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DateOriginal Topic
13th May 2005Coffin Rock
By Melvin Hunt
Does any one know how or why the rock at Fugitives Drift, commonly known as "coffin rock" became identified as the actual rock that Higginson and Melvill clung to?
14th May 2005Coll

The location of it being near to where the fugitives crossed, but also, I think, it was the only large rock visible when the water was high and fast flowing, as it was on the day of the battle.

14th May 2005Chris John
The rock is now unfortuneatly fallen over, lying flat now as it has sunk in the mud, so it cant be seen anymore when there is high tide, but it is still a lage visible feature when its low water like it was when i was there.

CJ 289
14th May 2005Melvin Hunt
Very interesting. How do you know that it has fallen over? Are there any old photos of the rock showing it sticking up higher out of the water than it is now?
The reason I asked the question is because, as I stood next to the rock and commented to our guide that it wasn't very high and would have been submerged on the 22nd, he said that he was of the opinion that coffin rock was not THE rock and that Melville had actually crossed the river much higher upstream where there is actually a large rock which would have (judging by the flood water marks on the nearby cliff face) broke the surface.
I just wondered what sources identified Melvlle's rock as the coffin rock we all see in the photos.
14th May 2005Coll

That is unfortunate, as in many ways, I think, the rock is a bit of a memorial in itself and to no longer be in the same position as it was when Melvill held on to it, is quite sad.

However, if it was possible to place it back the right way up, it should, at least, be tried, and secured firmly into position.

I don't know if this has maybe been covered in a previous topic, but I would have thought if this had happened to the rock, it would have been discussed at great length on the forum.
Unless, of course, I've overlooked it.


Could it be that you saw the rock after it had fallen over, as Chris says ?

I'm not sure if Melvill would have actually rode much further along the riverbank to another point, if he thought there was a chance to cross earlier, especially with the Zulus in pursuit.

Did your guide show you this other rock ?

As I'm a bit unsure about this comment, as it would mean many AZW books are wrong.

15th May 2005Mike McCabe
The attributed identity of the 'Coffin Rock' is probably ultimately down to logical deduction, based upon the accounts remaining, there not being any similarly sized or configured rock in that area of the 'drift'. Once identified, word of mouth has fixed the identity. I have visited the site at various river conditions since 1956, though with full adult recall since 1979. I really cannot see how it might have 'fallen over', taking its geological surroundings into account. I do not know who your guide was, but did he also point out an 'Engineer grave cairn' to you near the road bridge west of Isandlwana. Thought so!

15th May 2005Melvin Hunt
I can't understand your sarcasm re the guide. There's no need for it. For your information my "guide" was not one of the usual guides but a local Zulu who had a real interest in his history. I don't, for a minute, think that the rock has fallen over. However, on standing by it, it seemed that (providing it has not sunk lower into the sand over the last 125 years) it would have been submerged on the 22nd. so I was wondering how M & H could have clung to it.
I thought my question about the source of the identification of the rock was covering a new topic and was worth asking.
15th May 2005Melvin Hunt
As a follow up to the above reply. There is a very underused Link on this forum called "your travel stories". Perhaps you would like to write an article about your visits to SA over the last fifty years and perhaps comment on the changes you may have seen?
Just a thought.
15th May 2005Coll

I've been thinking more about this topic, and as you say, 125 years is a long time, during which there has probably been a lot of erosion on areas which are constantly battered by the river, especially when the water is high and fast flowing, it maybe could have destabilised the ground around the base, causing the rock to slide deeper down into the riverbed, or even the water level itself has got higher over the years, which would enable it to cover a rock that might have been visible many years before.

17th May 2005Melvin Hunt
Rest assured that the coffin rock has not fallen over or indeed sunk to any degree and, unfortunately, I think this issue has clouded my original question.
I was just wondering what source first identified the rock as the one that M & H clung to. Was it, as Mike states, a logical assumption? Was there a primary source witness who recorded the struggle and pinpointed the area? How do we know that Higginson and Melvill did not cross the river higher up in the deep pool.?
Martin said, a few months ago, that he was constantly amazed at the minute detail that is discussed on this forum. I now find myself talking about a rock in a river!!!
However, many people travel thousands of miles to SA and, as part of their journey, they stand at coffin rock and marvel at the events there on the 22nd. so I thought my question was worth asking.
17th May 2005Coll

I think every question connected to the AZW is worth asking, no matter how minute the detail.

If you look at previous topics started by myself, you will see several unusual or unimportant sort of questions I was asking.

However, having never been to the battlefields, I use a lot of guesses, possibly assuming quite a few things as well.

From photographs and illustrations it is very hard to judge the scale of certain items, so I mainly have to go on what I've heard or read.

The idea of them maybe crossing elsewhere is interesting, but with so many books, etc., that accept this location, it is very difficult to try and think it may be wrong.

This topic has got blurred a little, but I can see your point, but unfortunately can't give you an answer to clarify it.

17th May 2005Allen Graham

I have been following this topic with interest, and I think the question is well worth asking. Having visted the area this year, I was struck by how low the rock seemed to be in the water, as well as how close it was to the Zulu bank. It just does'nt seem to me as the likeliest of places to seek refuge in that part of the river.
The only person who really knows, Higginson, I presume never ever returned to the area ?

18th May 2005Mike McCabe
Melvyn and I have exchanged our thoughts further on this 'off-line'. These are extra points for consideration.
Perhaps the most coherent description of the state of the river is from Smith-Dorrien, in his letter to his father (I unfortunately no longer have a copy).

There are, I believe, two other big factors. Firstly, the natural shape of the terrain which, if followed, does indeed deliver people further upstream as the ground slope ramps down to the river level - though under duress some (like S-D) will have hurled themselves down the slope wherever they had to. Secondly, force of current will have rapidly bundled people downstream. The 'traditional' Coffin Rock, is the only one big enough to remain at or just below the surface when the river is 'full' to its banks, and, it's in just about the right place opposite the Natal bank for any kind of rescue to have been mounted. An incumbered person - riding or not - would more than likely just be swept against it, not even knowing it was there until they struck or grounded upon it.
I simply don't know whether Higginson ever positively identified a particular rock. It's identification might well have been settled upon at the time of the search for the Colour, found about 150-200 yards downstream.

So, a mixture of logic and deduction, and the effect of different water levels. There are a few large rocks upstream, but they submerge fairly early as the river rises.

However, hard to prove either way - I agree.