History of the World According to the Movies: Part 27 – The British Scramble for Africa

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The 1964 movie Zulu which pertains to the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in which the exhausted British forces manage to defeat a large Zulu force. Also, this was a big movie for Sir Michael Caine pictured here as Lt. Bromhead. Nevertheless, this features British soldiers fighting in their dress uniforms and severely lacking the Chester A. Arthur whiskers characteristic of 1879. Not to mention, it even slanders a Victoria’s Cross recipient. Oh, and the battle was fought from late afternoon until dawn.

When it comes to movies based in the British Empire, Africa is always one of the more popular locations for some reason. Be it maybe that it’s continent of hostile tribes and creatures, a place of many famous wars, or what have you. Yet, for some reason whenever you see movies on the Scramble for Africa, they will usually feature the British Empire as the entity the white male protagonist is working for (unless he’s an archaeologist). Nevertheless, you have the explorations with men like Sir Richard Burton, Dr. David Livingstone, and others braving hostile natives, Arabs, and jungle to find the source of the Nile. You have the Anglo-Zulu Wars in Southern Africa with British forces going against hostile African tribes wielding spears. Then you have The River War in which the British faced a Islamic fundamentalist leader named the Mahdi who may have saw himself as an Islamic Messiah or Tecumseh. General “Chinese” Charles Gordon is featured in this war as well since he tried to protect Khartoum from falling into Mahdist hands only to die and be immortalized for the British public for generations. Then you have the Boer Wars where the British were fighting against the Dutch settlers in South Africa. Still, when you watch movies relating to the British Scramble for Africa, you may find yourself cheering for the British Imperialists even though they weren’t necessarily the good guys. Also, expect the white man’s burden and other unfortunate implications to turn up as well. Nevertheless, I shall list the historical inaccuracies many of these British Empire movies in Africa tend to make.

Exploration:

Sir Richard Burton published a translation of The Perfumed Garden in the mid-1850s. (It wasn’t published until 1886.)

By the 1850s, Sir Richard Burton spoke 23 languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, and Chinese. (He spoke fewer languages in the 1850s but he definitely spoke Arabic at that point since he was really into Islamic culture. However, he never mastered Chinese and learned Hebrew much later in life.)

Larry Oliphant was gay. (He was straight. The filmmakers in The Mountains of the Moon were trying to make Speke’s betrayal of Burton more dramatic after all they’ve been through. Still, Oliphant was on Burton’s side the whole time and while he did manipulate Speke to gain publishing rights on his claim, he eventually realized his errors. And Speke didn’t really betray him inasmuch as “bruised his ego.” Burton didn’t like being upstaged and tried to make Speke’s discovery of Lake Victoria much less notable than it really was as well as attacked his character. Also, Burton had a habit of making enemies in high places since he was a Victorian non-conformist.)

Henry Stanley was English since he was born at St. Asaph. (St. Asaph is in Wales. Also, he was born John Rowlands.)

Dr. David Livingstone was an honorable man to the very end. (His private diaries tell a very different story. Also, he probably wasn’t altogether there when he met Henry Stanley. Also, Stanley wasn’t what you’d call a Boy Scout.)

John Speke was gay and in love with Sir Richard Burton. (There’s no evidence he was one way or the other or even in love with Burton. Speke is said to harbor a deep resentment toward Burton and was willing to hide it until they returned to London. There, he beat Burton to the report of the Royal Geographic Society and claim success as his own.)

John Speke had light hair and was clean shaven. (Photographs depict him with dark hair and a beard.)

John Hanning Speke committed suicide. (An inquest into his death concluded he died in a hunting accident and he had a fatal wound just below the armpit. Nevertheless, even a Victorian gentleman like Speke who had so many years of meticulous gun handling could die of a an accidental gunshot wound. Gun owners know that accidental discharges happen all the time.)

Sir Richard Francis Burton was a believer in racial equality.  (Burton was no less racist than his contemporaries and enjoyed living and studying with other cultures as well as wrote numerous travel books. He also knew 29 languages, some of which he mastered so well to pass as native. Speke, on the other hand, thought living among Africans was repugnant and referred to them as creatures and savages.)

John Speke met Sir Richard Burton in Zanzibar. (They met at Aden in Yemen.)

