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24th May 2003Isandlwana - overheating rifles/carbines?
By Peter Ewart
I'm aware this topic surfaces from time to time (yes, FAQs a good idea, Julian!) but, presumably because the privates & NCOs survived to tell the tale there, we tend to hear more about firearms jamming and/or overheating at R/Drift than we do at Isandlwana.

I was going to check the Red Book before posting this, but I can't as my whole library is inaccessible at present due to decorating, so perhaps someone can enlighten me. According to some notes I've made some time ago, I've seen a letter or story in The Guardian of 12 March 1879 (and so it MAY have appeared in the Natal papers during Feb or The Times, say, in early March, and I suspect anyway that it is a precis of something already published in another organ) which said, quoting "a Natal gentleman with a son in the Natal Carbineers", who said that they had "fired back to back until the guns they held had blistered their hands. Some who were in the spruits dipped their rifles in the water to cool them." Is this Durnford's donga? Was there water still in the dongas on the 22nd? And another statement: "A few were seen to kill themselves."

Does this account appear in the N/Mercury, N/Witness, Kaffrarian Watchman, etc etc? I have only noted the remarks in my own (unreliable!) "shorthand" but if the account is not familiar to anyone, I'll re-check the original. I seem to remember checking the Red Book quickly some time ago without seeing it. Whether all the remarks were from the said to be from same source I can't be sure at present. On the face of it, I see no reason for doubting the final claim, given Mossop's experience on Hlobane.

I'd be intersted to see where this account appears before its (presumable) regurgitation on 12 March. Much of the Guardian's material on the AZW news was not original, other than letters and editorials.

25th May 2003Keith Smith
Hi Peter

I have returned from SA (again) and found the following extract in a letter from a prominent Durban merchant, G.C. Cato, concerning Isandlwana:
"The Zulus poured in a shower of assegais and rushed to the charge, very few Zulus were killed in the Camp; but they were mowed down as they advanced, & the Rifles got so hot that men could hardly hold them. Some that could do it, dip'd them in water."

The information given by Cato in his letter is frequently incorrect, since he was not present and presumably gleaned his info. from others, perhaps even second or third hand.

26th May 2003Peter Ewart
Keith (et al)

Many thanks for those details. Are they from a published letter or from a copy you've seen in your researches? The points made are similar enough to the piece I quote from to be (perhaps) from the same source - which, as you say, may well be second or third hand. Such was the level of excitement and shock in the colony for weeks after the disaster that it needs no imagination to understand how those in Durban & PMB were keen to hear anything from someone who "knew", and such "facts" were no doubt recirculated and embellished repeatedly - which makes it rather difficult for any researcher to place much credence on them.

I don't have any publications which list all the volunteers, but was Cato's son among the Natal Carbineers? If so, it may be that the letter is the same one. The difficulty is that the English press of the time, in allowing for the fact that much of the news was more than three weeks old, tended to combine the info from (a) official telegrams from Madeira (b) letters from the Colony to readers in England who, in turn, submitted them to English papers, (c) copies of the "latest" Natal papers and (d) the English paper's own precis and comment. The whole was sometimes distilled into one report, not always adhering to the standard use of inverted commas, and one is left to wonder which passages are being quoted (and from what!) and which phrases are being inserted by the paper. All very academic if the contemporary reader simply wanted an interesting account, but very difficult 125 years later for any researcher trying to sift the primary source from the hearsay.

I certainly suspect that the account of dipping rifles into water comes from one source - Cato's letter. Or has Cato, perhaps, heard from the same source which has been quoted in the Guardian? One simply cannot be certain! As soon as I see anomalies like this my suspicious nature re "primary" or even "reliable" sources goes into overdrive, which I try to keep alert and healthy! And hence my appeal to anyone who has seen similar accounts of the same.

I've always assumed (again, perhaps wrongly) that the watercoures crossing the plain were dry. But the Jan/Dec rains had been especially heavy and perhaps there was water in them. Anyone got the definitive answer on that one? A primary source or first hand account from a survivor needed here! (Or from someone in Chelmsford's returning column).

The account of men killing themselves may well be true but I was surprised to see it as a statement supposedly made by a father of a carbineer, as one would imagine it was the sort of story the Colonists did not want to hear. They had lost many menfolk & their one consolation was the reported manner of their death - "back to back", etc etc., and I can hardly believe such a statement was welcomed by the readers. And yet it has the ring of truth about it for being lacking in any heroic claim. I'm assuming here (perhaps wrongly) that it had already been published in Natal and that colonists are being described, because it purports to come from the mouth of a volunteer, but again presumptions can come to nought.

How many Natal Carbineers survived? Was a son of Cato among them? I think many of the volunteers from Durban were on the coast and not at Isandlwana? Questions, questions!

Keith, I hope you enjoyed your latest trip and that your researches were fruitful.

27th May 2003Peter Ewart

Many thanks for your comments which I've read under the RE Museum thread but which I'll acknowledge here.

I'm grateful for your advice. Yes, it therefore seems highly likely that there would have been at least some water in which the Natal Carbineers (or any other camp defenders) may have been able to dip their rifles (or carbines) when they over heated. Given the exceptional rainy season of 78/79 I suppose it is inconceivable that everything had dried up already. Not being an expert on firearms (but aware that many on this forum are!) I hesitate to suggest how much of the barrel would need to be submerged before it was cooled sufficiently!

And the spruit referred to can only, presumably, be that nearest the spot where the Natal Carbineers, N'castle M'ted Rifles, & those of Durnford's men still with him, gathered & stood together, close to where the Carbineers' memorial was erected? (Not much further east than that, as I suppose Bradstreet's party didn't venture out that far that early?)

Still strange to read of the published descriptions of those who killed themselves, however true.

28th May 2003Keith Smith

Not sure what Ron has told you but the letter from Cato was to a man named Richards and is dated 2nf February 1879. I found it in the Killie Campbell Library. It is an interesting document and I'll send you a copy privately if you would like.

Having checked Stalker, "Natal Carbibeers", I see no mention of a Cato either before or after Isandlwana. Maybe he was in the Durban Mounted Rifles?

Yes, I'm sure there would have been water in Durnford's donga since there had been days of heavy rain, as we all know. When I was there recently, there was still a trickle in it.

30th May 2003Ron Lock
Keith, I would much appreciate a copy of your Cato letter. I have searached the rolls of the Natal Carbineers, Newcastle M.R., Buffalo Border Guarf, Natal Mounted Police and the incomplete rolls of the NNC - not a Cato to be found. Once I have read your Cato letter I will come back to you. Dend to [email protected]

31st May 2003Peter Ewart

Just ack'ed the Cato letter privately but forgot to say (and others might like to know this & have a look if they haven't seen it) that there is a nice photograph of GC Cato in the KCL collections - ref d43-060.