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South Africa Holiday: A 2004 reconstruction of the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879

South Africa Holiday: Battle of Isandlwana - 1879

 

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The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 remains one of the most dramatic in both British and southern African history, and has been immortalised in at least two feature films, ZULU and ZULU DAWN.

In retrospect, the war was provoked by an unwarranted act of British aggression. The Zulu kingdom had first emerged early in the nineteenth century, with its heartland lying along the eastern seaboard of southern Africa, north of modern Durban. Within a few years, British adventurers were attracted to Zululand in search of trade and profit, and by the 1840s a British colony - Natal - had sprung up on the southern borders of Zululand. By the 1870s, the British had begun to adopt a 'forward policy' in the region, hoping to bring the various British colonies, Boer republics and independent African groups under common control, with a view to implementing a policy of economic development.

The British High Commissioner in South Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, believed that the robust and economically self-reliant Zulu kingdom was a threat to this policy. In December 1878 he picked a quarrel with the Zulu king, Cetshwayo kaMpande, in the belief that the Zulu army - armed primarily with shields and spears - would soon collapse in the face of British Imperial might. The war began in January 1879. Three columns of British troops under the command of Lt. Gen. Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand. Almost immediately, the war went badly wrong for the British.

On 22 January, the Centre Column, under Lord Chelmsford's personal command, was defeated at Isandlwana mountain. In one of the worst disasters of the Colonial era, over 1300 British troops and their African allies were killed. In the aftermath of Isandlwana, the Zulu reserves mounted a raid on the British border post at Rorke's Drift, which was held by just 145 men. After ten hours of ferocious fighting, the Zulu were driven off. Eleven of the defenders of Rorke's Drift were awarded the Victoria Cross. The British flanking columns also saw action that same day.

On the coast, the right flank column brushed aside Zulu resistance at the Nyezane river, before advancing to occupy the deserted mission station at Eshowe. The left flank column was also involved in heavy skirmishing around the Hlobane mountain. The British collapse at Isandlwana left the flanking columns exposed, however. The Zulus managed to cut Col. Pearson's right-flank column off from the border, and Pearson's men were besieged for three months at Eshowe. Only the left flank column remained operative.

The success at Isandlwana exhausted the Zulu army, however, and Cetshwayo was unable to mount a counter-offensive into Natal. This gave Lord Chelmsford time to regroup. British troops were rushed to South Africa from around the Empire. By the end of March the war was poised to enter a new phase. Lord Chelmsford assembled a column to march to the relief of Eshowe, and directed the commander of the Left Flank Column - Sir Evelyn Wood - to make a diversionary attack. Wood's men attacked a local Zulu stronghold - Hlobane mountain - on 28 March, but were surprised by the unexpected arrival of the main Zulu army, and scattered. The following day, however, the Zulu attacked Wood's camp at Khambula, and after several hours of heavy fighting, were driven off. Meanwhile Lord Chelmsford had crossed into Zululand, marching towards Eshowe.

On 2nd April he broke through the Zulu cordon around Eshowe at kwaGingindlovu, and relieved Pearson's column. The defeat of the Zulu king's forces in two actions, at either end of the country, and within days of each other, demoralised the Zulu, and proved to be the turning point of the war. Lord Chelmsford reorganised his forces, and in late May was poised to mount a new invasion of Zululand. This, too, began badly, when, on 1 June, the exiled Prince Imperial of France, Louis Napoleon, who was serving with the British in an unofficial capacity, was killed in a skirmish.

Nevertheless, British troops continued to advance towards the Zulu capital, Ulundi, which they reached at the end of June. On 4 July Chelmsford defeated the Zulu army in the last great battle of the war. Ulundi was put to the torch, and King Cetshwayo fled. Chelmsford resigned after the victory at Ulundi, but it took several weeks for the British to suppress lingering resistance in the outlying districts. King Cetshwayo was eventually captured and sent into exile at Cape Town. The British divided his country up among thirteen pro-British chiefs - a deliberately divisive move which led to a decade of destructive civil war.

