Pitt Rivers Museum
The Pitt Rivers is a hidden museum in Oxford. To get to it you have to find a door in the back of the Natural History Museum. Through that deep, Gothic portal are 30,000 artefacts from daily life all over the world from Egyptian times to the present day. They’re arranged not by country or century but by type, so you’ll get a modern electric hair-drier alongside medieval curling tongs and an early Chinese ivory comb. And what’s on display is only a fraction of the 500,000 objects in the collection.
One of my personal favourite objects is in the drinking vessels cabinet on the first floor.
Cetshwayo (1826–1884) was the great Zulu king who defeated the British army at the Battle of Isandlwana (featured in the films Zulu and Zulu Dawn). As I have walked the battlefield of Isandlwana with the historian David Rattray, I was fascinated to find the calabash from which the great commander would have drunk. I was staying with David a few years before his tragic death in 2007. He also showed me around the remains of Rorke’s Drift and when David came to England I introduced him to my father who, in his childhood, had known an old South Wales Borderer who fought and survived that battle. David, very much a people person, was fascinated by the details of the battle that my father could pass on.
The calabash is not a big object: a blackened hollowed-out gourd slightly larger than a pint mug. It was acquired by a British soldier, Major Master in 1879 after the British deposed Cetshwayo, and it was he who fixed a small shield to the outside attributing it to the Zulu king. Were it not for this, the old calabash would simply be an example of a nineteenth-century Zulu drinking vessel. But the delightful thing about the Pitt Rivers is that it would still be on display. It’s the function of the item that matters, not its royal connection.
Even so it’s quite something to think that the mighty Cetshwayo once held this is his hands.
Oxford writer & international travel journalist.