King Shaka’s Zulu’s Defeat The British Army in 1879.
Today’s Isandlwana Mountain
Throughout the history of warfare there have been spectacular and devastating defeats: Hannibal and his elephants slaughtered Varro’s 70,000 man Roman Legion at the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C.; General George Armstrong Custer led his 222 men of the 7thCavalry into obliteration at the Greasy Grass River (Little Big Horn) in 1876 at the hands of the Sioux and Cheyenne; and then there was the unparalleled defeat of the British by a 24,000 strong Zulu army in 1879 at Isandlwana in the heart of Zululand, South Africa.
Most disastrous defeats are the result of misinformation, faulty judgments, over-assumptions, delayed actions, non-communications, or non-believing commanders.
During the Anglo-Zulu War three British columns marched from the coast of their Natal colony to find and defeat Zulu King Cetsbwayo, whose warriors were raiding Natal homesteads and stealing cattle below the Buffalo River that separated Natal from Zululand. Lord Lieutenant General Frederick Thesiger Chelmsford commanded the Central Column (24th Battalion) which comprised about 4,800 infantrymen, cavalry, provisioning wagons, artillery, and native NNC soldiers (Zulus who sided with the British).
Isandlwana Battle depicted in a Victorian-era newspaper sketch.
What followed next is best explained by Robert Gerrard, resident historian, author, raconteur, and dramatic interpreter at the beautiful and eco-stylish Isandlwana Lodge overlooking the bowl-shaped dun colored plains and mountains that encompassed the 337 square km Isandlwana battlefield.
Cairn-like pylons at Isandlwana Lodge entrance.
The lodge is named after the most prominent feature in the area, Isandlwana Mountain, which in Zulu means, “it looks like a little house.” Others say the crumbling butte resembled a crouching lion or a sphinx. The saddle and foothills of Isandlwana served as a base camp bivouac and last redoubt for the British, who had pitched their white bell shaped tents at its base.
In 1997 Pat Stubbs and Magalen (Maggie) Bryant, met on a jet liner; Pat’s interest in tourism in Southern Africa was sparked by a magazine article in the U.S and she ultimately met someone in Botswana who told them that the Traditional Council at Isandlwana was looking for investors to build a lodge under the lip of the iNyoni Rock ridgeline. Maggie is a former chairperson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Pat is a retired businesswoman; both Americans have a strong interest in South Africa culture, history, ecology, and the community.
The battlefield is presently managed by an organization called the Amafa Zulu-Natali that oversees all historical sites in KwaZulu-Natal. Pat and Maggie met with the Mangwe Buthanabu Tribal Authority at the site and over a handshake with the InKosi (chief of the tribe) architectural plans were formed for a 12 room lodge.
Isandlwana Lodge offers comfy and commanding battlefield views.
In May, 1999 after a year of construction utilizing local labor and materials, the lodge was dedicated by Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a direct descendent of the first Zulu king, Shaka, who organized the tribes into a single kingdom in the 1820s.
The thatched roof lodge is shaped like a Zulu shield. The stone verandah offers sweeping views, the same views that the Zulu commander Ntshingwayo saw from the same cliffs on that fateful day of January 22nd, 1879. Below the lodge is their 3-bedroom guest house which can accommodate families of six; nearby, Amafa has a dormitory that sleeps 30 people, which is often used for military or student groups.
The 12 guest rooms are in the Cave.
After Simonie checked me into the lodge she walked me down a winding staircase with gnarled wooden handrails and through the “Cave”.
Indigenous stones from the nearby area were used to build the columns that support the floor of the main level of the lodge above that included the reception area, restaurant, lounge, bar, media room and library.
The guest rooms are carved right into the escarpment and the concrete path leads through the airy native cattle kraal appearing Cave to my magnificent room #1 that overlooked the battlefield, as all rooms do.
Isandlwana Mountain as
seen from the lounge.
From the expansive windows I watched a winter squall storm across the battlefield socking out the light. Spotty rain couldn’t keep me from my balcony to snap photos.
The African motif bed spread reminded me of the Zulu presence. South African slasto tiles lined the bath around a buffed and polished wooden plank that surrounded a raised wash basin. I lit the candles in the sconces. The circular rock shower made me feel like the outdoors was indoors. Two gel heaters warmed up the winter nights; the lodge was built on the southern face of the ridge and the wild winds and early seasonal shadows surprised me with coolness, but I was also surprised with the hot water bottle tucked into my bed linens at turn down each night; no chilblains were found here!
Most of the furniture in the lofty lounge near reception was handmade by artisans in Durban. I first met Robert Gerrard in the lounge and he ducked out to the nearby curio shop and returned with a hard bound copy of his book, “The People of the Heavens”, which is a magnificent account of Zulu history and the Anglo-Zulu War.
I was thrilled to dine with Rob each morning and evening because he was a fount of Isandlwana information, and of course I had him sign my gift. He informed me that the huge wooden pillars that held up the roof were pilings from the old West Street Pier in Durban. Each column was tagged with a metal plate recognizing a different Zulu commander or major participant in the Anglo-Zulu War.
