The Battle of Isandlwana (South Africa, January 22, 1879)

The Battle of Isandlwana (South Africa, January 22, 1879)

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The fall of Cetshwayo

During May, Chelmsford had twelve infantry battalions and two regular cavalry regiments, five artillery batteries, one of which was entirely made up of machine guns - a first in the British army - and various colonial and native elements, for a total of 17,000 men. While this number is roughly similar to that of the first invading force, on the other hand, its firepower is significantly higher. Column # 1, reorganized into 1time division and now entrusted to Henry Crealock, will again have to advance along the coast. Chelmsford himself will command the main force, or 2th division, in an advance towards Ulundi - this time from Kambula. As for Wood's column n ° 4, it was renamed the “flying column” and was responsible for covering the flanks of the 2th division. From mid-May, the British multiplyrecognitions in view of their offensive, occasionally engaging in skirmishes with the Zulus.

One of them, insignificant on the scale of the campaign, was to have major repercussions on ... France. 1er June 1879, a patrol of nine men is surprised in akraal abandoned and attacked by forty Zulu warriors. Three soldiers are killed; among them, a young lieutenant of 23,Napoleon Eugene Louis Bonaparte. The son of the fallen French Emperor, Napoleon III, has lived in exile in Britain since 1870. His father died there in 1873. The Prince Imperial became an artillery officer in the British Army in 1875 - purely honorary , because the Disraeli cabinet refuses that the cumbersome pretender to the throne of Bonaparte serves the Crown. However, he volunteered to go and fight in South Africa when the war against the Zulus broke out, and thanks to the good relationship between his mother and Queen Victoria, his request was granted. Eager to build himself a military glory from which he could then draw political profit, the young man seeks confrontation with the Zulus - much to the chagrin of the British officers who accompany him. Luck is not on his side, however: as he gallops to escape his pursuers, a strap of his saddle breaks and throws him to the ground; caught up, he is killed with seventeen throws of the lance. The death of the Imperial Prince, in whom the Bonapartists placed their hopes, dealt a fatal blow to the prospects for the restoration of the empire in France. His death will wrest from Disraeli this incredulous comment: "Who are these Zulus, who are these remarkable people who defeat our generals, convert our bishops and on this day put an end to a great dynasty? A few more months, and the Prime Minister can add his own cabinet to this list.

The incident does not change Chelmsford's plans. On June 3, his forces set out. The British advance is cautious, but the Zulus do not attack them. Cetshwayo, who knows his army weakened by previous engagements, seeks to temporize and renews his overtures to obtain peace. Chelmsford, again, rejects them, as his army comes within sight of Ulundi at the end of the month. The British general finds himself in a hurry by events: Wolseley has arrived in South Africa and is on his way to join the 1time division; in the meantime, he ordered Chelmsford to suspend operations and wait for the two divisions to join forces. Wolseley, however, was delayed by a storm that prevented him from reaching Zululand by boat, and he had to make the journey by road. Chelmsford takes the opportunity to ignore his instructions. He wants his revenge on the Zulus, and starts the final battle on July 4. Knowing full well that his enemies will not attack his fortified camp after their disappointment at Kambula, Chelmsford decides to go and face them in the open. In doing so, he adapts the tactics of thelaager on the offensive: 5,200 men form amobile square supported by ten cannons and two machine guns, inside which the cavalry will wait for the opportune moment to launch a decisive sortie. It is a success, and the scenario of Kambula and Gingindlovu repeats itself. 12 to 15,000 Zulu warriors saw their charges break in the face of British firepower, none of them approaching within thirty meters of the square of the "red soldiers". Then comes the exit of the horsemen again, which disperses and massacres the vanquished. Cetshwayo leaks hiskraal, and Ulundi is set on fire. The last major battle of the Anglo-Zulu War is over in less than two hours.

The disaster of Isandlwana, and with it the honor of Chelmsford, are avenged. His career nonetheless came to a halt: although never officially blamed, Chelmsford was confined to administrative posts until his death in 1905. Wolseley continued operations in Zoululand, but encountered virtually no resistance. His men eventually captured Cetshwayo in August. The deposed king is imprisoned in Cape Town, then taken to London. The British do not formally dismantle the Zulu kingdom, but divide it among thirteen kinglets based on the lusts that the fall of Cetshwayo does not fail to stir up. These leaders, however, proved difficult to control and in 1883, the British brought Cetshwayo back to Zululand to make it their puppet. Wounded during an attempted coup, he must seek the protection of his former jailers, and died the following year. After defeating the renegade leaders, the Britishannex officially Zululand in 1887, before attaching it to the colony of Natal ten years later. The only major revolt of the Zulus they will face, that of Chief Bambatha in 1906, will be crushed in blood.