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Battle of Isandlwana 1879
Battle of Rorke's Drift 1879
Battle of Ulundi 1879

David Rattray, Anglo-Zulu War expert
King Cetshwayo
The Anglo-Zulu War was commenced on 11 January 1879 between Britain and the Zulus nation.
Cetshwayo kaMpande became King of the Zulus upon his father's death in 1873. Cetshwayo set about reviving the military methods of his uncle, Shaka Zulu, and even succeeded in equipping his impis (regiments) with firearms, although most of these were 20 to 30 years old.
After the granting of responsible government to the Cape Colony in 1872, in 1877 Lord Carnarvon endeavoured to confer self-government on South Africa, as he had previously done with Canada.
He made Sir Henry Bartle Frere High Commissioner for Southern Africa, hoping he would achieve this within two years.
Sir Bartle Frere believed one of the obstacles to such a scheme was the presence of the independent Boer republics and the Kingdom of Zululand.
Frere impressed upon the British colonial office his belief that King Cetshwayo's Zulu army had to be destroyed. In the latter half of 1878 Lieutenant-General Frederic Thesiger (Lord Chelmsford), who was commander of the British forces in South Africa, transferred his military headquarters from the Cape Colony to Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal. Steps were taken to strengthen the British forces, including the transfer of both battalions of the 24th Regiment from the eastern frontier.

 

 

Cetshwayo was unable to comply with Frere's ultimatum, even if he had wanted to, Frere ordered Lord Chelmsford to invade Zululand, and so the Anglo-Zulu War began. On January 11, 1879, British troops crossed the Tugela River; fourteen days later the disaster of Isandlwana was reported, and the House of Commons demanded that Frere be recalled. Beaconsfield supported him, however, and in a strange compromise he was censured and begged to stay on. Frere wrote an elaborate justification of his conduct, which was adversely commented on by the colonial secretary (Sir Michael Hicks Beach), who "did not see why Frere should take notice of attacks; and as to the war, all African wars had been unpopular." Frere's rejoinder was that no other sufficient answer had been made to his critics, and that he wished to place one on record. "Few may now agree with my view as to the necessity of the suppression of the Zulu rebellion," he wrote. "Few, I fear, in this generation. But unless my countrymen are much changed, they will some day do me justice. I shall not leave a name to be permanently dishonoured."

The Zulu trouble, and disaffection brewing in the Transvaal, reacted upon each other most disastrously. The delay in giving the country a constitution afforded a pretext for agitation to the malcontent Boers, a rapidly increasing minority, while the reverse at Isandlwana had lowered British prestige. Owing to the Kaffir and Zulu wars, Sir Bartle had been unable to give his undivided attention to the state of things in the Transvaal until April 1879, when he was at last able to visit a camp of about 4,000 disaffected Boers near Pretoria. Though conditions were fairly grim, Frere managed to win the Boers' respect by promising to present their complaints to the British government, and to urge the fulfilment of the promises that had been made to them. The Boers did eventually disperse, on the very day upon which Frere received the telegram announcing the government's censure. On his return to Cape Town, he found that his achievement had been eclipsed -- first by the June 1, 1879 death of Napoleon Eugene, Prince Imperial in Zululand, and then by the news that the government of the Transvaal and Natal, together with the high commissionership in the eastern part of South Africa, had been transferred from him to Sir Garnet Wolseley.

 

 

Sir Bartle Frere was sent to South Africa as High Commissioner to bring it about. One of the obstacles to such a scheme was the presence of the independent states of the South African Republic and the Kingdom of Zululand.
In September 1876 the massacre of a large number of girls (who had married men of their own age instead of men from an older regiment, as ordered by Cetshwayo) provoked a strong protest from the government of Natal, and the occupying governments were usually inclined to look patronisingly upon the affairs of the subjected African nations. The tension between Cetshwayo and the Transvaal over border disputes continued. Sir Theophilus Shepstone, whom Cetshwayo regarded as his friend, had supported him in the border dispute, but in 1877 he led a small force into the Transvaal and persuaded the Boers to give up their independence. Shepstone became Administrator of the Transvaal, and in that role saw the border dispute from the other side.
A commission was appointed by the lieutenant-governor of Natal in February 1878 to report on the boundary question. The commission reported in July, and found almost entirely in favour of the contention of the Zulu. Sir Henry Bartle Frere, then High Commissioner, who thought the award "one-sided and unfair to the Boers" (Martineau, Life of Frere, ii. xix.), stipulated that, on the land being given to the Zulu, the Boers living on it should be compensated if they left, or protected if they remained. Cetshwayo (who now found no defender in Natal save Bishop Colenso) was perceived by the British to be in a "defiant mood", and permitted outrages by Zulu both on the Transvaal and Natal borders.

In 1878, Frere used a minor border incursion � two warriors had fetched two eloped girls from Natal � as a pretext to demand 500 head of cattle from the Zulu as reparations. Cetshwayo only sent �50 worth of gold. When two surveyors were captured in Zululand, Frere demanded more reparations and Cetshwayo again refused. Frere sent emissaries to meet him and tell his demands.

