Today is the 130th anniversary of the Battle of Isandlwana, and, in four days' time, a partial solar eclipse will be visible in South Africa. How are these things connected, why should I care, and why do I have goosebumps on my arms as I type this post?
Well, a decade or so back, when I first got interested in family history, I discovered that a great-great-uncle of mine, Malcolm Moodie*, aged 22, died during that battle, in which a mighty force of 20 000 Zulu warriors, mustered by King Cetshwayo, below, resoundly defeated a column of some 1200 British soldiers, who were armed to the teeth.
Knowing very little about Malcolm, or the circumstances of his death, or indeed about Isandlwana, I did some reading. The accounts of that tragic battle chilled me to the marrow - the usual stuff of war: the meaningless slaughter of thousands of teenage men; the blood and the last gasps of dying soldiers and warriors; the beating of chests and the wailing of widowed women and heartbroken mothers; the devastating casualties on both the Zulu and British sides. But what really got my attention the fact that on the day of the battle, an eery yellow light fell across the battlefield as a partial (65%) solar eclipse began.
Can you imagine how frightening and ominous this must have seemed to the exhausted soldiers of these armies? I don't know if you've ever experienced a solar eclipse, but I have, once, and was a truly spooky experience to see the sky darken, the birds flock to the trees to roost, and the stars begin to twinkle. So when the sun dims on Monday, and the world feels like it is coming to an end, I'm going to be thinking about Malcolm and all the other young men who died so pointlessly at Isandlwana.
I never met Malcolm - there's no one alive today who did - and I reckon there are only two or three people who remember that he ever existed at all (and they are deeply sentimental family historians like me). But on Monday, as the eclipse starts, I intend to get a tear in my eye for Malcolm, and for every young man who perished on that day, whatever side he fought on, and whatever his motives were.
*Malcolm Moodie, Natal Carbineers, born 1857, in Natal, died 22 January 1879, at Isandlwana, KZN Natal. Malcolm was the son of William James Dunbar Moodie and Clarissa Meek.
“The burial parties afterwards recognised him by the brilliant colour of his hair, like burnished copper. Beside him were 79 used cartridge cases. He had been obliged to stay behind the day by one hospital, with a hurt shoulder.
"Lord Chelmsford having left with the main body of troops. Malcolm had lent his horse to his cousin, Edward Greene (afterwards Colonel E Greene, Natal Carbineers), whose own horse was lame.”