Sunday 25 June 2023

When the Zulu People of South Africa ๐Ÿ‡ฟ๐Ÿ‡ฆ defeated the British ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ง


In 1879, the British army invaded the independent & previously friendly Zulu kingdom, which had been founded by the formidable Nguni warrior Shaka Zulu in 1818. Shaka had been the first proper king in South Africa, in that he managed to unite almost 800 Eastern Nguni–Bantu clans under his rule, displacing the rest.

He was also the first to establish a proper army, which he divided into regiments called impis armed with assegais and iklwas – the former a traditional long-poled spear to use from a distance, the latter a remodelled short-poled version which was lethal in hand-to-hand combat.

Leading the British troops was Lord Chelmsford, a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath who had already fought in Crimea, India and South Africa, winning skirmishes with Xhosa chieftains which no doubt influenced his low opinion of the Zulus.

He commanded 4,700 highly-trained soldiers equipped with the latest Martini-Henry rifles, assisted by armed colonial volunteers and many field guns of the Royal Artillery. He attacked the kingdom on three fronts, expecting an easy victory and national fame.

Facing him on the vast, baking-hot plain at Isandlwana was a Zulu army of 350,000 warriors wielding deadly spears and an assortment of ancient muzzle-loading firearms, divided into 34 regiments of which 18 were made of married men, and 16 of unmarried ones.

News of the attacking force reached the Zulu court while it was getting ready to host the annual First Fruit Festival, attended by all the regiments, smaller chiefs and the best isangomas of the land –who immediately started making protective amulets and invigorating potions.

What was supposed to be a harvest celebration turned into a three-day pre-war ceremony, at the end of which all warriors were sprinkled with protective medicines and sent to the border. When the Zulus first appeared in the distance Lord Chelmsford divided his force to meet them, leaving over 1500 men in the main camp under Isandlwana hill. It was this reserve force that the Zulus attacked, leaving Chelmsford’s main regiment stranded miles away and unable to help.

The Zulu plan was simple, but efficient, developed over hundreds of years while hunting large herds of game. It was called the “horns of the bull”, with the horns made of fast-moving younger regiments whose primary job was to encircle the enemy leaving the killing to the more seasoned warriors who would bear the brunt of a frontal attack.

The tactic was most successful if the two horns completed the encirclement of the enemy before the main body of warriors had been seen, and in this battle they not only encircled the British position but also the hill of Isandlwana itself.

The battle raged for less than an hour, at the end of which all but 100 British men had been killed – & that’s because they ran away before the Zulus attacked.

It was the worst defeat ever suffered by British troops at the hands of indigenous people equipped with vastly inferior military technology. It was also the greatest victory the Zulus were ever going to achieve.

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