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

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

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Birth of the Boer republics

The ethnic situation within the colony of Cape Town is then complex. Initially dominant, the Afrikaners - a term which designates all Dutch-speaking whites, Boers included - are faced with the installation of the British. The habit of the first settlers, who often came without women, to take wives among the Khoïkhoi population, as well as the presence in the colony of many black and Malay slaves, led to the birth of several ethnic groups.mixed race. These groups are discriminated against by the Afrikaners, which leads one of them, the Griquas, to migrate east and north-east, beyond the borders of the colony. Dutch-speaking and westernized, they ended up establishing two distinct territories there, called Griqualand West and East respectively.

The racial policy of the British is completely the opposite of that of the Afrikaners. From 1828, the colony of Cape Town proclaimed theequality of all persons free before the law, without distinction of race. This orientation is not only based on a liberal ideology. It is also seen as a means of ensuring social peace within the colony, and of reducing the sources of friction with the black population - starting with the Xhosas. Incidentally, reconciling the Blacks and the Métis allows the British to reduce the influence of the Afrikaners and increase theirs. The abolition of slavery in 1833 further accentuated this trend by increasing the free black population. When the colony acquired a parliament in 1854, it explicitly prohibited any restriction on the right to vote that was based on ethnicity. Instead, it established male censal suffrage that recognized forms of tribal property, and whose relatively modest threshold - £ 25 - granted the right to vote to a large fraction of the black population. This operation will not be called into question before 1887.

This development divides the Afrikaners. If the majority of the Dutch in Cape Town put up with it, this was not the case with the Boers, who left the colony en masse from the 1830s. Like the Griquas, they migrated mainly to the east. This movement, known asGreat Trek, crosses the territory of the Xhosas, and begins to settle to the east of it. The Boers founded their own state there, the Republic of Natalia. In 1838, they came into conflict with their cumbersome neighbor, the Zulu kingdom. The Boers, for decades, have developed guerrilla tactics based on mobility: groups of armed men, baptizedkommandos ("Units" in Afrikaner), assemble and move on horseback, launch lightning attacks, then disperse again so that everyone joins their farm. Effective for harassment actions, this tactic does not always allow to face the massive attack of aunholy Zulu. The Boers responded by developing another stratagem: a convoy of wagons arranged in a circle to form a camp (laager) fortified. It was a success: on December 18, 1838, thousands of Zulus were exhausted in vain against alaager defended by less than 500 Boers. The defeat of Blood River dealt a fatal blow to the power of King Dingane: the Boers then supported Mpande in his revolt, at the same time securing their eastern border when he ascended the throne in 1840.


The British, however, had never recognized the republic of Natalia. After some skirmishes, they annexed it in 1843, thus creating the colony of Natal. Again, the Boers refuse to be ruled by others than themselves, and many of them prefer to leave. This time they migrate north, where they settle on the banks of the Orange and Vaal rivers. Their establishment is all the easier as the lands they discover are still marked byMechanic and its consequences: apart from the Ndebele, whom they push back north of Limpopo in what is now Zimbabwe, Ngunis, Sothos and Tswanas are scattered and generally too weak to seriously oppose them. The Boers thus founded new republics, the two main ones of which,the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, were this time recognized by the British Crown in 1852 and 1854, respectively.

Political situation in South Africa around 1865. Map by the author based on "Seb az 86556" (Creative Commons license). Caption:

Rose: British colonies.

Orange: Boer republics.

Brown: griquas territories (Gr. O.: Griqualand West; Gr. E: Griqualand East)

Green: tribal territories and kingdoms (B .: Basutoland; S.: Swaziland)


Following the Zulu conquests and theMechanic, the Boer migrations complete the reshaping of the South African territory. They accelerate the process of forming tribal kingdoms inspired by that of the Zulus. Besides Matabéland, north of Limpopo, and the kingdom of Gaza in present-day Mozambique, the Swazis make up theirs - Swaziland, which still exists in 2014. The Sotho tribe of the Basothos, or Basutos for the British, also makes even to resist Boer pressure and Zulu raids. Going so far as to adopt the tactics ofkommandos Boers, they took refuge in the mountains and also founded their own kingdom: Basutoland, which still exists today under the name of Lesotho. By the mid-1860s, the political situation in South Africa appeared to be stabilizing. However, an unforeseen event was goingstir up lusts, primarily those of the British.

