The Anglo-Zulu War
was fought in 1879 between the
and the Zulu Empire
. From complex beginnings, the war is
notable for several particularly bloody battles, as well as for
being a landmark in the timeline of colonialism
in the region. The war ended the
Zulu nation's independence.
had its origins in border disputes between the Zulu leader,
Cetshwayo, and the Boers in the Transvaal region.
Following a commission enquiry on
the border dispute which reported in favour of the Zulu nation in
July 1878, Sir Henry
, who found the award "one-sided and unfair to the
Boers," delivered an ultimatum to Cetshwayo. Cetshwayo had not
responded by the end of the year, so a concession was granted by
the British until 11 January 1879, after which a state of war was
deemed to exist.
In January 1879 a British force under Lieutenant General Frederick
Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford
without authorisation by the British Government. Lord Chelmsford
had under him a force of 5,000 Europeans and 8,200 Africans.
columns were to invade Zululand, from the Lower Tugela, Rorke's Drift, and Utrecht respectively, their objective being
Ulundi, the royal capital.
While one column of the force met with disaster, the war was won,
after several battles by the British in March.
In 1862, Umtonga, a brother of Cetshwayo
son of Zulu king Mpande
, fled to the Utrecht
district, and Cetshwayo assembled an army on that frontier.
According to evidence later brought forward by the Boers
, Cetshwayo offered the farmers a strip of land
along the border if they would surrender his brother. The Boers
complied on the condition that Umtonga's life was spared, and in
1861 Mpande signed a deed transferring this land to the Boers.
boundary of the land added to Utrecht ran from Rorke's Drift on the Buff to a point on the Pongola River.
boundary was beaconed in 1864, but when in 1865 Umtonga fled from
Zululand to Natal, Cetshwayo, seeing that he had
lost his part of the bargain (for he feared that Umtonga might be
used to supplant him, as Mpande had been used to supplant Dingane), caused the beacon to be removed, and also
claimed the land ceded by the Swazis to
The Zulus asserted that the Swazis were
their vassals and therefore had no right to part with this
territory. During the year a Boer
under Paul Kruger
army under Cetshwayo were posted to defend the newly acquired
Utrecht border. The Zulu forces took back their land north of the
Pongola. Questions were also raised as to the validity of the
documents signed by the Zulus concerning the Utrecht strip; in 1869
the services of the lieutenant-governor of Natal were accepted by
both parties as arbitrator, but the attempt then made to settle
disagreements proved unsuccessful.
Photograph of Cetshwayo, c.
Such was the political background when Cetshwayo became absolute
ruler of the Zulus upon his father's death in 1873. As ruler,
Cetshwayo set about reviving the military methods of his uncle
as far as possible, and even succeeded
in equipping his regiments with firearms. It is believed that he
caused the Xhosa people in the Transkei to revolt, and he aided Sikukuni in his struggle with the Transvaal.
The activities of the missionaries were
unwelcome to Cetshwayo. Though he did not harm the missionaries
themselves, several converts were killed. The missionaries, for
their part, were a source of hostile reports. For example, Bishop Schreuder
(of the Norwegian
Missionary Society) described Cetshwayo as "an able man, but for
cold, selfish pride, cruelty and untruthfulness, worse than any of
In 1874 Lord
, who had successfully brought about federation in
Canada, thought that a similar scheme might work in South Africa.
Sir Bartle Frere
was sent to South
Africa as high commissioner to bring it about. One of the obstacles
to such a scheme was the presence of the independent states of the
South African Republic
the Kingdom of Zululand
In September 1876 the massacre of a large number of girls (who had
married men of their own age instead of men from an older regiment,
as ordered by Cetshwayo) provoked a strong protest from the
government of Natal, and the occupying governments were usually
inclined to look patronisingly upon the affairs of the subjugated
African nations. The tension between Cetshwayo and the Transvaal
over border disputes continued. Sir Theophilus Shepstone
, whom Cetshwayo
regarded as his friend, had supported him in the border dispute,
but in 1877 he led a small force into the Transvaal and persuaded
the Boers to give up their independence. Shepstone became
administrator of the Transvaal, and in that role saw the border
dispute from the other side.
A commission was appointed by the lieutenant-governor of Natal in
February 1878 to report on the boundary question. The commission
reported in July, and found almost entirely in favour of the
contention of the Zulu. Sir Henry Bartle Frere
high commissioner, who thought the award "one-sided and unfair to
the Boers," stipulated that, on the land being given to the Zulu,
the Boers living on it should be compensated if they left, or
protected if they remained. Cetshwayo (who now found no defender in
Natal save Bishop Colenso
perceived by the British to be in a "defiant mood", and permitted
outrages by Zulu both on the Transvaal and Natal borders.
Three separate incidents occurred in late July, August and
September which Frere seized upon as his causes célèbres
. The first
two incidents related to the flight into Natal of two wives of
Sihayo kaXonga, and their subsequent seizure and execution by his
brother and sons, and were described thus:
- "A wife of the chief Sihayo had left him and escaped into
Natal. She was followed [on 28 July 1878] by a party of Zulus,
under Mehlokazulu, the chief son of Sihayo, and his brother, seized
at the kraal where she had taken refuge, and carried back to
Zululand, where she was put to death, in accordance with Zulu
incident occurred in September, when two men were detained while on
a sand bank of the Thukela
River near the Middle Drift.
