Amid a wide green African plain overlooked by hills on two sides, a throng of half-naked Zulus brandished aloft shields and sharp-pointed assegais, and sprang forth bellowing their war cries.
Before them, a little knot of red-coated figures presented their rifles, loosed a volley and prepared to sell their lives dearly.
This dramatic scene was unfolding at Isandlwana, deep in South Africa’s Zululand. Here, on January 22, 1879, was fought one of the most remarkable battles in British imperial history.
It was dusk on this day, when Frederick Augustus Thesiger, better known as Lord Chelmsford, returned to camp at iSandlwana (spelled with a lowercase “i” in Zulu, as opposed to the Anglicized “Isandlwana”). As he and his men picked their way through the corpses of their colleagues — naked and mutilated, strewn among broken bags of tea and sugar — their first reaction was disbelief. “But I left a thousand men to guard the camp,” said Chelmsford, whose incredulity soon turned to horror.
The final tally showed that the Zulus had killed 858 white men and 471 Black soldiers who had been enlisted to fight for the British. A mere 350 non-Zulus emerged from the battle alive, making iSandlwana one of the bloodiest defeats of the Victorian era, and far and away the most catastrophic defeat by a “primitive” volunteer army. When a telegram bearing news of the battle reached Britain, it was said at first to be a hoax.
AS SOON AS THE ZULUS WERE ABLE TO ENGAGE IN HAND-TO-HAND COMBAT, THEY WERE UNSTOPPABLE.
Throughout the 1870s, the British controlled the coast of South Africa; the Boers — Dutch-speaking settlers, predominantly farmers — held most of the interior. Scattered in between were various African tribes who had managed to survive that long, the Zulu kingdom being the strongest. “The British weren’t bothered with the interior until diamonds were discovered in Kimberley,” says Ian Knight, a historian specializing in Anglo-Zulu wars. “Then they suddenly became very bothered with the interior!”
The idea was that once the British had defeated the Zulus, the weaker tribal groups would quickly fall into line. But the Brits had underestimated King Cetshwayo and his impi. “The Zulu army was a very well-organized part-time militia,” says Knight. “Every Zulu man was enrolled in a regiment at the age of 18 or 19. Each regiment was divided into companies, and officers were appointed from the older, more experienced men.” Zulu men spent most of their time farming with their families, but when the king needed them, they would be called up for duty.
On Jan. 6, 1879, Chelmsford and some 3,500 men left the British colony of Natal and marched into Zululand. Apart from a few skirmishes, the first two weeks of the campaign were largely uneventful. Two weeks later, on January 20, Chelmsford made camp at the lion-shaped outcrop called iSandlwana, a spot chosen for its excellent outlook over the surrounding valleys. Rumors of an impending Zulu attack circulated, and at 2 a.m. on the 22nd, Chelmsford received the confirmation he had been waiting for: A strong Zulu force had been spied near the Mangeni Falls, roughly 12 miles away. Chelmsford immediately mobilized about half of his force for a surprise attack on the Zulu impi, leaving his subordinates Pulleine and Durnford with the altogether less glamorous task of guarding the camp.
But the main Zulu force of approximately 20,000 men was really resting in the Ngwebeni valley just 4 miles from iSandlwana. The Zulus had planned to delay their attack because the 22nd, being a new moon, was considered an inauspicious day for a battle. When they were spotted by British spies under Durnford’s command, however, they had no choice but to spring into action.
Employing the characteristic izimpondo zankomo (chest and horns) formation invented by King Shaka some 50 years earlier, they swarmed toward iSandlwana. Armed with spears and old-fashioned muskets they weren’t adapt at handling, the Zulus should have been no match for the Brits with their modern rifles and 7-pound field guns. And at first, the battle appeared to be going according to expectations: “Dozens of the enemy were dropping with each British volley,” writes Alan Lloyd in The Zulu War: 1879, “sending ripples of hesitation through the masses around them.”
But a brief delay in getting ammunition to the British front line gave the Zulu impian opportunity to turn the tide. “When you look back on the various Anglo-Zulu battles, a clear trend emerges,” Knight says. “Whenever the British were able to keep the Zulus at arm’s length, they won the battle. But as soon as the Zulus were able to engage in hand-to-hand combat, they were unstoppable.” The Zulus, he explains, had grown up stick-fighting: “They were brutal with their assegais.”
The Zulus suffered great losses at iSandlwana — approximately 1,000 dead and 2,000 mortally wounded — but there was no doubt which side had won the battle. “So inconsiderable was the number of exhausted and terror-haunted survivors who eventually reached Natal,” writes Lloyd, “that it was widely held that the slaughter had been complete.”
The defeat at iSandlwana resulted in a strong British backlash that allowed them to conquer the Zulus and capture King Cetshwayo before the year was out. Cetshwayo was imprisoned in Cape Town and subsequently exiled to England, before finally being allowed to return to Zululand. Not until the election of the current president of South Africa, 126 years later, has a Zulu leader again been in control of his own land.