Price of Imperialism
The Anglo-Zulu War of A.D. 1879

Between the 10th and 12th of January 1879, three columns of British troops crossed the border into Zululand in what is today South Africa, precipitating a war between a small African kingdom and what was at the time the greatest imperial power on Earth. The war was altogether common for a colonial power the likes of Great Britain. In fact, warfare had been constant along the frontiers of the British Empire ever since the accession of Queen Victoria to the imperial throne in 1837. With the exception of the Crimean War of 1854–1856, these various military campaigns had all been “native wars.”1 The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 was such a conflict, though it would be far from typical.

It has been long held, from the time of the war and even to this day, that the war came about because of Zulu “savagery.” Common theory has kept that the Zulu nation was a dangerous military machine, ruled by a barbarous and despotic king, which had to be destroyed for the sake of both the African natives and European colonists in South Africa.… Little could be further from the truth. The war was, unequivocally, the direct result of the British drive for colonial power and imperial preeminence during the 19th century. It was not the defensive reaction of a British colony, but rather a barbaric and unjustified act of British imperialism, perpetrated at the hands of the empire’s colonial agents.

First, however, a historical background is required to set the stage for this tragic clash of arms between British and Zulu. This is, of course, because the long-smoldering spark, which would eventually explode into the flames that swept the royal kraal at Ulundi and left it in ashes, was ignited when the first Europeans laid eyes on southern Africa in the 15th century. It is the story of two empires: one British, one Zulu.

In 1488, the Portuguese explorer Bartholomeu Dias sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. He put ashore for water, where he and his crew became the first Europeans to meet the native inhabitants, the Khoikhoi and San peoples, whom other Europeans would later call Hottentots and Bushmen. The Portuguese called them all “kaffirs,” the Arabic word for infidel. Ironically, Dias was also the first white man to kill a black man in this region of the world.2 He would not be the last.

By 1650, however, the Dutch had replaced the Portuguese in the waters off southern Africa. It was the Dutch who established the first settlement at Cape Town, and the surrounding area was soon occupied by Dutch farmers, called Boers. From Cape Town, the Boers migrated to the east and northeast in search of land, fighting with the local inhabitants as they went. They soon encountered the Nguni, a Bantu-speaking people migrating into the region from the north. Like the Boers, the Nguni also sought new lands, lands on which to grow their crops and raise their herds. Naturally, the two peoples fought with one another.3

In the end, though, it was the British who achieved ascendancy in southern Africa. They took Cape Town from the Dutch in 1793 but returned it in 1802.4 Then in 1806, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, the British took the Cape once again in order to ensure that control of the sea route to India didn’t fall into enemy hands.5 And this time they kept it.… The British also joined the Boers in their fight against the Nguni. By 1879, the Nguni peoples would fight nine major wars with the white men, the last only a year before the war between the British and the Zulus.6

In 1844, the region to the east of the Cape, an area known as Natal, became a British Crown Colony, separate from but still a district of the Cape Colony. At the same time, the promise of cheap land was bringing many white settlers into the new colony. The growing of sugarcane soon became Natal’s primary industry. And by 1870 the whole of South Africa was swiftly becoming a profitable holding for the British Empire. Diamonds were discovered in the Kimberley fields west of Natal in 1867, and the discovery of gold followed soon after that.7

With an eye toward the consolidation of British possessions in South Africa, Lord Carnarvon, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, convinced Sir Henry Bartle Frere to become Governor of the Cape Colony. Frere arrived at the Cape in April 1877 with a clear mandate to achieve confederation of the various South African colonies.8 The first step toward this confederation was taken the same year with the annexation of the Transvaal, a nominally independent Boer republic situated north of the Vaal River.9

All the while the British were consolidating their control over the southern coastal regions, a new native power was rising to prominence in the northeast. It began c. 1800 when a chief of the Mthethwa tribe named Dingiswayo began to achieve unusual military success over many of the neighboring tribes. Dingiswayo’s success came about due to the disciplined “regimental” system he imposed on his armies, as well as the incorporation into his own forces of the warriors from the tribes he had defeated. Among the tribes Dingiswayo conquered were the Zulu.10