With the Transvaal under British control, Frere was convinced that main remaining obstacle to confederation was the independent Zulu kingdom, which he was determined to crush. Therefore in forwarding his award on the boundary dispute the High Commissioner demanded that the military system should be remodelled. The youths were to be allowed to marry as they came to man's estate, and the regiments were not to be called up except with the consent of the council of the nation and also of the British government. Moreover, the missionaries were to be unmolested and a British resident was to be accepted. Frere also delayed sending the details of the matter to the British government (knowing that his upcoming actions would probably not be supported), but issued an impossible ultimatum to Zulu deputies on December 11th 1878, a definite reply being required by the 31st of that month.

It is believed that Frere wanted to provoke a conflict with the Zulus and in that goal he succeeded. Cetshwayo rejected the demands of December 11, by not responding by the end of the year. A concession was granted by the British until January 11, 1879, after which a state of war was deemed to exist.
Cetshwayo returned no answer, and in January 1879 a British force under Lieutenant General Frederick Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford invaded Zululand, without authorisation by the British Government. Lord Chelmsford had under him a force of 5000 Europeans and 8200 Africans; 3000 of the latter were employed in guarding the frontier of Natal; another force of 1400 Europeans and 400 Africans were stationed in the Utrecht district. Three columns were to invade Zululand, from the Lower Tugela, Rorke's Drift, and Utrecht respectively, their objective being Ulundi, the royal kraal.

Cetshwayo's army numbered fully 40,000 men. The entry of all three columns was unopposed. On 22 January the centre column (1600 Europeans, 2500 Africans), which had advanced from Rorke's Drift, was encamped near Isandlwana; on the morning of that day Lord Chelmsford split his forces and moved out to support a reconnoitring party. After he had left, the camp, in charge of Lt. Colonel Henry Pulleine (it is generally thought that a Colonel Anthony Durnford was in command, but new information has surfaced showing that it was not so), was surprised by a Zulu army nearly 20,000 strong. Chelmsford's refusal to set up the British camp defensively and ignoring information that he Zulus were close at hand were decisions that all were later to regret. The British were overwhelmed at Isandlwana and almost every man killed, the casualties being 806 Europeans (more than half belonging to the 24th regiment) and 471 Africans. Those transport buffalo not killed were seized by the Zulus. Lord Chelmsford and the reconnoitring party returned after paying little attention to the signals of attack; they arrived at the battlefield that evening and camped amidst the slaughter. The next day the survivors retreated to Rorke's Drift, which had been the scene of a successful defence. After the victory at Isandlwana, several regiments of the Zulu army which had missed the battle had moved on to attack Rorke's Drift. The garrison stationed there, under Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead, numbered about 80 men of the 24th regiment, and they had in the hospital there between 30 and 40 men. Late in the afternoon they were attacked by about 4000 Zulu. On six occasions, the Zulu got within the entrenchments, to be driven back each time at bayonet point. At dawn the Zulu withdrew, leaving 350 of their men dead and 500 wounded who were later killed by the British. An equal number is believed to have died over the next few days of their wounds. The British loss was 17 killed and 10 wounded, two of whom later died of their wounds.

In the meantime the Coastal column � 2700 men under Colonel Charles Pearson � had reached Eshowe from the Tugela; on receipt of the news of Isandlwana most of the mounted men and the native troops were sent back to the Natal, leaving at Eshowe a garrison of 1300 Europeans and 65 Africans. For two months during the Siege of Eshowe this force was hemmed in by the Zulus, and lost 20 men to sickness and disease.

The left column under Colonel (afterwards Sir) Evelyn Wood was forced onto the defensive after the disaster to the centre column. For a time the British feared an invasion of Natal.

Chelmsford had lost his centre column and his plans were in tatters. However, Zulu victory in Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift had been gained with heavy casualties and Cetshwayo could not mount a counter-offensive. Chelmsford regrouped and called for reinforcements when Zulu troops kept raiding over the border. As a result of Isandlwana the British Government replaced Lord Chelmsford with Sir Garnet Wolseley but it took several weeks for him to reach Natal, during which Lord Chelmsford remained in command.

The British sent troops from all over the empire to Cape Town. By the end of 29 March Chelmsford could mount an offensive of 8500 men (including men from the Royal Navy and 91st Highlanders) from Fort Tenedos to relieve Eshowe.

During this time (12 March) an escort of stores marching to Luneberg, the headquarters of the Utrecht force, was attacked when encamped on both sides of the Intombe river. The camp was surprised, 62 out of 106 men were killed, and all the stores were lost.

The first troops arrived at Durban on 7 March. On the 29th a column, under Lord Chelmsford, consisting of 3400 European & 2300 African soldiers, marched to the relief of Eshowe, entrenched camps being formed each night.

