Isandlwana Heritage Research Project/Essay
The battle of Isandlwana occurred between the British and Zulu armies on 23 January 1879. The battle marks a great part of the Anglo Zulu war and therefore is of large importance in South African heritage.
The Anglo Zulu war began on the 11th of January 1879, when the ultimatum of Sir Bartle Frere (British High Commissioner of the Cape) that had been proposed to the Zulu Kingdom, expired and the British crossed the Buffalo River to invade Zululand. The British wanted to go to war and therefore gave harsh terms in the ultimatum of the 11 December that would destroy the Zulu way of life, knowing they would not accept, the British were planning on going to war. The motive behind this was the prosperous land occupied by the Zulus. There were great prospects for gold and diamond mining in Zululand and the British were colonising other areas. The terms that were proposed were that the Zulu Kingdom would have to dismantle their army, there would have to be a European present in the Zulu Kingdom at all times and a Zulu man would be able to marry whenever he wanted, rather than needing permission from the King. It was a large part of the Zulu culture and tradition that a man could not be married until he had performed in the army to a satisfactory level. By stopping this, the British were proposing the ultimate weakening of the Zulu army as men would no longer feel the need to join it. The Zulu King would not agree to these terms.
King Cetshwayo immediately called his amabutho (soldiers that formed an age graded regiment) to meet at oNdini in December. The soldiers would have met here anyway for an annual festival taking place at this time. Here, he began preparing them for war. Soldiers prepared through ritual ceremonies. The Zulu strongly believed that they needed to be purified from the unyama, meaning evil spirits. They believed that these spirits were particularly present over those who have taken another’s life. Men collected heaps of firewood and green mimosa as well as a black bull which would be killed by hand to represent all the evils in the land. The meat would be treated by war-doctors, cooked on a fire, cut into pieces and then thrown up for the warriors to catch. Soldiers also breathed in the smoke of burning medicines, drank these medicines and threw up, to represent the expulsion of evil. Finally, they required the ancestors to agree that going to war was a wise choice, they received positive feedback by the bellowing of the cows at night.
With the threat of British on the borders, King Cetshwayo organised great hunts to show strength and capability. His original tactic was to remain on the defence as to appear the victim of an unprovoked attack, but eventually the British threat became too large and he ordered his men to drive the British back. Cetshwayo knew that the British would be well equipped and would easily outdo the Zulus with their resources. He hoped to create threats that would disconcert the British into declaring peace. He needed to pick his battles well and win them convincingly enough to put up a real threat. By using spies and scouts, he was able to determine where his efforts would be most effective. It came to his knowledge that Lord Chelmsford was with the Centre Column, he knew this would be the most humiliating if the Zulus defeated this unit. Cetshwayo’s ideal situation was that they would fight the British on open plains in hand-to-hand combat, the fact that this exact situation did occur in the battle of Isandlwana, proves that the British were over-confident and completely underestimated the Zulu strength.
The leaders of the British forces at the time were Lieutenant- General Lord Chelmsford, who was brave and held in high esteem by his troops, but was inexperienced and indecisive. He was easily overwhelmed by insignificant details and struggled to make his own decisions. He was ultimately humiliated at Isandlwana and not trusted with leading an army again. As well as Lieutenant Colonel HB Pulleine, who was the leader of a garrison in Durban but not thought of as much of a military leader. Chelmsford wanted Pulleine to remain in PMB but with reluctance, allowed Pulleine to join him in Zululand. Pulleine was also indecisive and there is evidence that suggests he was unable to make crucial decisions when the Zulus attacked the camp at Isandlwana.
The British were ultimately unprepared for the battle of Isandlwana. They brought little ammunition and had no back up resources. The cannons that they brought had not been tested yet and ended up being faulty and useless in battle. The soldiers were not adapted to the terrain of Zululand which created a huge disadvantage to them as well as their uniform being unsuitable for the South African climate. They came into battle armed with guns, cannons and rocket launchers.
The Zulu battle strategy was unique and iconic. The soldiers would move in a bullhorn formation, with the older and more advanced soldiers in the chest and the two horns made up of younger amabutho who would spread around the enemy’s flanks and then meet to leave the enemy encircled. One horn would move slower than the other and form a distraction for the opposing army, while the other horn, remaining concealed, would quickly make their way around the enemy to meet the slower flank and form a circle. The chest would then run through the enemy and fight in hand-to-hand combat until the battle was won. The chest would run towards the two horns which were preventing the enemy from running away and crush them.
They came into battle with spears(isiPhapha), knobkerries (isaGila), shields, knives and the Tower Musket gun, from trade as well as gifts from Piet Retief and the Portuguese. The Zulu army had no training with these guns, they hated the sound and therefore held the gun far away from their body, prohibiting them from aiming properly. They relied heavily on their traditional, hand to hand combat.
The British troops advanced 16km in 10 days to reach Isandlwana, compared to the Zulu’s 80km in a week. When the British reached and set up camp, Chelmsford denied his orders to entrench the camp as he believed it would take too much time and be unnecessary as he felt the Zulus would not come close to the camp before being defeated.