Sir Richard Burton went into Harrar with John Speke. (Speke wasn’t with him in Harrar.)

Anglo-Zulu War:

Color Sergeant Bourne was a towering middle-aged man. (He was a slight build and 24 years old as well as the youngest Color Sergeant in the British Empire. His nickname was “The Kid.” At least he had some decent Victorian whiskers in Zulu.)

The Battle at Rorke’s Drift was fought in broad daylight. (It began in the afternoon and went throughout the night.)

Most of the 24th Regiment of Foot B Company were clean shaven. (From the Guardian: “photographs of the real veterans of Rorke’s Drift look like candidates for Britain’s Best Walrus Impersonator 1879. (Winner: Lieutenant Chard; Mr Congeniality: Lieutenant Bromhead.)” Yeah, but I don’t think Michael Caine would look good in a pair of mutton chops. Besides, the walrus mustaches may have made it very less likely to take Zulu seriously.)

Private Henry Hook was a shambling boozehound, dirty coward, and a trouble until his moment in battle when he had a sudden burst of courage that he was bayoneting and shooting Zulu warriors all over the place. (He was a churchgoing teetotaler with an exemplary record who earned a Victoria’s Cross for saving a at least a dozen patients in a hospital. Hook’s daughter was so offended by her father’s portrayal in the film that she walked out of Zulu’s premiere. Also, he received a distinctive scar due to his encounter with a Zulu assegai knocking off his pith helmet while he was defending a hospital. And he doesn’t wear a pith helmet in the movie.)

The last shot at the battle at Rorke’s Drift was fired at first light with another wave of Zulu turning up. (The last shot of the battle was fired at 4 a.m.)

The 24th Regiment of Foot consisted of Welshmen in 1879 and their song was “Men of Harlech.” (It would become affiliated with Wales in 1881. The 1879 24th Regiment was affiliated with Warwickshire and most of the men at Rorke’s Drift were English, Welsh, and Irish. Oh, and their song was “The Warwickshire Lads.”)

Gonville Bromhead and John Chard received their commissions in 1872. (They had already received them by that year. Chard had held his commission three years and three months longer than Bromhead.)

Bromhead was a fresh young lieutenant. (Both him and Chard were old for their rank who’ve been repeatedly passed over for a promotion as unlikely to amount to much. He’s also said to either be partially deaf or suffering from PTSD. However, Bromhead would later end his career as a major while Chard’s would end up a colonel.)

Zulu chief Cetshwayo sent his impi to attack Rorke’s Drift. (He actually ordered his impi to leave the installation alone for good reason. However, it was his half-brother Dabulamanzi who ordered the attack thinking he would get a quick victory that would impress the king. He also commanded the uThulwana and led the Zulu forces in the attack. Of course, you can figure out where that was headed.)

Gonville Bromhead was a sharp steely soldier. (One of his fellow officers described him as, “a capital fellow at everything except soldiering.” He’s said not to be very bright and may have been assigned to Rorke’s Drift because of his supposed partial deafness {which might’ve been a misinterpretation of PTSD} was thought to limit his ability to command {with his superiors thinking he wouldn’t see any action}. He probably wasn’t a pansy aristocrat turned hardened soldier after his first battle like the Michael Caine portrayal but he was very well-liked.)

John Chard was the epitome of British manhood. (He was widely considered lazy and useless.)

Reverend Otto Witt instigated the Natal soldiers to desert their post by warning them of the Zulu approach. (The native Natal soldiers did desert their post {leaving at their own accord} but not at the Witts’ instigation. He didn’t warn them of the Zulu approach either but he was one of the lookouts who initially saw them arrive. However, the Natal Native Contingent deserters were fired at as they left and one of their NCOs was killed. Their captain would later be convicted at a court-martial for desertion and dismissed from the British Army.)

Soldiers of the Natal Native Contingent were issued European style uniforms. (They weren’t.)

Reverent Otto Witt was a pacifist old missionary with a daughter. (He was a much younger and married man with two kids. Also, he wasn’t a pacifist since he helped the British at Rorke’s Drift in any way he could as well as defended the interests of white colonists. However, he did leave before the battle but only because he wanted to protect his family.)