It was a brilliant young Zulu warrior who soon rose to the command of Dingiswayo’s entire army. His name was Shaka. He instituted new tactics and weapons which made combat much more violent, and warfare much more effective.… In 1818, war erupted between Dingiswayo and his brother-in-law Zwide, leader of the Ndwandwe tribe. When Dingiswayo was captured and killed, Shaka assumed power, becoming king of Dingiswayo’s realm. The war continued for several years, but in 1826, Shaka dealt the Ndwandwe army a devastating defeat. Thus the Zulu kingdom was born.11

Shaka’s reign was relatively short, though he did manage to start a lasting Zulu policy of friendship and trade with the British. In 1828, he was assassinated by two of his brothers. One of the brothers, Dingane, succeeded Shaka as king of the Zulus.12

Dingane’s reign was plagued by trouble with the ever encroaching Europeans. He feared the land-hungry Boers would soon drive the Zulus out of their best lands. So, under the pretext of a peaceful conference, Dingane lured a group of Boers into a meeting with him unarmed. Trapped and defenseless, the Boer men were killed. The Zulu army then set out and began destroying the Boer homesteads, killing the women and children as well. In all, over 600 Boers were killed in this massacre. The Zulus and Boers would fight a number of battles in the following years.13 Though Dingane’s actions were indeed extreme, he had a very legitimate fear of the white men. And as history would later prove, his fears were more than justified.

Dingane was succeeded as king by Mpande. King Mpande continued Shaka’s policy of friendship toward the British. He won a treaty from them by promising that the Zulus would remain north of the Tugela River and east of the Buffalo River, and also by ceding the use of St. Lucia Bay.14 Tragically, however, Mpande’s reign would see Zululand torn by a civil war between two of his sons.

The civil war was fought in 1856 between Mbulazi and his older brother, Cetshwayo. Mbulazi had about 7,000 warriors in his faction. Cetshwayo’s faction, known as the uSuthu, had about 20,000. When the fighting was over, Cetshwayo’s army had killed nearly all of Mbulazi’s warriors, as well as over 20,000 of his women and children.15 This civil war no doubt contributed to Cetshwayo’s “bloodthirsty” reputation of later years.

Though he had held de facto power since the end of the civil war, Cetshwayo formally became king of the Zulus in 1872 upon the death of his father, Mpande. Cetshwayo was eager to have the backing of the British government in Natal, and he welcomed a “coronation” by a British delegation in 1873.16 Relations with the British may have seemed positive at the time, but in 1879, only the eighth year of his reign, the Anglo-Zulu War would be fought. And at Cetshwayo’s feet the British would endeavor to lay the blame for that bloody conflict. . . .

Zululand itself was about the size of the U.S. state of Georgia. Some portions were mountainous and heavily forested, but much of the country was open grasslands, cut by numerous rivers and their tributaries.17 The kingdom’s population was about 250,000 in 1879. Over 90 percent of this population lived in small family groups.18 The Zulu kingdom was bordered on the east by the Indian Ocean, to the south by the Tugela River, by the Buffalo and Blood rivers in the west, and in the north by the Phongolo River, beyond which lay the kingdom of the Swazis.

In 1879, the Zulus were a pastoral people. The days were spent tending to the herds and working the soil. Cattle were the chief form of wealth in Zulu society, and they were central to Zulu life, supplying the people with meat, milk, and hides.19

Next to cattle, the one overriding element of Zulu life was the military system. Young men in their late teens were usually required to report to one of the 15 or 20 military kraals, or amakhanda, located throughout the kingdom, where they were organized into “companies” for military training. Each company contained about 50 men. Under the direction of an older officer, called an induna, the young men were trained in the ways of Zulu warfare. Herein they were also indoctrinated with the values of Zulu culture. And despite their military nature, the amakhanda were, in a sense, the formal schools of the Zulu kingdom.