From victory to defeat

With the occupation of the Zulu kingdom, the South African “confederation” policy initiated by Carnarvon and pursued by Bartle Frere seems on the way to being realized. However, it ends up turning against the High Commissioner, already in the spotlight in France as his aggressive actions led to the initial disaster of Isandlwana, despite the subsequent success of British arms. In 1880, still eager to disarm the indigenous tribal kingdoms, Bartle Frere alienated the Basutos, who refused to lay down their arms. The ensuing war did not turn to the advantage of the British, who suffered several setbacks against their former allies. The peace treaty signed the following year grants them great autonomy. Bartle Frere is no longer in South Africa: the conservatives lost the legislative elections of 1880 - in part because of the discontent generated by the actions of Bartle Frere in South Africa - and the liberal William Gladstone, who succeeds Disraeli as prime minister, had him replaced the 1er August 1880. His departure sounded the death knell for the South African confederation project but a few months later, it was the dream of a unified South Africa under British rule which was to undergo astop.

Now supported financially and materially by their neighbors in the Orange Free State, the Boers ofTransvaal did not give up their desire for independence, despite - but also because of - the increased presence of the British after their victory over the Zulus. On December 16, 1880, the Transvaal denounced the annexation of 1877 and reaffirmed its independence, asking the British troops to withdraw. On December 20, they destroyed a supply convoy and in the days that followed, besieged British garrisons across the region. The head of the local British forces, George Colley, then set up a relief column of 1,200 soldiers, which he led from Natal to go and rescue them. On January 28, 1881, Petrus Joubert blocked his way at the head of a group ofkommandos Boers numbering 2,000 men at Laing's Nek, a pass in the Drakensberg Mountains. The British attack turned into a fiasco: they lost more than 200 men to the well-hidden trenches that the Boers had dug, without making the slightest progress. Colley decides to wait for reinforcements and secure his supply line, but a Boer raid on his rear inflicts another setback at Schuinshoogte on February 8.

Colley nevertheless received the reinforcements he needed and, on February 27, he embarked on a new operation. At the head of 400 men, he climbed the hill of Majuba, a steep height which dominates the right flank of the Boer defenses at Laing's Nek. It is probably a stroke of bluff, because he does not hoist artillery with him: he probably hopes that the Boers will withdraw once Majuba is occupied. However, his enemies were quick to react, and 4 to 500 Boers also climbed the slopes of Majuba. The ensuing battle gives them a decisive advantage. While the British still rely on tactics in formation, strict discipline and salvo fire, the Boers oppose them a surprisingly way of fighting.modern. Excellent shooters thanks to their regular practice of hunting, they know how to use the cover provided by the terrain, tall grass and rocks, aided by the discreet colors of their civilian clothes. Fighting in dispersed formations which leave each soldier a great freedom of action, they advance in leaps, some covering the advance of others with their fire - the armies of today do not proceed otherwise. In Majuba, this tactic allows them to get close enough to an eminence to drown it in a hail of bullets and seize it; from there, overlooking the main British position, they had only to massacre its defenders. Nearly three quarters of these are killed, wounded or captured, including Collie, shot in the forehead. Losses among the Boers: two dead and four injured.

The face-to-face continues in front of Laing's Nek, but it quickly becomes clear that the British have lost the war. On March 6, negotiations began and on March 23, a ceasefire came into effect. The Pretoria convention, signed on August 3, confirms thevictory of the Boers. The British recognize a very broad autonomy in the Transvaal, henceforth called “South African Republic”, over which the United Kingdom retains a suzerainty of pure facade. Victorian England had previously experienced many military setbacks, losing battles, but until then had almost always managed to win wars. This Transvaal war (or "first Boer war") is the first she has lost in thirty years. The defeat is all the more bitter because it was inflicted on professional soldiers by militiamen, simple farmers who could not count on any kind of standing army to defend them. The British must give up - temporarily - to subjugate the Boer republics. The United Kingdom nonetheless continued to pursue an active colonial policy in the region, with all the more urgency that the Germans established a protectorate for good over Namaqualand, which became German South West Africa in 1884. The British responded by annexing part of Bechuanaland and imposing their protection on the rest - present-day Botswana - in 1885.

