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On This Day: Disaster at Isandlwana

Updated: Feb 17

January 22nd, 1879: The attempt to extend British colonial influence into Zululand is met with fierce resistance as Zulu warriors rout British troops at Isandlwana.


As dawn broke on that fateful day thousands of Zulu warriors lay concealed in the undulating valley of Ngwebeni, beyond the eastern border of the British colony of Natal in South Africa. The action that would shortly take place followed months of machinations by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Carnarvon, to extend British Imperial influence in the region. At the beginning of 1879 British forces had invaded Zululand but now the warriors led by Zulu King Cetshwayo were preparing to defend their homeland.

Two days earlier 4,000 British troops had pitched camp at Isandlwana. Their commander, Lieutenant General Lord Chelmsford, was so confident of force’s fighting superiority that the camp was only lightly defended. On hearing that a large Zulu presence was near Rorke’s Drift, the setting for the 1964 film ‘Zulu’, Chelmsford detached the main body of his army to investigate. About 1,700 men were left behind at Isandlwana. To compound things, Chelmsford had completely underestimated how vulnerable the British position was to attack and failed to ‘laager’ - an Afrikaans word for deploying wagons in a circular barrier around the camp.


Shortly after 11 am on January 22nd, a mass of some 20,000 Zulu warriors appeared on the horizon at Isandlwana and the attack began. Caught off-guard the dismayed British troops could only fire round after round in the hope of defending the position. As the engagement gained pace an eclipse darkened the sky which can only have added to the confusion and fear of the British and colonial troops. When the sun eventually returned they found themselves encircled. Despite modern rifles, the men in their red coats were reduced to desperate hand-to-hand fighting, stabbing with bayonets, until eventually overwhelmed. The resulting bloodbath saw 1,300 British troops killed, along with hundreds of Zulus.

 

Reference:


Carr, H., (2023), ‘Zulu warriors rout British troops at Isandlwana’, BBC History Magazine January edition, p. 7.


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