Every few years, the young warriors would be summoned to the king’s kraal at Ulundi, where their companies would be inducted into a royal “regiment.” However, between 10 and 15 percent of military-age Zulu men never served in the king’s regiments. Instead, these young men were inducted into the military-labor forces of the great men of their home districts. And many others never served at all.20

Zulu warriors were armed with several throwing spears, or assegais, but their primary weapon was a short stabbing assegai called the iklwa. Warriors also carried large ox-hide shields.21 And in addition to their traditional weapons, the Zulus had been acquiring firearms since the 1820s. By 1879, most Zulu warriors had rifles.22 In fact, it was one of King Cetshwayo’s standing orders that his armies should be armed with guns, though some of his officers weren’t as quick to realize this necessity.23 However, most Zulus were poor marksmen and did not make effective use of their guns. The Zulus seem to have treated rifles in much the same way a thrown spear would be treated in mass combat, the projectile (in this case a bullet) being launched on a high arc toward a concentrated group of enemies, an ineffective attack when using a rifle. In short, their aim tended to be too high. And, perhaps, better use of firearms by the Zulus could have changed the outcome of the war in 1879.24

Zulu battle tactics were entirely offensive, relying on hand-to-hand combat rather than the spear throwing that usually characterized Bantu warfare. Utilizing the classic “charging buffalo” formation devised by Dingiswayo and Shaka, a Zulu army, or impi, was usually composed of four regiments. The “chest,” the strongest portion of the impi, would engage the enemy from the front, holding them in position. Meanwhile, the “horns” would attack the flanks and rear, enveloping the enemy. The remaining regiment, the “loins,” would act as a reserve, its warriors usually sitting with their backs to the battle so that they would not become too excited.25

In 1879, the Zulu army retained the tactics, weapons (with the addition of firearms), and discipline that had allowed it to defeat other African armies in earlier wars. Between 40,000 and 50,000 men served in 35 royal regiments which could be mobilized, in theory, at King Cetshwayo’s command.26

A common misconception at the time of the Anglo-Zulu War was that the Zulus were a sexually repressed people. This myth stemmed from an order handed down to the Zulu army in Shaka’s time. Zulu men were not permitted to marry until they had experienced battle, or until they began to reach middle age. “Marriage for young warriors is folly,” Shaka had said. “Their first and last duty is to protect the interests of the nation. This they cannot do efficiently if they have family ties.” This fact led Europeans to the belief that Zulu courage in battle was derived from pent up sexual desire. Supposedly, lust-crazed warriors fought only for the right to take brides. It was a myth that has been very persistent, surviving even into recent decades:

The theory that Zulu men were sexually deprived came from the Victorian assumption that unmarried men were not sexually active. In fact, young warriors were allowed to have sexual relations with unmarried women. Unmarried men and women were permitted to practice hlobonga, a form of non-vaginal, “between-the-legs” sexual intercourse. And hlobonga was indeed practiced, and quite widely at that.… Moreover, sexuality was central to Zulu life, and it was always a popular topic of conversation among both men and women. Zulu men went to war for cattle, not for sex. In fact, over half of the Zulu regiments were composed of married men. And furthermore, the traditional prohibition against early marriage was frequently ignored.28

On the other hand, the British soldiers serving at the time of the Anglo-Zulu War may, in fact, have been sexually repressed. One will note the similarity to Shaka’s words of the following passage describing British military attitudes of the day:

Unlike the Zulu case, however, the British policy of delayed marriage was only a tradition, not a strict regulation.

As mentioned earlier, it has been long held that the cause of the Anglo-Zulu War was Zulu “barbarism” and the military system under King Cetshwayo.30 Supposedly, the war was fought to suppress Zulu barbarism, to eliminate the despotic Zulu king, and also to punish a Zulu incursion into British territory (an incident which will be discussed later). Furthermore, the war was seen as an act of self-defense by a British colony, apparently on the principle that the best defense is a good offense.31 As false as these assumptions may be, it is important to have an understanding of them in order to fully realize the true causes of the war.

