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Anglo-Zulu War - 1879

England's collisions with the savage races bordering upon her colonies have in all probability usually been brought about by the exigencies of the moment, by border-troubles, and acts of violence and insolence on the part of the savages, and from the absolute necessity of protecting a small and trembling white population from their assaults. Some found no such causes as these led up to the war of 1879.

It has been very commonly and repeatedly stated that Sir Bartle Frere "caused the war." For more than twenty years the Zulus and the colonists of Natal had lived side by side in perfect peace and quietness. The tranquillity of the border had been a matter of pride as compared to the disturbed and uncertain boundaries between Zululand and the Transvaal The mere fact of the utterly unprotected condition of the frontier farmers on the border, and the entire absence of anything like precaution, evinced by the common practice of building houses of the most combustible description, is a proof that the colonists felt no real alarm concerning the Zulus until the idea was suggested to them by those in authority over them. The only interruption to this tranquil condition of the public mind about the Zulus was in the year 1861, when a scare took place in the colony, for which, as it afterwards proved, there were no grounds whatsoever. Others took a rather different vew.

The truth is that a difficulty, likely to culminate in war, had existed in connection with Zululand for fully a quarter of a century before Sir Bartle Frere set foot in South Africa; and the existence of this difficulty was well known to the Home Government. Sir Bartle Frere was sent out as High Commissioner to endeavour to put an end to the trouble, without war if possible; and events proved that the Zulus would not yield to any of his requests unless he showed himself willing, if necessary, to enforce them. He was thus placed in the position of deciding whether he would leave the danger, which threatened Natal and the Transvaal directly, and the whole of our South African Colonies indirectly, unchecked; or would insist, if need were, by force, upon such securities being given by Cetywayo, the Zulu King, as would make our colonies secure from invasion in the future.

From the earliest days the constitution of society (if society it can at all be called) in Zululand was that of one vast camp. Chaka laid waste Natal, with its then peaceful native inhabitants — so much so that the early settlers, in the year 1810, found it almost depopulated, the only inhabitants at that time being miserable refugees from the Zulu despot. In 1828, after an iron reign, Chaka was assassinated by his brother Dingaan, who threatened the early English settlers with war, on the ground of their harboring the refugees from his brother. Dingaan met the end common to tyrants, and was murdered, after having, however, been first defeated by his brother Panda, whose cause the Dutch settlers espoused, vanquishing Dingaan, and driving him out of his land. Panda then ruled in his stead. He was an easy-going man, not inclined to war, and disposed to keep on good terms with his neighbours. So long as this state of affairs continued, it was comparatively easy to keep peace with Zululand; but Panda, on his death, was succeeded by Cetywayo, who turned out to be a man of a very different stamp to his father.

Cetywayo, like his predecessors, found himself able to maintain his despotic authority only by acts of cruelty and oppression, and by keeping up the military system founded by his uncle Chaka. The "young men" of his army were not permitted to marry until they had fought some enemy and obtained the King's permission; and this powerful lever was used to keep the army together around him. On Sir Henry Bulwer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Natal, remonstrating with him for his cruelty to his subjects, contrary to his promise, when crowned, that he would not take their lives without trial, he sent back a defiant answer, "that he would kill his people if he liked, and that he did not ask the Governor of Natal not to kill his own."

However smoothly and well the native policy seemed to work, it soon became very evident that the 20,000 white people of Natal were really seated on a political volcano. Three hundred thousand heathen savages of an alien race had the power to rise and destroy them at any moment, and it was impossible to be sure that they might not at any time have the inclination. All the checks which religion and civilization place on men had been deliberately cast aside. No doubt the Zulu monarch was feared; but there can be no doubt also that if the dread paramount ruler of the Zulu race had at any time crossed the Tugela as a conqueror, tens of thousands of his own race in the colony would have joined him out of fear, and hastened to prove their loyalty by the massacre of every white inhabitant of Natal. if Cetywayo had entered Natal with a large victorious army, one of the most awful massacres on record would have been the result.

The British forces in Natal had been increased early in August 1878 with the arrival of Lord Chelmsford (then General the Hon. F. A. Thesiger, C.B.). Sir Bartle Frere sent his celebrated message or ultimatum to Cetywayo on 11 December 1878, which included a demand that the threatening Zulu army should be disbanded. War was inevitable; and had the matter only been quietly shelved for a little while, the British should most likely have been the invaded instead of the invaders. The Colony of Natal had long been threatened with invasion by the Zulus, and the utmost care and tact on the part of British authorities had been required to prevent some outhreak long before. It was certain that the danger, already formidable, would continue to increase every year, nay, almost every month; and that the difficulty of dealing with it, which might arise from immediate and decisive action, would be proportionately augmented by delay. Parleying with Cetywayo had long proved useless.

Lord Chelmsford marched his troops in five Columns, at different places, across the frontier from the 5th to the 11th January 1879, without opposition from the enemy, and thus commenced the first campaign in Zululand. Lord Chelmsford had under him a force of 6500 Europeans and 8200 natives; 3000 of the latter were employed in guarding the frontier of Natal; another force of 1400 Europeans and 400 natives were stationed in the Utrecht district. Three columns were to invade Zululand, from the Lower Tugela, Rorke's Drift, and Utrecht respectively, their objective being Ulundi, the royal kraal. Cetywayo's army numbered fully 40,000 men. The entry of all three columns was unopposed. On the 22nd of January the centre column (1600 Europeans, 2500 natives), which had advanced from Rorke's Drift, was encamped near Isandhlwana.