On the morning of the 23rd of January 1879, Pulleine expected the Zulu force and at 8am, sent his infantry to a position facing the hills to the North. Thinking the main Zulu force was at a place called Myeni falls, Chelmsford went there and those who remained at Isandlwana assumed they would not be attacked. After 20 minutes Pulleine retrieved his infantry due to no Zulu appearance. At 10:30, Durnford arrived and took control of the camp. Durnford felt it was his duty to protect Chelmsford from the rear and took a group of NNC (Conscripted South Africans and young school boys) and Captain Russell’s Pocket Battery to Chelmsford’s aid.
The Zulu forces had camped on the hills near Babanango on the night of the 22nd, planning to attack of the 23rd. John Shepstone, the same man who delivered the ultimatum in December, had been sent out at 11:00 am to scout the Nyoni heights. After chasing a few Zulu foragers, Shepstone’s patrol came across the most concentrated uMcijo. At midday, they looked down from atop the mountain to see the entire Zulu force below them. Alone, the number of Zulu soldiers was enough to intimidate him. Shepstone now realized that the main British leadership was not fighting the largest army of Zulus and the troops at Isandlwana would have to prepare to fight the main Zulu force. Before fleeing to report back to Pulleine, Shepstone fired a few shots at the Zulus.
The Zulu leaders tried to calm the riled soldiers after the shots and sat them in a circle to sprinkle over them the medicines that would prepare them for battle. They then moved the amabutho so that the British would not be able to see them.
Shepstone reported what he had seen back to Pulleine. Chelmsford had taken the majority of the British forces with him and left few soldiers and only two cannons to the forces at Isandlwana. Pulleine then sent back up forces to Captain Mostyn and sent the 24th regiment and a group of the NNC 1 kilometre up the Nyoni heights overlooking the valley where they expected to see the Zulus taking cover, with two 7 pounder guns. The British then formed a long curved line of fire, by spreading out their fire, they would have been less effective than if they had fired together as a large group, further proving the arrogance of the British. Pulleine moved his troops so far forwards that he neglected to protect the camp although it seemed a necessary cost in order to aid Durnford, should he be forced to retreat.
The Zulus formed their iconic bullhorn formation as they spilled from the Nyoni heights and into the valley. The Zulus expected their sheer number to scare the British away but were still fully prepared for battle. As they came under British fire, they formed loose lines of men. In the chest, it was up to 300 metres deep and on the horns, 5 lines of skirmishers. The Zulus were now making ineffective shots at the British while British fire almost stopped them. The spiritual rituals that the soldiers had undergone had supposedly prevented them from being killed by bullets and as soldiers ran into battle, watching their comrades fall, they began to lose certainty. Nevertheless, they were extremely brave and continued fighting and progressing forward. Even as British fire was almost impossible to get through, the Zulu soldiers pressed forward even if it meant crawling forward centimetre by centimetre.
8km from the main Isandlwana camp, the left horn encountered Durnford and his troops. Durnford then withdrew to the South East of the camp into a donga (eroded, dry land). Durnford had nearly 200 volunteered soldiers who managed to stop the left horn in its tracks. Preventing it from meeting the right horn. The fast, fit and strong amabutho in the left horn were forced to wait for the slower right horn, made up of the slower veterans, iNgobamakhosi (kingship), to come around and meet them. The left horn took heavy punishment from Durnford’s forces.
Although Durnford was fighting off the left horn well, the British were having their greatest victory against the Zulu chest. Parts of the uMcijo and uMxhapho had broken away from the amabutho to join the chest. Which found them under heavy casualty and full force fire from the British. The Zulus here were also forced to stay where they were.
The uNokhene, who had initially scattered when they saw the force of the British, recovered quickly and returned to the high ground of Nyoni heights. They stayed hidden and began to circle the camp to the north. They joined with other Zulu forces and began to move towards the stagnant left horn to complete the Zulu formation of encircling the enemy .
By 1:00 in the afternoon, the chest was still unable to move. The uMbonambi of the left horn managed to momentarily distract the British with a herd of cattle and the Zulus began to flood into the southern side of the camp. Simultaneously, the right horn had completed their encircling and poured into the north eastern side of the camp.
Durnford fell back on the camp in an attempt to protect it, leaving the right flank of the infantry exposed to the iNgobamakhosi. Pulleine, realizing he needed to concentrate his troops at the camp, called a cease fire at 1:30 pm. However, there weren’t enough resources of arms because of the over-confidence of the British and the assumption that they would not be needed. The time had come for the chest to storm the camp, but demoralized and shot-down, they would not. A man called, Ndlaka, an induna(leader) of the uMcjijo tried to motivate the troops. As he stood, he was shot by the British, creating a perfect example of passion and willingness to die for his kingdom. The soldiers, along with a reminder from Sikizane kaNomageje that their comrades were already in the camp, became fearsome as they rattled their spears and shields together as intimidation. Sounding like a swarm of bees, they met the British with spears and drove them into the camp in hand-to-hand combat. With their battle cry of, “uSuthu!” the scene was set.
