Four eyewitness accounts
Africa south of the Sahara had, until the beginning of the nineteenth century, scarcely been penetrated by foreigners. A few coastal enclaves were held by slave-traders, European on the west coast, Arab on the east, while a Dutch colony, set up to service ships sailing to the East Indies, had been established at the Cape of Good Hope in the seventeenth century. The rest of black Africa remained in the possession of its native peoples.
Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, however, Europeans arrived to settle the richer and more accessible land in and around Cape Colony, while the Dutch of the Cape, irked by the imposition of British rule, instituted a Great Trek into the interior, to set up what would become the settlements of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The Africans of the south were not untouched by these disturbances. One small tribe, the Zulus, began to develop an aggressive military system of their own and, under the leadership of Shaka (reigned 1819 — 28), created a local empire in south-eastern Africa which imposed its power over its African neighbours and successfully confronted the Dutch trekkers for control of the region.
The Boers, and later the British, eventually succeeded in confining the Zulus to what would become known as Zululand, part of the province of Natal, but within it the Zulus ruled supreme. Border disputes continued. In 1879 the British in South Africa demanded that Cetewayo, the Zulu king, should grant them a protectorate over his kingdom, which would effectively have reduced it to the status of a British possession. He refused and war followed.
The Zulu military system was formidable. It had no equivalent among any of the so-called ‘primitive’ peoples fought by European armies in any of the imperial campaigns of the nineteenth century. Shaka’s system, sustained and improved by Cetewayo, required all young Zulu males to join an ‘age’ regiment of contemporaries. Once enlisted, they were forbidden to marry — marriage was a reward for proven warriors that came later in their careers – and were hardened to combat by privation and tests of endurance. Shaka’s regiments had been armed with the assegai, a short stabbing spear, alone. By the time of Cetewayo, his impis(armies) had also acquired firearms. The strength of the Zulu army, however, derived from its tactics. Trained to run for long distances, the impis formed crescent-shaped formations on encountering the enemy, the centre advancing to attack, the wings enveloping the flanks. The Zulus pressed forward to hand-to-hand combat, accepting losses however heavy, and overwhelmed the foe by terror and weight of numbers.
In the 1879 war, the Zulus had an early success at Isandhlwana on 22 January, when they discovered part of the invading British army encamped. Attacking off the line of march, 10,000 Zulus swamped the British force 1,800 strong — consisting partly of one battalion of the 24th Regiment (later the South Wales Borderers) and partly of ‘native’ troops under European officers, with a smattering of other units — whose ammunition resupply broke down in the heat of action. Almost all the force were killed. One of the survivors from the encampment was Lieutenant Horace Smith-Dorrien, whose account of his escape to Rorke’s Drift follows. He survived the Zulu War to command II Corps of the British Expeditionary Force in France, in 1914 — 15.
Private Henry Hook of the 24th actually came from Gloucestershire, an English county bordering Wales. He was twenty-eight in 1879, and serving as a cook in the small field hospital set up by his regiment at Rorke’s Drift to care for its sick and wounded, and those of other corps in the Zululand field force; Rorke’s Drift was also a supply post for the British column. For his bravery in the defence of the post, which, on the day and night following Isandhlwana, was successfully defended by eighty-five able-bodied soldiers against a Zulu force estimated to number five thousand, he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded for the defence altogether, the largest number ever given for a single action. The other recipients were Lieutenant John Chard, Royal Engineers, commanding, Commissary James Dalton, Corporal Friedrich Schiess, a Swiss citizen serving in the Natal Native Contingent, Surgeon-Major James Reynolds, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead of the 24th, and, besides Hook, five other soldiers of the regiment. Seventeen soldiers of the garrison had been killed in the defence and about four hundred Zulus. The epic is today commemorated both by the lineal descendants of the South Wales Borderers, the Royal Regiment of Wales, and the Zulu nation, who meet to honour each other on the battleground.
Account of Isandhlwana by a Zuluwarrior
On this day [according to the Zulu], the army which had been marching hitherto in single column divided into two, marching parallel to and in sight of each other, that on the left consisting of the uNokenke, umCijo, and uNodwengu Regiments, under the command of Tshingwayo, the other commanded by Mavumengwana. There were a few mounted men belonging to the chief Sihayo, who were made use of as scouts. On the 20th [January 1879] we moved across the open country and slept by the Isipezi Hill. We saw a body of mounted white men on this day, to our left. On the 21st, keeping away to the eastward, we occupied a valley running north — south under the spurs of the Nqutu Hill, which concealed the Isandhlwana Hill, distant from us about four miles, and nearly due west of our encampment. We had been well fed during our whole march, our scouts driving in cattle and goats, and on that evening we lit up our camp fires as usual. Our scouts also reported to us that they had seen the videttes of the English force at sunset on some hills west-south-west of us. Our order of encampment on the 21 st January was as follows: on the extreme right was the uNodwengu, uNokenke, and umCijo; the centre was formed by the inGobamakhosi and uMbonambi; and the left of the Undi corps and the uDloko.