- "A week later the same young men, with two other brothers and
an uncle, captured in like manner another refugee wife of Sihayo,
in the company of the young man with whom she had fled. This woman
was also carried back, and is supposed to have been put to death
likewise; the young man with her although guilty in Zulu eyes of a
most heinous crime, punishable with death, was safe from them on
English soil; they did not touch him."
Sir Bartle Frere
described this matter in a despatch to Sir Michael Hicks Beach
Secretary of State for the Colonies:
- "Mr. Smith, a surveyor in the Colonial Engineer Department, was
on duty inspecting the road down to the Tugela, near Fort
Buckingham, which had been made a few years ago by order of Sir
Garnet Wolseley, and accompanied by Mr. Deighton, a trader,
resident at Fort Buckingham, went down to the ford across the
Tugela. The stream was very low, and ran under the Zulu bank, but
they were on this side of it, and had not crossed when they were
surrounded by a body of 15 or 20 armed Zulus, made prisoners, and
taken off with their horses, which were on the Natal side of the
river, and roughly treated and threatened for some time; though,
ultimately, at the instance of a headman who came up, they were
released and allowed to depart."
By themselves, these incidents were flimsy grounds upon which to
found an invasion of Zululand. Indeed, Sir Henry Bulwer himself did
not initially hold Cetshwayo responsible for what was clearly not a
political act in the seizure and murder of the two women.
- "I have sent a message to the Zulu King to inform him of this
act of violence and outrage by his subjects in Natal territory, and
to request him to deliver Up to this Government to be tried for
their offence, under the laws of the Colony, the persons of
Mehlokazulu and Bekuzulu the two sons of Sirayo who were the
leaders of the party."
Cetshwayo also treated the complaint rather lightly, responding
- "Cetywayo is sorry to have to acknowledge that the message
brought by Umlungi is true, but he begs his Excellency will not
take it in the light he sees the Natal Government seem to do, as
what Sirayo’s sons did he can only attribute to a rash act of boys
who in the zeal for their father’s house did not think of what they
were doing. Cetywayo acknowledges that they deserve punishing, and
he sends some of his izinduna, who will
follow Umlungi with his words. Cetywayo states that no acts of his
subjects will make him quarrel with his fathers of the house of
We should note that the original complaint carried to Cetshwayo
from the lieutenant-governor was in the form of a request for the
surrender of the culprits. The request was subsequently transformed
by Sir Bartle Frere into a 'demand':
- "Apart from whatever may be the general wish of the Zulu
nation, it seems to me that the seizure of the two refugee women in
British territory by an armed force crossing an unmistakable and
well known boundary line, and carrying them off and murdering them
with contemptuous disregard for the remonstrances of the Natal
policemen, is itself an insult and a violation of British territory
which cannot be passed over, and unless apologised and atoned for
by compliance with the Lieutenant Governor’s demands, that the
leaders of the murderous gangs shall be given up to justice, it
will be necessary to send to the Zulu King an ultimatum which must
put an end to pacific relations with our neighbours."
We find the first mention of an ultimatum in this despatch. After
considerable discussion and exchanges of views between Sir Bartle
Frere and Sir Henry Bulwer, it was decided to arrange a meeting
with representatives of the Zulu king. The ostensible reason for
was to present the findings of the
long-awaited Boundary Commission to the Zulu people. In fact, the
occasion was also to be used to present the king with an
By the time the ultimatum was presented, the two infractions by
Sihayo’s sons and the roughing up of Smith and Deighton were only
part of the justification used, as several issues had arisen in the
meantime. One of these was Cetshwayo’s apparent breaking of
promises he had given to the then Mr Theophilus Shepstone at the
king’s 'coronation' in 1872. This farcical piece of theatre had
been agreed to by Cetshwayo simply to satisfy the wishes of
Shepstone and meant nothing to the Zulu people. Indeed, his real
Zulu installation had taken place several weeks earlier when he had
been acclaimed by his izinduna.
A second addition to the ultimatum, which seems almost like an
afterthought, required the surrender of Mbelini kaMswati. Mbelini
was the son of a Swazi
king who unsuccessfully
disputed the succession with his brother, resulting in his exile
from the kingdom. He sought, and received, refuge from Cetshwayo
and was granted land in the region of the Intombe River
in western Zululand.
entirely possible that Cetshwayo regarded him as a useful buffer
between himself and the Boers of the Transvaal.) Here, he took up
residence on the Tafelberg, a flat-topped mountain overlooking the
Something of a brigand, Mbelini made raids on anyone
in his area, Boer and Zulu alike, accruing cattle and prisoners in
the process. With the annexation of the Transvaal, Britain had also
to deal with Mbelini, and, because Frere was convinced that the
bandit chief was in the pay of the Zulu king, his surrender was
included in the ultimatum. The light in which Mbelini was regarded
is shown in a paragraph from a memorandum written by Sir Henry
- "The King disowned Umbilini’s acts by saying that Umbilini had
been giving him trouble, that he had left the Zulu country in order
to wrest the Swazi chieftainship from his brother, the reigning
Chief, and that if he returned he should kill him. But there is
nothing to show that he has in any way punished him, and, on the
contrary, it is quite certain that even if Umbilini did not act
with the express orders of Cetywayo, he did so with the knowledge
that what he was doing would be agreeable to the King."
