It is 1879. A British expeditionary force has landed in Durban, South Africa and marched into Zulu territory in an unprovoked attack. It is so confident of its superior power that it does not bother to encircle its campsite with wagons, as it pauses for the night on a slope beneath a rocky outcrop called Isandlwana. Zulu King Cetshwayo kaMpande summons 24,000 of his best impi warriors. “March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers,” he commands.
The Isandlwana Battlefields
The oral history of the Zulu nation recalls the impi were resting in a valley near the British camp when enemy mounted scouts happened on them. Although neither side was prepared for battle, the Zulu impi fell quickly into an immediate and spontaneous attack based on the horns of a charging buffalo, as was their custom. The head and one horn preoccupied the retreating British defenders, while the other horn circled around in the hills and attacked from their rear in a classic pincer movement.
General Chelmsford had gambled that 4,000 men – including 2,000 British infantry armed with Martini-Henry rifles, and 2 field artillery guns were sufficient to overpower any number of Zulus armed with short, stabbing spears, shields made of cowhide, and a few old hunting rifles. The Zulus broke the defenders into smaller and smaller groups as the isolated British ran short of ammunition. Each became a gallant last stand marked by a pile of dead British bodies run through with short stabbing spears.
Grave Markers at Isandlwana
The victors departed triumphantly bearing their booty. This included 1,000 Martini-Henry rifles, the 2 field artillery guns, 400,000 rounds of ammunition, three regimental flags, most of the 2,000 draft animals, and 130 wagons – plus their choice of, biscuits, beer, tinned food, overcoats, tents and other supplies.
Memorials to the British Dead
The British had suffered their worst defeat ever against such a militarily unsophisticated foe. They buried their dead where they fell, marked by a pile of stones that others whitewashed later. The British would be back, and they would not make the same mistake again.
Getting to the Isandlwana Battlefields
Approximately 5km beyond Dundee on the R33 heading north, turn right for Nqutu / Melmoth and Babanango. Travel approximately 45 kilometres into Nqutu. Turn right to Melmoth at a 4-way stop. Travel a further 13 kilometres before turning onto gravel at the Isandlwana sign. The visitor’s centre is at the end of a seven-kilometre gravel road. Make sure your hire car has aircon as Isandlwana can get hot in summer.