To today's South Africa

Their military enterprises having been foiled, the British turned to other means. They opt for commercial colonization: founded in 1888 by Cecil Rhodes, theBritish South Africa Company is granted the monopoly of industrial exploitation of the British colonies in southern Africa. His influence spread rapidly, and Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890 - which gave him considerable power. Rhodes cherishes the dream of an area of ​​British influence stretching in a single stroke from Cape Town to Cairo, along with a railway line. The Company established a protectorate over the kingdom of the Matabélés in 1893, and annexed it in 1897, each time by force. The conquered territory, and others located even further north, would form Rhodesia, administered directly by the Company until sovereignty was transferred to the United Kingdom in 1924. Rhodes' action soon locked up the Boer republics in a vice. Faced with the growing number of English-speaking settlers who came in the hope of making their fortunes in mining, and the increasingly threatening attitude of the British, the Orange Free State and the Republic of South Africa theirdeclare war in 1899, invading the colony of Cape Town and Natal. After several defeats, the United Kingdom succeeded in taking the advantage thanks to a huge mobilization effort, occupying the two Boer republics in 1900. This phase of conventional war was followed by an elusive guerrilla war, which the British did not submit until 1902 after taking brutal measures - bringing together rural populations in concentration camps, where Boer civilians will die by thousands of all kinds of deprivation.

In 1910, the two annexed republics became provinces which, added to those of Cape Town and Natal, formed the Union of South Africa, an autonomous dominion similar to those which already existed in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The confederation envisioned by Carnarvon in 1877 thus saw the light of day ... after 33 years of effort, conflict and bloodshed - far more than the Secretary of State had imagined. Against all expectations, the majority of Afrikaners remained loyal to the United Kingdom during the outbreak of the First World War, which subsequently enabled them to become the main political force in the country, which had become formally independent in 1931. The integration policy of the black population, already seriously reduced under the impetus of Rhodes in its time, ceased completely in 1948, after the victory in the legislative elections of the National Party. This formation, which advocates racial segregation and Afrikaner nationalism, retained power until 1994. It advocated a policy of "separate development" (Apartheid) which ensures that the white minority in South Africa can alone exercise power. TheApartheid, with its share of violence and inequalities, will ban South Africa from the international community, a situation to which the country reacted by leaving the Commonwealth in 1961. One of the major measures of this policy consists in the creation ofbantustans, kinds of reservations to purely nominal independence. One of thesebantustans, KwaZulu, was reserved for the Zulus and spanned a large, but poor, portion of Natal province.

Zulu national identity, in fact, had not disappeared. First maintained by cultural associations, in 1975 it led to the founding of the Inkatha Freedom Party, whose undisputed leader is still Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a great-grandson of Cetshwayo. Nationalist and demanding broad autonomy for KwaZulu, Inkatha violently opposes the main anti-Apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC), whose leaders are predominantly Xhosas, during the transition period betweenApartheid and the current multiracial diet. Inkatha obtained a number of concessions in the constitution of 1994, including a symbolic change during the administrative redistribution of the country, Natal becoming KwaZulu-Natal. Initially influential in the province, Inkatha is now in sharp decline. An incident in the course of the European colonization of South Africa, the Battle of Isandlwana nonetheless becamea strong marker of Zulu identity. The whitewashed cairns which mark the graves of British soldiers killed at the foot of the mountain, and form a macabre trail to the “ford of the fugitives”, are now bordered by a monument dedicated to the Zulu warriors who died by the hundreds on January 22, 1879 Isandlwana, an outburst of brutality worthy of the worst that mankind can do, symbolizes all the violence in South African history. By contrast, she also recalls that South Africa finally chose to stand out, opting for reconciliation, thanks in particular to the charisma of Nelson Mandela, rather than for revenge. A historic choice, even if it has not erased the inequalities of a country that the AIDS pandemic places on the threshold of a serious demographic crisis.

Sources and bibliography

- Donald R. Morris, The Washing of the Spears: the Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation, Cambridge, Da Capo Press, 1965. Reprinted in 1998, it is one of the reference works on the history of the Zulu kingdom, its military system, and the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.

- John Keegan, History of war, from the Neolithic to the Gulf War, Paris, Dagorno, 1996. The famous military historian devotes a large section to Shaka's reforms.

- Jean Guilaine, Jean Zammit, Le chemin de la guerre, Paris, Le Seuil, 2001. This excellent work on violence in prehistoric societies describes well the practice of war in tribal cultures.


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