How the British lost the war at Isandlwana: Part Two


THE British were thoroughly humiliated and conquered by the Zulu army at Isandlwana.
But when history of this battle is written, the British focus on how they massacred the Zulu people at Rorke’s Drift on January 22 1879.
This was done in order to downplay their loss.
They exaggerated the importance of Rorke’s Drift in order to reduce the impact of Isandlwana.
The real truth as to how they lost was hidden and protected with lies by Lord Chelmsford who led the war.
On January 22 1879, at Rorke’s Drift which borders Natal Zululand, a small British army of 140 men fought for 12 hours against 3 000 Zulu warriors.
The British won.
Queen Victoria rewarded the soldiers with at least 11 Victoria Crosses.
In 1964, this small war in which the Zulu were massacred was remembered through the making of the film Zulu directed by Cy Endfield.
What is not often known is that the battle at Rorke’s Drift was fought on the same day that the British Army suffered crushing and humiliating defeat at nearby Isandlwana.
What was the background to the British defeat?
In 1879, Benjamin Disraeli’s government was preoccupied with Russia’s threat to take over Constantinople and Afghanistan.
They were not in a position to fight a war in South Africa.
In 1878, Sir Michael Hicks Beach, the colonial secretary wrote: “We cannot now have a Zulu war, in addition to other greater and too possible troubles.”
Sir Bartle Frere was then sent on a mission to Cape Town with the specific task of grouping South Africa British colonies, Boer republics and African States into a Confederation of South Africa.
But Frere soon realised that it was not possible to unite this region under one British rule because the Zulu kingdom was too powerful with its army of 40 000 well trained and very disciplined warriors.
He went to London and exaggerated the threat presented by the Zulus to the British and asked them to authorise a war.
But the British government refused to do so.
Then Frere went back to South Africa and totally ignored that he did not have permission to fight a war.
He made a unilateral decision to begin a fight with the Zulus.
In December 1878, Frere gave the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, an ultimatum to disband the Zulu Army.
For the Zulus, this was an act of arrogance at its highest level.
What Frere did was not unusual during the Victoria times because England was too far and communication was difficult.
Some of the far away governors often took matters into their own hands, fought the indigenous people and forced them to leave their land.
Then they simply went ahead and colonised the territories as they did in Matabeleland.
For example, in India, Lord Lytton, the Viceroy of India, almost invaded Afghanistan without asking for permission from London.
In South Africa, the British already harboured racist contempt against the Zulu as shown on January 11 1879 during Lord Chelmsford’s war at Roeks’ Drift.
In July 1878, in one of his writings, Lord Chelmsford said, “If I am called upon to conduct operations against them…I shall strive to be in a position to show them how hopelessly inferior they are to us in fighting power, although numerically stronger.”
In the early hours of January 22, Chelmsford took two-thirds of his force to pursue the Zulu army.
He went south-east and did not know that a whole army of 20 000 Zulus was lying only five miles north east of Isandlwana.
After a few misunderstandings between Chelmsford and his men, the British spotted the Zulus and the battle began.
The Zulus rose and fiercely used their traditional tactics of encirclement shaped like the horns of a buffalo.
A whole portion of Chelmsford was not at Isandlwana when the battle started because it had already proceeded to Mangeni Falls, believing the Zulus to be camped there.
At around 3pm, the Zulus had heroically captured Isandlwana even though they had lost many of their followers.
As one British historian noted, “The culmination of Chelmsford’s incompetence was a blood-soaked field littered with thousands of corpses.
“Of the original 1 750 defenders – 1 000 British and 750 black auxiliaries – 1 350 had been killed.”
The Queen received news of the massacre on February 11 1879.
This shocked the British as they could not understand how ‘spear-wielding savages’ had defeated a highly trained and well equipped British Army.
They said Chelmsford was to blame.
But his supporters, including the Queen, protected him.
He also managed to hide any evidence that would show that he had been negligent in carrying out the battle without permission.
He argued that a shortage of ammunition had led to defeat at Isandlwana.
The he also used many witnesses to support his lies.
He even went as far as blaming a dead Colonel called Durnford by accusing him of disobeying orders to defend the camp.
Later in early September 1879, Lord Chelmsford went to meet the Queen.
She recorded the conversation in her journal in which she agrees with statements by Chelmsford regarding the war.
Despite his lies, Lord Chelmsford was given heroic praise by the Queen and she showered honours on him, “promoting him to full general, awarding him the Gold Stick at Court and appointing him Lieutenant of the Tower of London.”
In the end, in August 1879, the British captured King Cetshwayo and exiled him. As a result, Zululand was split up and later annexed.
While some British historians may have carried on with lies of what transpired at Isandlwana, the truth is that the Zulus destroyed a well equipped British army.
That was unheard of in the history of the empire.
It was a racist misjudgment that brought a major victory to the Zulus.
Up to this day, the Battle of Isandlwana on January 22 1879 remains as one of the most outstanding and heroic efforts of an African army to defend its territory against imperialist invaders.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here