Shaka: detail, photograph by George Lindmark Studio, Chicago, Illinois. Cetshwayo: painting by the German artist Carl Rudolph Sohn (1845-1908), 1882 – Royal Collection Trust. UK. Map (Zululand): from Isandlwana: by the English war artist Charles Edwin Fripp (1854-1906), c1885 – National Army Museum, London. Rorke’s Drift: by the French painter Alphonse Marie de Neuville (1835-1885), 1880 – Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Ulundi: from Africa, Its Discovery, Conquest and Colonization, published in Copenhagen in 1901, artist unknown. Frere: 1880s, artist unknown. Map (South Africa):

xxxxxAs we have seen, the warrior chief King Shaka united the Zulu Clans in 1817 (G3c), and by a regime of terror quickly formed a Zulu homeland in present-day Natal. Then, having assembled a highly efficient army, equipped with improved weapons and trained in battle tactics, he embarked on a vicious campaign of expansion. Such was the ferocity and brutality of his attacks - marked by atrocities and cruelties on an unprecedented scale - that they caused a vast migration of people across the whole of south-east Africa. Known as the Mfecane (The Crushing), it killed or made homeless some two million native people, and reduced vast areas of the region to empty wasteland. By the time of his assassination in 1828 the Zulus dominated most of southern Africa from the Zambezi River to Cape Colony.


xxxxxShaka was succeeded by his half-brother Dingane, and his reign saw the first curb on Zulu expansion. In February 1838, during negotiations with the Boers - then on their Great Trek - he reneged on an agreement, murdered their delegates (including their leader Piet Retief), and then attacked the Boer camp, killing some 500 and stealing most of their cattle. Later that year, as we have seen, the new leader of the Voortrekkers, Andries Pretorius, took revenge and routed the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River (1838 Va). Spears proved no match for guns, and some 3,000 warriors were killed. Two years later Dingane was overthrown by his brother Mpande. His reign saw the loss of territory to both the Boers, who were beginning to settle in the Transvaal and Orange Free State, and to the British, who, for strategic reasons, held on to Natal in 1838 and took over the area five years later.

xxxxxButxthe Zulus remained a major force in the area and were yet to be conquered. King Cetshwayo (1836-1884), a half-nephew of the great Shaka, came to power in 1873 and proved as ruthless and as ambitious as his uncle. Opposed to the increasing presence of Europeans, he set about restoring the power of the Zulus. He built up a disciplined fighting force of some 40,000 men, complete with a large number of poor standard flintlock muskets and rifles, and encouraged incursions into disputed territories along the Transvaal and Natal borders. Thesexwere minor incidents in themselves, but the growing strength of the Zulus concerned the new British Commissioner for South Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere (1815-1884). He was anxious to establish some form of political and economic federation in the south-east region - along the lines of the Canadian Federation set up in 1867 - and saw the Zulu nation as a serious obstacle to such a scheme. Using the border disputes as a plausible excuse - along with a number of incidental grievances - he sent an ultimatum to Cetshwayo in December 1878 demanding that, among other things, he “discontinued his military system” (i.e. disbanded his army!) and virtually submitted himself to British control. This demand was not met, of course, and was taken by the British as a casus belli. In January 1879 a force of some 18,000 men, made up of Europeans and African troops and commanded by Lord Chelmsford, invaded Zululand.

xxxxxAtxxfirst, the invasion force was unopposed, but on 22nd January part of the centre column, having advanced some eight miles beyond Rorke’s Drift and set up a camp near the strange-shaped hill of Isandlwana, was suddenly attacked by a Zulu army of some 22,000. The mixed force of British and native troops, numbering about 1,800, was taken almost completely by surprise. Sprawled across open ground and with no fortified positions, it was at a distinct disadvantage against an army of such size. British gunfire inflicted heavy casualties and, for a time, the red coats held their ground, but attacks on the flanks forced a withdrawal, and in the confusion that followed the regiment was overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. The battle ended in hand-to-hand fighting and the loss for the British of some 1,300 men, including 450 native troops. Casualties on the Zulu side were extremely heavy, estimated at 3,000 dead and about the same number wounded, but the extent of the Zulu victory could not be denied.

