Ian Knight still has vivid memories of his first visit to Isandlwana, where 1,300 British troops and their African allies were killed in a devastating battle with the Zulu army. It was 1979, Knight was just 22 years old, and he had made the long trek to the isolated battlefield in Zululand with a group of other history buffs in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the legendary struggle.
"It was a strange, extraordinary experience. The battles had already been alive inside my head for a long time before I got out there, I think because I'd read so much about it," he recalls. "In those days there wasn't really any kind of developed tourism in the area. Our hotels were two or three hours away, and it was quite an effort to get to the battle site. We literally had to be bussed in. There was very much a sense of a journey. I remember we drove up and went over a rise, and when it dipped over the other side, there was the mountain -- Isandlwana -- in the distance. I recall that I felt 'Well, this is it. I've been drawn toward this my whole life and there it is straight in front of me.'"
Indeed, Knight, now one of the world's foremost experts on the 19th-century Zulu kingdom and the Anglo-Zulu wars of 1879, had been fascinated with Zulu history since he was a small boy and saw the 1964 movie "Zulu," about the wars. As a teenager Knight discovered that he had a family connection to the battle -- a distant relative, Sergeant Thomas Cooper of the 1st Battalion of the 24th Regiment, had died fighting for the British at Isandlwana. "The more I got interested in this period, the more it seemed to me that I wasn't, as a British person in the 1960s and 1970s, really learning anything about it," Knight says. "We were getting only the Victorian British perspective on it all, and I wanted to start looking at the Zulu side of things, to try and get some idea of what the war meant to them and how they prosecuted it."
The Zulus have no written history, so Knight has spent over two decades tracking down traditional Zulu storytellers and recording the oral histories they tell of the battle. He and other researchers have done archeological excavations of the battlefield. Early on, Knight's research revealed that the British version of what transpired at Isandlwana had become cloaked in "Imperial myths" developed to explain the terrible defeat. "I think a lot of those myths came about because the British were at a loss to understand the loss," Knight says. "We couldn't understand how one of the great military powers of the world could be overturned and defeated by a bunch of African people, who we tended at that time to regard as inferior anyway, armed with inferior weapons."
Many of the myths concerned the Brits ammunition -- there was not enough, for example, or it was inaccessible to the soldiers at the front lines. But the archeological investigations of the battlefield indicate that this was not the case. "There was no problem with the ammunition supply. This was an obvious piece of Imperial apology, the idea being that if only we hadn't run out of ammunition, of course we would have won," he says. "In fact, the Zulus were simply the better generals and the better fighters on the day."
Knight admits that some scholars are still skeptical about his revisionist account of the events at Isandlwana. "A number of more conservative historians are quite resistant to these new ideas. It often hangs on your world view -- how you look at various aspects of the British Empire, how you view the colonial period, how reluctant you are to give up on these myths that you probably grew up on," he says. "We occasionally have people who say that we are talking nonsense. But one of the valuable things about archaeology is that it gives you the evidence to say 'Fine, but this is what we've actually found on the ground, and it is why we think it actually did happen like we say.'"