The Anglo-Zulu War was fought in 1879 between the British Empire and the Zulu Empire. From complex beginnings, the war is notable for several particularly bloody battles, as well as for being a landmark in the timeline of colonialism in the region. The war ended the Zulu nation's independence.
The boundary was beaconed in 1864, but when in 1865 Umtonga fled from Zululand to Natal, Cetshwayo, seeing that he had lost his part of the bargain (for he feared that Umtonga might be used to supplant him, as Mpande had been used to supplant Dingane), caused the beacon to be removed, and also claimed the land ceded by the Swazis to Lydenburg. The Zulus asserted that the Swazis were their vassals and therefore had no right to part with this territory. During the year a Boer Commando under Paul Kruger and an army under Cetshwayo were posted to defend the newly acquired Utrecht border. The Zulu forces took back their land north of the Pongola. Questions were also raised as to the validity of the documents signed by the Zulus concerning the Utrecht strip; in 1869 the services of the lieutenant-governor of Natal were accepted by both parties as arbitrator, but the attempt then made to settle disagreements proved unsuccessful.
Such was the political background when Cetshwayo became absolute ruler of the Zulus upon his father's death in 1873. As ruler, Cetshwayo set about reviving the military methods of his uncle Shaka as far as possible, and even succeeded in equipping his regiments with firearms. It is believed that he caused the Xhosa people in the Transkei to revolt, and he aided Sikukuni in his struggle with the Transvaal. His rule over his own people was tyrannous. For example, Bishop Schreuder (of the Norwegian Missionary Society) described Cetshwayo as "an able man, but for cold, selfish pride, cruelty and untruthfulness, worse than any of his predecessors."
In 1874 Lord Carnarvon, who had successfully brought about federation in Canada, thought that a similar scheme might work in South Africa. 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 subjugated 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.
Three separate incidents occurred in late July, August and September which Frere seized upon as his causes célèbres. The first two incidents related to the flight into Natal of two wives of Sihayo kaXonga, and their subsequent seizure and execution by his brother and sons, and were described thus:
The third incident occurred in September, when two men were detained while on a sand bank of the Thukela River near the Middle Drift. Sir Bartle Frere described this matter in a despatch to Sir Michael Hicks Beach, Secretary of State for the Colonies:
Cetshwayo also treated the complaint rather lightly, responding
We should note that the original complaint carried to Cetshwayo from the Lieutenant-Governor was in the form of a request for the surrender of the culprits. The request was subsequently transformed by Sir Bartle Frere into a 'demand':
We find the first mention of an ultimatum in this despatch. After considerable discussion and exchanges of views between Sir Bartle Frere and Sir Henry Bulwer, it was decided to arrange a meeting with representatives of the Zulu king. The ostensible reason for this indaba was to present the findings of the long awaited Boundary Commission to the Zulu people. In fact, the occasion was also to be used to present the King with an ultimatum.
By the time the ultimatum was presented, the two infractions by Sihayo’s sons and the roughing up of Smith and Deighton were only part of the justification used, as several issues had arisen in the meantime. One of these was Cetshwayo’s apparent breaking of promises he had given to the then Mr Theophilus Shepstone at the king’s ‘coronation’ in 1872. This farcical piece of theatre had been agreed to by Cetshwayo simply to satisfy the wishes of Shepstone and meant nothing to the Zulu people. Indeed, his real Zulu installation had taken place several weeks earlier when he had been acclaimed by his izinduna.
