How the British lost the war at Isandlwana: Part One

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1821

ON January 22 1879, the British remembered the Battle of Isandlwana, where they suffered a humiliating defeat under the Zulu warriors.
The Battle of Isandlwana rocked Victorian Britain when the Zulus destroyed a substantial British force of 1 200 men.
General Lieutenant Colonel Pulleine of the 24th Foot battalion and Lieutenant Colonel Durnford commanded the British force at the battle while the Zulu army was commanded by Chiefs Ntshingwayo kaMahole and Mavumengwana kaMdlela Ntuli.
The British started the war against the Zulus in early January 1879 as a campaign to expand the Empire.
Lord Chelmsford, the commander-in-chief in South Africa saw the independent Zulu Kingdom ruled by Cetshwayo as a threat to the British colony of Natal.
They shared the long border along the Tugela River.
In December 1878 the British authorities delivered an ultimatum to Cetshwayo asking him to hand over a group of Zulus accused of murdering a party of British subjects.
When the Zulu did not respond according to the desires of the British, Lord Chelmsford attacked Zululand on January 11 1879.
But the British were not prepared for the highly aggressive military style of the Zulus.
Ron Lock and Peter Quantrill in the book titled Zulu Victory: the Epic of Isandlwana and the Cover-Up provided a collection of various insights and give a long historical story of the Battle of Isandlwana in chronological and logical sequences.
The writers produced new insights into Lord Chelmsford’s conduct during the war. The book begins with the origin of the imperialist dominance of the British and how it resulted in the hostilities between the British and the Zulu.
The land issue is the first cause of major grievance.
The book then gives more detail on what happened at Isandlwana.
Lord Chelmsford’s army was composed of British soldiers and a small number of colonials.
The rest were African men or conscripts, who formed the Natal Native Contingent (NNC).
Among them were Prince Mbuyazi’s iziQgoza faction that escaped coming from Natal in 1856 after the battle of Ndondakusuka caused by war of succession conflicts between Prince Cetshwayo and Prince Mbuyazi of the Zulu royal family.
In the battle at Isandlwana, Lord Chelmsford’s army, without proper planning, arrogantly entered the Zulu Kingdom hoping to kill and conquer the Zulu quickly and easily.
Chelmsford and his soldiers saw the Africans as savages without any skills in war. Such racist views were common among white people who believed they were more superior to black people in every way.
Military historians, Lock and Quantrill provide an insightful research, but they do not show that the war was an imperialist one whose main motive was to conquer and colonise the Zulus.
The historians play down the issues of the land dispossession, racism, poverty, misery and the immense suffering of the black people as a result of the war.
Other historians such as Dirk Cloete, John Wright, and Jeff Guy wrote about this most important war in the centenary of the battle in 1979.
They challenged the colonial mindset of British historians whose writings perpetuate the stereotype image of the Zulu people as bloodthirsty savages who simply enjoyed fighting.
Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi in his opening address on the Anglo-Zulu War: A Centennial Reappraisal, 1879-1979 referred to white historians who presented King Cetshwayo and Lord Chelmsford, the commanders of their respective armies, as equals.
Chief Buthelezi points out that the Zulu had their own commanders under the chief.
These included generals such as Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza, Zibhebhu kaMaphitha kaSojiyisa.
Chief Buthelezi showed that his great grandfather, Chief Mnyamana Buthelezi led the fight against the British when he wrote:
“And yet the white perspective differs so much from our black perspectives, that in every history book, our history of this time is presented in every white-written history book as if King Cetshwayo, our monarch, directed his army personally against Lord Chelmsford and other British generals.
“And yet nowhere is it ever suggested that Queen Victoria led her forces, merely because the British regiments which invaded King Cetshwayo’s Kingdom were part of the Queen’s army.
“As we Zulu see it, we see in this an attempt to lower King Cetshwayo’s status to that of such generals as Lord Chelmsford.”
New research on the war should be written by the others as well other than the British historians who are still desperate to glorify a war in which they lost.
As Vusi Ndima has argued, such new research “might also analyse the manner in which the memory of this battle has been sustained beyond the production of military literature and history.
“This would lead to understanding the (ab)use of Public History as a tool … the production of historical knowledge and images for the tourist and heritage industry.”
Ndima then argues that the original artefacts and other forms of Zulu cultural material that were stolen and taken to the Borderers Museum in Brecon, South Wales should be returned.
The Zulu warriors were organised in regiments according to age and they carried the shield and the stabbing spear.
Their formation for the attack was, described as the ‘horns of the beast’, devised by Shaka, the Zulu King.
This meant that the main body of the army led the frontal assault, called the ‘loins’, while the ‘horns’ were spread out behind each of the enemy’s flanks with the purpose of delivering the lethal fatal attack in the enemy’s rear.
Apart from the spears, Cetshwayo, the Zulu King, was prepared with thousands of muskets and rifles.
Meanwhile, the British infantry were equipped with single shot Martini-Henry rifle and bayonet, wearing their ‘infantry wore red tunics, white solar topee helmets and dark blue trousers with red piping down the side’.
The battle at Isandlwana surprised the whole world because it was totally unthinkable that a ‘native’ army armed supposedly with only spears as stabbing weapons could defeat the troops of a dominant Western power armed with modern rifles and artillery.
Such historical information has been hidden for years.
Only now is it beginning to surface out to some of us who were denied the real history during times of colonisation.
Post apartheid era, we still have to dig deeper to get the right history and sift through historical distortion and lies of colonial and other racist writers.
Part Two will explore in detail how the British lost the war at Isandlwana and how the truth was hidden from history.

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