Frere has been accused of chicanery by taking deliberate advantage
of the length of time it took for correspondence to pass between
South Africa and London to conceal his intentions from his
political masters, or at least defer giving them the necessary
information until it was too late for them to act. The first
intimation to the British government of his intention to make
'demands' on the Zulu was in a private letter to Hicks Beach
written on 14 October 1878. But that letter only arrived in London
on 16 November, and by then messengers had already been despatched
from Natal to the Zulu king to request the presence of a delegation
at the Lower Tugela on 11 December for the purpose of receiving the
Boundary Commission’s findings. Had Hicks Beach then sent off an
immediate telegraphic response explicitly forbidding any action
other than the announcement of the boundary award, it might have
arrived in South Africa just in time to prevent the ultimatum being
presented – but only just. No prohibition was sent, however, and
could hardly be expected to have been, for Hicks Beach had no means
of knowing the last minute urgency of the events that were already
in train. Nowhere in Frere’s letter was there anything to indicate
how soon he intended to act, nor was there anything to suggest how
stringent his demands would be.
Hicks Beach had earlier admitted his helplessness with regard to
the Frere's actions in a telling note to his Prime Minister:
- "I have impressed this [non aggressive] view upon Sir B. Frere,
both officially and privately, to the best of my power. But I
cannot really control him without a telegraph (I don’t know that I
could with one) I feel it is as likely as not that he is at war
with the Zulus at the present moment."
It is believed that Frere wanted to provoke a conflict with the
Zulus and in that goal he succeeded. Cetshwayo rejected the demands
of 11 December, by not responding by the end of the year. A
concession was granted by the British until 11 January 1879, after
which a state of war was deemed to exist.
The terms of the ultimatum
The following are the
terms which were included in the ultimatum delivered to the
representatives of King Cetshwayo on the banks of the Thukela river
on 11 December 1878. No time was specified for compliance with item
4, twenty days were allowed for compliance with items 1-3, that is,
until 31 December inclusive; ten days more were allowed for
compliance with the remaining demands, items 4-13. The earlier time
limits were subsequently altered so that all expired on 10 January
- Surrender of Sihayo’s three sons and brother to be tried by the
- Payment of a fine of five hundred head of cattle for the
outrages committed by the above, and for Cetshwayo’s delay in
complying with the request of the Natal Government for the
surrender of the offenders.
- Payment of a hundred head of cattle for the offence committed
against Messrs. Smith and Deighton.
- Surrender of the Swazi chief Umbilini, and others to be named
hereafter, to be tried by the Transvaal courts.
- Observance of the coronation promises.
- That the Zulu army be disbanded, and the men allowed to go
- That the Zulu military system be discontinued, and other
military regulations adopted, to be decided upon after consultation
with the Great Council and British Representatives.
- That every man, when he comes to man’s estate, shall be free to
- All missionaries and their converts, who until 1877 lived in
Zululand, shall be allowed to return and reoccupy their
- All such missionaries shall be allowed to teach, and any Zulu,
if he chooses, shall be free to listen to their teaching.
- A British Agent shall be allowed to reside in Zululand, who
will see that the above provisions are carried out,
- All disputes in which a missionary or European is concerned,
shall be heard by the king in public, and in presence of the
- No sentence of expulsion from Zululand shall be carried out
until it has been approved by the Resident.
British invasion and repulse
Cetshwayo returned no answer, and in January 1879 a British force
under Lieutenant General Frederick
Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford
without authorisation by the British Government. Lord Chelmsford
had under him a force of 5,000 Europeans and 8,200 Africans; 3,000
of the latter were employed in guarding the frontier of Natal;
another force of 1,400 Europeans and 400 Africans were stationed in
columns were to invade Zululand, from the Lower Tugela, Rorke's Drift, and Utrecht respectively, their objective being
Ulundi, the royal capital.
Cetshwayo's army numbered fully 40,000 men. The entry of all three
columns was unopposed. On 22 January the centre column (1,600
Europeans, 2,500 Africans), which had advanced from Rorke's Drift,
was encamped near Isandlwana; on the morning of that day Lord Chelmsford split
his forces and moved out to support a reconnoitring party.
After he had left the camp in charge of Lt. Colonel Henry Pulleine
(it is generally thought that
a Colonel Anthony Durnford
command, but new information has surfaced showing that it was not
so), was surprised by a Zulu army nearly 20,000 strong.