A permanent fire was stoked in the lounge fireplace, but before dinner each evening the acacia wood flame in the bar hearth was easily greeted by guests over sundowner drinks, served by barman Dalton Ngobese, who grew up in a nearby cliffside village where his ancestors were the first killed by the British at the beginning of the infamous Isandlwana battle. The service at the restaurant was immaculate and the cuisine exquisite, served on white linen as we sat on Nguni cow hide chairs. There is an extensive bar and wine selection with many varietals from South Africa vineyards.
The Isandlwana Lodge restaurant overlooks the veranda.
I questioned Rob about the authenticity of the movie, “Zulu”, and he stated the flick followed the facts closely, but the epic was filmed in the more remote regions of the Drakensberg Mountains to the north to add to the Victorian era rural flavor. The three hour movie is screened at guest requests at anytime in the media room above the restaurant. There are no TVs or radios in the guestrooms and the only Wi-Fi was in the reception area, with the library offering a computer for guests’ use.
British colonialism in South Africa.
Without Rob’s interpretations of battlefield maneuvers and geography, insights into Zulu and British strategy and tactics, and knowledge of Victorian era warfare, Isandlwana would have been just another battlefield.
Rob had many connections to Isandlwana, the British military, and to South Africa. Robert is the great grandson of Sir John Robinson, the first Prime Minister of Natal. He is the son of Brigadier BJD Gerrard DSO who commanded the Gordon Highlanders, who Winston Churchill once called the finest fighting unit in the British Army. Robert was educated at Ampleforth College in Britain and served with the Gordon Highlanders in Kenya, Malaya, Thailand, and Borneo. Rob is also a distinguished Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and often presents lectures about the battle in Europe.
Rob introduces us to the battlefield.
The next morning other guests and I met with Rob on the verandah and with his walking stick and a battlefield map explained from the aerie the logistics and events that led up to the British defeat.
In the distance we saw the stark white cairns where the British soldiers were buried. I noted that the entrance pylons to the lodge resembled the cairns.
Every battle has skirmishes and conflicts and positions that culminate in a violent event, and I won’t discuss every ramification of the Isandlwana battle, there were too many of them, and I suggest you check into the Lodge for 3-4 days and Rob will unfold the drama with enthusiastic inflections in his voice and swooping gestures of his stick.
Here is my Cliff Notes synopsis of the battle (no pun intended, ha ha):
General Chelmsford split his army into two units, taking with him 2,700 men who left the camp and proceeded to Mangeni Falls 13 miles east, leaving, 1,774 men to defend the camp at Isandlwana. About 450 men had been left at Rorke’s Drift ten miles west across the Buffalo River in Natal as a staging area for the supply wagons. In the meantime, the elusive Zulu army was gathering strength far from the eyes of the British pickets on the ridges and spurs where the Lodge now stands.
The 24th Battalion is caught in “The Horns of the Buffalo”.
(Sketch from The Illustrated London News, 1879.)
Zulu king Shaka had developed a battle tactic called the “Horns of the Buffalo” that proved effective in neutralizing his enemies and the tactic carried down through the years. The right and left horn flanked the foe with a pinching movement that surrounded the enemy; once the horns were in place the head and chest of the main force moved in for a crushing blow.
“. . . the Left Horn came
from the East,” states Rob.
On the morning of January 22, 1879, at about 6:30 a.m. the right horn maneuvered into position behind Isandlwana Mountain and west of the British encampment. The left horn crashed through the broken terrain and valleys to the east of the British extended lines. In the meantime General Chelmsford was having a leisurely breakfast served by his aide-de-camp oblivious of what was happening. When the horns were locked in place Commander Ntshingwayo’s main force appeared on the iNyoni Rock with the fearsome battle cry “zee zee zee” that sounded like bees. The right horn had cut off the supplies from Rorke’s Drift (a drift are the banks between a stream crossing), including ammunition.
Impi streamed from th
e cliffs above the lodge.
Then around 12:15 p.m. the head of the buffalo streamed down the ridge with shouts of “uSuthu uSuthu”. The naked, barefoot Zulu impis (warriors) ran through the rough landscape at speeds up to 15 mph. It was summer and the unusual heavy rains meant tall grass and bountiful stalks of mealies (corn) for the Zulus to hide in before springing up suddenly to hack the British with their short stabbing assegais(spears).
The left horn plowed through the southern British defenses and came from behind. It was known and foredoomed by the Zulus that an eclipse would occur during the battle and at about 1:15 p.m. a 76% darkness blanketed the battlefield.
In the dust and heat and noise and dim light and clouds of black powder cordite from the British Martini-Henry rifles the Zulus stormed the lines.
The Zulus traditionally disemboweled their dead prey with their spears to release the spirit and sucked out the gall from the bladder and shouted “ngadla” (I have eaten). You can be certain that the British soldiers seeing the blood and gore butchery fought with equal intensity. Another Zulu tradition was that a single man had to dip his spear in blood before marriage; by now, on the ridge, young Zulu maidens lined the cliffs and shouted encouragement down the natural amphitheater.
