Why the 22nd of January?

The MCOBA hears from Immediate Past President, Grant Little (Class of 1985) on the significance of the MCOBA’s 125th anniversary dated on the 22nd of January.

The Battle of Isandlawana took place on the 22nd of January 1879 where many men lost their lives, including 17 OCs. The Maritzburg College Old Boys’ Association’s “birthday” is acknowledged as 22 Jan 1897, 125 years ago.

It is fitting that we remember Isandlawana as the day that is so closely linked to the MCOBA, a day where 17 of our fellow OCs passed – and countless thousands of men in their prime on all sides of the conflict. 

It was some 5 years earlier in november 1873 that our first OC was killed in action. The British colonial masters had been concerned with the Zulu nation and had been working politically to determine how to have more influence over the lands north of the Tugela. Many Zulus lived within the bounds of the colonial lands and had been loyal servants to the British – including in actions against their brothers in Zululand. The colonial masters were still not pleased and took umbrage with Chief Langalibelele who lived in the foothills of the Berg. Wishing peace, Langalibelele took his amaHlubi people over the Berg and into Lesotho (Basutoland) and the British decided to stop this with a show of force.

Major Anthony Durnford led a force that was to split and meet at the top of the Berg to cut off Langalibalele and quash the flight. Due to inexpereince with Berg conditions, inclement weather and no local knowledge of the Berg, the northern force did not find a route to the top, and Durnford’s force took a long detour to the south before doubling back to the top of Giant’s castle to meet the Zulus. Tired after a two day march with little rest and lowrations, and Durnford himself injured after a bad fall from his horse, many of his men (most of who were local farmers and colonials from the Natal Carbineers and loyal Zulus from the greater Maritzburg area) were becoming despondent and calling out the foll of the exercise.

Trooper Robert Erskine (a young man who had been at College only a few years prior) was one of the outspoken men who stood alongside his commanding officer. Erskine had tended to Durnford’s wounds after he lost consciousness from the fall from his horse which damaged his left arm permanently.

They pressed on to the top of Giant’s Castle where they found a rear-guard party of Langalibele’s men. Hopelessly outnumbered and in a poor tactical position, many men retreated to a nearby ridge. Durnford is said to have shouted, “Will no one then stand by me?”  Erskine immediately replied, “I will Major!”

A small skirmish ensued with the amaHlubi overrunning Durnford’s position. Erskine was struck by a musket fired by Jantje kaSilele as he rode next to his men. Loyal to the end, he paid the ultimate price, along with a number of his comrades.

In the bigger picture, this was a precursor to the Anglo Zulu War of 1879, but rather a senseless action driven by fear, as Langalibele had already passed. He was returned to Maritzburg the following year where he was executed for his actions after a rushed trial. Trooper Robert Erskine and his fellow comrades were buried on the top of the pass by Durnford and George Shepstone (Theophilus’ son) when he returned a short while later.

The grave remains at the top of Giant’s Castle as a stark reminder to our past. We remember trooper Robert Erskine for the bravery and loyalty he displayed – traits that I’d like to think were instilled at College and match with some of the core values that we still honour to this day.

Pro Aris et Focis

Following in the aftermath of the the war that affected Maritzburg and the College community so closely, RD Clark and a number of notable OCs (including the first President, Sir Henry Bale) mooted the idea of an old scholars association in 1896 (some 17 years after the battle). It was agreed that remembering the seminal day in the history of KwaZulu Natal was appropriate for the fledgling association. Not only was the day of the battle chosen, but the school badge was developed from the MCOBA which adopted the crossed assegai and carbine along with the Red, Black and White colours.