Chelmsford's refusal to set up the British camp defensively and
ignoring information that the Zulus were close at hand were
decisions that all were later to regret. The ensuing Battle of
Isandlwana was the greatest victory that the Zulu kingdom
would enjoy during the war. In its aftermath, a party of some 4,000
Zulu reserves mounted a raid on the nearby British border post of
Drift, and were only driven off after 10 hours of
ferocious fighting when British reinforcements were seen coming
toward the outpost.
While the British central column under Chelmsford's command was
thus engaged, the right flank column on the coast, under Colonel
Charles Pearson, crossed the Tugela River, skirmished with a Zulu
impi that was attempting to set up an ambush at the Inyezane River
advanced as far as the deserted missionary station of Eshowe, which
he set about fortifiying. On learning of the disaster at
Isandlwana, Pearson made plans to withdraw back beyond the Tugeala
River. However, before he had decided whether of
not to put these plans into effect, the Zulu army managed to cut
off his supply lines, and the Siege of Eshowe had begun.
Meanwhile the left flank column at Utrecht, under Colonel Evelyn
Wood, had originally been charged with occupying the Zulu tribes of
north-west Zululand and preventing them from interfering with the
British central column's advance on Ulundi. To this end Wood set
up camp at Tinta's Kraal, just 10 miles south of Hlobane
Mountain, where a force of 4,000 Zulus had been
He planned to attack them on the 24 January, but on
learning of the disaster at Isandlwana, he decided to withdraw back
to the Kraal. Thus one month after the British invasion, only their
left flank column remained militarily effective, and was too weak
to conduct a campaign alone.
It had never been Cetshwayo's intention to invade Natal, but to
simply fight within the boundaries of the Zulu kingdom. Chelmsford
used the next two months to regroup and build a fresh invading
force with the initial intention of relieving Pearson at Eshowe.
The British government rushed seven regiments of re-inforcements to
Natal, along with two artillery batteries.
this time (12 March) an escort of stores marching to Luneberg, was
killed at the Battle of
Intombe, and all the stores were lost.
The first troops arrived at Durban on 7 March. On the 29th a column,
under Lord Chelmsford, consisting of 3,400 European and 2,300
African soldiers, marched to the relief of Eshowe, entrenched
camps being formed each night.
Chelmsford told Sir Evelyn Wood's troops (Staffordshire
and Boers, 675 men in total) to attack the Zulu
stronghold in Hlobane. Lieutenant Colonel Redvers Buller, led the attack on
Hlobane on 28 March.
However, the Zulu main army of
26,000 men arrived to help their besieged tribesmen and the British
soldiers were scattered.
Besides the loss of the African contingent (those not killed
deserted) there were 100 casualties among the 400 Europeans
The next day 25,000 Zulu warriors attacked Wood's camp (2,068 men)
in Kambula, apparently without Cetshwayo's permission. The British held them
off in the Battle of
Kambula and after five hours of heavy fighting the Zulus
British losses amounted to 29, while the Zulus
lost approximately 2,000. It turned out to be a decisive
While Woods was thus engaged, Chelmsford's column was marching on
Eshowe. On 2 April this force was attacked en route
at Gingindlovu, the Zulu being repulsed.
Their losses were
heavy, estimated at 1,200 while the British only suffered two dead
and 52 wounded. The next day they relieved Pearson's men. They
evacuated Eshowe on 5 April, after which the Zulu forces burned it
Re-invasion and the defeat of the Zulus
The burning of Ulundi
The new start was not promising for the British. Despite their
successes at Kambula, Gingindlovu and Eshowe, they were right back
where they had started from at the beginning of January.
Nevertheless, Chelmsford had a pressing reason to proceed with
haste - Sir Garnet Wolseley was being sent to replace him, and he
wanted to inflict a resounding defeat on Cetshwayo's forces before
then. With yet more reinforcements arriving, Chelmsford reorganised
his forces and relaunched his invasion in June.
One of the early British casualties was the exiled heir to the
French throne, Imperial
Prince Napoleon Eugene
, who had volunteered to serve in the
British army and was killed on 1 June while out with a
Cetshwayo, knowing that the newly reinforced British would be a
formidable opponent, attempted to negotiate a peace treaty.
However, with Sir Garnet Wolseley hard on his heels, Chelmsford was
in no mood for negotiations and he proceeded as fast as he could to
the royal kraal of Ulundi, intending to destroy the main Zulu army.
On 4 July
the armies clashed at the Battle of Ulundi, and Cetshwayo's forces were decisively
After this battle the Zulu army dispersed, most of the leading
chiefs tendered their submission, and Cetshwayo
became a fugitive. On 28 August the king
was captured and sent to Cape Town (It is said that scouts spotted the water-carriers
of the king, distinctive because the water was carried above, not
upon, their heads).
His deposition was formally announced to
the Zulu, and Wolseley drew up a new scheme for the government of
the country. The dynasty of Shaka
and the Zulu country portioned among eleven Zulu chiefs, including
, John Dunn
, a white adventurer, and
, a Basuto chief who had done good
service in the war.
relegated to a minor post in Cape Town.