The reason generally given by the British principals involved at the time, and which has been so often taken at face value ever since, was that the barbarous and despotic Zulu king and his army of sex-starved warriors posed a direct military threat to British colonies in South Africa, namely Natal—the Zulus were sure to attack at any moment. This is clearly evidenced in the words of Sir Henry Bartle Frere’s military secretary, one Capt. Henry Hallam Parr:

As for Cetshwayo’s barbarism, the evidence usually cited concerns an incident in 1876 which involved a number of young women who had refused to marry the older men from a veteran regiment, instead marrying young men in defiance of the king’s orders. Cetshwayo then allegedly ordered these girls be put to death and their bodies displayed in public. However, no credible witnesses ever confirmed these rumors, which were spread primarily by Zulu fugitives and a few disreputable Europeans.33

In the middle to late 19th century, the biggest threat to the security of the British Empire was believed to be the expansion of France and Russia outside of Europe. This threatened Great Britain’s most prized possession, India.34 The immediate causes of the Anglo-Zulu War can be found in the over-all imperial policy regarding colonial security, especially as to that of the Indian subcontinent, as well as with the political and economic situation that existed in South Africa at the time.

Paramount to the security of India was British control of the sea route between England and the subcontinent. More directly, what was needed was control of the ports that would supply and support the warships required to maintain British naval supremacy in the Indian Ocean off southern Africa. And after the treaty with King Mpande, the British controlled every harbor along the southeast coast of Africa. However, this control could only be maintained if the local countryside was kept peaceful and orderly.35

By 1874, Lord Carnarvon was convinced that a confederation of the various South African colonies was ideal for the situation in that region. In fact, confederation was the colonial policy of the time. Carnarvon believed that confederation would increase the flow of immigrants and money into South Africa, resulting in greater stability and prosperity, while reducing the demand for imperial troops and decreasing administrative costs.36

As mentioned earlier, Lord Carnarvon had sent Sir Henry Bartle Frere to South Africa in 1877 as Governor of the Cape Colony with a mandate to achieve a British-dominated federation of the several South African states, including the Boer republics. However, Frere was confronted with numerous obstacles to this goal at the time of his arrival, for the situation in South Africa was far from stable. And within a year, the Ninth Frontier War broke out when two tribal groups in the south of Natal revolted against British rule. It was the last major rising of Nguni peoples against the white men, but Frere saw this disturbance as a symptom of a “general and simultaneous rising of Kaffirdom against white civilization.” He was soon convinced that the settlement of the “native question” was the key to stability in South Africa.37

By 1878, Frere had come to see the Zulu kingdom as the primary obstacle to the settlement of this “native question.” His confederation could not succeed as long as there was a strong, independent African nation in its midst, continually inspiring the subjected native population to revolt against white rulership. Zulu power would eventually have to be destroyed, and Frere soon began making military preparations for dealing with the Zulus.38

The Transvaal Boers were also a threat to Frere’s plans for confederation. They weren’t very pleased with their recent, unwilling incorporation into the British Empire, and Frere was continually trying to convince them that confederation was in their best interests. He told Paul Kruger, the Boer leader, in 1878 that the Transvaal could “enjoy perfect freedom” as a province of the Union of South Africa.39 The situation was further complicated by a long-standing boundary dispute between the Boers and the Zulus, which the colonial government became responsible for after the annexation of the Transvaal.

The economic situation in South Africa also had a hand in bringing the war about. By the 1870s, South Africa had become a considerable source of wealth for the British Empire, with the recent discovery of diamonds and gold. But the situation was fraught with unrest. The small European population had occupied all the best lands, forcing the African majority (300,000 in Natal alone) onto the poorest lands. The colonial government was soon looking toward the large tracts of “unused” land in the Zulu kingdom as a possible place for the relocation of the disaffected native population, much of which had originated in that region but fled southward in the face of the Zulu conquests.40 Furthermore, the entire region was suffering from a massive labor shortage. A large, stable labor supply was needed in order to exploit the growing mineral wealth of South Africa. The large native population was seen as the answer to this problem, but first the self-supporting economies of these native African societies would have to be destroyed.41

No analysis of the causes of the Anglo-Zulu War would be complete without a discussion of the principal personalities who were involved, namely King Cetshwayo, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, and Sir Theophilus Shepstone, the Secretary for Native Affairs in Natal. Traditionally, much of the blame for the war has been directed at Cetshwayo. It must be said now, though, that the Zulu king did nothing to bring about the British invasion of his country. The war was brought about primarily at the hands of Frere, with no small amount of help from Theophilus Shepstone.

