The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879

by | Jan 29, 2012 | 2012 | 0 comments

Speaker:   Timothy Twidle

In the mists of time, Africa South of the Limpopo, was an endless land of scattered riches and infinite variety. The continental divide crowded the eastern coast, fencing off a well-watered belt that rounded the southern end of the divide and broadened out into fertile country. 

The first fully fledged humans to roam the fastnesses of Southern Africa were the San, nomadic hunter-gatherers with peppercorn hair and a language of delicate complexity. 

About eleven hundred years ago a new race entered the southern part of Africa, travelling down the western coast until they rounded the southern tip and turned north. These were the Khoikhoi and no one knows from whence they came or what mixture of blood ran through their veins. The Khoikhoi kept cattle and tended crops. 

The first Europeans came by sea. Bartholomew Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope in February 1488 and dropped anchor in Mossel Bay.By the middle of the seventeenth century the Dutch had driven the ships of Portugal from the India trade. The Dutch made Table Bay their only point of landfall between The Netherlands and the East. On 6 April 1652, one Jan van Riebeck anchored in the waters beneath what is today called Table Mountain, with orders from the United Chartered East India Company, to land and build an earthen fort, plant a vegetable garden and acquire cattle by barter with the local people. 

Within a hundred years of van Riebeck’s landing a new race had been born, peoplewho went under the name of Boer, meaning farmer.For five full generations the Boer race pushed the frontier ever eastward along the southern perimeter of Africa. By the 1750s there were farms at Algoa Bay. In the 1770s the frontier turned and started to follow the long smooth coastal curve to the north. 

Then, beside  the Great Fish River, the foremost Boers collided with the southward migration of the tribes of Africa.  They were semi-nomadic and moved through the continent at the pace of their cattle. By the fourteenth century they were south of the Zambesi and in the sixteenth century a huge swathe of clans, the Nguni family, peeled off into the upper reaches of present day South Africa. Three of the Nguni groups, the Mtetwa, the Lala and the Debe settled in the area that is today called KwaZulu-Natal (Tonga clans moved to the north and Xhosa and Ntungwa groups spread to the south along the coastal strip.) When the tribal clansmen of Africa ran into the Boer frontiersmen in the valley of the Great Fish River it was their last free movement; they had been given a continent and 10 000 years in which to fill it and they had dallied a little too long. 

As the Boers waxed the fortunes of the Dutch waned. The British had entered the trade to the Indies and a series of wars sapped Dutch maritime strength.  In 1795, amidst the turmoil of The French Revolution, the English took the Cape away from the Dutch. The following year the United Chartered East India Company, long moribund, went bankrupt; but although the Dutch regained the Cape in 1803, they lost it again in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. This time the English stayed. 

As in a Shakespearian tragedy, the players had made their entrances and introductions and were duly assembled–the drama was about to unfold to a calamitous climax.

The Nguni were a happy people with a live-and-let-live attitude to life. They had little sense  of purpose. They lacked written records, they lacked wheels, had no mechanisms for trade and no machinery, but they did possess a vibrant and growing populace. Raid and counter-raid of cattle, part of the daily run of life, were invariably settled by a stand-off between the aggrieved parties in a show of force that usually amounted to little more than an exchange of taunts and admonishments. As more and more clans congested the coastal strip, the situation was ripe for change – and, as cometh the hour, so cometh the man. In about 1787 one Nandi of the eLangeni clan became ‘with child’ by Senzangakona, chief of the amaZulu…As circumstances would have it,  Shaka grew up for much of his youth in the Zulu fold, before he and Nandi were required to leave and seek refuge elsewhere….  Shaka developed into a magnificent specimen of manhood, tall and immensely strong, he rose to prominence as a revered warrior of the Mtetwa. When Senzangakona died in 1816, Shaka, after a struggle, emerged with the headship of the Zulus, who had commenced their march to greatness. 

The Zulus who, it is thought, were barely 5000 in number at this time, were transformed by the relentless zeal and energy of Shaka. Neighbouring clans and kraals were subjugated by way of fast, brutal raids and the survivors incorporated into the Zulu hegemony; the young men being immediately drafted into the Zulu army. The raids fanned out to the north, east and south, mopping up people in their thousands. In the space of three years the Shaka,Äôs domain expanded from 100 square miles to 11 500, from the Pongola River in the north to the Tugela River in the south and from the coast inland to the Blood River. The Zulu army now numbered 20 000. 