A Resident (Melmoth Osborn
appointed to be the channel of communication between the chiefs and
the British government. This arrangement led to much bloodshed and
disturbance, and in 1882 the British government determined to
restore Cetshwayo to power. In the meantime, however, blood feuds
had been engendered between the chiefs Usibepu
(Zibebu) and Hamu on the one side and the
tribes who supported the ex-king and his family on the other.
Cetshwayo's party (who now became known as the Usuthu) suffered
severely at the hands of the two chiefs, who were aided by a band
of white freebooters
Cetshwayo was restored Usibepu was left in possession of his
territory, while Dunn's land and that of the Basuto chief (the
country between the Tugela
River and the Umhlatuzi, i.e. adjoining Natal) was
constituted a reserve, in which locations were to be provided for
Zulu unwilling to serve the restored king.
arrangement proved as futile as had Wolseley's. Usibepu, having
created a formidable force of well-armed and trained warriors, and
being left in independence on the borders of Cetshwayo's territory,
viewed with displeasure the re-installation of his former king, and
Cetshwayo was desirous of humbling his relative. A collision very
soon took place; Usibepu's forces were victorious, and on the 22
July 1883, led by a troop of mounted Boer mercenary troops, he made
a sudden descent upon Cetshwayo's kraal at Ulundi, which he
destroyed, massacring such of the inmates of both sexes as could
not save themselves by flight. The king escaped, though wounded,
forest. After appeals to
Melmoth Osborn he moved to Eshowe, where he
died soon after.
Anatomy and assessment of the Zulu army
The Zulu War of 1879 proceeded in a pattern typical of numerous
colonial wars fought in Africa. Relatively small bodies of
professional European troops armed with modern firearms and
artillery, and supplemented by local allies and levies would march
out to meet the natives whose armies would put up a brave struggle,
but in the end would succumb to massed firepower. And so it went.
Nevertheless the Zulu pulled a major surprise in the war, one of
the most stunning native victories of the colonial period. The war
also saw acts of outstanding bravery by their European opponents.
Well respected by the British, the sardonic comment by one defender
at Rorke's Drift "here they come, thick as grass and black as
thunder" in a sense serves as a wry tribute to the elemental power
of the tribal warriors.
conflict thus continues to fascinate new generations of students
and war gamers, and has been portrayed not only in massive numbers
of books and articles but in popular film as well, more so than
other bigger native victories, such as the Ethiopians against the
Italians at Adowa, or the
Berbers of Abd
el-Krim against the Spanish in Morocco.
Interest in or reference to the Zulu has taken many forms, from the
naming of a serviceable Scottish fishing boat type, to the NATO
code for the letter "Z", to dancers and festival celebrants in the
Mardi Gras season of New Orleans, to "crews" or groups of urban
hip-hop fans. It may thus be useful to take a closer look at the
Zulu army that still inspires such attention over a century later.
A similar analysis will be made in relation to the performance of
redoubtable British forces.
Military reforms of Shaka
Tribal warfare among the Zulu clans was heavily ritualistic and
ceremonial until the ascent of the ruthless chieftain Shaka
, who adapted and innovated a number of tribal
practices that transformed the Zulu from a small, obscure tribe to
a major regional power in eastern South Africa. Many of the
innovations of Shaka were not simply created out of thin air, nor
can they be dubiously credited to the influence of European troops
drilling several hundred miles to the south, nor can they merely be
dismissed as the product of vague environmental forces like drought
or overpopulation. Shaka's predecessor, Dingiswayo
had definitely initiated a number of
expansionist changes, and was himself responsible for the initial
rise of the legendary Zulu monarch. Shaka continued this expansion,
albeit in a much more direct and violent manner.
It is also likely that he had help in designing his military
reforms. Elderly clan leaders in whose localities troops were
mustered retained a measure of influence on a regional basis, and
were entitled to sit on the ibandla
, a sort of national
advisory council. Redoubtable izinduna like Mdlaka, a strong
leader, and captain of the last expedition north while Shaka was
assassinated, and the presence of several elderly, experienced
warriors like Mnyamana and Tshingwayo, both of whom outlived Shaka
and who accompanied the victorious Isandlwana impi (Tshingwayo
sharing partial command) also suggests more than the sole genius of
Shaka at work in shaping the dread host. Nevertheless the standard
view sees Shaka as initiating the most important changes. In
addition, the practical problems of military command throughout the
ages no doubt played a part in organisation of the Zulu fighting
Shaka's conception of warfare was far from ritualistic. He sought
to bring combat to a swift and bloody decision, as opposed to duels
of individual champions, scattered raids, or light skirmishes where
casualties were comparatively light. While his mentor and overlord
Dingiswayo lived, Shakan methods were not so extreme, but the
removal of this check gave the Zulu chieftain much broader scope.
It was under his reign that a much more rigorous mode of tribal
warfare came into being. Such a brutal focus demanded changes in
weapons, organisation and tactics.