xxxxxNor was this the only setback for the British. In the meantime the column on the left flank, having crossed the Tugela River, had begun its march to Eshowe, a deserted missionary station which was to serve as an advanced base for the attack on Ulundi. Near the Ineyzane River, however, the column came under attack from some 6000 impis (warriors). This attack was successfully repulsed by accurate gunfire, including the use of a Gatling gun and seven pounders, and the column reached Eshowe the following day. There, however, the garrison of some l,300 men was soon surrounded, and the defences around the disused church and schoolroom had to be strengthened to withstand a siege. It was not, in fact, until the beginning of April that a relief column arrived, commanded by Lord Chelmsford. By then, 44 men had been killed and Zulu losses were well over a thousand.

xxxxxAnd earlier, following on from their victory at the Battle of Isandlwana, 4,000 Zulu reserves launched a raid on the nearby outpost of Rorke’s Drift, a trading store and mission house that was being used as a field hospital. They were only driven off after ten hours of ferocious fighting during which 139 soldiers, making what could well have been their last stand, inflicted heavy casualties upon their frenzied attackers. The outer defences, made of biscuit boxes and bags of grain, had to be abandoned after two hours, and when the hospital was set on fire and its outer wall breached, holes had to be smashed in the inner walls to drag the patients to safety. In the hand-to-hand fighting a number of patients were stabbed to death and several soldiers killed. The wave of attacks continued until midnight, and then the beleaguered garrison came under constant fire from flint muskets and assegais (long throwing spears). By dawn, however, the Zulu warriors had left the battlefield, having learnt, no doubt, that a relief column was approaching. They left some 500 dead. Casualties on the British side were 17 killed and ten wounded. Such was the bravery shown by this small contingent that no less than eleven men received the Victoria Cross, the highest number ever awarded for a single action.


Rorke’s Drift and

the Kaffir Wars.


xxxxxAs we have seen, King Shaka united the Zulu clans in 1817 (G3c) and, having made a highly efficient army, embarked on a vicious campaign of expansion. By his death the Zulus dominated most of South Africa from the Zambezi River to Cape Colony. His half-nephew, Cetshwayo, became king in 1873 and was soon involved in disputes along his borders with the Transvaal and Natal. The British, concerned at the strength of the Zulus, used these border disputes to send an ultimatum to Cetshwayo demanding that he disband his army. When he refused, they invaded Zululand in January 1879, but came up against stiff opposition. A large British force of some 1,400 men was completely routed at the Battle of Isandlwana, a column was besieged at Eshowe, and only a gallant stand at Rorke’s Drift by about 130 men averted another disaster. However, with the arrival of reinforcements, including artillery batteries and machine guns, the Zulus suffered severe casualties, first at the Battle of Kambula at the end of March and then at the decisive Battle of Ulundi at the beginning of July. Cetshwayo’s capital city was razed to the ground, he was captured, and Zululand was taken over by the British and made part of Natal in 1897.

xxxxx(Thexpainting above is by Alphonse de Neuville (1835-1885), a French artist who studied under Eugène Delacroix and specialised in depicting battle scenes.)

xxxxxThe victory at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift restored some faith in the fighting ability of the British soldier, but the defeat at Isandlwana - the greatest suffered in British colonial history - gave cause for grave concern. The home government - which, incidentally, had never sanctioned the invasion of Zululand - feared that a reversal of this magnitude could incite rebellion in other parts of the Empire. As a result, reinforcements made up of seven regiments and two artillery batteries were despatched to South Africa without delay. The first of these troops arrived at Durban at the beginning of March 1879, and by the end of the month a column of some 6,000 men, led by Lord Chelmsford, was crossing into Zululand. OnxApril 2nd it successfully repulsed an attack at Gingingdlovu, relieved the garrison at Eshowe three days later, and then won a resounding victory at the Battle of Kambula. This engagement proved a turning point. The Zulus lost some 2000 men in the space of five hours of heavy fighting, slaughtered by the British army’s much increased fire power. There were setbacks, however. DuringxMarch, for example, an attack on the native stronghold of Hlobane ended in failure, and a supply column making for Luneberg was overwhelmed at Ntombi. Over sixty men were killed - well over half the contingent - and all the stores captured. Nonetheless by June the remainder of the reinforcements had arrived, and a British victory was only a matter of time.

xxxxxThe decisive battle came at the beginning of July. In this renewed offensive the British army was made up of 12 infantry battalions, 2 cavalry regiments, 5 batteries of artillery comprising 24 guns, and a Gatling (machine gun) battery, the first of its kind. The total number of regular troops alone amounted to close on 2,000. And in addition to this enormous show of strength, a number of senior generals, including Sir Garnet Wolseley, were on their way to replace Lord Chelmsford!