On the morning of the 22nd January there was no intention whatever of making any attack on account of a superstition regarding the state of the moon, and we were sitting resting when firing was heard on our right, which we at first imagined was the inGobamakhosi engaged, and we armed and ran forward in the direction of the sound. We were soon told, however, it was the white troops fighting with Matyana’s people, some ten miles away to our left front, and returned to our original position. Just after we sat down again, a small herd of cattle came past our line from our right, being driven down by some of our scouts, and just when they were opposite to the umCijo regiment, a body of mounted men on the hill to the west, galloping evidently trying to cut them off. When several hundred yards off they perceived the umCijo and, dismounting, fired one volley at them and retired. The umCijo at once jumped up and charged, an example which was taken up by the uNokenke and uNodwengu on their right, and by the inGobamakhosi and uMbonambi on their left; while the Undi corps and uDloko formed a circle and remained where they were. With the latter were the two commanding officers, Mavumengwana and Tshingwayo, and several of the King’s brothers, who with these two corps bore away to the northwest, after a short pause, and keeping on the northern side of Isandhlwana performed a turning movement on the right without any opposition from the whites, who from the nature of the ground could not see them.
Thus the original Zulu left became their extreme right, while their right became their centre, and the centre the left. The two regiments which formed the latter, the inGobamakhosi and uMbonambi, made a turning along the front of the camp towards the English right, but became engaged long before they could accomplish it; and the uVe regiment, a battalion of the inGobamakhosi, was repulsed and had to retire until reinforced by the other battalion, while the uMbonambi suffered very severely from the artillery fire. Meanwhile, the centre, consisting of the umCijo on the left centre, and the uNokenke and uNodwengu higher up on the right under the hill, were making an attack on the left of the camp. The umCijo suffered very severely, both from artillery and musketry fire, the uNokenke from musketry fire alone; while the uNodwengu lost least. When we at last carried the camp our regiments became mixed up; a portion pursued the fugitives down to the Buffalo River, and the remainder plundered the camp; while the Undi and uDloko Regiments made the best of their way to Rorke’s Drift to plunder the post there, in which they failed and lost very heavily, after fighting all the afternoon and night.
Another warrior describes the battle
We were lying in the hills up there, when one of our scouting parties came back followed by a number of mounted men; they were most of them natives, but some were whites. They fired upon us. Then the whole impi became very excited and sprang up. When the horsemen saw how numerous we were they began to retreat. We formed up in rank and marched towards the camp. At the top of the last hill we were met by more horsemen, but we were too many for them and they retreated. Here, where we are standing … there were some parties of soldiers in red coats who kept up a heavy fire upon us as we came over. My regiment was here and lost a lot of men; they kept tumbling over one upon another. [The narrator became quite excited … and indulged in much gesticulation, illustrating the volleys by cracking his fingers.]
Then the inGobamakhosi regiment, which formed the left horn of the impi, extended and swept round on the south of the conical kopje so as to outflank the soldiers, who, seeing this, fell back and took cover in the donga [dry watercourse], and fired upon us from there. By that time the inGobamakhosi had got among the rockets [besides two field guns, the British force also had a rocket battery] and killed the horses, and were circling round so as to shut in the camp on the side of the river, but we could not advance because the fire from the donga was too heavy. The great indunas [chiefs] were on the hill to the north of the camp, and just below them a number of soldiers were engaging the umCijo regiment, which was being driven back, but one of the chiefs of the umCijo ran down from the hill and rallied them, calling out that they would get the whole impi beaten and must come on. Then they all shouted ‘Usutu!’ and waving their shields charged the soldiers with great fury. The chief was shot through the forehead and dropped down dead, but the umCijo rushed over his body and fell upon the soldiers, stabbing them with their assegais and driving them right in among the tents.
My regiment and the uDloko formed the centre of the impi. When the soldiers in the donga saw that the umCijo were getting behind them, they retreated upon the camp, firing at us all the time. As they retreated we followed them. I saw several white men on horseback galloping towards the neck, which was the only point open; then the uNokenke and uNodwengu regiments, which had formed the right horn of the impi, joined with the inGobamakhosi on the neck. After that there was so much smoke that I could not see whether the white men had got through or not. The tumult and the firing was wonderful, every warrior shouted ‘Usutu!’ as he killed anyone, and the sun got very dark like night. The English fought long and hard, there were so many of our people in front of me that I did not get into the thick of the fight until the end. The warriors called out that all the white men had been killed, and then we began to plunder the camp. We found tywala [drink] in the camp, and some of our men got very drunk. We were so hot and thirsty that we drank everything liquid we found, without waiting to see what it was. Some of them found some black stuff in bottles [ink], it did not look good, so they did not drink it; but one or two who drank some paraffin, thinking it was tywala, were poisoned. We took as much plunder as we could carry, and went away home to our kraals [villages]. We did not reassemble and march back to Ulundi [the King’s kraal]. At first we had not intended attacking the camp that day, as the moon was wrong, but as the whites had discovered our presence the indunas said we had better go on.