Rorke’s Drift Part 25 – Are you taking the Pith?  

I’ve got a few more Victoria Cross winners to go then it’s on to all of the other troops who bravely defended Rorke’s Drift. This means two things. 

  1. Not as much back story to each chap but I’ll still supply, at least, the name and rank but will endeavour to find out as much as I can. 
  2. A shit load more pith helmets. 

I thought, as a side post, I’d do a little dive into Pith. Haha. 

I’ve got to admit that when I first saw a pith helmet was in fact on the movie Zulu and it thought they looked quite silly. Remember, I’d only ever seen cowboy, war and some sci-fi movies before Zulu. 

As I fell in love with the movie Zulu more and more, and also with another movie where the Pith is partially featured called Greystoke, The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (I just realised what a long title that is), I started to really like the look of the helmet.

Although the pith helmet was a favorite of Cecil Rhodes (former prime minister of the cape colony 1890 – 1896), who famously declared his intention to establish a contiguous British imperial footprint from “the Cape to Cairo,” it wasn’t just a staple of white Rhodesian settlers. By the mid 19th century the Pith was standard issue for Europeans who were slowly but surely spreading across Europe’s second empires in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Its material origin is found in India, where pith, spongy tissue in the inner stem of vascular swamp plants, was dried and shaped into the helmet’s iconic shape before being covered with white cloth. Pith was later replaced by cork, a more durable accessible alternative. 

Understandably, the Pith was seen as a symbol of colonisation and, still today, can have a tendency to touch a nerve. Just like when Melania Trump donned one during her visit to Kenya in 2018. Social commentators at the time said her choice of head wear was “a little culturally tone deaf”. 

The pith helmet and other protective devices like the spine pad were meant to shield Europeans in the colonies from so-called tropical solar radiation which was thought to have deleterious effects on their nervous systems. By the early 20th century these allegedly heat-induced afflictions came to be known as tropical Neurasthenia, “whites only”, condition which lost its scientific purchase by World War II.

The pith helmet, also known as the safari helmetsalacotsola topeesun helmettopee, and topiis a lightweight cloth-covered helmet made of sholapith. The pith helmet originates from the Spanish military adaptation of the native salakot headgear of the Phillipines. 

Piths are usually dome-shaped or cone-shaped and can range in size from having very wide brims to being almost helmet-like. The tip of the crown commonly has a spiked or knobbed finial made of metal or wood. It is held in place by an inner headband and a chinstrap. The design of the Pith is to keep the sun off the wearers face, head and neck. There is also an intentional gap left between the scalp and the top of the helmet along with small holes to allow airflow. The Pith can also be drenched in water and this combined with the aforementioned gap creates a natural air conditioned effect. I think that’s my favourite fact about the pith. 

While this form of headgear was particularly associated with the British Empire, all European colonial powers used versions of it during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The French tropical helmet was first authorised for colonial troops in 1878. The Dutch wore the helmet during the entire Aceh War (1873–1904) and the U.S Army adopted it during the 1880s for use by soldiers serving in the intensely sunny climate of the Southwest United States. It was also worn by the North-West Mounted Police in policing North-West Canada, 1873 through 1874 to the North-West Rebellion and even before the Stetson in the Yukon Gold Rush of 1898.

During the Anglo-Zulu war troops took to dying their stark white Piths with tea, coffee and even mud in an attempt to make their heads less of a target. This lead to the colour being changed to khaki for tropical service. 

The history of the Pith is actually quite extensive, much too long for a humble little blog post on my page, but I wanted to share a little here as it relates to my project. 

For my project I am painting the humble pith in a buff (pale beige) colour, then washing with Agrax and then highlighting with white. I didn’t want bright white but I also didn’t want khaki so I guess I’m going for something in between. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this one but if you haven’t well you can just Pith Off! 

Haha I’m Pithing myself here! 😂



32 thoughts on “Rorke’s Drift Part 25 – Are you taking the Pith?  ”

      1. No had a good think and I’ve got nothing, these days I have the brain of a caveman! Austro Lo’pith’ecus to be exact!

        (One for the highbrow crowd there!)

        Cheers Roger (who’s impressed himself there) 😉

        Liked by 2 people

  1. Well, that could have been a pithier article… 😉 In all seriousness, this was an interesting read and I learned some new things. As you can imagine, we mostly focus on Britain when they horribly oppressed our fair colonies in the American education system so things like this are a bit of a blind spot for me. Thanks for taking time to write this up and share it with us, mate!

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Yeah, I imagine they were trying to do the same thing when they damaged the US Capitol building in the War of 1812 or as I like to call it, The British Empire Strikes Back! Even Americans forget about that little detail when we talk about how great of allies we are nowadays. Fortunately, they seem to be a hub of all miniature wargaming so I’ll let it slide for now 😀

        Liked by 2 people

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