Chelmsford told Sir Evelyn Wood's troops (Staffordshire Volunteers and Boers, 675 men in total) to attack the Zulu stronghold in Hlobane. Lieutenant Colonel Redvers Buller, later Second Boer War commander, led the attack on Hlobane on 28 March. However, The Zulu main army of 26,000 men arrived to help their besieged tribesmen and the British soldiers were scattered. Besides the loss of the African contingent (those not killed deserted) there were 100 casualties among the 400 Europeans engaged. The next day 25,000 Zulu warriors attacked Wood's camp (2068 men) in Kambula, apparently without Cetshwayo's permission. The British held them off in the Battle of Kambula and after five hours of heavy fighting the Zulus withdrew. British losses amounted to 29 the Zulus lost approximately 2000. It turned out to be a decisive battle.

On 2 April the main camp was attacked at Gingingdlovu (In the Zulu language it means Swallower of the Elephant, for the British foreigners it was "Gin, Gin, I love you"), the Zulu being repulsed. Their losses were heavy, estimated at 1200 while the British only suffered two dead and 52 wounded. The next day they relieved Pearson's men. They evacuated Eshowe on 5 April after which the Zulu forces burned it down.
By the middle of April nearly all the reinforcements had reached Natal, and Lord Chelmsford reorganized his forces. The 1st division, under major-general Crealock, advanced along the coast belt and was destined to act as a support to the 2nd division, under major-general Newdigate, which with Wood's flying column, an independent unit, was to march on Ulundi from Rorke's Drift and Kambula. Owing to difficulties of transport it was the beginning of June before Newdigate was ready to advance.

The new start was not promising. Invading British troops were attacked in June 1. One of the British casualties was the exiled heir to the French throne, Imperial Prince Napoleon Eugene, who had volunteered to serve in the British army and was killed while out with a reconnoitering party.

On the 1st of July Newdigate and Wood had reached the White Umfolosi, in the heart of their enemy's country. During their advance, messengers were sent by Cetshwayo to sue for peace, but he did not accept the terms offered. Meantime Sir Garnet (afterwards Lord) Wolseley had been sent out to supersede Lord Chelmsford, and on the 7th of July he reached Crealock's headquarters at Port Durnford. But by that time the campaign was practically over. The 2nd division (with which was Lord Chelmsford) and Wood's column crossed the White Umfolosi on the 4th of July the force numbering 4166 European and 1005 indigenous soldiers, aided by artillery and Gatling guns. Within a mile of Ulundi the British force, formed in a hollow square, was attacked by a Zulu army numbering 12,000 to 15,000. The battle ended in a decisive victory for the British, whose losses were about 100, while of the Zulu some 1500 men were lost to the battle.
After this battle the Zulu army dispersed, most of the leading chiefs tendered their submission, and Cetshwayo became a fugitive. On the 28th August the king was captured and sent to Cape Town. (It is said that scouts spotted the water-carriers of the King, distinctive because the water was carried above, not upon, their heads). His deposition was formally announced to the Zulu, and Wolseley drew up a new scheme for the government of the country. The Chaka dynasty was deposed, and the Zulu country portioned among eleven Zulu chiefs, including Cetshwayo and one of his sons Usibepu, John Dunn, a white adventurer, and Hlubi, a Basuto chief who had done good service in the war.

Bartle Frere was relegated to a minor post in Cape Town.

A Resident was appointed who was to be the channel of communication between the chiefs and the British government. This arrangement was productive of much bloodshed and disturbance, and in 1882 the British government determined to restore Cetshwayo to power. In the meantime, however, blood feuds had been engendered between the chiefs Usibepu (Zibebu) and Hamu on the one side and the tribes who supported the ex-king and his family on the other. Cetshwayo's party (who now became known as Usutus) suffered severely at the hands of the two chiefs, who were aided by a band of white freebooters.

When Cetshwayo was restored Usibepu was left in possession of his territory, while Dunn's land and that of the Basuto chief (the country between the Tugela River and the Umhlatuzi, i.e. adjoining Natal) was constituted a reserve, in which locations were to be provided for Zulu unwilling to serve the restored king. This new arrangement proved as futile as had Wolseley's. Usibepu, having created a formidable force of well-armed and trained warriors, and being left in independence on the borders of Cetshwayo's territory, viewed with displeasure the re-installation of his former king, and Cetshwayo was desirous of humbling his relative. A collision very soon took place; Usibepu's forces were victorious, and on the 22 July 1883, led by a troop of mounted Boer mercenary troops, he made a sudden descent upon Cetshwayo's kraal at Ulundi, which he destroyed, massacring such of the inmates of both sexes as could not save themselves by flight. The king escaped, though wounded, into Nkandla forest. After appeals by Sir Melmoth Osborn he moved to Eshowe, where he died soon after.
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