Who was ‘John Ross’? And why is his name in inverted commas?

The John Ross statue.
Durban, kwaZulu Natal

There he stands, barefoot, carrying long hunting spears and framed against the 33 story Art Deco building called John Ross House.

Part of the main highway going north is called the John Ross Highway, and the bridge which spans the Tugela River and leads into Shaka’s former kingdom is known as the John Ross Bridge.

 Who was this young lad? And why did he merit such accolades?

The controversial TV drama SHAKA ZULU was being filmed at a specially-constructed film set a few miles from the site of King Shaka’s kwaBulawayo. It would later be used for the filming of THE ADVENTURES OF JOHN ROSS.’

The film-set was later converted into ‘Shakaland’ the present day Zulu cultural heritage site. It is a major tourist attraction.


Historian and academic Stephen Grey, long intrigued by the boy’s story, set out to track him down. In doing so, he uncovered the outline of a story far more dramatic and intriguing than the boyhood legend had ever indicated.

Somewhere along the way, the journals of a certain ship’s master, Captain CR Maclean, a resident of Castries, St. Lucia, came to his attention. What Grey saw published in the ‘Nautical Journal, London’ in the 1850’s – nearly thirty years after the Mozambique odyssey – made him sit up and wonder.

Could this really be the boy of the legend, grown to manhood? 

No doubt about it, here was the real ‘John Ross’ in person, the boy of the old diaries and journals.  A few last pieces of the puzzle remained.

Where had he come from? Had he run away to sea as the old story suggested?

Born in Fraserburgh, Scotland on 17 August, 1815, the fifth in a family of seven, his father was Lieutenant Francis Maclean RN, his godfather John Dalrymple, a well known businessman.  Before his tenth birthday, he had left home, crossed the Atlantic, fallen from the rigging and been rescued by a Newfoundland dog, visited South America then the Cape, before finally being shipwrecked on the coast of unexplored Zululand.

It was only then the real story began…

In the case of ‘John Ross’ the boy who became iQawu- Shaka’s hero-
The saying that ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’ was never more apt