As for Cetshwayo, the Zulu king had been conspicuously hard for the British administrators to control. Shepstone, who had led the delegation that “crowned” Cetshwayo in 1873, assumed that after this little show he would have the Zulu king at his beck and call. This, however, was not the case. After his “coronation,” Cetshwayo had given up none of his authority to the British.42 Cetshwayo had welcomed formal recognition by the British because he wanted both to strengthen his claim to the Zulu throne and to have Natal as an ally in case the Transvaal Boers were to become aggressive, something which seemed very likely at the time.43

Essentially, King Cetshwayo planned to preserve the independence of both himself and his people. In 1877, he sent a letter to Sir Henry Bulwer, the Lt. Governor of Natal, in response to a British injunction against his alleged “massacre” of young girls in 1876. In this letter he instructed the British, in no uncertain terms, to stay out of the internal affairs of his kingdom, concluding the letter with a strong assertion of his authority: “The Governor of Natal and I are in like positions: he is Governor of Natal, and I am Governor here.” It is also interesting to note that in this letter Cetshwayo denied the allegations against him, saying, “I have not yet begun; I have yet to kill.…”44

However, Cetshwayo was also careful not to offend his British neighbors, whose friendship he desired. The following example will demonstrate this point. By 1878, after years of drought, there was a growing cattle shortage in Zululand. Cetshwayo was under a great deal of pressure from the leading men in his kingdom to go to war in order to increase the nation’s cattle stocks. In response, he requested permission from the Natal government to raid the Swazis to the north of Zululand. Natal had an alliance with the Swazi kingdom, so the government refused to condone such an action. As a result, Cetshwayo did not order his army to war against the Swazis.45

Typically, Cetshwayo has been portrayed as a “bloodthirsty monster” who ruled over the Zulu kingdom with absolute power. In fact, he possessed only limited power, and many of the kingdom’s districts gave only nominal allegiance to the Zulu king. And Cetshwayo was certainly less “bloodthirsty” than many of his predecessors. He rarely ordered the execution of criminals, as was provided for in Zulu law. Furthermore, the first and only time he ever ordered the Zulu army to war was in response to the British invasion. In fact, there was no standing army: it had to be called up by the king.46

Now that King Cetshwayo has been established as one of the war’s innocent victims, the true villain of the war can be revealed, Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere.… Frere had decided that, for his confederation scheme to work, Zulu power would have to be broken. Still, he needed a justification for war against the Zulus. To this end he portrayed Cetshwayo as a despotic savage and Zulu men as “celibate manslaying gladiators” in his communications with London.47

Frere was influenced to a great extent by Sir Theophilus Shepstone, the Secretary of Native Affairs in Natal, who first brought the Zulu situation to his attention. Shepstone stressed to Frere that the Zulu kingdom was a symbol of African independence which would endanger confederation as long as it continued to exist.48 Ironically, he had long been considered a friend by the Zulus.

Shepstone had come to view Cetshwayo’s rise to power with great alarm. That is, at least, when he proved more difficult to mold than his father Mpande had been. Shepstone feared that a strong and independent Zulu king could be a threat to the colony. He had granted Cetshwayo formal recognition with the “coronation” in 1873, but he had made this provisional on Cetshwayo’s proper conduct.49 As would turn out, Cetshwayo did not always perform as Shepstone wanted.

Shepstone also had covetous eyes on Zululand itself. He wanted to use the “empty” land of the Zulu kingdom for the resettlement of Natal’s Nguni population. As early as 1877, he remarked that he wanted a “a more thorough control of the Zulu Country,” whether this was brought about “by means of annexation or otherwise.”50 And by the closing months of 1878, he was as eager for war as Frere was:

As has already been demonstrated, the above statements were patently untrue. The Zulus were pastoralists. Furthermore, Zulu men were not professional soldiers. The army was, in fact, more analogous to a militia which could be called up in times of need.

