The Zulu War

Frere By the mid-1800s, an uneasy truce had settled over most of South Africa. During the 1830s, the Boers made the "Great Trek" from the Cape Colony across the Vaal River to escape British colonial rule. They founded two independent states, the Transvaal and Orange Free State. These states were generally at peace with British Cape Colony and Natal, but there were running conflicts with the native states, especially that of the Zulus. The Zulu Nation, founded by Shaka kaSenzangakhona, was the most powerful and stretched from the Pongola River in the north to the Transkei border in the south. Sir Henry Bartle Frere was appointed High Commissioner for South Africa in 1877 with the express mission of forming a confederation among British Cape Colony and Natal and Boer Transvaal and the Orange Free State. In absorbing the Transvaal, he inherited the long-simmering border dispute between the Zulus and the Boers. Frere came to the conclusion that the Zulu Nation stood in his way of successful confederation and further expansion and, without the consent of the British government, embarked on a series of programs aimed at bringing about its downfall.
Cetshwayo kaMapande held the Zulu throne. He had traded freely with the Europeans in the Natal Colony but felt that his father, Mapande kaDingane, had made too many concessions to the Europeans in order to keep an uneasy peace. He was puzzled by Frere's hostility to the Zulus and, before he was able to respond, events came to a head. In July 1878, the Great Wife, Kaqwelebana, and a lesser wife of Cetshwayo's inDuna, Sihayo, were caught having affairs while Sihayo was absent. With their lovers, they fled across the Buffalo River, in the vicinity of the mission at Rorke's Drift. Kaqwelebana's son, Mehlokazulu, decided to go after them and crossed into Natal, where he found the lesser wife, and brought her back across the river where she was killed. A few days later, he re-crossed, found his mother and brought her back to be killed. In deference to British justice in Natal, Mehlokazulu was careful that no harm come to either women while they were on the Natal side of the river. Incidents of authorities crossing the boundaries in search of escapees, while uncommon, were not unknown by either side. For Frere, however, it was just what he needed to set his plans in motion. He seized upon this incident to issue Cetshwayo, on 11 December 1878, a 30-day ultimatum that Frere was sure that Cetshwayo had no possible way of satisfying. Among other demands, Cetshwayo was to 1) surrender the murderers to Natal justice, 2) pay a fine of 500 cattle, 3) disband the Zulu army, and 4) permit Zulu warriors to marry without "washing their spears" in battle. An agreement by Cetshwayo was tantamount to the disbanding of the Zulu Nation. In addition, the summer of 1878-1879 was extremely wet. As a result, streams were swollen and it took about 2 weeks for messengers carrying the ultimatum to reach Cetshwayo's kraal. On 11 January 1879, the invasion of Zululand began. Cetshwayo
Chelmsford Lt. General Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2d Baron Chelmsford, was in overall command of the invading force during the Zulu War. In addition to British regulars, Chelmsford had Natal auxiliaries, volunteers, and irregulars under his command, a total force of 17,922 officers and men opposed by approximately 40,000 warriors available to Cetshwayo. His plan to invade Zululand consisted of a three-pronged attack with the goal to capture Cetshwayo. The right hand column, comprised of 4,750 men, was to cross theTulega River at Lower Drift and head for Eshowe. The center column, containing 4,709 men, was to cross at Rorke's Drift and make straight for Cetshwayo's Royal Kraal at Ulundi. The left hand column, with 2,278 men, crossed the Blood River at a point further north and was to head for Ulundi also. Two columns were held in reserve. Chelmsford considered the center column to be the main thrust and located his headquarters there. Based upon his experience during the defeat of the Xhosa in the Eastern Cape, Chelmsford had little regard for the fighting qualities of the indigenous peoples. Everything was in place for his first encounter with the main Zulu impi at Isandlwana on 22 January 1879.

References used for these pages:
  1. Morris, D. R., 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, NY: Da Capo Press, 1998.
  2. Smythe, G. and Whittall, J. St.C.,The Zulu War 1879, Sloane Park, RSA: Rainbird Publishers, 1996.
  3. Knight, I., The Sun Turned Black: Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift - 1879, Rivonia, RSA: William Waterman Publications, 1996.
  4. Knight, I., Rorke's Drift 1879, 'Pinned like rats in a hole,' Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1996.
  5. John Young, Anglo-Zulu War Research Society

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Created 20 FEB 2000; Modified 10 APR 2007