The rush for diamonds

In 1866, a young Boer discovers a translucent gem on the land of the farm he rents in West Griqualand. The stone turns out to be adiamond, which triggers a rush towards the region: thousands of prospectors, mostly British, come to try their luck. Seven years later, the farm became a town of 50,000 known as Kimberley. The area was soon claimed by the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony. The question is of crucial importance for the Boers, whose agrarian economies are fragile, and whose republics are increasingly in debt. An arbitration by the governor of Natal ended up attributing the disputed region to Griqualand West ... which immediately placed itself under the protection of the United Kingdom, in 1871. A protectorate then extended to Griqualand East in 1874, and which was added to that already concluded with Basutoland in 1869. For good measure, the British added a claim to the territory occupied by the Tswanas - Bechuanaland - north of the Orange River. Injured, the Orange Free State quickly consoled itself with the discovery of other diamond deposits around Bloemfontein; dying, its economy becomes prosperous in a few years. The Transvaal, on the other hand, would have to wait until 1886 for gold to be discovered in the Witwatersrand.

The fact remains that the evidence is obvious to the British government, led by the conservative Benjamin Disraeli since 1874: the soil on which the Boers toil to cultivate their subsistence is full of mineral wealth. The addition of South Africa to the British Empire therefore becomes a priority, especially as the very young German Empire begins to take an interest in neighboring Namaqualand - the future Namibia. To extend British rule over southern Africa more quickly, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Henry Herbert Carnarvon, hatched the project of a confederation which would make it possible to absorb the native kingdoms and the Boer republics. He was inspired in this by what was established in Canada in 1867, and which made it possible to integrate French-speaking Lower Canada - now the province of Quebec - into the other Crown colonies in North America. Its idea is to agglomerate the various British colonies and neighboring entities to the Cape Colony, which has enjoyed an autonomous government since 1872. At the beginning of 1877, Carnarvon sent a new High Commissioner for South Africa to Cape Town,Henry Bartle Frere.

He will immediately apply his own vision of the futureSouth African Confederation, regardless of the obstacles he encounters and without referring them to the Disraeli cabinet. From April, he had the Transvaal annexed without encountering resistance, because the government of the Boer Republic was on the verge of bankruptcy and had no choice but to accept. Then, in September, he took the pretext of an Xhosa incursion into British territory - which he himself had sparked by stirring up struggles between Xhosa clans - to bring the army into Cafrerie. Driven from the valleys, the Xhosas continue to carry out guerrilla actions from the mountains. The commander of the British troops in South Africa, Frederic Thesiger Chelmsford, had to carry out a prolonged campaign before coming to an end, at the end of 1878. The government of Cape Town, led by John Molteno, considered that the situation of the South Africa is too different from that of Canada for the project of confederation wanted by Carnarvon to work. In addition, the Cape Colony did not want a new war with the Xhosas in any way. Bartle Frere's policy, which sees the indigenous populations - and a fortiori their kingdoms - as so many threats and wants to disarm them at all costs, goes against that of the colony, which has sought for years to limit resistance from blacks to European colonization by granting them rights.

When Molteno tries to interfere with the actions of Bartle Frere, the latter demands - and obtains - the Secretary of State for the Colonies to depose the Molteno government on February 5, 1878. Ironically, Carnarvon resigned the day before, because he is opposed to Disraeli on an issue having nothing to do with South Africa. His successor abandons the idea of ​​a South African confederation ... but Bartle Frere, who remains in office, continues his momentum without worrying about this new political orientation. His next target isthe zulu kingdom. With the annexation of the Transvaal, the British Crown inherits the ill-defined border it shares with the Zulus. When an independent commission settles the border dispute in favor of the Zulus, Bartle Frere decides to highlight a series of incidents that took place on the border with Natal. On December 11, 1878, he gave King Cetshwayo an ultimatum covering thirteen requests. Several of them demand the disarmament of the Zulu army, the abandonment of the system ofamabutho and the installation of a British resident minister in Zululand. Deliberately chosen as such by Bartle Frere, these terms are unacceptable, and Cetshwayo does not respond to them. The Zulu king wants to avoid a major conflict with the British, without realizing that this is precisely what Bartle Frere is looking for. He orders his warriors to fight only if they are attacked, and not to enter Natal under any circumstances: the war must remain defensive and borderline.