And it was the army above all else that was to lead the Zulu people to greatness as a nation. Shaka did away with the throwing assegai and had made stabbing assegais, with a short haft. Each warrior had a shield made of hide, that gave protection to virtually the entire body. The army was divided up into regiments and a new modus operandi of attack evolved. An attacking force or impi was split into four, one that engaged immediately with the enemy, another that raced out at speed in wide flanking manoeuvres to encircle the foe. A reserve, the ÄòLoins,Äô,  sat with its back to the battle, so as not to become over-excited. To improve the speed and agility of an imp, Shaka discarded the rawhide sandals that had hitherto been worn by warriors. When grumbling ensued, Shaka had the warriors dance on an area of bare ground that had been sprinkled with thorns and then ordered the summary execution of all those not fully engaged –   the Zulu feet hardened rapidly. Zulus, already robust from a life in the open, were drilled until the regiments could travel 50 miles in a day, trotting tirelessly over the rolling, trackless hills, living off cattle and stored grain from the kraals they passed and accompanied only by uDibi boys carrying their sleeping mats and cooking pots. 

Shaka built a new kraal and lived in regal fashion with his own retinue of cooks and retainers. There was a Royal Barber, who paid with his life for the slightest cut of the royal chin and who was required each day to collect the royal stubble, burn it and then scatter the ashes in a river. There was also a Receiver of the Royal Spittle, the receptacle being the back of the worthy individual who occupied this position of responsibility. 

As the reign of Shaka grew ever more tyrannical and burdensome, discontent simmered and on 22 September 1828  his half-brother Dingane and another assassinated the founding king of the Zulu nation.  

Dingane reigned for the next twelve years and the genial Mpande enjoyed the tenure of the Zulu throne from 1840 until 1872, during which time the country flourished and strengthened. Then his first son Cetshwayo ka Mpande was crowned as the Zulu monarch in 1873, at which time the Zulu nation was believed to number some 300 000 people and there were over 100 000 head of royal cattle. 

Central to the story of The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 is the founding of the colony of Natal. 

The coast of present-day KwaZulu-Natal saw a succession of wrecks from the India trade throughout the eighteenth century and survivors struggled ashore to either safety, by way of a long walk to Cape Town, a slow death or refuge with a tribal clan. The first proper settlement of the coast was made by way of a landing at Port Natal in April of 1824 by Henry Francis Fynn, who led ashore a party of 30 people to start a settlement. Other leading names in the pioneering years of what was later to become the colony of Natal are Francis George Farewell, Nathaniel Isaacs and James Saunder King. The fortunes of the early settlers flickered and flared and they were beholden at all times to treat with Shaka in a manner of the utmost deference. But the spark was lit and was not to be extinguished. A column of trek-boers led by Pieter Retief entered Natal in 1837 and for a while tried to set up their own Republic of Natal with a capital at Pietermaritzburg (named after Piet Retief and Gerrit Maritz). The intransigence of both Boer and Briton led to armed conflict, during which time Durban was besieged, to be relieved only as a result of the heroic ride of Dick King to Grahamstown. In 1845 Great Britain annexed Natal and its life as a Crown Colony began. Exasperated, the Boers packed their wagons and departed to other climes. 

By the beginning of 1846, Natal was able to look forward to a period of prolonged peace, The colony could probably count some 3 000 settlers and was under British administration; Zululand was ruled by the benevolent Mpande. 

Beyond all other names that of John William Colenso, Doctor of Divinity and the first Bishop of Natal is woven into the early history of Natal. Colenso came to the colony in 1854; he was a classical scholar, with an incisive intellect, a profound sense of fairness and unremitting energy. In the years ahead, Colenso wrote the first orthography of the Zulu language and was to champion the cause of justice for the Zulu nation; to the Zulus he was always Sobantu ,Äì – Father of The People. 

On the border of the eastern Cape Colony in July 1878, Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere, Governor-General of the Cape Colony and High Commissioner of Native Affairs for South Africa, instructed Lieutenant-General the Hon Frederic Augustus Thesiger – vested with command of the Imperial forces in South Africa – to prepare for war with the Zulu nation. 

A man of exceptional ability and much experience, Frere was one of the very few with the vision  of Southern Africa as a single arena, in whicheach and every  piece of the jigsaw had cause and effect. Frere was for confederation, which inevitably would include Zululand. In such an arrangement, subjugated clans might retain their tribal way of life; but an independent Zulu nation with a standing army of 40000 warriors, at the whim of a Zulu monarch, sharing  200 miles of common  frontiers with Natal, was simply unthinkable. 