A second addition to the ultimatum, which seems almost like an afterthought, required the surrender of Mbelini kaMswati. Mbelini was the son of a Swazi king who unsuccessfully disputed the succession with his brother, resulting in his exile from the kingdom. He sought, and received, refuge from Cetshwayo and was granted land in the region of the Ntombe river in western Zululand. (It is entirely possible that Cetshwayo regarded him as a useful buffer between himself and the Boers of the Transvaal.) Here, he took up residence on the Tafelberg, a flat-topped mountain overlooking the river. Something of a brigand, Mbelini made raids on anyone in his area, Boer and Zulu alike, accruing cattle and prisoners in the process. With the annexation of the Transvaal, Britain had also to deal with Mbelini, and, because Frere was convinced that the bandit chief was in the pay of the Zulu king, his surrender was included in the ultimatum. The light in which Mbelini was regarded is shown in a paragraph from a memorandum written by Sir Henry Bulwer:
Frere has been accused of chicanery by taking deliberate advantage of the length of time it took for correspondence to pass between South Africa and London to conceal his intentions from his political masters, or at least defer giving them the necessary information until it was too late for them to act. The first intimation to the British government of his intention to make ‘demands’ on the Zulu was in a private letter to Hicks Beach written on 14 October 1878. But that letter only arrived in London on 16 November, and by then messengers had already been despatched from Natal to the Zulu king to request the presence of a delegation at the Lower Tugela on 11 December for the purpose of receiving the Boundary Commission’s findings. Had Hicks Beach then sent off an immediate telegraphic response explicitly forbidding any action other than the announcement of the boundary award, it might have arrived in South Africa just in time to prevent the ultimatum being presented – but only just. No prohibition was sent, however, and could hardly be expected to have been, for Hicks Beach had no means of knowing the last minute urgency of the events that were already in train. Nowhere in Frere’s letter was there anything to indicate how soon he intended to act, nor was there anything to suggest how stringent his demands would be.
Hicks Beach had earlier admitted his helplessness with regard to the Frere's actions in a telling note to his Prime Minister:
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 11 January 1879, after which a state of war was deemed to exist.
The Terms of the Ultimatum The following are the terms which were included in the ultimatum delivered to the representatives of King Cetshwayo on the banks of the Thukela river on 11 December 1878. No time was specified for compliance with item 4, twenty days were allowed for compliance with items 1-3, that is, until 31 December inclusive; ten days more were allowed for compliance with the remaining demands, items 4 13. The earlier time limits were subsequently altered so that all expired on 10th January 1879.
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 reconnoitering 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 the Zulus were close at hand were decisions that all were later to regret. The ensuing Battle of Isandlwana was the greatest victory that the Zulu kingdom would enjoy during the war. In its aftermath, a party of some 4000 Zulu reserves mounted a raid on the nearby British border post of Rorke's Drift, and were only driven off after 10 hours of ferocious fighting.
While the British central column under Chelmsford's command was thus engaged, the right flank column on the coast, under Colonel Charles Pearson, crossed the Tugela River, skirmished with a Zulu impi that was attempting to set up an ambush at the _Inyezane, and advanced as far as the deserted missionary station of Eshowe, which he set about fortifiying. On learning of the disaster at Isandlwana, Pearson made plans to withdraw back beyond the Tugeala River. However, before he had decided whether of not to put these plans into effect, the Zulu army managed to cut off his supply lines, and the Siege of Eshowe had begun.
Meanwhile the left flank column at Utrecht, under Colonel Evelyn Wood, had originally been charged with occupying the Zulu tribes of north-west Zululand and preventing them from interfering with the British central column's advance on Ulundi. To this end Wood set up camp at Tinta's Kraal, just 10 miles south of Hlobane mountain, where a force of 4000 Zulus had been spotted. He planned to attack them on the 24 January, but on learning of the disaster at Isandlwana, he decided to withdraw back to the Kraal. Thus one month after the British invasion, only their left flank column remained militarily effective, and was too weak to conduct a campaign alone.
During this time (12 March) an escort of stores marching to Luneberg, was 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, while the Zulus lost approximately 2000. It turned out to be a decisive battle.
While Woods was thus engaged, Chelmsford's column was marching on Eshowe. On 2 April this force was attacked en route 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.
One of the early 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 on 1 June while out with a reconnoitering party.
Cetshwayo, knowing that the newly re-inforced British would be a formidable opponent, attempted to negotiate a peace treaty. However with Sir Garnet Wolseley hard on his heels, Chelmsford was in no mood for negotiations and he proceeded as fast as he could to the royal kraal of Ulundi, intending to destroy the main Zulu army. On 4 July the armies clashed at the Battle of Ulundi, and Cetshwayo's forces were decisively defeated.