Although aware that the Zulus possessed a standing army, a full account of which had been compiled by direction of Lord Chelmsford, and though the Zulus were known to have something of a military system, it was well nigh impossible that, even with a knowledge of these facts, a proper regard for the reputed courage and endurance of the enemy could exist in the minds of officers or men who had taken part so recently in the war against the Cnpe Colony Kaffirs, and witnessed the absence of military qualities in them. The fact alone of superiority in weapons tended to produce a feeling of confidence, and at the commencement of the Zulu campaign few British officers felt the necessity of forming laagers, or even of entrenching, where artillery and Martini-Henri rifles were opposed to assegais and muzzle-loading small arms.

Lord Chelmsford, with the main column of the British forces, crossed the Tugela, and on January 20 encamped at Isandlwana, one of the few hills of the flat and pleasant country of Zululand. Regarding the safety of that camp he appears to have had no misgivings. Opposed to an enemy without artillery, and with the worst description of fire-arms, the use of which they little understood, the advantages of a site, well drained, and possessing the somewhat rare recommendations of good water and grass, may justly be taken into consideration in favor of a somewhat indifferent military position. Isandlwana possessed these advantages.

At Isandlwana his advance column, under Colonel Glyn, was surprised by a Zulu army nearly 10,000 strong and almost totally annihilated. Over 1,300 men were killed; scarcely 60 Europeans survived. On the 22nd, leaving about half his men — numbering only 800 — to hold the camp, Lord Chelmsford went forward with the rest to reconnoitre the way towards Cetewayo's kraal Ulundi. While he was away, the Zulus came up and attacked Isandlwana. The commander of the camp impetuously led his men out to meet them. The force left to guard the camp on January 22 was a sufficient one for the purpose; and had that force been kept together, as was ordered by the Brigadier-General through his principal staff officer, and formed for defence, with its ammunition at hand (which there was ample time to do), there is little doubt that the Zulu army would have been completely defeated at Isandlwana, in spite of its overwhelming numbers.

The victorious Zulus passed on to the Tugela, crossed it, and would have spread desolation over the colony, but for the heroism of the small British force which, posted on the Natal side of the river, held Rorke's Drift. Lieutenant John Chard had been ordered to South Africa to take part in what became the Zulu War, and was stationed at the small post of Rorke's Drift to protect the bridges across the Buffalo river, and some sick men and stores. Here, with Lieutenant Gonville Btromhead (1856-1891) and eighty men of the 24th Foot, he heard, on the 22nd of January 1879, of the disaster of Isandhlrana from some fugitives who had escaped the slaughter. Believing that the victorious Zulus would attempt to cross into Natal, they prepared, hastily, to hold the Drift until help could come. They barricaded and loopholed the old church and hospital, and improvised defenses from wagons and bags of Indian corn. Early in the afternoon they were attacked by more than 3000 Zulus, who, after hours of desperate hand-to-hand fighting, carried the outer defenses, an inner low rail of biscuit boxes, and the hospital, room by room. The garrison then retired to the stone kraal, and repulsed attack after attack through the night. The next morning relieving forccs appeared, and the enemy retired. The spirited defense of Rorke's Drift saved Natal from a Zulu invasion, and Chard's and Bromhead's gallantry was rewarded with the V.C. and immediate promotion to the rank of captain and brevet-major. In Chard's return to England he became a popular hero.

Lord Chelmsford soon retrieved the defeat of Isandlwana by defeating the Zulus at Ghingilovo, Eshowe, and finally (July 4) at Ulundi itself. The disgrace at Isandlwana was retrieved at the battle of Ulundi, when the Zulu army was completely defeated. The 2nd division (with which was Lord Chelmsford) and Wood's column crossed the White Umfolosi on the 4th of July—the force numbering 4200 Europeans and 1000 natives. Within a mile of Ulundi the British force, formed in a hollow square, was attacked by a Zulu army numbering 12,000 to 15,000. The battle ended in a decisive victory for the British, whose losses were about 100, while of the Zulu some 1500 men were killed. A sad event marked the closing weeks of the campaign; the Prince Imperial, the only son of Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie, had been killed in a skirmish on Juno 1. He had been trained at Woolwich and had volunteered for active service when the Zulu War broke out.

The campaign virtually ended with Ulundi. The capture of the person of the Zulu King was to be the finishing and crowning event of the operations. From the very commencement of the campaign it had been acknowledged, both by natives and colonists, that the taking of Ulundi and capture of the King would complete the overthrow of the Zulu nation. The first accomplished, there remained but to prosecute the search for the King, for which duty only small parties were required. On the 27th of August the king was captured and sent to Cape Town. The Zulu power was crushed but it had cost 1,430 European lives.

John William Colenso, Bishop of Natal, warmly espoused the interests of the natives against tlie oppression of the Boers, and the encroaching policy of the Cape officials. He opposed the attitude of Sir Bartle Frere and the home government during the Zulu war, and earnestly strove to make peace between the contending parties. Owing to his exertions, Cetywayo was allowed to visit England and plead for his rights. Dr Colenso's defence of the aboriginal claims lost him much valuable support; but the bishop and his daughter never swerved from what seemed to them to be the wisest as well as the only honourable course to pursue towards the natives of South Africa.

Cetewayo was captured. However, he was allowed to visit Queen Victoria in England and was restored as ruler of Zululand in 1883. Cetewayo was left with most of his former dominions to rule over. But those who had ruled in the meantime refused to accept him. He died in 1884. He was replaced by thirteen independent chiefs under Melmoth Osborn, a British resident. In 1887 the whole of Zululand was annexed to Natal.

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Page last modified: 25-10-2012 15:51:22 ZULU