Tread Gently Across the Fields of Isandlwana

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

Isandlwana Battlefields: Battle Site
Isandlwana Battle Site: Photo Kevin Gessner / CC BY 2.0

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.

Isandlwana Memorial

Isandlwana Battlefields: Isandlwana Memorial commemorating the fallen Zulu
Isandlwana Memorial commemorating the fallen Zulu

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

Isandlwana Battlefields: Grave Markers
Grave Markers at Isandlwana: Photo Gerry ZamboniniCC BY-SA 2.0

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

Isandlwana Battlefields: Memorials to the British Dead
Memorials to the British Dead: Photo NH53 / CC BY 2.0

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.

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About Richard Farrell

Richard FarrellI tripped over a shrinking bank balance and fell into the writing gig unintentionally. This was after I escaped the corporate world and searched in vain for ways to become rich on the internet by doing nothing. Despite the fact that writing is no recipe for wealth, I rather enjoy it. I will deny I am obsessed with it when I have the time.My base is Umtentweni in South Africa on the Kwazulu-Natal South Coast (30.7167° S, 30.4667° E). I work from home where I ponder on the future of the planet, and what lies beyond in the great hereafter. Sometimes I step out of my computer into the silent riverine forests, and empty golden beaches for which the area is renowned.

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