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.
Two film dramatizations of the war are: Zulu (1964), which is based on the Battle at Rorke's Drift, and Zulu Dawn (1979), which deals with the Battle of Isandlwana. A short comic dramatization is presented in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983).
The conflict thus continues to fascinate new generations of students and war gamers, and has been portrayed not only in massive numbers of books and articles but in popular film as well, more so than other bigger native victories, such as the Ethiopians against the Italians at Adowa, or the Berbers of Abd el-Krim against the Spanish in Morocco. Interest in or reference to the Zulu has taken many forms, from the naming of a serviceable Scottish fishing boat type, to the NATO code for the letter "Z", to dancers and festival celebrants in the Mardi Gras season of New Orleans, to "crews" or groups of urban hip-hop fans. It may thus be useful to take a closer look at the Zulu Army that still inspires such attention over a century later. A similar analysis will be made in relation to the performance of redoubtable British forces.
It is also likely that he had help in designing his military reforms. Elderly clan leaders in whose localities troops were mustered retained a measure of influence on a regional basis, and were entitled to sit on the ibandla, a sort of national advisory council. Redoubtable izinduna like Mdlaka, a strong leader, and captain of the last expedition north while Shaka was assassinated, and the presence of several elderly, experienced warriors like Mnyamana and Tshingwayo, both of whom outlived Shaka and who accompanied the victorious Isandlwana impi (Tshingwayo sharing partial command) also suggests more than the sole genius of Shaka at work in shaping the dread host. Nevertheless the standard view sees Shaka as initiating the most important changes. In addition, the practical problems of military command throughout the ages no doubt played a part in organization of the Zulu fighting machine.
Shaka's conception of warfare was far from ritualistic. He sought to bring combat to a swift and bloody decision, as opposed to duels of individual champions, scattered raids, or light skirmishes where casualties were comparatively light. While his mentor and overlord Dingiswayo lived, Shakan methods were not so extreme, but the removal of this check gave the Zulu chieftain much broader scope. It was under his reign that a much more rigorous mode of tribal warfare came into being. Such a brutal focus demanded changes in weapons, organization and tactics.
Shaka organized the various age grades into regiments, and quartered them in special military kraals, with each regiment having its own distinctive names and insignia. Some historians argue that the large military establishment was a drain on the Zulu economy and necessitated continual raiding and expansion. This may be true since large numbers of the society's men were isolated from normal occupations, but whatever the resource impact, the regimental system clearly built on existing tribal cultural elements that could be adapted and shaped to fit an expansionist agenda.
It is extremely doubtful if Zulu tactics and organization owed anything to European troops drilling hundreds of miles distant at the Cape. The Zulu merely had to systematize and extend known tribal practice in which encirclement tactics were hardly unknown. The fact that the "reserve" forces or "loins" existed or that they were sometimes positioned with their backs to the battle suggests origins rooted in earlier known ritualistic tribal warfare, as well as practical command and control problems.
Similar problems of troop movement provoke similar solutions across the centuries. The universal importance of unit leadership is well known (see below) but in the early Roman legions for example, the last line of spearmen, the triarii, were sometimes made to squat or kneel, effectively discouraging premature movement to the front. And similar to Zulu practice, the triarii, the final line of fighters, were often older veterans, whose presence in the rear had a stabilizing effect on the greener hands.
Regimental izinduna, like the non-coms of today's army, and yesterday's Roman centurions, were extremely important to morale and discipline. This was shown during the battle of Isandhlwana. Blanketed by a hail of British bullets, rockets and artillery, the advance of the Zulu faltered. Echoing from the mountain however, were the shouted cadences and fiery exhortations of their regimental izinduna, who reminded the warriors that their king did not send them to run away. Thus encouraged, the encircling regiments remained in place, maintaining continual pressure, until weakened British dispositions enabled the host to make a final surge forward. (See Morris ref below- "The Washing of the Spears").
