The destruction of the Zulu kingdom 1879 -1896

In the 1870s settler and colonial determination to bring Blacks under firm political control had undermined the hard-won security that many African societies had achieved. This was due to changes in economic conditions in South Africa's hinterland, and the consequent need to secure sufficient political authority over Africans- which would ensure security and access to labour. These societies attempted to resist the extension of colonial control over them, one of which was the Zulu kingdom.

Sir Bartle Frere was appointed British high commissioner to South Africa in 1879 to realise the Policy of Confederation. This policy was set to bring the various British colonies, Boer republics and independent African groups under common control- with a view to implementing a policy of economic development. Sir Bartle Frere saw the self-reliant Zulu kingdom as a threat to this policy, a belief which was supported by Shepstone, the Secretary for Native Affairs. Shepstone averred that the Zulu people had revived their military power under Cetshwayo, which made them more of a threat to peace and prosperity in South Africa. On 11 December 1878, under the flimsy pretext of a few minor border incursions into Natal by Cetshwayo's followers, the Zulu were given an impossible ultimatum- that they should disarm and Cetshwayo should forsake his sovereignty.

The inevitable invasion of Zululand began after the ultimatum had expired on *10 January 1879 (see insert note). Instead of fragmenting the Zulu as Shepstone predicted, this rallied the Zulu to their king's cause.

Many historians mark the 10* January 1879 as the beginning of the Anglo-Zulu war, while others claim that the 12 January 1879 (first attack) or the 22 January 1879 (first decisive battle of Isandlwana) marked the beginning of the war. However, even the 10 January date is disputed as many sources say that the ultimatum actually expired on the 11 January 1879.

Under the overall command of Lord Chelmsford, the British forces -many of them colonials (Whites) or members of the Natal Native Contingent (Blacks) – began carrying out the general plan put in place for the invasion of Zululand. The main objective was to occupy the Zulu royal kraal at Ulundi by advancing on it from three directions. This operation was similar to the Zulu tactic of attacking from three sides by means of the main force or chest in the centre, and an extended left and right ‘horn’ on each side.

A map of the British Plan for the Invasion of Zululand. Source:

The right or Number I Column, commanded by Colonel C.K. Pearson, was to cross the lower Tugela River and advance towards Ulundi by way of Eshowe. The centre or main force, the Number III Column, advanced from Pietermaritzburg via Greytown to Helpmekaar, under the leadership of Lord Chelmsford himself. From Helpmekaar the centre force was to enter Zululand at Rorke's Drift and move eastwards to the royal kraal. The left or Number IV Column, commanded by Brevet Col Sir H. Evelyn Wood, concentrated at Utrecht with the object of reaching Ulundi from the north-west. In addition, two minor forces guarded the borders. The first of these forces was the Number II Column at Krantzkop, under Brevet Col A.W. Durnford to prevent the Zulus crossing the Tugela. The second was the Number V Column at Luneberg to safeguard the Transvaal, which had been annexed by the British in 1877 (see map).

The first attack of the war took place on 12 January 1879, when the position of Sihayo's kraal, situated in the Batshe valley, threatened the successful advancement of the British column. Under Chelmsford’s orders, the attacking force moved across the Batshe to attack a rocky gorge into which Sihayo's men had retreated, driving their cattle before them. The Natal Native Contingent showed reluctance to face the Zulus, some of whom were armed with rifles. In an attempt to thwart the attack, stones were also rolled down onto the attackers and after sharp action, the Zulus retreated, with 30 dead, 4 wounded and 10 captured. The British however, suffered only 2 casualties, with 15 wounded.

The Battle of Isandlwana

The main Zulu army left Nodwengu on 17 January to defend Zululand from the centre column. These forces were under the command of chiefs Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza and Mavu-mengwana kaNdlela Ntuli. Cetshwayo had promised his men that the British would be defeated in a 'single day'.

On the 17 January Chelmsford and his forces rode to Isandlwana, which he had selected as the site for his next camp.

On 20 January Chelmsford’s men arrived and set up camp at Isandlwana hill. Chelmsford encountered some local resistance and mistakenly assumed it to be the main Zulu force. This divided his column, half of which he took to support an engagement some fifteen kilometres away. Colonel Henry Pulleine was left in charge of the remaining forces, but did not organise his troops into a defensive circular ‘laager’ formation, as the wagons would be needed shortly to transport supplies. Colonel A.W. Durnford arrived the next day with a detachment to reinforce the camp and take over command.