But by 1878, the British were planning for war with the Zulus. In March of that year, Lt. General Frederick Augustus Thesiger, the Second Baron Chelmsford, arrived to take overall command of British forces in South Africa. It was not long before Frere had convinced him that war with the Zulus would soon be a necessity. Lord Chelmsford quickly began making preparations for a military campaign in Zululand. He planned to bring the Zulu army to battle by marching on King Cetshwayo’s “capitol” at Ulundi in central Zululand.52

Support for such a war was hardly universal, however. Lord Carnarvon himself, who had unwittingly set the whole chain reaction into effect, was opposed to a native war in South Africa. Between 1877 and 1878, he had continually warned Shepstone against such a war. However, early in 1878, Carnarvon resigned, convinced that his dream of confederation was a failure. He was replaced as Secretary of State for the Colonies by Sir Michael Hicks Beach. But Hicks Beach lacked Carnarvon’s drive and vision, and furthermore, he lacked the strength of character needed to keep Frere under control.53

Frere now had free rein to do as he pleased, despite Hicks Beach’s halfhearted protestations, and he eagerly moved forward with his plans for war. The only opposition left to him was Sir Henry Bulwer in Natal. Bulwer and the Natal government proved difficult to move on the matter, for they saw no danger from the Zulu kingdom.54 Bulwer, for his part, was concerned that the presence of large numbers of British troops in Natal would be rightly perceived by the Zulus as a direct threat against them.55

The final force pushing the British toward war with the Zulus was the Transvaal Boers. There existed between the Boers and the Zulus a long-standing dispute over the ownership of certain territories east of the Blood River, along the Transvaal–Zululand frontier. The Boers claimed that this region had been ceded to them by King Mpande, but Cetshwayo denied this claim and sought support for his case from the British. This left the British in a sticky situation. Until 1877, Shepstone had generally supported the Zulu claim to the Blood River territory, but early in 1877 he had annexed the Transvaal in the name of the British Empire. Thus he became responsible for the resolution of the Blood River dispute. In order to win the Boers’ support for confederation, Shepstone relinquished his earlier support of the Zulus and began to advocate the Boers’ case. In the end, the matter was turned over to the impartial Natal Boundary Commission for resolution. As it turned out, the Boer claim was fraudulent, and in June 1878, the Boundary Commission found in favor of the Zulus.56

The news of the Boundary Commission’s decision came as a terrible shock to Frere. He had expected the Commission to find in favor of the Boers, an event which might have provoked the Zulus to such an extent where British military intervention could have been justified. In order to buy time, Frere sent the Boundary Commission’s report on to London. Meanwhile, he continued preparations for war.57

Frere didn’t have to wait much longer for the provocation he had so long desired. In July 1878, the two adulterous wives of a Zulu chief named Sihayo, whose homestead was near the Natal border, fled from Zululand into Natal with their lovers. A small party of Zulus, led by Sihayo’s brother and three of his sons, soon crossed the border into Natal and captured the two women, taking them back to Zululand. Under Zulu law, adultery was a capital offense, and the two women were executed.… Sir Henry Bulwer made the obligatory British response, sending a request to King Cetshwayo that the raiders be extradited to Natal for trial. Cetshwayo agreed that the perpetrators should be punished, but he was reluctant to order their extradition, as they hadn’t killed in Natal and as the women had broken Zulu law.58

The whole incident left Frere furious. He maintained that this “savagery” was indicative of the Zulu threat to Natal.59 But at last Frere had his excuse for war, as is again evidenced by the words of Capt. Parr: “To all those versed in Kafir and Zulu politics, it became more than ever clear that the Zulu king meant war.”60 In actuality, though, the incident had no political overtones. Cetshwayo apologized for the whole affair, calling it “the rash act of boys.” Even Bulwer commented that there was “no reason whatever to believe that these acts have been committed with the consent or knowledge of the king.”61 He simply considered it to be a normal consequence of living next to an unsophisticated people.62

