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  • James Houser

January 22, 1879 - Zulu War, Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

Something else I shoulda/coulda written much more about.

January 22, 1879. A British force invading the Zululand in what is now South Africa are met with fierce resistance - and one of the most famous setbacks in British imperial history.

The Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift are, more than almost any other battle in modern history, the victims of a one-sided story-telling bias. The bloody destruction of the British column at Isandlwana by almost 20,000 Zulu warriors, and the admittedly heroic defense of Rorke's Drift by a small British detachment outnumbered many times over, have been heavily romanticized and mythologized, not least in a major motion picture in 1973. The problem is, of course, that we hear these events from the British side...when they were doing the invading.

Let's go back. In the 19th Century, South Africa was ruled by the British, but largely occupied by two groups: the Boers, descendants of Dutch settlers who had moved inland rather than comply with British law, and the various African Bantu peoples. Chief among these peoples was the Zulu, a violent expansionist state that had consumed many other tribes in the last few decades. The Zulus and the Boers held nothing but hostility for each other, and the British realized that pacifying South Africa would mean ending this dispute.

About as good a map as I can find.

The fact that this entailed turning South Africa into a white minority-ruled state, using the black majority population as cheap labor, was neither here nor there. That's colonialism in the 19th Century, and it could be worse - you could be in the Belgian Congo.

So the British administrators started a B.S. war with the Zulu, basically because they were strong and that wasn't cool with the Brits. So a small army no more than about 2,000 men heads into Zululand under Baron Chelmsford to subdue this little upstart state. No big.

Actually, yes big. The Zulu had no more advanced military technology than a long stabbing spear, but they LIKED that spear and they were EXTREMELY good at using it. As soon as King Cetshwayo learned the British had crossed the border, he sent his army: almost 25,000 Zulu Impi. They moved fast, super fast, faster on foot than basically any army ever has.

Modern Zulu dressed up for an Isandlwana reenactment, 2019

On January 22, the Impi caught up with Chelmsford's army at Isandlwana. The invaders had been careless and had not fortified their position, and Chelmsford was away on a patrol. The Zulu commanders launched a brilliant attack that struck their foes from all sides. Even though the British had advanced rifles, cannons, and rockets, the Zulu charges were fast and deadly. Even though they formed a square to resist the attacks, the courageous Africans caved in this square and did what they did best. Almost the whole force was annihilated, and Chelmsford escaped by a hair.

"The Battle of Isandlwana," Charles Edwin Fripp, 1885

The story was different at Rorke's Drift. At this small cluster of buildings Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead, commanding a small unit, got early word of the attack and made ready. When almost 3,000 Zulus surrounded their force of about 150 men, the British put up a deadly fire and fought for every inch. After a fight that lasted nearly all day, the Zulu commanders decided this speck on the map wasn't worth it and rejoined the main army.

"The Defense of Rorke's Drift," Alphonse de Neuville, 1880. LT Chard is pictured right, in the pale pants with a rifle.

Chard and Bromhead won Victoria Crosses, and the war was far from over; the British would come back, and be much better prepared. The Zulu had only bought time and their inevitable defeat came later that year. King Cetshwayo had hoped a stunning defeat would convince the British to back off, but instead it had the opposite effect.

This story is told in the West, as you might expect, as a heroic last stand by the men at Rorke's Drift or the dead of Isandlwana. But on the larger scale, it was one of Africa's last stands against European imperialism - proof that even without the technology and wealth of a great power, a small African kingdom, even momentarily, could defend themselves from invasion and submission. Even if it wasn't successful, they would not go gentle into the good night of enslavement and conquest.

There was one African country, though, that won its war - and it is one of the most incredible and untold stories of military history. But Ethiopia, and the trumpet of Gabriel at Adwa, must wait for another day - March 1, 1896, to be exact.

I got this planned out, ya'll.

The classic work on the Zulu Wars is Donald R. Morris's The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation under Shaka and Its Fall in the Zulu War of 1879 (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 1998.) First published in 1966, it went a long way towards introducing the Zulu Wars and the Zulu people to modern history. It is stirringly written, but it suffers heavily from a "adventure-story" style and is decidedly outdated now. Much more timely for general audiences is Saul David's Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879 (New York: Penguin, 2005.)

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