Zulu warriors saluted the British officers at the hill after the battle. (They did appear on the hill the following morning but just observed in silence for some time before leaving again since they were just as exhausted as the Brits, hungry, and low on ammunition. Oh, and there were British reinforcements coming so they didn’t have time to salute any British soldiers. Still, any remaining Zulu who were wounded and left behind were rounded up and executed. )

Private Hitch was shot through the thigh by a Zulu sniper. (He was shot through the shoulder in which the bullet shattered his shoulder blade. There’s even a photo of him with his arm in a sling and there are paintings of the 1879 battle depicted in Zulu in which he has his arm held still by a belt. He would later become a London cab driver.)

C Company was stationed at Rorke’s Drift. (It was B Company of the 24th Regiment of Foot.)

Corporal Schiess was a member of the Mounted Police. (He was a member of the Natal Native Contingent. Also, he was 22 years old.)

The 17th Lancers were stationed in South Africa during the Battle of Isandlwana. (They were only sent after the battle with the 1st Dragoons.)

Surgeon John Henry Reynolds was a “Surgeon-Major, Army Hospital Corps” during the battle of Rorke’s Drift. (He was promoted to this rank after the battle.)

The detachment of cavalry from “Durnford’s Horse” consisted of white settler farmers who rode up to the mission station to their deaths in the Battle of Isandlwana.(They actually survived the battle and consisted of black riders sent to Rorke’s Drift to warn the garrison there. They were present in the opening action with the Zulus but rode off due to lack of ammunition. Also, they weren’t lead by Captain Stephenson who was head of the infantry Natal Native Contingent.)

Corporal William Allen was a model soldier. (He had been recently demoted from sergeant following the battle of Rorke’s Drift. Oh, and he was 35 years old at the time.)

Gonville Bromhead was blond. (His 1872 picture makes him a dark haired Chester A. Arthur look-alike. However, he’s played by Michael Caine who has a significantly lighter hair color.)

The Mahdist War:

General Charles George Gordon was a fallen hero to British presence and a great military leader against the Mahdi in Khartoum. (Yes, he was a great general, but he was also an Evangelical Christian who had some whacked out views about cosmology but set up a boys camp as well as visited the sick and the old, was a robust 5’ 5” feet all, and never married. Other than that, most of what is said about his character is speculative. Also, though he and the Mahdi corresponded, they never met {though the Mahdi’s grandson really thought they should’ve so it was left in Khartoum}.)

General George Gordon and the Mahdi were killed around the same time. (Yes, Gordon was killed in battle. However the Mahdi died several months later probably attributed to typhus.)

The battle at Abu Klea was a British defeat. (It was a British victory.)

The Mahdi’s spectacular jihad was just out of plain religious fanaticism. (Not really. Actually it was related to the Egyptian penetration into the Sudan in the 1820s, the Suez Canal, modernization, and other factors associated with imperialism. It’s a long complicated history, but imperialism was more or less was what the Mahdi was rebelling against.)

The Mahdi presented Colonel Stewart’s hand to General Gordon. (This didn’t happen because they never personally met in real life. Also, though the Mahdi’s men did murder Colonel Stewart and Frank Power, but the Mahdi only received the former’s head as a trophy. Also, he only told Gordon to get out of Sudan so further bloodshed would be avoided by writing a polite letter to him. Of course, you couldn’t have a polite letter exchange in Khartoum.)

General Charles Gordon came out facing the Mahdists storming Khartoum calmly and with dignity before getting killed with a spear. After that, his head is brought back on a stick for the Mahdi who was displeased. (He actually came out shooting and ran out of ammo on the staircase {like in a Tarantino movie if you get my drift}. Also, he was killed by a gunshot to the chest, not a spear. And he was killed for being mistaken as a Turk out of all things. Oh, and the Mahdi specifically ordered that General Gordon shouldn’t be killed.)

The famous charge of the 21st Lancers during the Battle of Omdurman happened the day after the main battle. (Both main battle and charge occurred around the same day.)

British soldiers in the Omdurman campaign of 1898 wore scarlet jackets. (They wore khaki uniforms while the cavalry wore blue jackets.)