The Zulus over ran all the British positions and the battle was over in about 1 ½ hours, with the last stronghold of about 14 soldiers making a last ditch stand on the mountain knoll where I hiked to a monument in their honor. But the last shots were fired from an unknown soldier in a cave higher up at about 3:30 p.m. and he was the last British casualty of over 1,300 men lost.
The British lost over 1,300 men and more officers than at Waterloo.
(Sketch from The Illustrated London News, 1879.)
General Chelmsford’s unit arrived on the scene at about 8:30 p.m.; about 55 fugitives earlier had skirted the right horn for a desperate flight to the Buffalo River, carrying the Queen’s Colour (Union Jack flag) which never left a battlefield unless the British knew they were defeated.
The Battle of Rorke’s Drift.
(Sketch from Illustrated London News, 1879.)
Many of these men were picked off by the right horn commanded by King Cetsbwayo’s half brother Dabulamanzi, who swung his force west across the Buffalo River to attack the Rorke’s Drift outpost that consisted of a house, now a hospital, a cattle kraal, and a Lutheran mission building now used by the British as a storehouse.
When stragglers arrived from the Isandlwana battlefield with tales of terror 300 of the NNC soldiers and their officers disserted, leaving 96 soldiers and 36 wounded to repel a Zulu force of 4,000. For 11 hours the British fended off the Zulus in a hastily fortified compound no bigger than four tennis courts. At 3:30 a.m. thousands of Zulus lay dead or dying around the mealie bags and biscuit can bunkers.
The British were down to their last 600 rounds of ammo from an original stock of 20,000 rounds when the Zulus received word that General Chelmsford was marching his unit towards Rorke’s Drift. The Zulus picked up their arms and dead and wounded and the exhausted army passed within eye-ball distance from Chelmsford in eerie silence in the pre-dawn as they trailed back into
The grave site walls are the same height as the Rorke’s Drift bunkers.
Only 17 British soldiers lost their lives at Rorke’s Drift compared to over 1,000 Zulus; 11 Victoria Crosses were issued to the gallant band, the most VCs awarded to a regiment of British soldiers in a single battle in West or South Africa; more officers had been killed at Isandlwana than lost at Waterloo, according to Rob.
Needless to say, Lt. General Chelmsford was relieved of his command after a British High Command cover-up that exploded in the pages of the Illustrated London News a few months after the battle when journalists had been present at Isandlwana for the final burial of the fallen.
I recommend an extended stay at Isandlwana Lodge so you can take a longer tour of the outlying areas of the battlefield and to visit the Zulu villages in the hinterlands.
Although the British eventually won the Anglo-Zulu War, today the Zulus number over 30,000 in the immediate Isandlwana area and the tribe makes up 1/5 (nine million) of the entire South African population. A king still rules in Zululand, although South Africa has a president, who is also a Zulu. The king owns all the land and parcels it out to the people to raise crops and tend their cattle. So in retrospect, who really won the war? My cards say the Zulus, who are still here while the British colonial influence is long gone.
The rebuilt Rorke’s Drift home was a thatched roof hospital
that burned during the battle, and it is now a museum.
Isandlwana Lodge works closely with The Wild Foundation, a U.S. based NGO, through whom lodge guests donate funds for school uniforms, computers, school fees, food parcels for AIDs orphans, and sustainable agricultural projects. Log on to www.wild.org
The back of the Lutheran Church was the storeroom
commandeered by the British during the Rorke’s Drift battle.
Zululand tourism organizations have developed the Battlefields Route to sites in the region, including visits to Zulu-Boer, Anglo-Zulu, and Anglo-Boer campaigns. Plus, certified guides lead cultural visits and tours, and adventures for birding (we saw a rare bald cape ibis), rafting, water sports, hiking, and horseback riding.
Isandlwana Lodge can set up various tours and it has its own roomy tour bus.
For more information:
Isandlwana Battlefield in the Ngutu area; Tel: 034.271.0634; located off R68 between Ngutu and Babanango entrance. Open daily except Good Friday and Christmas from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Isandlwana Lodge’s pool.
Rorke’s Drift Battlefield in the Dundee area; Tel: 034.642.1687; off R68 from Dundee to Ngutu; area open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. There’s an interpretation centre with the museum rebuilt on the former Rorke’s Drift home/hospital but it is slightly larger than the original building. Through a glass slit in the floor the original rock foundation is revealed.
Fugitive’s Trail, Fugitive’s Drift; Dundee area; Tel: 034.271.8165. Fugitive’s Trail is the route taken by the survivors of Isandlwana; there are signs from Rorke’s Drift.
Zulu memorial at Isandlwana Battlefield.
PO Box 30
Cell Ph: 082.415.3679
— Feature by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine; photos by the author and courtesy of Isandlwana Lodge. Sketches from The Illustrated London News are in the public domain.