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Witnessing the Battle of Isandlwana

Witnessing the Battle of Isandlwana

There is an incredible wealth of history in iSandlwana. Fanile Mkhize recalls the battle that shook an empire…

The battle cries

The Battle of Isandlwana is re-enacted on the same battlefield“Fire!” cried the British commander, and his men’s Martini-Henry rifles cracked out, the sound reverberating across the rocky hill named Isandlwana. Three Zulu warriors fell like logs to the ground.

But the Zulu regiment continued marching uphill to meet the enemy. They were clad in traditional ceremonial regalia and chanting the Zulu warcry, “USuthu, uSuthu.” More warriors fell, but the rest just jumped over them, determined to meet the enemy.

With his isihlangu (shield), a warrior pushed a soldier’s rifle away and speared him between the ribs just below the armpit. Another chopped a British soldier with a razor-sharp isizenze (battle axe). A few metres away stood a photographer, myself, so moved by emotion that I nearly forgot to take pictures of the furious action before me. Click! went the shutter of my camera. I was watching a re-enactment of the famous Battle of Isandlwana from the Anglo-Zulu war.

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Looking back

It had all started with The Ultimatum. Sir Henry Bartle Frère, the British High Commissioner in South Africa, wanted to seize control of the land that belonged to the Zulu monarch, King Cetshwayo kaMpande, and his people, and issued The Ultimatum to provoke the King and his people into a war, which he believed the British would easily win because the rifle was so much mightier than the spear.

So he accused King Cetshwayo of not fulfilling promises made to Sir Theophilus Shepstone during his coronation in 1873 and issued The Ultimatum (Umnqamulajuqu or Ugwayi katikito) on 11 December 1878, demanding amongst other things that Cetshwayo:

  • Abolish the age regiment system of the Zulu;
  • Allow his warriors to marry without his consent;
  • Control killings in Zululand;
  • Catch the Swazi prince Mbilini waMswati and the sons of the Zulu headman Sihayo kaXongo (wanted for alleged misdemeanours in Natal) and hand them over to the British for trial;
  • Allow missionaries who had fled from Zululand to return to preach.

The British soldiers get ready to re-enact the Battle of Isandlwana

My maternal grandfather, Nondamela kaMakhabeni, told me that the messengers who brought The Ultimatum to King Cetshwayo carried a bottle full of beads. They spilled the beads in front of the king and said to him, “If you want to know how many soldiers the Queen of England has, count these beads.”

This greatly angered the King, who then sent one of his indunas (headmen) to fetch the hide of an ox. The hide was laid in front of Frère’s messengers and the King said to them, “If you want to know how many warriors I have in my regiments, count the hairs on this hide.”

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To the battlefield

A re-enactment of the Battle of IsandlwanaThe Ultimatum expired on 11 January 1879. On the following day a British column under Lord Chelmsford attacked the followers of Sihayo kaXongo near Rorke’s Drift. Meanwhile, Cetshwayo had prepared his warriors for war at his capital, oNdini (Ulundi). Led by Ntshingwayo kaMahole, the Zulu impi (army) now began moving towards Rorke’s Drift. They moved slowly, both to preserve their energy, as they had a long way to go, and also because it would be inauspicious for them to fight on 22 January, when there’d be a new moon, a bad omen according to Zulu mythology.

Unfortunately for the Zulus, fate would have it that the battle would take place on the 22nd. Chelmsford arrived at Isandlwana on the 20th and set up camp there. On the evening of the 21st he sent a large force to look for the main Zulu army. Instead they came across the followers of the headman Matshana kaMondise. Thinking they were the main Zulu army, Chelmsford ordered his men to attack them at dawn on the 22nd, but during the night the band of Zulus secretly moved away to join the main Zulu army in the Ngwebeni Valley.

Colonel Anthony Durnford and his men arrived at Isandlwana on the 22nd. They saw some Zulu scouts (izinhloli) who had been sent out to locate the main British army, and attacked them. The izinhloli retreated, leading them towards the main Zulu army. On hearing gunfire, the Zulu army attacked. A fierce battle ensued and at first it seemed as though the British guns would be too much for the Zulu. The warriors were falling one after another, but they were prepared to die for their king. And they had one important advantage – they outnumbered the British.

The Zulu generals sent Mkhosana kaMvundlana, an extremely brave warrior, to order the uKhandampevu regiment to attack. The British fired at Mkhosana but failed to hit him. He just ran past in front of them. My grandfather says they couldn’t hit him because of a Zulu war charm, named intelezi, and he carried ikhubalo (a traditional medicine).

The uKhandampevu regiment did as they were ordered and attacked, joining the uMxhapho and uMcijo regiments, which formed the ‘chest’, or thick centre section, of the Zulus’ famous encircling-horns battle formation. The British fired until they ran out of ammunition, but by that time Cetshwayo’s warriors already had the upper hand. “Ngadla mina kababa!” (I’ve got you, my man) they cried as they speared the redcoats. The British were aided by the Zulus of the Natal Native Contingent, known in Zulu as the amambuka (traitors).

To the bitter end

The uDududu, iMbube and uNokhenke regiments, which formed the right horn of the impi, encircled the British amidst more cries of “Ngadla!”

The British retreated towards their tents below Isandlwana. They fought bravely but were no match for the Zulus after the left horn of the impi joined in. These were the warriors of the iNgobamakhosi, uMbonambi and uVe regiments. Colonel Durnford was killed there among the tents.

It’s said that at the height of the battle the sun shone dimly and day turned into night (kwafiphala ilanga, imini yaphenduka ubusuku). Many Zulu historians and poets, including my grandfather, have reported this dimming of the sun while the battle was going on, and history confirms this solar eclipse.

History has it that Lieutenants Coghill and Melville fought hard to save the Battalion’s Queen’s Colour but failed and were also among the slain. By sunset the victors of the Battle of Isandlwana, the Zulus, had killed more than 1 000 Redcoats.

Witnessing the Battle of Isandlwana

But the fighting was not over. Led by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, the uDloko, iNdlondlo, uThulwana and iNdluyengwe regiments headed towards Rorke’s Drift to attack the British force guarding the mission station there. This was against the King’s orders as he had forbade his warriors from entering Natal. Before they got to Rorke’s Drift, its defenders, under the overall command of Lieutenant John Chard, learnt of the disaster at Isandlwana and, directed by Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, hastily erected barricades to defend themselves. That night the Zulu attacked – and paid dearly for it, losing about 600 of their number while taking only 17 British lives.

King Cetshwayo kaMpande had always wanted to negotiate with the British, but after the events at Isandlwana Lord Chelmsford demanded revenge. So the Anglo-Zulu war continued, with the British emerging victorious after the Battle of oNdini. The Zulu won the battle at Isandlwana, but lost the war.

I watched entranced at the drama taking place before me. It seemed so real. When it was over the soldiers and warriors shook hands as a sign of reconciliation. All had smiles on their faces. Dignitaries from both sides took turns at the podium, reflecting on the events of that fateful day in January 1879 and talking about reconciliation.

It’s said that when Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi met with Brigadier David Bromhead, he jokingly said, “I’m glad my great great uncle, Prince Dabulamanzi, didn’t kill your great great uncle at Rorke’s Drift.”

Yes, this is South Africa, a country that is known all over the world for its citizens’ ability and willingness to forgive.

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Words Fanile Mkhize

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