A partial eclipse at 2:29 pm added to the dramatic nature of the battle. The Zulus believe this eclipse represented the umnyama (darkness) of the day. A Zulu warrior of the uNotenke Regiment said the” sun turned black in the middle of the battle.” Which made an already cloudy day darker.
As the Zulus were unable to completely form their encirclement. A gap was left at the South of Isandlwana where many British men fled. The Zulu right horn blocked the way directly to Rorke’s Drift which meant the escaping British would need to perform a dangerous river crossing. The Zulus rushed to block this trail, now known as Fugitive’s Drift. The trail was extremely dangerous even without the river that was in flood. An experienced Zulu could easily catch a British soldier even if he was mounted. More than half of the British soldiers that actually managed to escape the battle were killed before they reached the river in the treacherous mountain terrain, many more drowned in the rushing water. Some Zulus even chased the British who had made it across the river, killing the weak and slow. They were soon called back though, as they had not been given permission by King Cetshwayo to cross into Natal from Zululand.
The British had no ammunition and their retreat had been cut off, they had to accept their fate. As the soldiers bravely stood shoulder to shoulder, they fought until they were killed.
As soon as Pulleine saw that the British were going to lose at Isandlwana, he sent Lieutenant Teignmouth Melvill to rescue the Queen’s Colour. A Colour is a flag that represents a certain group, like royalty or a specific regiment. These were held in high importance by the British as they value tradition. The Queen’s Colour was the Union Jack. Melvill travelled down Fugitive’s Trial where he met the river and was swept down in the current. Lieutenant Nevill Coghill resuced Melvill by leaping into the river himself to pull him out. As Melvill was climbing up the river bank, he lost grip on the flag and watched it travel downstream. The two men were then caught and killed by a Zulu before being able to retrieve the Colour. A British patrol retrieved the flag a few days later. After the war, Queen Victoria wanted to see the Colour and she awarded battle honours to Coghill and Melvill in memory of their valiant efforts to save it. She placed a wreath of everlasting flowers on the Colour and directed the creation of a silver replica to be carried on the Sovereign’s Colour by both battalions of the Regiment.
After the battle, the Zulus disembowelled the British they had killed, in order to free their souls and the evil spirits that could possibly linger over them. As the Zulus have always done, they took no prisoners. There were many medicines, poisons and alcohols left in the British camp and the Zulus had consumed them during the attack. The cries of dying Zulus from the medicines and poisons were carried across the plain along with the battle cries from the battle at Rorke’s Drift.
The British defeat is to be blamed upon many things: the inexperienced leaders at the time, the over-confident nature of the leadership, the underestimating of Zulu power and the lack of preparation and resources.
Chelmsford was an inexperienced leader who struggled to make decisions, this did not stand him in good stead in the Battle of Isandlwana. His inaccurate locating of the main Zulu troops led to the exposure and instability of the camp at Isandlwana. His miscalculations ultimately led to the under-resourced battle that the British put up at Isandlwana. He left Isandlwana with even less experienced leadership in charge of the camp with unclear instructions of how to control a battle if it did occur.
Going into the battle convinced that you will win is not a fruitful approach. Untested weapons, no backup ammunition, ineffective battle tactics and not digging trenches around the camp make it clear to a historian that the British were arrogant and over-confident in entering this battle. The assumption that they would achieve easy victory resulted in one of the most humiliating defeats the British had ever suffered. Chelmsford was never trusted with the leadership of an army again.
The British had the idea in their minds that the Zulus were nothing but spear-wielding savages and were therefore surprised by the discipline and bravery of the Zulu forces. This indicates a lack of preparation and research for the battle which also led the British further into defeat.
Isandlwana resulted in great humiliation for the British and casualties on both sides of the battle. It led to confidence in the Zulu effort during the Anglo Zulu war and a less arrogant mind-set of the British. This battle is important in our South African heritage as it not only forms one of the major battles in a war that shaped our country, but ignites a sense of pride in the strength of South Africans.
It is fitting today as the world continues to underestimate the power of Africa and the people within it. The battle of Isandlwana is a perfect example of how the 19th century world assumed the incapability of the Zulu people and therefore creates an example today of the 21st century world and their view of Africa. The battle of Isandlwana was a well selected battle by King Cetshwayo as it flawlessly demonstrated the bravery, perseverance and loyalty the Zulu warriors had. It is important in the heritage of South Africa as it is part of the history of South Africa and therefore shapes the country we live in today. We see how the inhabitants before us fought for this land and that we must be proud to live on and utilize it.
The battle of Isandlwana was a great demonstration of Zulu strength and British bravery despite the circumstances stacked against them. Both sides fought well and the ultimate defeat of the British was due to the ill-prepared leadership and lack of preparation. This is an important heritage sight as it gives us a glimpse of the history of our incredible country.