British forces

Carefully prepared, the British offensive began in the early hours of January 11, 1879. Officially deployed to protect the border of Natal, Chelmsford's troops thus unleashed a war to which the Disraeli cabinet did not give its approval - and for cause it was not consulted. Acting on his own initiative, Bartle Frere asked Chelmsford to design an invasion plan. The general fears that the Zulus will refuse, like the Xhosas he has just submitted, a direct confrontation that he is sure to win, given the firepower of the rifles and modern cannons of which his troops are equipped. Unwilling to repeat a prolonged campaign, he first imagines an offensive by five columns, which would methodically comb the Zulu country to force the warriors of Cetshwayo to fight. Confronted with the enormous logistical difficulties that such a plan would imply, Chelmsford revises his ambitions downwards: column n ° 1 will cross the river Tugela and progress along the coast, forming the right wing of the English device; Columns 2 and 3, operating from the Buffalo River Valley, will be united under his direct command and march on thekraal royal of Ulundi, the capital of Cetshwayo; column n ° 4 will attack from the Transvaal, serving as the left wing of the invading army; as for No. 5, it will be content with a minor role along the easternmost part of the border with the Transvaal.

The backbone of each of the three main forces is made up of two regular infantry battalions. The British army then had 114 infantry regiments, in principle a single battalion of eight companies, with a theoretical strength of around 800 men. However, there are exceptions: for example, the 60th and 95th regiments, which are rifle units - the English equivalent of foot hunters - have four battalions each. In addition, the regiments being dispersed across an ever-expanding colonial empire, the need to maintain a minimum number of troops in metropolitan France to ensure its defense and serve as a strategic reserve led to the addition of a second battalion in certain regiments - in Occurrence, those numbered 1 to 25. In general, when one of these two battalions is serving overseas, the other is stationed in the British Isles. This is not, however, an immutable rule, and the two battalions can be deployed simultaneously to the colonies if the need arises. This is the case, for example, of the two battalions of24th regiment on foot (the official designation of British infantry units is thenRegiment of Foot), assigned to the main column: the I / 24th stationed in South Africa since 1875, II / 24th joined him in 1878 after six years in Great Britain.


Because of their frequent overseas service in conflict zones, British infantry, recruited exclusively for professionals, are generallyexperienced soldiers. They have been armed with the Martini-Henry rifle, a modern breech-loading weapon, since 1874. It is not a repeating rifle: the conservatism of the military authorities, who still fear excessive consumption of ammunition, has preferred a single shot weapon, to be reloaded after each shot using a lever under guard. However, the Martini-Henry uses complete cartridges in a metal case, which drastically accelerates the loading of the weapon: a trained infantryman can fire ten or twelve rounds per minute without particular difficulty. Combined with the discipline of a professional army, this characteristic gives the British infantry remarkable firepower. In close combat, the troop has a socket bayonet (the non-commissioned officers receiving a saber-bayonet), and shortened versions, carbines and carabiners, also equip the cavalry, artillery and engineers. All fire a cylindro-ogival cartridge of 11.43 millimeters of caliber.

As for the uniforms, they arepoorly suited in colonial service. Some units of the Indian Army have been wearing khaki attire for about thirty years, but this particularity only spread, in the British Empire, to colonial troops recruited locally. In 1879, the British infantry still wore the traditional scarlet uniform. There are variations of detail from regiment to regiment, but overall the uniform usually consists of black pants and a red tunic. Added to this is a white colonial-type helmet, which the soldiers in operations hasten to dye brown with tea: they fear that in the sun, the white of the helmet will turn their head into a designated target for enemy shooters. While line officers wear a uniform similar to that of their men, those on horseback (senior and staff officers) are given navy blue and black "patrol dress" more suited to mounted service. The same goes for gunners. The British regular army, on the other hand, does not deploy any of its 31 cavalry regiments in South Africa, as the many mounted units recruited there are considered sufficient.