British policy-makers decided on a preventive war to destroy the Zulu nation. One prerequisite was a casus belli. Frere thought the rationale might be found in the results of a Boundary Commission set up to investigate counter claims over an area of  ‘Disputed land’ that ran north from Rorke’s Drift on the Buffalo River, along the eastern bank of the Blood River, to a point to some 20 miles north-west of Hlobane. When the commission largely upheld Zulu claims in and to the area under dispute, Frere presented the Zulu king with a list of ten demands that verged on high farce. For  complaints about and reparations for cattle raids, there were set down instructions that the Zulu army be disbanded; that a  ‘British Diplomatic Resident’ would  take up office in Zululand; and that any further military matters, such as the defence of Zululand, would be carried out only in consultation with the British Resident.

The ultimatum was presented to a delegation of Zulu inDunas on 11 December 1878, at an indaba held beneath a large fig tree on the banks of the lower Tugela River. Cetshwayo was given 30 days to comply with the terms of the ultimatum. The Zulu king was willing to pay the cattle fines but the other demands were not taken seriously. On Saturday 11 January 1879 Frere issued a bulletin, which started by saying that “British Forces are crossing into Zululand to exact from Cetshwayo reparations for violations of British territory…”. 

The commander of the British forces Lord Chelmsford (Thesiger having succeeded to his father’s title in  October 1878) led into Zululand 16 800 men in three principal columns. Chelmsford travelled with the central column, which was ferried across the Buffalo River at Rorke’s Drift in the early hours of the morning of 11 January. Colonel Charles Knight Pearson’s  Foot Regiment led the column that crossed into Zululand at the lower drift of the Tugela, to the north of Stanger;  and Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Evelyn Wood was officer commanding of the northernmost column that forded the upper reaches of the Blood River to enter the kingdom of Cetshwayo. The British field force had at its disposal  two million rounds of ammunition, ample stores, 113 two-wheeled carts, 612 wagons and 7 626 commissariat oxen, horses and mules, while several hundred additional wagons relayed stores up from Natal.   Preparing such a force had required months of planning and staff work, that had begun in August 1878 and which for the most part had been overseen by Chelmsford himself. 

Ulundi, the site of Cetshwayo’s kraal, lay 50 miles away as the crow flies and a considerably greater distance given  the hills and over the broken ground of Zululand. A week after the start of the invasion, the central column was established in camp at the foot of a peak called Isandhlwana, that in Zulu meant the second stomach of a ruminant. It was a good site that afforded sound defence in the lee of the mountain. There were wide sweeping vistas for miles ahead and the Nqutu plateau, that loomed over the encampment some five furlongs to the north east, could be watched by vedettes. The immediate priority for Chelmsford was to locate the Zulu impi. For days mounted patrols searched far and wide, to no avail. 

Early on the morning of Wednesday 22 January Chelmsford decided to take the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Regiment (approximately 1000 men) some ten miles to the east of the camp, to the relief of a detachment of troops, who it was believed had located a vanguard of the main Zulu impi; it was a decision that was to have unimaginable consequences. 

For the nonce the search for the Zulu impi continued in the environs of Isandhlwana; Chelmsford himself together with a small party had ridden across the Nqutu plateau on the afternoon of 21 January without so much as sighting any Zulus. 

During the morning of 22 January a lone horseman, patrolling on the orders of Brevet Colonel Anthony William Durnford,  now in command of the camp at Isandhlwana, gave chase to some Zulus herding cattle. As the horseman closed in, he suddenly pulled up at the edge of a ravine in order to not topple over the edge. The sight that greeted the rider left him aghast: at the bottom of the ravine, stretching for as far as the eye could see, were 20 000 Zulu warriors sitting in utter silence. The impi had finally been located. There was a long moment of electric tension as the Zulus craned their necks to look up at the lone horseman outlined in stark silhouette against the sky; whilst the mounted trooper, in turn, stared down at the impi in shock and disbelief. 

As the horseman turned, the Zulu Host rose as one, scrambled out of the ravine and began a long loping run towards Isandhlwana, which was four miles distant. Within 25 minutes, advance units of the Zulu regiments came streaming over the spur at the edge of the Nqutu plateau towards the British line in numbers that seemed endless. The right horn swung behind the mountain; the chest descended to the plain in front of the most forward positions of the camp; and the left horn ran in a wide arc towards a saddle that connected Isandhlwana with a nearby koppie. The Zulu force stretched in an immense tide across the front line of the defenders and, as the initial volleys crashed out, the fire took a crippling toll of the Zulus. 

