285). The action at Rorke’s Drift wasn’t universally admired, as seen in a comment by Sir Garnet Wolseley who succeeded Chelmsford: “…it is monstrous making heroes … of those who shut up in the buildings at Rorke’s Drift could not bolt and fought like rats for their lives which they could not otherwise save” (Wolseley, 1880). Clearly this was not the majority view, or at least the public view. The triumph of Rorke’s Drift was celebrated, the defeat of Isandlwana was sidelined, the war against the Zulu was won, and British prestige, reputation and interests were preserved.

My mother, who was in high school in England during World War II, was quite excited when I took her through the Art Gallery to see this painting. She knew all about the brave defense and the British triumph at Rorke’s Drift. She hadn’t heard about Isandlwana. I’m not really railing against the dishonesty and the self-interest of the British here. After all I’m a winner in this colonial conquest thing, and I try to keep my hypocrisy to a muted roar. This is simply what happens – no one person can ever encompass “the whole story”, the victors write the history, and we’re all being manipulated by the media and the powers-that-be. It’s just interesting when you happen to see the machinery at work.

Other images from Rorke’s Drift and the Anglo-Zulu war
Part of the mythology of Rorke’s Drift is based in the intense and personal interest of Queen Victoria. The Defence of Rorke’s Drift by Lady Elizabeth Butler (1880, oil on canvas, 120.2 x 214.0 cm) was commissioned by Queen Victoria and is held in the Royal Collection (see It has many of the same features as de Neuville’s work – the focus on the the gallant defenders, standing shoulder to shoulder, shooting or in hand to hand fighting. There is the care for their wounded companions, the discipline of the soldiers and the figures of officers in the centre directing the defence, one man close to the centre, back arched as he is hit (again it is unclear what struck him – there are no spears in bodies, although some can be seen flying through the air). Buildings are on fire, and the attacking horde has been relegated to one side, their numbers indicated by the small figures disappearing into the distance. There does appear to be more detail and space given to a few of the attackers, their faces and expressions visible, one reaching up to grasp a defender’s rifle. Great emphasis was placed on accuracy and detail in the painting. Lady Butler visited the regiment in Portsmouth and they put on uniforms and gave a representation of the battle. The final work ‘managed to show, in that scuffle, all the V.C.’s and other conspicuous actors in the drama’.

After the Zulu War- Windsor Castle, Dec. 9, 1879 from 'The Graphic', 20 December 1879 © Trustees of the British Museum

After the Zulu War- Windsor Castle, Dec. 9, 1879
from ‘The Graphic’, 20 December 1879
© Trustees of the British Museum
Museum number 1902,1011.9279

The (political) importance of the action and the personal approval of Queen Victoria would have been visible to her subjects through publication of images such as this wood engraving showing her pinning the Victoria Cross on Corporal W. Allan, one of a row of men who ‘distinguished themselves during the campaign’. This is a clear statement of the might and success of the British armies, who even against enormous numbers of attackers will prevail, protecting the interests of the Queen and all her subjects.

Silver and gold brooch in the form of a Zulu shield. John Brogden 1875-1880 © Trustees of the British Museum

Silver and gold brooch in the form of a Zulu shield.
John Brogden
Gold and silver on an oxidised and textured ground. 72 x 35 mm
© Trustees of the British Museum

This brooch is a military trophy, shaped as a shield, showing the clubs and spears of the Zulu warriors.

I imagine such a piece would have been quite expensive, worn by a woman to show her pride in and support of the British troops. There’s been enough in recent years of troops returning home having fought for their country only to find themselves criticized for the policies of the government. I have no quarrel with support and pride. However the symbology of treating the weapons of the conquered peoples as a decorative item is very uncomfortable to modern eyes.

A more personal view of the war can be found in the watercolours of William Whitelock Lloyd, some of which can be seen at These give a wonderful sense of the wide landscape, an image of a charging Zulu warrior as well as one of a young woman carrying a basket on her head. All of these have a sense of the honesty and immediacy of a moment in time (perhaps not so much the charging warrior!), a welcome contrast to the politically charged images found elsewhere.