Shaka is credited with introducing a new variant of the traditional
weapon, discarding the long, spindly throwing weapon and
instituting a heavy, shorter stabbing spear. He is also said to
have introduced a larger, heavier cowhide shield, and trained his
forces to thus close with the enemy in more effective hand-to-hand
combat. The throwing spear was not discarded, but standardised like
the stabbing implement and carried as a missile weapon, typically
discharged at the foe, before close contact. None of these weapons
changes are largely important in the local context, but mated to an
aggressive mobility and tactical organisation. Although Shaka's
introductions achieved comparative success in the earlier stages of
the war, they were to be technically outclassed later on by more
modern British firearms such as the Martini-Henry
The fast-moving host, like all military formations, needed
supplies. These were provided by young boys, who were attached to a
force and carried rations, cooking pots, sleeping mats, extra
weapons and other material. Cattle were sometimes driven on the
hoof as a movable larder. Again, such arrangements in the local
context were probably nothing unusual. What was different was the
systematisation and organisation, a pattern yielding major benefits
when the Zulu were dispatched on military missions.
Age-grade regimental system
Age-grade groupings of various sorts were common in the Bantu
tribal culture of the day, and indeed are still important in much
of Africa. Age grades
were responsible for
a variety of activities, from guarding the camp, to cattle herding,
to certain rituals and ceremonies. It was customary in Zulu culture
for young men to provide limited service to their local chiefs
until they were married and recognised as official householders.
Shaka manipulated this system, transferring the customary service
period from the regional clan leaders to himself, strengthening his
personal hegemony. Such groupings on the basis of age, did not
constitute a permanent, paid military in the modern Western sense,
nevertheless they did provide a stable basis for sustained armed
mobilisation, much more so than ad hoc tribal levies or war
Shaka organised the various age grades into regiments, and
quartered them in special military kraals, with each regiment
having its own distinctive names and insignia. Some historians
argue that the large military establishment was a drain on the Zulu
economy and necessitated continual raiding and expansion. This may
be true since large numbers of the society's men were isolated from
normal occupations, but whatever the resource impact, the
regimental system clearly built on existing tribal cultural
elements that could be adapted and shaped to fit an expansionist
Mobility and training
Shaka discarded sandals to enable his warriors to run faster.
Initially the move was unpopular, but those who objected were
simply killed, a practice that quickly concentrated the minds of
available personnel. Shaka drilled his troops frequently,
implementing forced marches covering more than fifty miles a day.
He also drilled the troops to carry out encirclement tactics (see
below). Such mobility gave the Zulu a significant impact in their
local region and beyond. Upkeep of the regimental system and
training seems to have continued after Shaka's death, although Zulu
defeats by the Boers, and growing encroachment by British
colonialists sharply curtailed raiding operations prior to the War
of 1879. Morris records one such mission under Mpande to give green
warriors of the uThulwana regiment experience, a raid into
Swaziland, dubbed "Fund' uThulwana"
by the Zulu, or "Teach
the uThulwana". It may have done some good, for some years later,
the uThulwana made their mark as one of the leading regiments that
helped liquidate the British camp at Isandlwana.
The buffalo horns formation of the
The Zulu typically took the offensive, deploying in the well-known
"buffalo horns" formation. It was composed of three elements:
- the "horns", or flanking right and left wing
elements, to encircle and pin the enemy. Generally the
"horns" were made up of younger, greener troops.
- the "chest" or central main force which
delivered the coup de grace. The prime fighters made up the
composition of the main force.
- the "loins" or reserves used to exploit
success or reinforce elsewhere. Often these were older veterans.
Sometimes these were positioned with their backs to the battle so
as not to get unduly excited. The tactic was called the beast's
horns by the Zulu and was called "impondo zekomo" in the native
Development of encirclement tactics
Encirclement tactics are nothing new in tribal warfare, and
historians note that attempts to surround an enemy were not unknown
even in the ritualised battles. The use of separate manoeuvre
elements to support a stronger central group is also well known in
pre-mechanised tribal warfare, as is the use of reserve echelons
farther back. What was unique about the Zulu was the degree of
with which they used these
tactics, and the speed at which they executed them. Developments
and refinements may have taken place after Shaka's death, as
witnessed by the use of larger groupings of regiments by the Zulu
against the British in 1879. Missions, available manpower and
enemies varied, but whether facing native spear, or European
bullet, the impis generally fought in and adhered to the
"classical" buffalo horns pattern.
Organisation and leadership of the Zulu forces
Regiments and corps
The Zulu forces were generally grouped into three levels:
regiments, corps of several regiments, and "armies" or bigger
formations, although the Zulu did not use these terms in the modern
sense. Although size distinctions were taken account of, any
grouping of men on a mission could collectively be called an impi,
whether a raiding party of 100 or horde of 10,000. Numbers were not
uniform but dependent on a variety of factors, including
assignments by the king, or the manpower mustered by various clan
chiefs or localities. A regiment might be 400 or 4000 men. These
were grouped into corps that took their name from the military
kraals where they were mustered, or sometimes the dominant regiment
of that locality.
Higher command and unit leadership
Leadership was not a complicated affair. An inDuna
guided each regiment, and he in turn answered
to senior izinduna who controlled the corps grouping. Overall
guidance of the host was furnished by elder izinduna usually with
many years of experience. One or more of these elder chiefs might
accompany a big force on an important mission, but there was no
single "field marshal" in supreme command of all Zulu forces.
