An Account of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879

Written by Bella Howard-Vyse


South Africa is a country particularly rich in fascinating historical events. One such is the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, caused when the British Empire came into conflict with the Zulu Kingdom. This war became famous on account of the unusual nature of the outcome of the battles within it. There were two main conflicts that took place on the 22 January 1879: the Battle of Isandlwana and the Battle of Rorke’s Drift (which continued until the 23rd), both of which were only small parts of a more complex and destructive war.

This Zulu War is believed to have been initiated based on the British campaign for expansion. Lord Chelmsford, the commander-in-chief in South Africa, regarded the Zulu Kingdom as a threat to the established British colony of Natal and after the ruler of the native Kingdom, Cetshwayo, failed to respond well to the accusation against him of Zulus murdering some British subjects, Chelmsford decided to invade Zululand. A further reason that prompted the attack was the friction on the Natal border and in response, Chelmsford moved the 24th Regiment of Foot from the Eastern frontier in Cape Town to Natal. An ultimatum was sent to Cetshwayo which included the demands to disband the Zulu army and force the Zulu’s to accept the British residency. Chelmsford carried out this invasion without informing the British Government as he hoped that he would capture Cetshwayo before his government became aware of the hostilities. He decided on a three-pronged attack on King Cetshwayo’s ‘Great Place’ at Ulundi, in which he assigned himself to the Central Column.

The first battle, which took place at Isandlwana, ten miles east of the Buffalo River, began 11 days after the British army invaded Zululand. 1,800 British soldiers were attacked by a force of around 20,000 Zulus and, consequently, the British suffered a heavy loss of roughly 1,300 men compared to the Zulus’ loss of one thousand. Thus, this was a decisive victory for the natives, whose weaponry was inferior to the modern breech loading single shot Martini-Henry rifle and bayonets that the British army possessed. 

In Chelmsford’s absence on the morning of 22 January, as he led half of the British force to join a reconnaissance in the Malakatha Hills, the Zulu army attacked the camp and mission station that the British were defending. This attack, comprised of twelve Zulu regiments, annihilated the British and colonial forces left in the camp. After this annihilation, and with the few remaining survivors otherwise engaged in fighting, the Zulu General, Prince Dabulamanzi, with 4,000 men in his regiment attacked the commissariat depot at Rorke’s Drift. The British senior officer of the Royal Engineers, Lieutenant John Chard, had only one hour to prepare for their retaliation against this attack. In light of this, he used the hospital and storehouse to create a fort with wagons and mealie bags which was successful in defending the British against the attack which left 17 British soldiers dead and 400 Zulus killed on the battlefield. This conflict came to be known as the Battle of Rorke’s Drift and the significance of the Anglo-Zulu war is perhaps partly brought about by the unexpected change in British success. After facing destruction at Isandlwana, the British army seized victory at Rorke’s Drift where 139 British soldiers with the strength and fighting ability of about 70 (as the rest of the numbers of men were made up from the hospital) took on the 4,000 Zulus that Dabulamanzi had led across the Buffalo River. The defence that John Chard had established with the wagons and mealie bags gave the British soldiers reasonable coverage and provided them with a barrier after the Zulus set fire to the hospital. Quite unexpectedly, the British won this battle and the Zulus retreated, resulting in a victory for the British.

Ultimately, the Anglo-Zulu War was a decisive victory for the British, who managed to take over much of Sub-Saharan Africa. From a postcolonial perspective, this was a significant moment in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and the dividing of the continent by the West.





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