If you have a passion for local history (and of course, we really hope that you do!), and happen to find yourself in Johannesburg this week, then make sure you pay a visit to the Ditsong National Museum of Military History. On Wednesday the museum is commemorating the 141st anniversary of the Battle of Isandlwana, which took place in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, and remains the single greatest defeat for the British Army at the hands of a local army.
In December 1878, Sir Bartle Frere, the British high commissioner for South Africa, had issued an ultimatum to King Cetshwayo kaMpande, demanding that the Zulus dismantle their military system within 30 days. When, a month later, Cetshwayo had failed to fold to Frere’s demands, the British invaded Zululand. The central command was led by Lord Chelmsford.On the 22nd January, Chelmsford advanced further into Zululand, leaving a third of his force unprotected at Isandlwana.
The battle, which took place that morning, was the first major encounter between the British and Zulu armies during the Anglo-Zulu War. Led by Ntshingwayo kaMahole, the induna of King Cetshwayo’s army, the Zulus took the British by surprise. Using a buffalo horn formation, the Zulus encircled the British camp, wiping out an estimated 1300 troops. The British soldiers were armed with modern rifles, two mountain guns, and even a projectile rocket, and yet were defeated by men fighting largely with iron spears and cow-hide shields. The British hadn’t counted on the sheer force of the Zulu army with some 20 000 men attacking a 1800-strong British force.
The defeat at Isandlwana resulted in the British taking a much more aggressive approach, leading to a heavily reinforced second invasion and the destruction of King Cetshwayo’s hopes for negotiated peace. The war eventually resulted in a British victory in July 1879, signaling the end of Zulu dominance of the region.
Cover image courtesy of alchetron.com