The Royal Suffolk Regiment served and Egypt and was a relief force to rescue General Gordon. (There was never a Royal Suffolk Regiment. Yet, there was a Suffolk Regiment but they took part in neither. Actually during this period, the First Battalion was posted in India and the Second Battalion was in various locations.)

The two-day relief force for General Gordon managed to recapture Khartoum in 1885. (They discovered that the city was already taken and the Mahdist forces were strong so they were forced to retreat, leaving Sudan to the Mahdi. The British would recapture Khartoum 13 years later in 1898.)

Other:

The Tsavo maneating lions killed for sport. (No predator does this except humans. Also, Lieutenant Colonel Patterson doesn’t mention this and he killed the two lions over a nonhuman bait. He even says their killing pattern was consistent with normal lion hunting patterns.Still, Patterson states that he had a leopard kill 30 of his sheep and goats in one night. Still, for the Tsavo lions to kill and eat people, they must have been in a desperate situation {one was said to have a severe dental disease which would’ve made him a poor hunter} since most big cats usually kill to survive.)

The lions at Tsavo, Kenya killed 135 people. (They more likely ate 35, but we’re not sure how many were killed and not eaten. Still, there were 135 African and Indian workers employed at the construction of the Ugandan railway.)

Both maneating lions at Tsavo had large manes. (The maneating lions at Tsavo were male but they didn’t have manes {they’re actually taxidermied and put on display and at the Field Museum of Natural History at Chicago}. Also, male Tsavo lions either have minimal manes or none at all and Tsavo lions generally are far more aggressive and unpredictable than lions you normally see. Not to mention, animal handlers hate the idea of shaving a lion’s mane. Still, I don’t understand why the makers of The Ghost and the Darkness didn’t consider using lionesses as Tsavo lion stand-ins. I mean they had a male dog play Lassie for God’s sake.)

Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson killed the lions with the aid of an American ex-Confederate soldier Charles Remington. (Charles Remington never existed and there was no professional hunter ever present at Tsavo or anyone like the Michael Douglas character {who was in there because they didn’t want it to look like a pure ego project on Val Kilmer’s part. Also, Douglas helped produce the film}. Nevertheless, Patterson had to kill the maneating lions all on his own but he was a lot more badass than his Val Kilmer portrayal.)

One of the Tsavo lions escaped a trap surrounded by three Indian railroad guards firing that failed to kill him. (This happened except it involved ten guys firing it {which included Mombasa police} and the one bullet that came close to the target broke the cage’s lock, letting the lion escape.)

The Tsavo Bridge was a truss. (It was a plate girder type.)

Karen Blixen caught syphilis from her philandering husband Bror. (Yes, Bror cheated on her but there’s some doubt he might’ve been the cause. Oh, and she hadn’t miraculously recovered when she took up with Denys Finch-Hatton as seen in Out of Africa.)

Sir Henry “Jock” Delves Broughton shot himself dead in the Happy Valley region of Kenya via shotgun shortly after he acquitted for killing his wife’s lover in 1941 while Alice de Janze died of an overdose. (He died a year later in England of a morphine overdose which he had been taking for a back injury, it was ruled a suicide. Still, he was no longer accepted among the Happy Valley society and it’s very likely he killed his wife’s lover {though the case remains unsolved}. Alice de Janze shot herself that September {who’s also suspected}. Interestingly, Kenya’s Happy Valley consisted of a group of colonial ex-patriate British and Anglo-Irish aristocrats during inter-war period in the Wanjohi Valley, notorious for their decadent, hedonistic, eccentric, and scandalous lifestyles which seem straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. )

Karen Blixen thought it was baseless prejudice when she was asked whether she sided with the Germans during World War I. (Well, she may have thought this but she was an old friend of legendary German General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck {who’s not in Out of Africa unfortunately} as well as offered to send horses for his cavalry and carried his signed photo with her. So I don’t think Karen’s friend was being biased here when she asked her whether she was rooting for the Kaiser.)

Karen Blixen once fought attacking lions with a bull whip while on the Savannah. (Most of her biographers believe she just made this up.)

When Karen Blixen lost her land, she plead with the British governor on her knees at a garden party for the rights of the Kikuyu people to live on her farm. (British governor Sir Joseph Byrne probably did grant territory to the Kikuyu people as a favor to Karen but there’s no record that she begged him on her knees at a garden party.)

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