It happened today - January 23, 2016
Now you might object that on all kinds of days in history a British garrison neither surrendered nor got massacred. Indeed, the success of the British empire might suggest that such events were rare. But the Jan. 23 1879 incident was remarkable because this time, at least, it sure seemed likely.
The Zulus had just won a dramatic victory at Isandlwana in the first major battle of the Anglo-Zulu war, with some 20,000 warriors overwhelming and killing about three-quarters of an invading British column 1,800 strong. Admittedly the odds seem lopsided, but even so it was an unusual event.
As Rorke’s Drift showed. Between three and four thousand Zulus from Isandlwana, some carrying captured modern weapons, headed for Rorke’s Drift to finish off the small garrison there, slightly over 150 soldiers of whom some three dozen were hospital patients. For very nearly 12 hours the Zulus sought to storm the small enclosure and its tiny garrison. And they failed.
When dawn came and the garrison saw that the besiegers had gone away, they had less than 1,000 rounds of ammunition left of 20,000. But they had lost 17 killed and 15 wounded against approximately 350 dead attackers and perhaps 500 wounded.
The battle gets considerable attention in Victor Davis Hanson’s brilliant Carnage and Culture, a look at 2,500 years of lopsided conflict between West and non-West in which the strange dynamism of open societies, including not just technically proficient, analytic combat free of ritual limitations but also their soldiers’ superficially baffling capacity to maintain discipline while improvising in the field, with junior officers taking the initiative when orders are unclear or unsuited to the tactical situation, has consistently resulted in casualty ratios around 10:1, from Xerxes’ invasion of Persia to Vietnam and beyond.
Seen in this context, the outcome at Rorke’s Drift is not as extraordinary as it seems. Or perhaps all the more so, for being typical of such encounters. As John Quincy Adams memorably said, “liberty is power”. Not licence, not anarchy, and not the weird “liberty” of people who live in highly structured, coercive societies that resist outsiders with brittle ferocity.
Genuinely free individuals, to whom self-government is inherently two-fold, in that they can sustain free governments because they govern themselves.
The Zulus at Rorke’s Drift were brave, honourable and admirable in many ways. But lacking the West’s particular, peculiar flexible resilience, they were unable to overwhelm a garrison one twentieth their size.
It’s quite extraordinary.