But by now, there was no stopping Frere. He called for a meeting in December, ostensibly to announce the findings of the Boundary Commission. On December 11, 1878, emissaries from King Cetshwayo met a British delegation at the Lower Drift of the Tugela River, where Zulu sovereignty over the Blood River territory was announced. However, after the Boundary Commission’s report had been read, the British delegation delivered an ultimatum to the Zulu emissaries.… The perpetrators in the Sihayo incident were to be turned over for trial within 20 days. The induna Mbilini, who was accused of conducting raids on the Transvaal frontier in the disputed Blood River territory, was also to be surrendered for trial. Fines totalling 600 head of cattle were to be paid within 20 days. Summary executions without trial were to end within 30 days. The Zulu army was to be disbanded within 30 days, and Zulus were to be free to marry upon maturity. And, finally, a British Resident was to be installed at Ulundi in order to ensure that these demands were carried out.63

King Cetshwayo responded to the British ultimatum on December 18th. He agreed to turn over the men and cattle but asked for more time. He could not, however, comply with the other demands because they threatened the very nature of Zulu society, as well as Zulu independence. Frere replied that if Cetshwayo did not comply with his demands within the allotted time period, he would send troops into Zululand.64 But Cetshwayo had done all that he could. He desperately wanted to maintain peace with the British, but he was not willing to give up the sovereignty of his kingdom. He would later describe the situation as comparable to “a man warding off a falling tree.”65

Cetshwayo had never planned for war with the British, and, in fact, he did not mobilize his army until the British army invaded Zululand. Furthermore, he expressly forbade his commanders to invade Natal.66 On the other hand, Frere had long planned for war. In fact, he had ignored every opportunity for peace offered to him by the Zulu king. His ultimate duplicity is revealed in the dispatch he would later send to the British government in London explaining his actions:

This was an outright lie on Frere’s part. As noted earlier, Cetshwayo had done everything within his power to meet Frere’s more than unreasonable demands.…

On January 11, 1879, Lord Chelmsford and a column of British troops crossed the Buffalo River at Rorke’s Drift.68 On either side of Chelmsford’s column, miles to the north and east, two more British columns were also crossing the frontier. The invasion of Zululand had begun. Nine days later, Chelmsford ordered his column to make camp at a hill called Isandlwana, but he foolishly did not bother to have the camp properly fortified. And around noon on January 22nd, a Zulu impi, some 20,000 warriors strong, fell upon the undefended camp at Isandlwana and destroyed it utterly. Killed were 858 British officers and enlisted men, as well as nearly 500 of their African allies. It was one of the worst disasters in British military history. Isandlwana may have seemed a great victory for the Zulu army, but it had exacted a terrible price. Over 3,000 Zulu warriors had given their lives in this battle.69

For the Zulus, Isandlwana was indicative of the slaughter that was to come. The battles of Kambula and Gingindhlovu would be crushing defeats for the Zulus, erasing their victories at Isandlwana and other engagements. And on the morning of July 4, 1879, Lord Chelmsford’s army defeated the last great Zulu impi just outside Ulundi.70 The might of the Zulu army had been destroyed, and the war was effectively over. King Cetshwayo was captured nearly two months later.71

It had been a costly war for the Zulus. Approximately 10,000 men had been killed. There were relatively few wounded, however, as most of the injured died of their wounds. In contrast, only 1,083 British officers and men had been killed in battle.72 The Anglo-Zulu War also cost the Zulus their country.…

After the war, the British abolished the Zulu monarchy, banished Cetshwayo to Cape Town, and divided Zululand into 13 separate districts under 13 appointed chiefs.73 The war had also left much of the population in destitution, and many men were thus compelled to become wage laborers in Natal and the Transvaal.74

The result was chaos. Cetshwayo was eventually allowed to return, but by then it was too late. Zululand had devolved into civil war, and try as he might, Cetshwayo was unable to reconstitute the former Zulu kingdom.… Cetshwayo kaMpande, the last true king of the Zulus, died in 1884. Sir Henry Bartle Frere died three months later.75

In 1887, Great Britain annexed Zululand. The country was then partitioned into administrative districts. A hut tax was imposed as well. The government later opened the land to white settlers, relegating the Zulus to a small number of reservations, which constituted only about a third of the former kingdom.76 The destruction of the Zulu nation-state had been completed.