This was the battle that everybody had wanted – with the Zulu power immolating itself on Imperial volley fire. 

Initially it did go well for the British, but a flicker of concern started to pass over some of the officers. Here and there the firing became erratic as some men slipped out of the line in order to requisition more ammunition. As most of the troops had joined battle with 40 to 50 rounds of ammunition, that was soon expended. Drawing fresh ammunition meant a written requisition and opening a heavy wooden ammunition box fastened with two copper bands and nine large screws. The ammunition boxes had not been laid open at the start of the battle and the supply and availability of ammunition to the soldiers of the line was simply insufficient; so the firing began to slacken. 

There were two further inadequacies to the British order of battle: instead of the companies being drawn into a tight defensive formation, they were spread out; and units of native auxiliaries were posted at some critical junctures. 

The Zulu warriors noted the diminishing rate of fire; and from the Zulu ranks a voice cried out invoking one of Cetshwayo’s  many praise names: The Little Branch of Leaves That Extinguished the Fire gave no such order as this!  Thousands of Zulus heard him and took fresh heart. The impi that had been relatively quiet stamped their feet and rattled their assegais against their shields, shouting war cries. 

To a man, two companies of the Natal Native Contingent fled the field of battle in confusion, leaving a gaping hole in the line of defence. The Zulu regiments poured in and many British troops were taken from behind, unaware that the enemy had breached the perimeter of the camp. From that point on, organised resistance ceased and the result of the battle was all but inevitable. Here and there pockets of soldiers formed themselves into ‘hedgehogs’ and fought until the last. By four o’clock in the afternoon it was all over:  the slaughter of the battle and  the subsequent pursuit of those fleeing the scene of carnage were complete. 

There had been 1 800 men in the camp at Isandhlwana at noon and perhaps 350 survived. The entire baggage train had been either looted or fired;  and the work of six months of preparations lay in ruins. 

The Zulus departed the camp consumed by raging thirst and a great hunger; they had given battle with a high-hearted courage and fought in their great tradition.   The warriors streamed back across the Nqutu plateau and by nightfall, the greatest military force that Africa had ever assembled had dispersed.

Chelmsford, who had been receiving conflicting messages throughout the afternoon, marched into the camp at Isandhlwana during the evening, leading the force he had left with in the morning together with those he had joined, to a scene of utter devastation.

Later that same day the uThlwana and uDloko regiments of the Undi Corps attacked the supply station at Rorke’s  Drift. There a single company of some 150 men of the 2nd battalion the 24th Regiment of Foot held at bay an attacking force of  4000 Zulu warriors into the early hours of 23 January, over a period of ten hours. After grievous losses, the Zulus conceded defeat and withdrew. The defenders had been arrayed in serried ranks behind barricades  of bags filled with mealies and piled biscuit boxes. Firm and sensible command had carried the day at Rorke’s Drift.  Eleven Victoria Cross decorations were awarded to men of the force that had defended Rorke’s Drift. 

Following the disaster at Isandhlwana, Natal was seized with panic and was in fear of a Zulu impi descending on the Colony. As it happened, Cetshwayo had given strict instructions to his commanders that they were under no circumstances to cross the southern border of Zululand into Natal.   Dabulamanzi, Cetshwayo,Äôs half-brother, who led the attack  on Rorke’s Drift had disobeyed the orders of the Zulu monarch. 

Lord Chelmsford rode into Pietermaritzburg with his staff on the evening of Sunday 26 January, by which time the town had been turned into a fortified bastion. Chelmsford had a clear conscience;  he had left sufficient strength to defend Isandhlwana and the proper tactics to be employed in the event of an attack being mounted on the camp were known to the most junior of officers. 

The colony and soldiers of the British Force sought a scapegoat and the onus of blame fell on Durnford, who had been in command at the time of the battle.  Frances Colenso (daughter of Bishop Colenso) who had for some time conducted a discreet love affair with Durnford, leapt like a tigress to defend the Durnford name. But it is hard to see that anyone else was ultimately responsible for one of the most notorious failings in the annals of British military history. 

Reinforcements were awaited from England and in the interim every town, village, settlement and farmstead in Natal was defended with whatever was available. 

The right flank column under the command of Colonel Pearson crossed the lower Tugela on 11 January and advanced as far as Eshowe, having bested Zulu attacks at Inyezane and Gingindhlovu. By the end of February however Pearson and 1 700 other combatants had succeeded only in becoming besieged at Eshowe and would have to wait until 3 April for relief.