Strategically (and perhaps understandably in their own traditional tribal context) they lacked any clear vision of fighting their most challenging war, aside from smashing the three British columns by the weight and speed of their regiments. Despite the Isandhlwana victory, tactically there were major problems as well. They rigidly and predictably applied their three-pronged "buffalo horns" attack, paradoxically their greatest strength, but also their greatest weakness when facing concentrated firepower. The Zulu failed to make use of their superior mobility by attacking the British rear area such as Natal or in interdicting vulnerable British supply lines. However, an important consideration, which King Cetshwayo appreciated, was that there was a clear difference between defending one's territory, and encroaching on another, regardless of the fact that they are at war with the holder of that land. The King realised that peace would be impossible if a real invasion of Natal was launched, and that it would only provoke a more concerted effort on the part of the British against them. The attack on Rorke's Drift, in Natal, was an opportunist raid, as opposed to a real invasion. When they did, they achieved some success, such as the liquidation of a supply detachment at the Intombi River. A more expansive mobile strategy might have cut British communications and brought their lumbering advance to a halt, bottling up the redcoats in scattered strongpoints while the impis ran rampant between them. Just such a scenario developed with the No. 1 British column, which was penned up static and immobile in garrison for over two months at Eshowe.
The Zulu also allowed their opponents too much time to set up fortified strongpoints, assaulting well defended camps and positions with painful losses. A policy of attacking the redcoats while they were strung out on the move, or crossing difficult obstacles like rivers, might have yielded more satisfactory results. For example, four miles past the Ineyzane River, after the British had comfortably crossed, and after they had spent a day consolidating their advance, the Zulu finally launched a typical "buffalo horn" encirclement attack that was seen off with withering fire from not only breach-loading Martini-Henry rifles, but 7-pounder artillery and Gatling guns. In fairness, the Zulu commanders could not conjure regiments out of thin air at the optimum time and place. They too needed time to marshal, supply and position their forces, and sort out final assignments to the three-prongs of attack. Still, the Battle of Hlobane Mountain offers just a glimpse of an alternative mobile scenario, where the maneuvering Zulu "horns" cut off and drove back Buller's column when it was dangerously strung out on the mountain.
Command of the field forces was also split at times, with one or more izinduna attempting to guide the host, while contending with the thrusting sub-chiefs of powerful and competitive regiments. This "dual command" arrangement of experienced men seemed to work well enough at Isandhlwana, although according to Morris, the commanders Tshingwayo and Mavumengwana argued with a freelancing regional clan-chief called Matyana who seemed to covet leadership of the field force himself, and indeed they appeared to have relocated the host in part, to be rid of his interference. The move it should be noted brought them closer to the British camp, saving the regiments from having to launch their attack from 10 miles out over flat plain.
When the Zulu did acquire firearms, most notably captured stocks after the great victory at Isandhlwana, they lacked training and used them ineffectively, consistently firing high to give the bullets "strength." Adaption to firearms was well within Zulu capabilities and knowledge. Southern Africa, including the areas near Natal was teeming with bands like the Griquas who had learned to use guns. Indeed one such group not only mastered the way of the gun, but became proficient horsemen as well, skills that helped build the Basotho tribe, in what is now the nation of Lesotho. In addition, numerous European renegades or adventurers (both Boer and non-Boer) skilled in firearms were known to the Zulu. Some had even led detachments for the Zulu kings on military missions.
The Zulu thus had clear scope and opportunity to master and adapt the new weaponry. They also had already experienced defeat against the Boers, by concentrated firearms. They had had at least 4 decades to adjust their tactics to this new threat. A well drilled corps of gunmen or grenadiers, or a battery of artillery operated by European mercenaries for example, might have provided much needed covering fire as the regiments maneuvered into position. No such adjustments were on hand when they faced the redcoats. Immensely proud of their system, and failing to learn from their earlier defeats, they persisted in "human wave" attacks against well defended European positions where massed firepower decimated their ranks. The ministrations of Zulu witchdoctors, or the bravery of individual regiments were ultimately of little use against the volleys of modern rifles, Gatling guns and artillery at the Ineyzane River, Rorke's Drift, Kambula, Gingingdlovu and finally Ulindi.