I tried to find images of works created in the period from the perspective of those on the other side of the conflict – the Zulu – without success. This is hardly a surprise, given the different art-making practices and history. The course textbook includes an image of doors carved by Olowe of Ise in around 1916 for the palace at Ikere in Nigeria, and comments the doors “are unusual – possibly unique – in sub-Saharan African art in that they represent an historical narrative” (Honour and Fleming, 2009, p. 755). How ironic that these doors are now also in the British Museum (see,01.4546.a&page=1 and

I found a contemporary response to the conflict and its memorialisation by Themba Mthethwa, We, “The Children of Isandlwana”: Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift Revisited. I think it is a sign of the change in attitudes over time that this is published on a website with a primary focus on the men who were awarded Victoria Crosses, albeit with a disclaimer – see Mthethwa questions the “history” and myths surrounding the battles at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, and also gives a personal account of visiting the sites.

In 1999 a memorial by sculptor Gert Swart was erected at Isandlwana – see The large bronze sculpture takes the form of an “isiqu”, a necklace carved by Zulu warriors as a symbol of valour. The sculpture was created in response to “the indefensible bias of the history of the country” – “The Isandlwana battlefield was a telling example: the fact that memorials to British soldiers had been erected on the site, but nothing existed there to commemorate the Zulu warriors who won a decisive victory over the British in 1879 was embarrassing.” (Swart, n.d.). With more time it would have been interesting to learn more about Gert Swart and the idea of giving a voice to those forgotten and challenging a history that no longer met the needs of a modern country. His site led me to an article that discusses “a few new battlefield memorials commemorating the previously unrepresented Zulu victims of the respective battles … pointing out how the designing artists attempt to fuse a Western, Eurocentric concept with local imagery and Afrocentric references”, finding “on the whole, the commemorative objects discussed in this article represent a shift towards modernity and commodification and reflect the values of a hybrid, transforming society” (Marschall, 2008). Unfortunately I could only access the Abstract.

Another modern work is The Battle of Isandlwana by Michelle Basso – see The artist states this “depicts the moment in the famous Battle of Isandlwana, when Chief Mkhosana stood up and encouraged his men to stand up and fight. They won the war, but he lost his life, making him a hero amongst the Zulu people.” (Basso, n.d.). This is a complete turnaround from the original Victorian focus, moving to the battle the British lost and showing as hero one of the Zulu.


Basso, M. [n.d.] About “The Battle of Isandlwana (print)” [online] Available from (Accessed 17-Oct-2013)

David, S. (2011) Zulu: The True Story [online] Available from (Accessed 17-Oct-2013)

Hamilton, C. and Wright, J. (1993) The Beginnings of Zulu identity, in Indicator South Africa, (10, 3) pp 43 – 64. [online] Available from (Accessed 17-Oct-2013)

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

Marschall, S (2008) Zulu Heritage between Institutionalized Commemoration and Tourist Attraction (Abstract) In Visual Anthropology (21, 3), 2008 (Abstract only online) Available from (Accessed 20-Oct-2013)

Mthethwa, T. [n.d.] We, “The Children of Isandlwana”: Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift Revisited [online] Available from (Accessed 15-Oct-2013)

O’Connor, DP (2006), ‘Imperial Strategy and the Anglo–Zulu War of 1879’, Historian, 68, 2, pp. 285-304, Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 17 October 2013.

Swart, G. [n.d.] Isandlwana Monument [online] Available from (Accessed 15-Oct-2013)

Wolseley, G. (1880) entry for 19 March 1880 in Prof. Adrian Preston (ed.) Sir Garnet Wolseley’s South African Journal 1880, Cape Town 1973, as quoted in Knight, I. [n.d.] ‘Wood Tells Me’;
The Quiet Assassination of John Chard’s Character
[online] Available from (Accessed 24-Oct-2013)

Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Exercise: Analyse a painting of a historical event

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