xxxxxOn July 1st the bulk of this army crossed the White Mfonzi River and Chelmsford, confident in his strength of numbers and enormous fire power, formed a fortified square within sight of Ulundi, the Zulu’s chief city. Within a short time a number of cavalry skirmishes had enticed the Zulus to battle. Some 24,000 impis attacked the hollow square on all sides, but it was slaughter on a pitiful scale. The combined fire of rifle, Gatling guns and artillery prevented the warriors - the vast majority only armed with spear and shield - from getting to within 20 yards of the square. And as they retreated they were pursued by the cavalry and killed in large numbers. It was the end of the Zulu’s military might. After the battle, which only lasted half an hour, Cetshwayo’s imperial city of Ulundi (the “high place”) was burnt to the ground, and Zululand was taken over by the British. The territory was divided into thirteen small kingdoms and was made part of Natal in 1897. There was a brief rebellion in 1905, but this was quickly crushed. It was a tragic ending to a proud people. Today much of the former Zululand is contained in the South African region known as KwaZulu-Natal.

xxxxxIncidentally, the last king of the Zulus, Cetshwayo, was captured a few weeks after the Battle of Ulundi. He was exiled to Cape Town, a prisoner on Robben Island, but in the summer of 1882 he spent nearly a month in London, where he met prime minister Gladstone and visited Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. He was made ruler of central Zululand in January 1883, but he was not accepted by some of the other chiefs and became a fugitive. He died at Eshowe in 1884, and his grave, deep in the Nkandla forest, is maintained as a sacred place by the Zulus. ……

xxxxx…… The man who provoked the war, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, was demoted and censured when it was over. The government of the Transvaal and Natal was taken from him, and he was recalled to England in July 1880. He was preparing to counter charges made against him when he died in Wimbledon, South-West London, in 1884. ……


xxxxx…… An early and notable casualty of the war was the exiled heir to the French throne Prince Imperial Napoleon Eugene, only legitimate son of Napoleon III (who had abdicated in 1871). He volunteered to serve with the British Army and, wearing the uniform of the Royal Artillery, was killed whilst on a reconnaissance mission on the first day of June 1879. ……

xxxxx…… Contrary to popular belief, only a few of the defenders at Rorke’s Drift (meaning “ford”) were Welsh. The Regiment did not become a Welsh Regiment until two years after this historic battle. However, it does seem a fact that, when the assault on the mission house began, Sergeant Henry Gallagher shouted out, “Here they come, as thick as grass and as black as thunder”.

xxxxxThe year 1879 also saw the end of the Kaffir Wars. As we have seen, these began in 1779 (G3a) when the Boers came into conflict with the group of tribes known as the Xhosa. After the Boers made their Great Trek northwards in 1836, the British continued the fight against these native people, but it was not until 1852 (Va), during the eighth Kaffir War of 1850 to 1853, that they began to get the upper hand. In 1857 the Xhosa, persuaded by a prophecy, slaughtered all their cattle and destroyed all their crops, and this seriously weakened them as a nation. In the ninth war, 1877 to 1878, they were finally defeated at the Battles of Umzintanzani and Quintana, and in 1879 they and their land were incorporated into Cape Colony.

xxxxxThe year 1879 also saw the end of the Kaffir Wars (known also as the Cape Frontier Wars or Xhosa Wars). As we have seen, these began in 1779 (G3a) when the Boers (Dutch farmers of South Africa), moving inland, came into conflict with a group of tribes known as the Xhosa. This held up the advance of the Boers for some years but eventually, when they made their Great Trek northwards in 1836, they outflanked the Xhosa (arrowed on map) and left the British to continue the fight alone. This they did, but the going proved tough. The terrain was rugged, making movement slow and difficult, and the Xhosa could take cover in the thick undergrowth and dense forests. From there they were able to launch guerrilla attacks. The British were forced to build forts to protect the eastern frontier of Cape Colony, and it was not until 1852 (Va) during the eighth Kaffir War of 1850 to 1853, that they began to get the better of their formidable enemy.

xxxxxThen in 1857 the Xhosa people themselves brought about their final collapse. In that year they were persuaded by a prophecy to slaughter all their cattle and destroy all their crops in the belief that this would raise their ancestors from their graves and bring about the destruction of the British. They never recovered from this self-inflicted genocide. Twoxof their tribes took up arms against the British in 1877 - the Ngika and Gcaleka - but they were defeated at the Battles of Umzintanzani (December 1877) and Quintana (February 1878). In 1879 what was left of the Xhosa people and their territory was incorporated into the Cape Colony, bringing to an end a hundred years of intermittent fighting - one of the longest struggles by an African people against a European invader.