Regimental izinduna, like the non-coms of today's army, and
yesterday's Roman centurions, were extremely important to morale
and discipline. This was shown during the battle of Isandhlwana.
Blanketed by a hail of British bullets, rockets and artillery, the
advance of the Zulu faltered. Echoing from the mountain, however,
were the shouted cadences and fiery exhortations of their
regimental izinduna, who reminded the warriors that their king did
not send them to run away. Thus encouraged, the encircling
regiments remained in place, maintaining continual pressure, until
weakened British dispositions enabled the host to make a final
surge forward. (See Morris ref below—"The Washing of the
Assessment of Zulu performance against the British
Strategy and tactics
Over 40,000 strong, well motivated and supremely confident, the
Zulu were a formidable force on their own home ground, despite the
almost total lack of modern weaponry. Their greatest assets were
their morale, unit leadership, mobility and numbers. Tactically the
Zulu acquitted themselves well in at least 3 encounters,
Isandhlwana, Hlobane and the smaller Intombi action. Their stealthy
approach march, camouflage and noise discipline at Isandhlwana,
while not perfect, put them within excellent striking distance of
their opponents, where they were able to exploit weaknesses in the
camp layout. At Hlobane they caught a British column on the move
rather than in the usual fortified position, partially cutting off
its retreat and forcing it to withdraw.
Strategically (and perhaps understandably in their own traditional
tribal context) they lacked any clear vision of fighting their most
challenging war, aside from smashing the three British columns by
the weight and speed of their regiments. Despite the Isandhlwana
victory, tactically there were major problems as well. They rigidly
and predictably applied their three-pronged "buffalo horns" attack,
paradoxically their greatest strength, but also their greatest
weakness when facing concentrated firepower. The Zulu failed to
make use of their superior mobility by attacking the British rear
area such as Natal or in interdicting vulnerable British supply
lines. However, an important consideration, which King Cetshwayo
appreciated, was that there was a clear difference between
defending one's territory, and encroaching on another, regardless
of the fact that they are at war with the holder of that land. The
King realised that peace would be impossible if a real invasion of
Natal was launched, and that it would only provoke a more concerted
effort on the part of the British against them. The attack on
Rorke's Drift, in Natal, was an opportunist raid, as opposed to a
real invasion. When they did, they achieved some success, such as
the liquidation of a supply detachment at the Intombi River. A more
expansive mobile strategy might have cut British communications and
brought their lumbering advance to a halt, bottling up the redcoats
in scattered strongpoints while the impis ran rampant between them.
Just such a scenario developed with the No. 1 British column,
which was penned up static and immobile in garrison for over two
months at Eshowe.
The Zulu also allowed their opponents too much time to set up
fortified strongpoints, assaulting well defended camps and
positions with painful losses. A policy of attacking the redcoats
while they were strung out on the move, or crossing difficult
obstacles like rivers, might have yielded more satisfactory
results. For example, four miles past the Ineyzane River, after the
British had comfortably crossed, and after they had spent a day
consolidating their advance, the Zulu finally launched a typical
"buffalo horn" encirclement attack that was seen off with withering
fire from not only breach-loading Martini-Henry
rifles, but 7-pounder artillery
and Gatling guns. In fairness, the Zulu commanders could not
conjure regiments out of thin air at the optimum time and place.
They too needed time to marshal, supply and position their forces,
and sort out final assignments to the three-prongs of attack.
Still, the Battle of Hlobane Mountain offers just a glimpse of an
alternative mobile scenario, where the manoeuviing Zulu "horns" cut
off and drove back Buller's column when it was dangerously strung
out on the mountain.
Command and control
Command and control of the impis was problematic at times. Indeed,
the Zulu attacks on the British strongpoints at Rorke's Drift and
at Kambula, (both bloody defeats) seemed to have been carried out
by overly enthusiastic leaders and warriors despite contrary orders
of the Zulu King, Cetshwayo. Popular film reenactments display a
grizzled izinduna directing the host from a promontory with elegant
sweeps of the hand. This might have happened during the initial
marshaling of forces from a jump off point, or the deployment of
reserves, but once the great encircling sweep of frenzied warriors
in the "horns" and "chest" was in motion, the izinduna must have
found close coordination difficult.
Command of the field forces was also split at times, with one or
more izinduna attempting to guide the host, while contending with
the thrusting sub-chiefs of powerful and competitive regiments.
This "dual command" arrangement of experienced men seemed to work
well enough at Isandhlwana, although according to Morris, the
commanders Tshingwayo and Mavumengwana argued with a freelancing
regional clan-chief called Matyana who seemed to covet leadership
of the field force himself, and indeed they appeared to have
relocated the host in part, to be rid of his interference. The move
it should be noted brought them closer to the British camp, saving
the regiments from having to launch their attack from out over flat
Handling of reserve forces
Although the "loins" or reserves were on hand to theoretically
correct or adjust an unfavorable situation, a shattered attack
could make the reserves irrelevant. Against the Boers at Blood
River, massed gunfire broke the back of the Zulu assault, and the
Boers were later able to mount a cavalry sweep in counterattack
that became a turkey shoot against fleeing Zulu remnants. Perhaps
the Zulu threw everything forward and had little left. In similar
manner, after exhausting themselves against British firepower at
Kambula and Ulindi, few of the Zulu reserves were available to do
anything constructive, although the tribal warriors still remained
dangerous at the guerrilla level when scattered. At Isandhlwana
however, the "classical" Zulu system struck gold, and after
liquidating the British position, it was a relatively fresh reserve
force that swept down on Rorke's Drift.
