In 1874 Sir Henry Bartle Frere was appointed High Commissioner of South Africa and sent to unify the country as a British dominion. There were two stumbling blocks – the Boer-controlled South African Republic and the Kingdom of Zululand. In 1879 Frere tackled the latter. He issued an impossible ultimatum to the Zulu King Cetshwayo, before sending troops under Lord Chelmsford to invade Zululand. Cetshwayo understood that fighting back would harden British public opinion and make ultimate defeat inevitable, but was left with no choice and assembled 24,000 warriors.
Victorian Britain’s army was a steely fighting force that bestrode the globe and policed the mighty British Empire. Conventional wisdom suggested a relatively small number of trained troops with modern weapons could outmatch any native army, whatever the numerical imbalance. Chelmsford split his main column without a second thought and sallied forth with 2,500 men to find the Zulu impi (fighting force). Around 1,300 – a mixture of European and African troops – were left behind. Secure in the knowledge that they had artillery and were armed with breech-loading Martini-Henry rifles, the remaining Brits took no special defensive measures – a disastrous decision.
A reconnaissance party from the reserve encampment near Isandlwana discovered the main Zulu force who, armed with cowhide shields, spears and elderly muskets, fell on the disorganized British troops on the morning of January 22. The defenders fought hard, but by mid afternoon were overwhelmed. Everyone wearing a red coat was slaughtered in final hand-to-hand combat, and the vaunted British army had suffered its worst-ever defeat at the hands of indigenous fighters. But King Cetshwayo’s worst fears were soon realized. Having learned the hard way never to underestimate Zulu tactical awareness and fighting prowess, Chelmsford summoned reinforcements and his second campaign resulted in defeat for the Zulus, though not before a further series of bloody engagements was fought.
When: January 22 1879
Where: Isandlwana Hill, now in KwaZulu- Natal Province, South Africa
Death toll: Around 2,300 combatants (1,300 British and African troops, 1,000 Zulu warriors). The Zulus spared black-coated civilians.
You should know: Immediately following the battle over 4,000 Zulu warriors attacked the fortified mission station at nearby Rorke’s Drift on the Buffalo River, defended by just 139 British soldiers, in a determined defense, the tiny garrison repulsed the Zulu assault and inflicted hundreds of casualties, thus salving wounded British army pride and earning 11 Victoria Crosses.