Posted by: Dr. Y. | January 29, 2014

The Battle of Isandlwana: the Day the British Lost the War to the Zulus

The Battle of Isandlwana

The Battle of Isandlwana

Today, I will tell you about the Battle of Isandlwana, the battle where the mighty Great Britain lost to African warriors… Yes you heard me right: Great Britain lost to Zulu warriors in South Africa on 22 January 1879The battle of Isandlwana remains the single greatest defeat of the British army at the hands of a native army.  This occurred in KwaZulu-Natal, where approximately 22,000 Zulu warriors defeated a contingent of approximately 1,350 British and Native troops (notice… the real number for the native forces cannot be found anywhere) in one of the first engagements of the Anglo-Zulu war.  The Zulu force was under King Cetshwayo, a nephew of King Shaka Zulu.

Zulu King Cetshwayo, ca 1879

Zulu King Cetshwayo, ca 1879

The Battle of Isandlwana is a battle of pride as it reminds us that our ancestors did not quietly accept colonization, and were not easily defeated.  They fought, and even defeated the European colonizers, as is the case for Cetshwayo’s forces.  The battle was a decisive victory for the Zulus and caused the defeat of the first British invasion of Zululand.  For the first time, the British Army suffered its worst defeat against a technologically inferior indigenous force.  Isandlwana resulted in the British taking a much more aggressive approach in the Anglo–Zulu War, leading to a heavily reinforced second invasion and the destruction of King Cetshwayo’s hopes of a negotiated peace.

A depiction of the Battle of Isandlwana, taken from the London News

A depiction of the Battle of Isandlwana, taken from the London News

The Zulus were equipped mainly with the traditional assegai (iklwa) iron spears and cow-hide shields.  The British and colonial troops were armed with the state-of-the-art Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle and two 7 pounder artillery pieces as well as a rocket battery.  He he he…  Despite a vast disadvantage in weapons technology, the numerically superior Zulus commanded by inDunas (Princes) Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza and Mavumengwana kaNdlela Ntuli ultimately overwhelmed the British, killing over 1,300 troops, including all those out on the forward firing line.   The Zulu army wiped six (6) companies of the 24th regiment as well as volunteers from the Natal province and Basotho auxiliaries under Colonel Durnford.  The Zulu army suffered around a thousand killed.

Zulu warriors at Isandlwana, 1879

Zulu warriors at Isandlwana, 1879

The primary reason for the Zulu victory is that the Zulus, unlike the British, kept their main fighting force concentratedFurther, they made a very successful effort to conceal the advance and location of their force until they were within a few hours’ striking distance of their enemy.  See… my ancestors were military geniuses too!!  Created by King Shaka, the Zulu army or Zulu impi was the most powerful war machine the British ever faced in Southern Africa.  The combat strategy was perfected by King Shaka himself, who added great organization and discipline to the traditional qualities of courage and mobility cultivated within African armies.  During the battle, the Zulu army would organize itself as an arc facing the adversary.  At the center (known as the chest in Zulu) were found the most seasoned regiments; on the wings (or horns) were found the regiments of younger warriors.  The latter used their speed and agility to outflank the enemy by attacking him on the flanks while trying to encircle him, while the chest warriors engaged him in the front.  Behind the chest, and with their back turned so as to keep their calm, were the veteran regiments (also known as the kidneys) who will wait as reserves, intervening only to switch the battle to victory.  Every man knew his place, moves, and maneuvers with extreme precision.

A Zulu regiment attacking at Isandlwana (C. Fripp)

A Zulu regiment attacking at Isandlwana (C. Fripp)

Finally, when the location of the main Zulu Impi was discovered by British scouts, the Zulus, without hesitation, immediately advanced and attacked, achieving tactical surprise.  This tactical surprise prevented the British, although they now had some warning of a Zulu advance, from concentrating their central column.  The Zulus had outmanoeuvred Chelmsford, and their victory at Isandlwana was a decisive defeat of the British invasion that forced the main British force to retreat out of Zululand until a far larger British army could be shipped to South Africa for a second invasion.  During this battle, there was also a solar eclipse; this however did not stop the warriors from fighting.

I have to admit that I was quite proud to learn about the battle of Isandlwana, the battle the British lost to technologically inferior Zulus warriors (so it is said).  I just think that, on that day, the Zulus despite not having the technological advantage, had the strategic advantage.  They were well-trained, well-prepared, and they were also fighting for their land.  To learn more about the Battle of Isandlwana, please check out Military history which debunked some of the myths about the battle, British Battles, and this article on the BBC.


  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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