The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879

Part one: The rise of the Zulu and the battle of Isandlwana

“Who are these Zulu, these remarkable people who defeat our generals, convert our bishops, and who on this day have put an end to this great dynasty?” – Benjamin Disraeli – British Prime Minister (1874-1880)

The above question was voiced by Benjamin Disraeli during the Anglo-Zulu war regarding three things that happened during the conflict – the disastrous defeat of British forces during the first invasion of Zulu land, the South African bishop who championed the Zulu cause during the conflict, and the death of a Bonaparte in the fighting.

Between 1815 and 1840 the relatively small Zulu tribe started expanding outwards and conquering neighbouring tribes. Under the leadership of Shaka (Tshaka in Zulu), South African warfare had changed from ritual spears throwing and dancing to hand to hand combat using short spears (ashegai) and clubs. Shaka also refined the combat tactics of the Zulu by using a stratagem known as ‘the horns of the buffalo’, a movement designed to encircle and destroy the enemy. Warriors would fall into a highly effective formation, wherein the ‘chest’ of the bufalo would advance and pin the opposing force into position while the ‘horns’ would circle around to strike the enemy in the rear, and the ‘loins’ would be held in reserve.

Shaka’s expansion and assimilation of neighbouring tribes caused what is known as ‘the mfcane’ (the crushing), in which fleeing refugees adopted the Zulu method of warfare and launched similar attacks on any tribe they encountered during their retreat. Eventually Shaka was assassinated by his brothers who in turn fought one another and the new neighbouring Dutch settlers (known as Afrikaners). This resulted in the Battle of Blood River (1838), where a Zulu force lost 3000 warriors to the Afrikaners, who only sustained 3 injuries – partly in thanks to using wagons in a defensive circle and of course to their use of guns. As a result of this defeat the Zulu King Dingane was deposed by his and Shaka’s half brother Mpande in (1840).

During the reign of Mpande a treaty was signed between the Dutch republics, the Zulu and the British empire which had been expanding into south Africa. This treaty defined each of the belligerents’ territories in 1843, but in 1847 Mpande ceded territory to the Ducth around the Klip river. The British considered this a violation of the previous treaty and by the 1850’s Mpande had expanded into Swaziland, during which conflict Mpande’s son Cetshoway distinguished himself. The move into Swaziland was made to create a sanctuary for the Zulu in case of the expansion of the Dutch republic of Natal into Zulu territory, and after the last engagement where they faced off against each other ended in a disaster for Dingane. The British pressured Mpande to withdraw but Swaziland effectively maintained it’s independence from the Zulu, and was now considered to be a client state.

Cetshwayo fought a war of succession with his brother Mbuyazi as Cetshowayo was considered illegitimate despite him being the oldest, and suspected that his father favoured his brother. Both forces clashed at the battle of Ndondakusuka and Cetshwayo massacred the survivors of the battle, and became de facto ruler of the Zulu kingdom, although Mpande still carried out ceremonial duties.

The Zulu were a pastoral culture, reliant on farming and herding cattle. They often traded with the Boer (Dutch) and the British settlers as a means to maintain peace and protect their borders. In time, however, the Boers and the British made a little discovery in the area which would change things…diamonds.

As a result of this discovery the British started to expand rapidly throughout the region into both Boer and Zulu territory and although Cetshwayo tried to resolve the situation diplomatically, the British were in no mood to listen to the natives – especially after a handful of Zulu warriors crossed into Natal to seize a woman who was under British protection but was wanted by the Zulu.

Sir Henry Bartle Frere was sent to South Africa to secure the British position in Cape Town and to bring it’s local government in line with the new British policy of consolidating colonial powers from small commonwealths to a system of centralised confederations (the same system the British had previously followed in Canada). The British soon found resistance to this new doctrine from the indigenous Xhosa people, who were finally crushed by General Frederick Thesiger (2nd baron of Chelmsford – a veteran of many colonial wars and the Crimean war), during what was known as the 9th frontier war. Thesiger was unimpressed with the Xhosa and their tactics and viewed them as nothing more than a “savage rabble”.

The situation in Natal was deteriorating as the British pushed their agenda on the native tribes and the Boers and started rapidly making demands on the Bantu speaking Zulu’s, to which Cetshwayo was not conceding. Now, it is important to note that the British government at the time was not interested in and even forbade a war with the Native people of South Africa, however Bartle-Frere was operating under the orders of Lord Caernavon, the colonial secretary and a member of the opposing political party in government.

