Zulu Victory At Isandlwana

The Zulu Victory At Isandlwana

On 22 January 1879, the British Army suffered its greatest defeat in Africa when 24,000 Zulu soldiers overran a British camp of 1 700 at the Battle of Isandlwana near Isandlwana Mountain.


This story on the famous Zulu victory over the British Army Battle of Isandlwana, is our first 2018 ‘Underdogs’ entry set in Pre-Colonial South Africa…I found this great account of the battle of Isandlawana courtesy of Zuluculture.com reproduced below:


The Battle of Isandlwana

The Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879 was the first major encounter in the Anglo–Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. Eleven days after the British commenced their invasion of Zululand in South Africa, a Zulu force of some 20,000 warriors attacked a portion of the British main column consisting of about 1,800 British, colonial and native troops and perhaps 400 civilians.

The battle was a crushing victory for the Zulus and caused the defeat of the first British invasion of Zululand. The British Army suffered its worst defeat against a technologically inferior indigenous force.

However, Isandlwana resulted in the British taking a much more aggressive approach in the Anglo–Zulu War, leading to a heavily reinforced second invasion and the destruction of King Cetshwayo’s hopes of a negotiated peace.


Following the imperialist scheme by which Lord Carnarvon had successfully brought about federation in Canada, it was thought that a similar plan might succeed in South Africa. In 1874, Sir Henry Bartle Frere was sent to South Africa as high commissioner to instigate the scheme. One of the obstacles to such a plan was the presence of the independent states of the South African Republic and the Kingdom of Zululand.

In furtherance of the Imperial scheme, Sir Bartle Frere, High Commissioner of Southern Africa for the British Empire, on his own initiative, without the approval of the British government and with the intent of instigating a war with the Zulu, presented an ultimatum on 11 December 1878, to the Zulu King Cetshwayo with which the Zulu King could not comply…An ultimatum which set the British and Zulu on the inevitable path to War.


Lord Chelmsford, the Commander-in-Chief of British forces during the war, initially planned a five-pronged invasion of Zululand composed of over 15,000 troops in five columns and designed to encircle the Zulu army and force it to fight as he was concerned that the Zulus would avoid battle. Lord Chelmsford settled on three invading columns with the main centre column, now consisting of some 7,800 men comprising the previously called No. 3 Column and Durnford’s No.2 Column, under his direct command. He moved his troops from Pietermaritzburg to a forward camp at Helpmekaar, past Greytown. On 9 January 1879 they moved to Rorke’s Drift, and early on 11 January commenced crossing the Buffalo River into Zululand.

The backbone of the British force under Lord Chelmsford consisted of twelve regular infantry companies: six each of the 1st and 2nd battalions, 24th Regiment of Foot (2nd Warwickshire Regiment), which were hardened and reliable troops. In addition, there were approximately 2,500 local African auxiliaries of the Natal Native Contingent many of which were exiled or refugee Zulu.

The Zulu army, while a product of a warrior culture, was essentially a militia force which could be called out in time of national danger.  It had a very limited logistical capacity and could only stay in the field a few weeks before the troops would be obliged to return to their civilian duties. Zulu warriors were armed primarily with assegai thrusting spears, known in Zulu as iklwa, knobkierrie clubs, some throwing spears and shields made of cowhide. The Zulu warrior, his regiment and the army drilled in the personal and tactical use and coordination of this weapons system.

Cetshwayo sent the 24,000 strong main Zulu impi from near present-day Ulundi, on 17 January, across the White Umfolozi River.

The British would soon pay the price for underestimating the disciplined, well-led, well-motivated and confident Zulu.



Heat Of The Battle: Artist’s Rendition

While Chelmsford was in the field seeking them, the entire Zulu army at the Battle Of Isandlwana had outmanoeuvred him, moving behind his force with the intention of attacking the British Army on the 23rd.

The Zulu attack then developed in the traditional horns and chest of the buffalo, with the aim of encircling the British position.

An officer in advance from Chelmsford’s force gave this eyewitness account of the final stage of the battle at about 3:00pm.

“In a few seconds we distinctly saw the guns fired again, one after the other, sharp. This was done several times -a pause, and then a flash – flash! The sun was shining on the camp at the time, and then the camp looked dark, just as if a shadow was passing over it. The guns did not fire after that, and in a few minutes all the tents had disappeared.”

Nearly the same moment is described in a Zulu warrior’s account.

“The sun turned black in the middle of the battle; we could still see it over us, or should have thought we had been fighting till evening. Then we got into the camp, and there was a great deal of smoke and firing. Afterwards the sun came out bright again.”

The time of the solar eclipse on that day is calculated as 2:29pm.

Of the 1,700-plus force of British troops and African auxiliaries, about 1,300 were killed, most of them Europeans. Some 1,000 Martini-Henry rifles, two cannons, 400,000 rounds of ammunition, three colours, most of the 2,000 draft animals and 130 wagons, impedimenta such as tinned food, biscuits, beer, overcoats, tents and other supplies were taken by the Zulu or left abandoned on the field.

The Zulu had lost around 1,000 killed, with various unconfirmed estimates for their wounded.

Conclusion: Aftermath Of The Zulu Victory At Isandlwana

Much like Menelik II’s defeat of the Italians at Adowa in 1896, the Battle of Isandlwana remains an important symbol of African resistance to Colonial Rule…Stay with us as our South African odyssey continues, this time in an era the memory of Isandlwana had faded into the mists of time.

In Part 1 of our ‘Apartheid Black Ops’ series, we take a look at Colonial South Africa’s War within, as Apartheid Intelligence moves to suppress growing internal Political dissent resulting in widescale imprisonment, abduction. torture and killing of Political Activists deemed ‘Agitators’ by the Apartheid State under declaration of a State of Emergency.

The Zulu also played a major role in the 1820s upheaval in Southern Africa known as The Mfecane, and the Kingdom’s proud legacy has made it unconquerable as it still exists in South Africa’s modern day Province of Kwa-Zulu Natal.



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