Durnford, described as being 'as plucky as a lion but as imprudent as a child', impetuously pursued a Zulu foraging party. As he proceeded over the ridge of the Mabaso heights he encountered, to his horror, the Zulu army, a mass of 20 000 strong below. The Zulu had not intended to attack then, as it was a new moon and it was considered unwise to fight on a 'dark day'. However, once discovered, they had no choice but to go on the offensive. Pulleine was therefore forced to spread his firepower over a long distance, instead of concentrating his men in a tight formation.

The Zulu steadily advanced in the horn formation, their centre, or chest, pitted against Puileine's left flank. They suffered huge losses as the British concentrated fire on the chest, and the attack was temporarily stalled. The Zulu’s left horn outflanked Durnford's infantry and descended onto the British camp from behind. Realising he was surrounded, Pulleine tried to retreat in order to save the endangered camp. This allowed the Zulu centre to advance again, and while raising the national cry of 'uSuthu' the Zulu interposed themselves between the retreating British and their camp. Hand to hand combat ensued and the Zulu carried the day. A detachment of British troops tried to mount a final stand at a stream two miles away, but most retreated to Rorke's Drift or fled down the Mzinyathi River with the Zulu in pursuit. The British lost 52 officers, 727 white soldiers and 471 black men of the Native Contingent - a third of Chelmsford's men. The Zulu, ‘as was their custom, took no prisoners at Isandlwana, and spared no lives, despite pleas for mercy'’. Everything else left behind was carried off as booty.

The Battle of Rorke’s Drift and the Aftermath

The Charge of the 17th Lancers at the Battle of Ulundi. Source:

One day later, a depot at Rorke's Drift was attacked against the orders of Cetshwayo, who favoured a defensive strategy. After the overwhelming victory over the British at Isandlwana, Zulu reserve forces who were not involved in the previous day’s battle retaliated with an attack on the “hastily erected fort” at the small garrison of Rorke’s Drift. Here the British fought with ‘rifle fire and bayonets’ and the Zulu force, led by Prince Dabulamanzi, suffered 500 casualties in this fruitless engagement. This provided the British with “much needed propaganda to counter the Zulu success at Isandlwana”.

On the coast, the right column brushed aside Zulu resistance at the Nyezane river, before advancing to occupy the deserted mission station at Eshowe. The left column was also involved in heavy skirmishing around the Hlobane mountain. When the central British collapsed at Isandlwana, however, the left and right flanking columns were left exposed. The Zulus managed to cut Colonel C.K. Pearson’s right column off from the border, and Pearson's men were besieged for three months at Eshowe. The left flank column, however, managed to remain operative.

Chelmsford swiftly made his way back to Natal. The might of the British army had suffered a severe repulse and any thoughts of a quick British victory were put to rest. On the other hand, the Zulu themselves suffered terrible casualties, and worse was to follow.

After the defeat at Isandlwana British pride had to be restored, and reinforcements were sent for. Chelmsford's army advanced again into Zululand, inflicting heavy defeats on the Zulu in April at Gingindlovu, relieving Pearson's column, and at Khambula. The Zulu were now on the back foot. In July Chelmsford moved in on oNdini, and in a final onslaught known as the Battle of Ulundi, they secured an overwhelming military success. More than 1 000 Zulu were killed and Cetshwayo was forced to flee for safety, until he was captured in the Ngome forest in August and exiled to the Cape. The Zulu were then instructed to return to their homesteads and resume productive activities. The British, nonetheless, were at pains to explain that the war was against the Zulu royal house.

The Division of Zululand

The war itself had not destroyed the kingdom, but subsequent events served to divide the Zulu and undermine their economic and social cohesion. Taking a leaf out of Shepstone’s 'native policy', Sir Garnet Wolseley, the new British commander in Natal, divided the kingdom into thirteen territories under appointed chiefs. They were meant to represent the chiefly lineages of pre-Shakan times, which was a shaky argument at best, especially since one of them was John Dunn who had joined the British when hostilities began. Others had either been outrightly opposed to Cetshwayo or had shown little loyalty to him during the war. The chiefs’ allegiance was to those who had appointed them, and Britain thus effectively began to administer indirect rule over Zululand. Melmoth Osborn, who enthusiastically supported Shepstone's views, was appointed as British Resident in Zululand.