On December the 11th 1878 Bartle-Frere sent an ultimatum to Cetshwayo, demanding that he disband his armies (roughly numbering 30,000 men), accept British advisors in his court and cede to the abolition of Zulu laws, most of which had been brought in by Cetshwayo’s uncles and predecessors Shaka and Dingane. Cetshwayo refused and stated that his Ibutho’s (also known as Impi in English, or regiments) would defend Zululand but would not cross the borders into neighbouring territories. Cetshwayo’s plan was simple – fight a defensive war to turn other European powers, the British government and the public against Bartle-Frere and Lord Chelmsford, and to show the world of their illegal and brutal expansionist regime that now developed in South Africa. All the Zulu had to do was hold the Chelmsford forces and cause massive casualties on any invading force to turn them back.

On the 11th of January 1879 British forces under Chelmsford crossed the Buffalo river into Zululand with 16000 men, 17 pieces of modern artillery and one Gatling gun. Although it contained 6600 British soldiers, the majority of the army was made up of 9000 African levies including Boer and what was known as the Natal native contingent. Chelmsford’s plan was also simple – to force the Zulu into one massive pitched battle and to destroy their army with sheer fire power. Chelmsford had one difficulty, and that was to find the Zulu army. He planned to divide his column into 5 smaller columns in order to encircle the Zulu forces, but for more practicable reasons it was only divided into 3 columns as they lacked enough British regulars for 5 to be considered effective.

All 3 columns advanced into Zulu lands with no opposition until the 22nd of January. While camped at Isandlwana, Chelmford’s scouts reported that the Zulu impi had been sighted and engaged by his scouts from the Natal Native contingent and he marched out to defeat this force with 2800 men, comprising mostly of his British redcoat regulars of the 24th regiment, and left a smaller force of around 1300 at the camp. Colonel Pulleine was left in command, who despite being an excellent administrator had no real combat experience. By 10:30am Colonel Dunford – against all orders to remain at Rorks Drift – arrived with a rocket battery and 500 Natal native Horsemen in order to support Chelmsford and tried to wrestle command of the camp from Pulleine as he was the senior officer. Despite not succeeding in this he decided to head out with his men in order to outflank the Zulu army that Chelmsford was pursuing. The British had been outmanoeuvred and Pulleine’s scouts had already found the main Zulu army at 11:00am and fought a desperate fighting retreat against 20000 Zulu warriors.

Dunford, unfortunately for him, ran straight into the Scouts and the Zulu and fought another fighting retreat to the camp, where all Pulleine had done was set up his troops in the British army’s favourite and standard tactic of the thin red line and sent word to Chelmsford that the Zulu force was attacking the camp. Chelmsford believed the defenders were mistaken and carried on. At Isandlwana the fighting raged on with volley after volley of British rifle fire slammed into the Zulu lines. Despite this the horns of the Buffalo had encircled the camp and during a solar eclipse the battle field went dark and the British lines broke. Separated and isolated, many British forces fought brutal last stands and many more attempted to flee. Of the 1837 people present at Islandwana (this number includes civilian contractors such as wagon drivers and camp aides) over 1300 were killed and only 60 Europeans escaped.

By the time Chelmsford returned to the camp after dusk he could see fires blazing at Rorkes drift in the distance and the sound of continued rifle fire, and when dawn broke on the battlefield his troops were met with the gruesome sight of their disembowelled comrades. This was not a sign of barbarity on behalf of the Zulu, this was a religious ritual as they believed that in order to allow the spirits of the fallen in battle to escape to the afterlife they had to repeatedly stab them. All Zulu in the unit had to do this to show they were united. Chelmsford was furious and ordered his men back to Rorkes Drift where the rifle fire had ceased at around 2am.

Rorkes Drift held against all odds, thanks to the hastily-assembled biscuit tin and meally bag barricades the 140 soldiers had set up. The Zulu force who had attacked them were from the loins of the Buffalo at Islandwana and did not see battle there, but hoped to loot the medical station across the river in British Territory and as such had disregarded Cetswayo’s orders not to cross the Buffalo river. In retaliation for Isandlwana the British defenders had now committed war crimes against the Zulu injured, by hanging them on a makeshift gallows and burying the wounded alive, as they had heard from what remained of the Chelmsford column what they had discovered, despite the fact that 15 years earlier the British empire had signed the Geneva convention forbidding such gruesome and violent acts.

Chelmsford was forced to withdraw from Zululand but unfortunately the 3rd column was now trapped at Eshowe and needed to be relieved. To make matters worse he had just received news from Britain and he was in trouble – a replacement was on his way to relieve Chelmsfold of command and the British government was furious about the invasion of Zululand and now the spectacular defeat of the British forces at Islandwana, which was and still is the most disastrous defeat of a technologically superior force against a native army wielding spears, clubs, shields and a few antiquated muskets. But for Cestwayo his half-brother’s assault on Rorkes Drift played right into the British hands, and no diplomatic situation would be accepted from now on.

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