Isandlwana: Distinctive button helps put a name to the remains of one of many soldiers killed

2009-06-16 00:00

A SINGLE button has provided the clue needed to identify the remains of a British soldier who died at the battle of Isandlwana 130 years ago, and DNA analysis will now be used to track down his relatives.

The unique button found with the skeleton of a soldier killed by King Cetshwayo’s victorious army on January 22, 1879, has been researched and found to belong to Colour-Sergeant M.C. Keane.

“This is a truly remarkable discovery,” said Arthur Konigkramer, chairman of Amafa, the provincial heritage body administering the historic battlefield.

“The button is unique as it belonged to Colour-Sergeant M.C. Keane and he was the only member of the General Staff Corps at Isandlwana. He was staff clerk to Colonel John Crealock, military secretary to Lord Chelmsford, commander of the British invasion of Zululand.”

“If the button had come from the uniform of a soldier of the 24th Regiment, he could never have been identified as hundreds of them died at Isandlwana and are among the 1300 men buried there,” said Konigkramer.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife staff, responsible for nature conservation on the site, were digging foundations for guards’ accommodation in April when they found a half-intact skeleton. Amafa archaeologists later unearthed a single button next to the remains.

“We sent a photograph to John Young, a military medal expert in London, who was able to identify it and the soldier who wore it,” said Konigkramer.

“Keane was not a front-line soldier and was likely one of the last to abandon camp at Isandlwana when it was obvious the Zulu were overwhelming it,” he said.

“He was probably on horseback which would explain his body being found some way down the Fugitives’ Trail along which survivors fled towards the uMzinyathi river and the safety of Natal.

“He was probably speared by the right horn of the Zulu army which had snaked behind Isandlwana mountain to trap the fugitives. His body was found alone which is unusual.”

Most of the British and Colonial soldiers killed at Isandlwana were buried four months later where they had fallen. White cairns mark mass graves of unidentified men whose families would never know their whereabouts.

But Konigkramer said possible DNA testing would further identify Colour-Sergeant Keane and may enable his descendants to be traced.


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