The combination of the disaster to the central column at Isandhlwana and the Pearson column becoming bottled-up in Eshowe, meant that the left flank column had no strategic role, although it could harry the enemy. Luckily it had the services of two very capable officers – Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Evelyn Wood VC in overall command; Major Redvers Buller heading up the Frontier Light Horse, a mounted squadron of some 600 volunteers. On 28 March Buller led an attack across five miles of the flat-topped mountain of Hlobane; it was an indecisive encounter that failed to dislodge a force of approximately 2000  Zulu warriors.  On 29 March, an impi of 18 000 warriors attacked at Kambula,  south-west of Hlobane. Wood had 2 700 men securely entrenched behind laagered wagons and the attack was rebuffed; the Zulus lost over 2 000 men in a withering cross-fire whilst the British dead amounted to precisely 29 men, further proof, if any were needed, that the defeat at Isandhlwana had been brought about by ineffectual command. 

Reinforcements arrived from England during April and Chelmsford launched a second invasion of Zululand on 31 May, crossing the Blood River at Koppie Allein, twenty miles to the north of Rorke’s Drift, with a force of some 10 000 troops, 16 field pieces and four Gatling guns. The route to Ulundi, site of the royal kraal, was circuitous and undulating. The column initially trekked fifteen miles north-east to the Tombokola River, a tributary of the White Umfolozi, where a further disaster befell the British adventure in Zululand. The Prince Imperial of France, Napoleon Eugene Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte, who was serving as an aide-de-camp to Lord Chelmsford, was killed in ambush by a party of Zulus. 

The column then turned south-east before picking up the road to Ulundi, south of Ibanongo. The total distance covered was about 80 miles. Chelmsford reached the vicinity of Ulundi at the end of June and gave battle on 4 July. The Zulus attacked a strong British square with 20 000 men, all that remained of the young manhood of the nation. The Zulu regiments came on hesitantly, there was not the ferocity of the previous encounters, and were scythed down by repeated volleys of breech-loaded firearms, four ranks deep. 

No Zulu got to within 30 yards of the British line and after half an hour the square was ringed with dead bodies. An hour into the battle and the momentum of the Zulu attack faltered, the impi started to retreat and the 17th Lancers were sent out in pursuit. Thousands more of the House of Shaka died at Ulundi – the Zulu nation had been vanquished. About 8 000 Zulu warriors died in the war and twice that number were wounded. The official British returns, listed 1083 men killed in action. 

Chelmsford departed his command in South Africa on 27 July having to all intents and purposes  been superseded by General Sir Garnet Wolseley, who had been appointed Governor of Natal and of the Transvaal,m among other responsibilities.  Wolseley’s most immediate task was to capture Cetshwayo, who had fled the field of Ulundi following the loss of the battle and destruction of his kraal. The Zulu king was eventually run to ground north of the Black Umfolozi River, some 20 miles from Ulundi, during the last week of August. Cetshwayo was initially held in Cape Town and in 1882 sailed to England with a small entourage. Cetshwayo was immensely popular in London and large crowds gathered outside the house in Kensington where he stayed. He returned to Zululand in 1883 and was restored as the monarch of the Zulu people, but in name only. Cetshwayo had lost half of his kingdom and the remainder had been sub-divided into thirteen kinglets (a classic example of imposing tutelage by means of divide and rule).  His power was gone. He died on 8 February 1884. 

In 1906, sparked by the imposition of additional taxation, the Bambatha Rebellion symbolised the end of the Zulu nation; it was the last Zulu rising and accounted for 2 300 deaths. 

Within 33 years of the ending of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the prevailing political force in present-day South Africa was founded. 

During the latter half of the twentieth century there were people who could recall The Battle of Isandhlwana in which the greatest army Africa has ever fielded annihilated an imperial squadron equipped with the most modern military equipment of the day. 

The Zulu peoples of South Africa presently number some 11.9 million and constitute 23.8 per cent  of the population. At the time when Shaka assumed the paramountcy in 1816, it is believed that their numbers were little more than 5000. Today the President of The Republic of South Africa is a man of Zulu descent, fiercely loyal to the culture and history of his people. 

Zululand has changed little since the war of 1879. Dusty roads snake over rolling hills, scarred with dongas and the sites of the battlefields are marked with whitewashed cairns. 

There is a stone arch to mark the site of the British square at Ulundi.  And on one wall a plaque reads:

IN MEMORY OF THE BRAVE WARRIORS WHO FELL HERE IN 1879 IN DEFENCE OF THE OLD ZULU ORDER. It is the only memorial that has ever been erected to honour the Zulu nation.

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