It was truly a sad fate which befell the Zulu people. It is sadder still that it has been the Zulus themselves whom have been so often blamed for this unfortunate turn of events.… The Anglo-Zulu War was not a necessary war, at least not for the British. It was a war in which the Zulu people became the innocent victims of a great empire. It was not a war of self-defense by a British colony, but a war of imperial avarice. The British were building an empire, and the small Zulu kingdom seemed to be in the way. The Anglo-Zulu War was, in short, the price of British imperialism.

David Clammer, The Zulu War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973), p. 13.
Robert B. Edgerton, Like Lions They Fought (New York: The Free Press, 1988), p. 6.
Ibid., p. 8.
Michael Barthorp, The Zulu War (Poole: Blandford Press, 1980), p. 1.
Edgerton, p. 8.
Ibid., p. 12.
Ibid., pp. 13–14.
Ibid., p. 13.
Ibid., pp. 8–9.
Ibid., pp. 9–10.
Ibid., pp. 10–11.
Ibid., p. 11.
Barthorp, p. 5.
Edgerton, p.11.
Ibid., pp. 11–13.
Ibid., p. 15.
Ibid., p. 28.
Ibid., pp. 32–33.
Clammer, p. 21.
Edgerton, p. 38.
Henry Hallam Parr, A Sketch of the Kafir and Zulu Wars (London: C. Kegan Paul & Co., 1880), pp. 110–111.
Edgerton, p. 38.
Clammer, p. 21.
Edgerton, pp. 21–22.
Barthorp, p. 8.
Edgerton, pp. 24–28.
Ibid., pp. 62–63.
M. A. S. Grundlingh, “The Diary of George William Stegmann,” Quarterly Bulletin of the South African Library 43:3 (1989), p. 123.
Clammer, p. 13.
Parr, pp. 114–115.
Thomas J. Lucas, The Zulus and the British Frontiers (London: Chapman and Hall, 1879; reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969), pp. 114–115. For a more detailed account of this incident, see ibid., pp. 361–367.
Barthorp, p. 1.
Ibid., p. 5.
Clammer, p. 14.
D. M. Schreuder, The Scramble for Southern Africa, 1877–1895 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 71; and Clammer, p. 17.
Barthorp, pp. 9–13.
George William Stegmann, entry in his private diary, 28 November 1878, quoted in Grundlingh, p. 128.
Edgerton, pp. 12–13.
Grundlingh, p. 123.
Edgerton, p. 13.
Clammer, p. 19.
Ibid., pp. 23–24,
Edgerton, p. 28.
Ibid., pp. 23–24.
Ibid., p. 14.
Schreuder, p. 75.
Barthorp, p. 5.
Schreuder, p. 74.
Shepstone memorandum, 18 November 1878, quoted ibid., p. 75.
Edgerton, pp. 14–16.
C. W. De Kiewiet, The Imperial Factor in South Africa (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1937; reprint, New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1966), p. 217; and Clammer, pp. 25–26.
Stegmann diary entry, 20 November 1878, quoted in Grundlingh, p. 127.
Parr, p. 139.
Barthorp, pp. 8–12; and Lucas, p. 306.
Edgerton, p. 20.
Barthorp, p. 13.
Parr, p. 140.
Lucas, pp. 311–312.
Barthorp, p. 13.
Ibid., p. 14; and Parr, p. 149.
Barthorp, p. 14.
Schreuder, p. 76.
Edgerton, p. 22.
Frere dispatch to London, 16 February 1879, quoted in Lucas, pp. 328–332.
Barthorp, p. 14.
Edgerton, pp. 3–4.
Clammer, pp. 209–214.
Edgerton, pp. 159–160.
Ibid., p. 160.
Leonard Thompson, A History of South Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 125.
Edgerton, pp. 160–161.
Thompson, p. 125; and Edgerton, p. 163.
Thompson, p. 125.

Copyright © A.D. 1993, 2000 by M. D. Van Norman. All rights reserved.

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