Horns of the Bull: British Tragedy and Triumph at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift
Location: Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift are located in South Africa, about 60 miles inland from the Indian Ocean near the border where Natal and Zululand meet.
Strategic Importance of the Location: The border between British-controlled Natal and the Zulu kingdom was formed in the north by the Buffalo River, which flowed southwards into the Tugela River. Just south of Rorke's Drift the river dumped into a gorge and became a raging torrent that could only be forded safely at Tugela Drift, 60 miles south and close by the Indian Ocean. To the north and west of Natal and Zululand was the Transvaal, the area claimed by Dutch settlers known as the Boers.
The Zulu Army: The Zulu army was composed of units known as amabutho or impi-- the equivalent in many ways of a European regiment. These units engaged in both military tasks and non-military labors at the behest of the king. Zulu men at 18 were inducted into an amabutho, and served in the unit until such time as the king authorized them to marry (typically when the man was 35-40 years of age). Amabutho were grouped together in military homesteads known as amakhanda. Food and agricultural labor were supplied to the amabutho by female relatives of the warriors. Even after marriage Zulu men served in the king's army in one of its so-called married regiments.
Several amabutho were combined into a corps, with the ages of men in the combined amabutho differing so that older men could help teach the younger ones how to be good warriors. The Zulu army at the time of the Zulu War of 1879 consisted of 34 regiments organized into 12 corps. Seven of these regiments, however, were composed of men too old to actively campaign in the field, so King Cethswayo probably had about 40,000 men actually able to go off to war.
Discipline in the Zulu army was harsh. A man could be killed (normally beaten to death by other warriors) for failing to follow orders or to meet standards of performance. A Zulu army in the field could if necessary march fifty miles or more in a day. They traveled light, with just their spears and shields. Boys 14-18 years of age oversaw a herd of cattle that followed the army; these boys also carried the blankets and sleeping mats of the warriors.
The Legacy of Shaka Zulu: King Shaka Zulu is credited with teaching the Zulu army its aggressive, some would say brutal tactics. It was already aggressive, however, when Shaka took control of a regiment. His innovation was to order warriors in the regiment to melt down their inefficient throwing spears and reshape them as Ikwa, Shaka's famous stabbing spears (the Ikwa name derives from the sucking sound made when the Ikwa was pulled from a victim's body). Zulu warriors carried several throwing spears, and a club or axe, but their weapon of first resort was always the Ikwa. Shaka also had his men make new, smaller shields that could be hooked under an opponent's shield and used to pull it away from his body, so that the Ikwa could do its deadly work. Single men carried colored shields, while married men carried shields made from white cowhide.
Some of Cethswayo's men at the time of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift were in fact armed with firearms, and others were able to gather arms and ammunition from the dead at Isandlwana. Zulu men received no formal training in firearms use or marksmanship, however, and so were less proficient in their use than were the British regulars they faced. The weapons traded to the Zulu prior to the Zulu War of 1879, moreover, were generally older muzzle-loading weapons, not the newer, more accurate breech-loading weapons carried by British soldiers. Finally, the Zulu had no source of spare parts to repair damaged weapons nor men trained to do so, and no equipment or trained men to make new ammunition or reload used cartridges.
Horns of the Bull: Shaka also perfected the Zulu tactic known as Impondo Zankhomo, the Horns of the Bull, in which flankers in a Zulu attack formation (the horns) would encircle an enemy and leave it without means of escape. The main line of Zulus (the chest) would then engage with their Ikwas and attack shields and (usually) slaughter the enemy to the last man. The horns were typically made up of the youngest regiments present, while the chest consisted of the most experienced regiments present. Shaka Zulu was noted for his brutal treatment of enemies, and of allies and kinsmen who failed to meet his expectations. It led to his death, in fact: several of his lieutenants murdered him in a scene reminiscent of the death of Julius Caesar.
Historical Background: The Zulu people had been united and its warriors trained in the art of warfare by King Shaka, who died in 1828. Power passed to Shaka's brother, King Mpande. Mpande had two sons, Mbulazi and Cetshwayo. King Mpande favored Mbulazi, which seemed odd because Mbulazi was a bookish, intellectual type while Cetshwayo was drawn to the military life and studied the life and campaigns of King Shaka. Forces loyal to Cetshwayo attacked British traders in Zululand. King Mpande sent forces under Mbulazi to rein in Cetshwayo. Cetshwayo defeated Mbulazi in a bloody battle at Ndonakusuka. Cetshwayo then ordered the deaths of Mbulazi and five relatives who had supported him, along with thousands of others who had fought for Mbulazi. Thousands of corpses were thrown into the Tugela River, and washed up for weeks afterward at its mouth on the Indian Ocean.
Cetshwayo took over as ruler of Zululand, and proclaimed himself its king after the death of King Mpande in 1872. At this time tension was increasing between the Zulus and their neighbors to the north, the Boers. The Boers occupied the area known as the Transvaal. Boer settlers had been spilling out from the Transvaal and seizing land owned by the Zulu for their farms. A combination of Transvaal financial difficulties and Boer fear of Zulu retaliation led to the British annexation of the Transvaal. This placed a strain on the formerly amiable relations between the British and King Cetshwayo.
Boer settlers continued to pour into Zululand, and Cetshwayo at first looked to the British for help, but finally realized that the British were going to side with the Boers. Some British officials secretly hoped for war with the Zulus, reasoning that 1) victory would be a fairly simple, relatively bloodless affair and that 2) a quick British victory would both placate the Boers and demonstrated to them the military might of the new owners of the Transvaal.
A commission appointed to settle the disputed land claims in Zululand, however, came to the unexpected decision that Boer land claims generally were based on unsigned or forged documents, and that no formal cession of land had ever been made according to long-standing Zulu custom. The British officials who had hoped for war suppressed the commission findings while seeking a way to start a war that both Cetshwayo and officials in London didn't want.
Two minor incidents gave the warmongers their excuse, however-- two adulterous wives of a minor Zulu chief were beaten to death in sight of British troops at Rorke's Drift, and a second Zulu chieftain made a raid on a Boer settler's cattle. Rumors planted in the press by the British that Cetshwayo had 50,000 warriors poised to invade Natal didn't help. A demand was made that Cetshwayo drastically reduce the size and composition of his army, surrender the offending chieftains to the British, and submit every dispute between Zulus and Boers or British settlers to a British official. On his refusal, the British invasion of Zululand began.
Thomas A. Pearson, Reference Librarian
Special Collections Department
St. Louis Public Library
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