Each of the three main columns also receives a six-piece artillery battery. Considering the difficult terrain and poor roads in South Africa, these are 7-pound mountain guns on light carriage. The reduced weight of its projectile - 3.3 kilograms for the ordinary shell - limits its firepower, but it is a modern weapon, with a rifled barrel and breech loading, built entirely of steel. It is above all a very mobile gun, the tube weighing only 90 kilos, which makes it ideal for colonial service. This support is supplemented by a battery of rocket launchers, at the rate of one section per column. The British army is indeed the only one in Europe to have adopted this weapon, the effects of which it was able to appreciate during its wars against the Indian kingdom of Mysore, between 1767 and 1799. The old Congreve rockets from the Napoleonic wars were replaced in 1867 by the Hale rockets, stabilized by a process which makes them spin on themselves during their flight. This increases their accuracy, but since they are not used en masse, their usefulness is likely to be more psychological than real. Much more efficient, on the other hand, isthe Gatling gun ; there is however only one, which replaces one of the 7-pounder guns of column n ° 1.

These regular forces - called "imperial" in British military jargon - are supplemented bymany training courses recruited locally. These are traditionally divided into two categories: "colonial" units, recruited from European colonists; and “indigenous” units, which as their name suggests are made up of indigenous people. The main indigenous force intended to support the invasion of Zululand is theNatal Native Contingent or NNC, recruited by the administration of the Colony of Natal. The NNC comprises several infantry regiments divided into battalions and companies. Coaching is provided by white officers and non-commissioned officers, and the NNC is organized European-style ... except for equipment. The British command had little confidence in this inexperienced auxiliary force, and feared seeing the blacks who made it up desert and join the Zulus at the first opportunity. For this reason, only 10-20% of NNC soldiers are equipped with a rifle, and ammunition is severely rationed to them. The others must be satisfied with the spears and other traditional weapons at their disposal. Besides a small construction element (Natal Native Pioneer Corps), the NNC comes with a mounted unit, theNatal Native Horse or NNH. It is the main cavalry unit of the invading force. Unlike the infantrymen of the NNC, the British consider it a valuable unit, as it is composed mainly of Basutos familiar with the tactics of mounted warfare. As a result, it is suitably armed with rifles. As for the colonial formations, they are most often law enforcement forces, such as the Mounted Police of Natal, or militia units not exceeding the size of a company.

In all, the invasion force commanded by Chelmsford consists of about 16,500 men: 6,700 British and Colonial servicemen, 9,000 natives, and 800 civilian contract workers - mostly team drivers. Chelmsford has 7,800 with him, including 1,800 whites. Column No. 1, commanded by Colonel Charles Pearson, is 6,700 soldiers strong. As for column n ° 4, placed under the orders of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Evelyn Wood, it has about 2,000 men. In a hurry to put an end to the Zulus, Bartle Frere did not take into account the calendar in his ultimatum: if January marks the heart of the southern summer, it is also that of thewet season. Severe thunderstorms transform the rough tracks of the region into quagmires, which complicates the progress of the heavy wagons carrying equipment and supplies for the British forces. To make matters worse, not all units are regrouped when the ultimatum expires: thus, Chelmsford has with him only thirteen of the sixteen companies of the 24th regiment, and probably less than 5,000 men belonging mainly to Column 3 of Colonel Glynn. Finally, it is also the period of the year whenamabutho Zulus traditionally congregate in Ulundi, so that the mobilization of the kingdom is already partially accomplished even before hostilities have started.

Departing from Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal, the Chelmsford Column established a forward base at Helpmekaar, then hired the Protestant mission of Rorke's Drift to make it an intermediate post. This is located a little over a kilometer from a rocky passage on the Buffalo - what is called in South African topographical jargon adrift, hence the name of the locality - which allows you to ford it. This is where Chelmsford's men, after leaving a company of the II / 24th at the mission, enter Zululand,January 11, 1879.


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