Zulu War 1879 (South Africa)

The Zulu war of 1879 finally ended by bloodshed two years of political activity by the British designed to remove the last challenge to their Imperial power in southern Africa. Zululand had become a powerful kingdom under the rule of the warlord king Shaka in the early 19th century, but by 1870 European colonial expansion was starting to hem it in. The British were expanding from the south in Natal and the Boers, Dutch settlers were expanding from the west in the area know as the Transvaal which the British annexed to their future cost in 1877. The British had seized their South African colonies during the Napoleonic Wars but these possessions had been plagued with trouble due to violence between the British, the Boers and local African kingdoms. The British plan was to unite black and white under their rule, but first the Zulu kingdom had to be removed.

At this time the British were fighting many small wars in various colonies and did not want another war in a distant colony. Despite this the British High Commissioner Sir Henry Bartle Frere and the Army Commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Frederic Thesiger soon to be the new Lord Chelmsford, decided that war with the Zulus was unavoidable. Using the delay in communications between London and themselves they set in motion what they hoped would be a small quick war. Using a minor border incident as justification Zulu representatives were summoned to a meeting of the Border Commission which actually found in the Zulu's favour but determined to promote the idea of a Zulu threat a condition was imposed on the settlement that the Zulus would have to give up their military system which was key to their culture, a condition the King Cetshwayo could never accept.

Lord Chelmsford decided to invade Zululand with 3 columns leaving 2 more to protect Natal and the Transvaal. He expected the Zulus to behave like the other African Armies he had fought and prove elusive and unwilling to fight pitched battles. This was to prove a serious mistake. British forces crossed the ford at Rorke's Drift on the 11th Jan 1879 and on the 22nd January the British forces divided by Chelmsford were taken by surprise and nearly destroyed by the Zulu warriors at the battle of Isandhlwana, one of the few times in the history of the British Army that is has been defeated by a native Army. The British forces holding the Ford at Rorke's Drift quickly came under heavy attack by Zulu reserves leading to one of the most famous battles in British history. When news reached Britain of the disaster at Isandhlwana it caused an uproar.

In March 1879 the second phase of the war began Chelmsford reorganised his troops and awaited promised reinforcements from Britain which would take several months to arrive. With irregular horsemen harassing the Zulu's and an abortive attack on Hlobane mountain which cost 15 officers and 79 men dead the war dragged on as Chelmsford awaited fresh troops. The war began to turn to favour the British as a Zulu attack on the British camp at the battle of Khambula was repulsed on 29th March 1879. In the aftermath of the battle it was clear that the Zulu Impi would never take to the battlefield with such confidence again and the way was clear for a second invasion. As fresh British troops started to arrive the final invasion of Zululand (May to July 1879) began. King Cetshwayo sent messengers to the British asking for terms of surrender but the British demanded unconditional surrender and Cetshwayo made his last stand at the battle of Ulundi (4 July 1879). After this final defeat the Zulu nation was smashed and split up into 13 kingdoms which were given to pro British Africans only for it to dissolve into civil war a few years later. The British pulled out of Zululand soon after the battle and Cetshwayo was hunted down and exiled. After a brief return to try and halt the civil war Cetshwayo was defeated and later died in 1884. Zululand is now part of the Republic of South Africa.

Zulu Wars Index

Isandlwana, How the Zulus Humbled the British Empire, Adrian Greaves. An excellent examination of this famous battle and the campaign that led up to it, written by someone with a detailed knowledge of the battlefield and surrounding areas. Uses a wide range of contemporary sources to paint an accurate picture of this battle and the Zulu achievements and the British mistakes that led to the great Zulu victory. [read full review]
cover cover cover
Zulu [1963], starring Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins , Michael Cain. Now a staggering 40 years old this is still an excellent film which is surprising historically accurate on the details of the battle and avoids depictingg the Zulus as just mindless savages
cover cover cover

A much maligned and for years hard to get movie which shows the events running up to the battle of Rorkes Drift, that of the British defeat at Isandhlwana. Star studdied cast including Burt Lancaster, Peter O'Toole and Bob Hoskins help improve the film. Despite some historical inaccuracys an enjoyable film and one which at least shows a British defeat at the hands of local forces.
cover cover cover


Knight, ZuluZulu (Warrior S.), Ian Knight., A nice book up to the normal osprey standard looking at the training, organisation and skills of the Zulu warriors. Often regarded as primative savages by the uninformed this book helps give a realistic picture of what was a highly organised army.
cover cover cover

Knight, ZuluKnight, Ian, The Zulu War 1879: Twilight of a Warrior Nation A great book, very thick for an osprey book at nearly 100 pages, packed with great illustrations ,lots of photographs from the period, and 3 D battle maps. The book also includes orders of battle for the two main armies and covers the whole campaign. Written by Ian Knight one of the leading experts on the war and also includes some advice on wargaming the campaign.
cover cover cover

Knight, Rorkes DriftRorke's Drift, 1879: Pinned Like Rats in a Hole, Ian Knight. (Osprey Military Campaign S.) A very detailed osprey book on this famous last stand. Packed full of photographs , illustrations both black and white and colour it is an easily accessable book which is easy and enjoyable reading and gives a real sense of drama without loosing acuracy. It is nearly 100 pages and covers a very detailed section on wargaming the battle. A good book to begin any serious study. [see more]
cover cover cover
How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, TDP. (2 March 2001), Zulu War 1879, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_zulu.html

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us - Privacy