Use of modern arms
The Zulu had greater numbers than their opponents, but greater
numbers massed together simply presented yet more lucrative, easy
shooting in the age of modern firearms and artillery. African tribes that
fought in smaller guerrilla detachments typically held out against
European invaders for a much longer time, as witnessed by the
7-year resistance of the Lobi against the
French in West Africa, or the operations of the Berbers in Algeria against the French.
When the Zulu did acquire firearms, most notably captured stocks
after the great victory at Isandhlwana, they lacked training and
used them ineffectively, consistently firing high to give the
bullets "strength." Adaption to firearms was well within Zulu
capabilities and knowledge. Southern Africa, including the areas
near Natal was teeming with bands like the Griquas who had learned
to use guns. Indeed one such group not only mastered the
way of the gun, but became proficient horsemen as well, skills that
helped build the Basotho tribe, in what is
now the nation of Lesotho.
In addition, numerous European renegades or
adventurers (both Boer
and non-Boer) skilled in
firearms were known to the Zulu. Some had even led detachments for
the Zulu kings on military missions.
The Zulu thus had clear scope and opportunity to master and adapt
the new weaponry. They also had already experienced defeat against
the Boers, by concentrated firearms. They had had at least four
decades to adjust their tactics to this new threat. A well-drilled
corps of gunmen or grenadiers, or a battery of artillery operated
by European mercenaries for example, might have provided much
needed covering fire as the regiments manoeuvred into
No such adjustments were on hand when they faced the redcoats.
Immensely proud of their system, and failing to learn from their
earlier defeats, they persisted in "human wave" attacks against
well defended European positions where massed firepower decimated
their ranks. The ministrations of Zulu witchdoctors, or the bravery
of individual regiments were ultimately of little use against the
volleys of modern rifles, Gatling guns
and artillery at the Ineyzane River, Rorke's Drift, Kambula,
Gingingdlovu and finally Ulindi.
A tough challenge
Undoubtedly, Cetshwayo and his war leaders faced a tough and
extremely daunting task - overcoming the challenge of concentrated
rifled, machine gun (Gatling gun), and artillery fire on the
battlefield. It was one that also taxed European military leaders,
as the carnage of the American Civil War and the later Boer War
attests. Nevertheless, Shaka's successors could argue that within
the context of their experience and knowledge, they had done the
best they could, following his classical template, which had
advanced the Zulu from a small, obscure tribe to a respectable
- Colour Sergeant (later Lieutenant-Colonel) Frank Bourne, DCM (1854-1945). Last survivor of
- Private Charles Wallace Warden (died 1953)
Anglo-Zulu war in film
Two film dramatisations of the war are: Zulu
(1964), which is based on the Battle
at Rorke's Drift, and Zulu Dawn
(1979), which deals with the Battle of Isandlwana.
- Barthorp, M. The Zulu War, p. 15
- Barthorp, M. The Zulu War, p. 13
- Martineau, Life of Frere, ii. xix.
- Colenso, F. E. (1880) History of the Zulu War and Its
Origin, London; p. 196.
- British Parliamentary Papers, C. 2222, No. 111: Frere to Hicks
Beach, 6 October 1878.
- British Parliamentary Papers, C. 2220, No. 40: Bulwer to Hicks
Beach, 9 August 1878.
- British Parliamentary Papers, C. 2220, Enclosure in No. 89:
Cetshwayo to Bulwer, 24 August 1879.
- British Parliamentary Papers, C. 2220, No. 105, Frere to Hicks
Beach, 30 September 1878.
- British Parliamentary Papers, C. 2260, Enclosure 2 in No. 6:
Memorandum, 16 January 1879.
- Hicks Beach to Lord Beaconsfield, 3 November 1878, quoted by
Jeff Guy, in The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom: the Civil War
in Zululand, p. 49
- rorkesdriftvc.com - Discussion Forum
Anatomy of the Zulu army: some references
- Morris, Donald R. (1965) The Washing of The Spears.
New York : Simon and Schuster; new ed. 1994 ISBN 0-306-80866-8
- Knight, Ian (1995) Anatomy of the Zulu Army. London:
- Edgerton, Robert (1988) Like Lions They Fought,
London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
- MacMillan, William Miller (1929) Boer, Bantu and
Briton. London: Faber & Gwyer
- Mostert, Noel Frontiers.
- Omer-Cooper, J. D. (1965) The Zulu Aftermath London:
- Snook, Mike How Can Man
Die Better: the Secrets of Isandlwana Revealed
- Snook, Mike Like Wolves on
the Fold: the Defence of Rorke's Drift