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When Spears Beat Cannons: The Battle of Isandlwana

The 1879 conflict had a surprising outcome.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The late 19th century was a tumultuous time for European empires. As revolutions sprang up in the Americas, some crowns sought to expand their borders, while others struggled to maintain control of their territories. Meanwhile, the British resolved to continue their colonization of Africa—particularly in the south, where diamonds had recently been discovered. 

Sir Henry Bartle Frere, a colonial administrator who was appointed the High Commissioner for Southern Africa, was a key figure in Britain’s imperialist agenda for the continent. In this role, he governed British possessions in the southernmost region, with the goal of creating a confederation of Brits, South Africans, and Boers—the Afrikaans-speaking descendants of Dutch settlers.

Land negotiations between the British Empire, the South African Republic, and the powerful Zulu Kingdom were becoming increasingly tense. Although British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli wanted his country to avoid war, especially in the midst of other conflicts with Eastern Europe and India, Frere thought the Zulus would be an ongoing threat to British interests. Accordingly, he planned an invasion of Zululand, located along the coast of the Indian Ocean.

Some justifications for war, or casus belli, were put together by Frere, based on a few minor incidents that Frere insisted were proof of Zulu aggression. It was largely political theater, given that the British were looking for any excuse to clash with the Zulu. An ultimatum was presented to Cetshwayo, king of the Zulu Kingdom. Among other conditions, he would have to accept a British Agent’s residency, agree to various cattle payments, and disband the Zulu army—or face the might of the British Empire. 

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Frere purposefully delayed communications to London, so he could begin preparing for the conflict without interference. Cetshwayo didn’t want to go to war, but the terms of the ultimatum were unacceptable, as disbanding his army and approving the British Agent’s presence would largely strip him of power. When Cetshwayo failed to respond to the ultimatum, Frere ordered an attack without approval from the British government. The British Army invaded Zululand in January 1879.

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  • Cetshwayo photographed in 1885. 

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Brits invaded in three columns, with the main center column numbering around 7,800 men. Meanwhile, the Zulu army numbered around 35,000 militia troops in total, with the main army consisting of around 20,000 men. The full force of the Zulu army could only be called upon for a few weeks before they would be obliged to return home and resume their civilian duties. 

Cetshwayo had introduced some muskets to his soldiers, but they did little to change the loadout of the average Zulu warrior. The Zulus looked down on firearms as cowardly weapons; what little arms they carried were out-of-date, poorly kept, and lacking ammunition, and a majority of Zulu soldiers were untrained in firing a gun. A Zulu soldier was usually seen carrying the iklwa—a short spear—and a cowhide shield. On the other side, the British were armed with modern breech-loading rifles, two mountain guns, and a rocket battery.

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Despite their significantly higher numbers, the Zulus maneuvered much quicker than their British counterparts. Led by Commander-in-Chief Lord Chelmsford, the center British column advanced and made camp at a hill named Isandlwana, taking no defensive precautions. Chelmsford claimed he saw no need to do so; past colonial wars had shown that a small, well-trained, well-equipped army could overcome indigenous forces in spite of a numerical disadvantage. Chelmsford was actually more worried about the work that would go into moving their wagons and oxen into a defensive position than he was about a potential attack from the Zulus. 

Scouts soon returned saying they had encountered and skirmished with a section of the Zulu forces; Chelmsford believed them to be the front-line vanguard and sent the majority of his regiment to find and engage the main force. In reality, this was a diversion. The main Zulu force discovered the camp at Isandlwana caught off guard by their advance and largely depleted, with only 1,800 men—consisting of both British troops and African auxiliaries—left behind to defend the camp.

Although the rocket battery, which had not been set up, was quickly overwhelmed, the beginning of the battle seemed to favor the British, whose volleys of fire and artillery halted the advance of the Zulu army’s center and caused some regiments to take cover. Many warriors persisted, however, forcing British regiments to retreat as their right flank was exposed.

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As a few accounts from both sides report, the sun then turned black, and firing from the British ceased. Remarkably, a solar eclipse had occurred at 2:29 PM. Once the sun was shining again, British forces were overwhelmed, with many redcoats fighting in last stands. These last stands were mostly hand-to-hand combat, where the disciplined Zulus held an advantage using their preferred weaponry. 

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  • Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill (24th Regiment) at the Battle of Isandlwana. 

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Some of the British were spared in the battle, as the black-and-blue uniforms of certain soldiers were confused with civilians who wore all black, but many were killed during the retreat. In the end, over 1,300 British troops were killed, including two field commanders and 52 officers. Zulu casualties were not recorded by either side, but modern estimates put it between 1,000 and 3,000—a mere fraction of the Zulu forces that had shown up to fight that day.

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Even though the spear-wielding Zulu were up against the most advanced firearms of that time period, the Anglo invasion of Zululand had collapsed at the first major battle. However, the conflict was not over yet. Perhaps the Zulus could have chased down the scattered and demoralized troops that remained, but Cetshwayo was still determined to avoid all-out war, aware that the British could send an even larger invasion force. 

Cetshwayo’s concerns were valid; although many in London were opposed to waging war in South Africa, their national pride was now at stake. Even more important for the British Empire was the need to quash hope for future rebellions in Africa and elsewhere, since the Zulus had proven that it was possible for native forces to defeat the technologically advanced British troops with good discipline and clever tactics. 

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  • The burning of Ulundi. 

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The British spared no expense on the second invasion of Zululand, with better weapons and higher numbers. Tellingly, they changed their tactics as well, a sign of recognition that superior firearms were not enough to defeat the Zulus. Ulundi, the Zulu capital, was taken by July 1879. Cetshwayo was exiled to Cape Town and later to London, earning the respect and sympathy of the British public for his dignified and peaceful inclinations. 

Chelmsford would never serve in the field again after Ulundi’s capture, and Frere was recalled to London in 1880 to face charges of misconduct, his plan for a confederation discarded. The British ultimately emerged victorious from the Anglo-Zulu War, but they learned not to underestimate indigenous African forces, a lesson that was paid for in over a thousand lives. The Battle of Isandlwana remains the British Army’s worst-ever defeat against a native enemy whose military weaponry was not nearly as technologically advanced as their own.

Featured photo of Zulu warriors, 1882: Wikipedia