Unsurprisingly Zululand suffered civil strife as a result of this arrangement. Those who continued to espouse the old Zulu order were known as the uSuthu, and were led by Ndabuko kaMpande, Cetshwayo's brother. They were to come into conflict with the appointed chiefs and by 1887 had 'fought themselves to a standstill'.

In addition, a hut tax was imposed, not only on each hut but on every wife regardless of whether she occupied a hut. Wolseley's infamous settlement of Zululand had not destroyed the Zulu homestead-the basic productive unit in the kingdom's economy- nor had the Zulu been deprived of their land. The hut tax, however, served to divert some of the surplus accruing to an individual homestead head to the British government. Subsequently over 70% of the annual cost of administering Zululand was derived from this tax.

As the civil war intensified, the British realised that this settlement was simply not workable. Cetshwayo, encouraged by Bishop Colenso and his daughter Harriette- who both visited him in Cape Town-petitioned the British government and was granted permission to visit England to put forward his case for the restoration of the Zulu monarchy. In Zululand similar petitions were presented to the British Resident by the uSuthu.

Early in 1883 Cetshwayo was reinstalled as king, but his powers had been severely reduced. He was confined to a smaller area, surrounded by enemies, and his every move was watched by a Resident. Those who wished to show their loyalty to Cetshwayo were obliged to move into his central district of the kingdom. Zibhebhu, an arch opponent of Cetshwayo, whose allegiance was more to the colonial order than the royal house, occupied a large tract of territory to Cetshwayo's north, and forced uSuthu loyalists resident in his portion to return to Cetshwayo's area.

A pre-emptive strike by the uSuthu against Zibhebhu failed. Later Zibhebhu and Hamu, another of the appointed chiefs, invaded the uSuthu. Cetshwayo was soundly defeated at his newly built capital at oNdini in 1883, with the level of bloodshed exceeding anything the Zulu had experienced during Cetshwayo's reign. Matters worsened for the uSuthu when Cetshwayo died in late 1883- as the balance of power in Zululand had now shifted decisively to the Imperial administration, and its supporters in Zululand.

In a last-ditch measure to regain power, Cetshwayo's son, Dinuzulu, entered into a treaty with the Transvaal. In military terms, the alliance proved successful and Zibhebhu's army was forced out of the loyalists' territory. But this agreement came at a huge cost. In return for their assistance, the Boers were promised vast tracts of territory on Zululand's western margin, which they called The New Republic, with its 'capital' at Vryheid.

When the Transvaalers tried to claim even more land than what was agreed upon, the uSuthu refused. Having realised the extent of the chaos in Zululand, the British intervened. Dinuzulu was allowed to retain control of his portion of central Zululand, but the Boers were also acknowledged as owners of the New Republic. This lead to a Reserve area being set aside for those opposed to the loyalists. In Natal, pressure mounted for the annexation of Zululand, and almost inevitably it was annexed to the Crown in 1887. The promulgation of a Code of Laws placed Zululand under a similar 'Native Policy' to that in Natal.

Once more the uSuthu mounted resistance to the annexation, and again Zibhebhus services were called upon. The revolt was spectacularly successful for a short period, as the uSuthu under Dinuzulu made good use of the mountainous terrain to repulse a police contingent sent to arrest their leaders. Zibhebhus followers were attacked by Dinuzulu and forced to flee hastily from the Ndwandwe district. Finally reinforcements arrived, the uSuthu were driven from their hideouts, leading Dinuzulu to surrender. In 1889, he and his leading adherents were tried for treason, found guilty and sentenced to prison terms on St Helena.

In 1894 Dinuzulu was pardoned and allowed to return to Zululand, but as a mere induna, or state official, with no chiefly powers or privileges. To appease colonial interests, his return was coupled with the annexation of Zululand by Natal in 1897.

After eighteen years, settler interests had prevailed in the land of the Zulu, and the plans Shepstone initially envisaged for the kingdom could be put into place. White settlers and traders entered Zululand in increasing numbers, and Zululand was thus 'reconstructed'. The territory was divided among compliant chiefs who ruled with limited authority, and the governor of Natal became the supreme chief over Zululand. The situation was worsened further by several natural disasters between 1894 and 1897. These disasters included a plague of locusts, drought and the devastating rinderpest epidemic of 1897- which led to a massive decline in homestead production.

Already under stress from the imposition of the hut tax, many more Zulu men were forced into the Witwatersrand labour market to make ends meet and pay taxes. The gradual emergence of a permanent labouring class alongside a traditional economy, based on homestead production and cattle-keeping, led to new social divisions in Zulu society.

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