Friday, January 23, 2009

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Friday, January 23, 2009
David Rattray - RIP 1958 -2007

David Rattray -RIP 1958 -2007

Last Updated: 1:07AM GMT 29 Jan 2007

David Rattray, who was murdered on Friday aged 48, was a self-taught historian and became an internationally renowned expert on the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879; as a prominent figure in South African tourism, he was instrumental in putting the remote battlefields of the eastern province of KwaZulu Natal on the tourist map.

The battle of Isandlwana on January 22 1879 was arguably the most humiliating defeat in British colonial history; hours later, at Rorke's Drift, 139 British soldiers successfully defended their garrison against an intense assault by 3,000 Zulu warriors. Rattray interpreted Isandlwana as a Zulu triumph rather than as a British disaster, tempering history-book accounts with authentic testimony he had personally collected from the Zulu side.

A fluent Zulu-speaker, he deconstructed the gung-ho version of events that had informed the empire's children for more than a century and infused it with fizzing anecdotes drawn by him from the grandchildren of Zulu survivors, now working the land as farmhands and goatherds.

Rattray used these oral histories as the basis for talks and lectures, not just as a raconteur at his tourist lodge near the battlefield site, but also to specialist and academic audiences around the world. The result was as moving as it was electrifying, for Rattray was a gifted storyteller, and his narrative skills were known to have reduced even visiting top brass from the modern British military to tears.

"To listen to David Rattray narrate the story of Isandlwana was akin to watching the best-scripted, best-directed and best-produced movie Hollywood's finest studios could put out," one South African commentator recalled. "It was goose-bump stuff."

Rattray's remarkable ability to transport his listeners back to the day of the battle, and to recreate its sights and sounds, earned him the accolade of "the Laurence Olivier of the battlefield". It also placed him in great demand as a speaker in South Africa and elsewhere. He addressed capacity audiences at the Royal Geographical Society in London on more than 20 occasions, and was elected a fellow of the Society in 1998.

Rattray's passion dated from his childhood. In the 1960s his father had bought 10,000 acres of bush on the banks of the Buffalo River, including the ford (or drift) across which most of the 55 British survivors of Isandlwana fled. Young David visited during his school holidays, learning Zulu and listening to the stories of a local tribal chief whose father had fought in the battle. What he heard completely changed his view of what had really happened more than 100 years before.

When he was 30, Rattray moved to his family's farm near Rorke's Drift with his wife Nicky to start Fugitives' Drift Lodge, from where they guided tourists around the battlefield sites. In its original state, the guest house had been the home of Johan Potgieter and his family. Rattray's mother Gillian, a noted writer and artist, had immortalised "Mr Pot" in her award-winning book The Springing of the Year (1980), which she also illustrated.

In the early days Fugitives' Drift was slow to attract custom; then, in 1995, a travel article in The Sunday Telegraph brought it to wider attention. As the lodge's facilities expanded and grew, so did Rattray's reputation as one of the country's great storytellers. His account of the Isandlwana massacre struck one visiting journalist as "a timeless indictment of man's stupidity, and yet at the same time a tribute to his nobility of spirit". "He created a picture in the mind's eye," explained another, "in the way that only a great storyteller can do."

David Grey Rattray was born on September 6 1958 at Johannesburg. Educated at St Alban's College in Pretoria, he went on to the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, to read Entomology, graduating in 1982.

It was while looking for beetles and other insects at Umzinyathi House, an old farm near the Zulu battlefields, that Rattray first encountered native Zulus and listened to their stories, piecing together the battle narrative as told from the Zulu point of view.

His interest having been kindled by his childhood visits to the battlefields with his father Peter, a former Johannesburg lawyer, Rattray's fascination with Zulu lore was nurtured by a lifelong friend, Mzunjani "Satchmo" Mpanza, who accompanied him on his expeditions and taught him to speak Zulu.

Such was Rattray's obsession with what he considered to be the untold story of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift that he determined to make it his life's study. This decision was accelerated by the accidental destruction of his beetle collection: when his mother left the door of the cabinet open, other parasites got in and reduced the contents to dust.

He worked as chief executive of the Mala Mala game park before marrying and starting a tourist lodge business in Namibia. This did not prosper, and after the couple's first son was killed in an accident in infancy, they returned to South Africa, settling at the family property in 1989.

Rattray had spent several years writing A Soldier Artist in Zululand, based on paintings by a British officer who had fought at Isandlwana. The pictures had been found in Britain by some guests who had visited the lodge; although they offered them to Rattray as a gift, he insisted that they should share in the royalties of the book, which is due to be published next month.

More than anyone else, Rattray established battlefield tours as a mainstay of the South African tourist industry. He kept snakes on the terrace at Fugitives' Drift for the benefit of guests; he also created a game reserve as part of his lodge complex, and welcomed many dignitaries there, including Prince Philip, the Oppenheimers, the trades union leader Cyril Ramaphosa and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

In 1997 Rattray met the Prince of Wales when the Prince and his two sons took a short holiday at Fugitives' Drift following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales; Rattray was subsequently invited to Balmoral as the personal guest of the Prince and was invited by him to attend the private funeral of the Queen Mother in 2002.

The Prince also supported Rattray in his fund-raising efforts to modernise a local school overlooking the battlefields and attended an auction at Sotheby's in London in 2000 alongside two Zulu princes and the education minister for KwaZulu Natal. The following year, at the Prince's invitation, Rattray delivered the inaugural lecture in the Laurens van der Post memorial lecture series at St James's Palace.

Rattray was honoured by the Royal Geographical Society in 1999 when he received its Ness award in recognition of his work in widening popular understanding of Zulu culture in southern Africa. In 2002 he returned to London to receive a Tatler travel award for "Vision in Tourism".

David Rattray was murdered by intruders who shot him in his family quarters at Fugitives' Drift. He is survived by his wife Nicky and three sons.
Posted by Tango at 11:57 AM
Labels: David Rattray Murdered RIP
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Comments and Observations

Piet Retief and David Rattray both trusted the "Great Zulu's!"

May they all Rest in Peace!



At October 7, 2009 at 7:47 AM , Blogger sprichard music said...

Your blog on tourism is thrilling to read and evokes the desire to visit those places as soon as possible. As we too have a natural interest for tourism we have uploaded details on various tourist spots worldwide along with vivid pictures,which are a feast to the eyes. provides latest tourist spots Tourist attractions,Chicago – Tourist spots, etc..more news at


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