and Rourke's Drift
It seems ironic that
a man who was opposed to the Slave Trade operating
from Zanzibar and Bombay should end up here
In the later months of 1872 a new king came to the Zulu throne ...
his name was Cetshwayo.
Cetshwayo was a dynamic and intelligent ruler and a proud and
straightforward man. He revitalised the Zulu army which had become
somewhat lax during his father, Mpande's reign, and he was
determined to defend Zulu independence and the right to rule his
people without foreign dictation. He was a man to be reckoned
Whether justified or not, fear of Cetshwayo mounted during the
early years of his reign. Stories of the menace posed by the
growing Zulu army were rife. It was reported that the young
recruits were becoming more and more anxious for battle. Things had
reached the stage, it was said, where the King would not be able to
control his young hot-heads even if he wanted to ... and few
believed that he really wanted to. The colonists in Natal lived in
constant dread of a Zulu invasion. The Transvaal Boers were equally
apprehensive. That an excuse would be found for a confrontation
with Cetshwayo was obvious.
Such an excuse was eventually manufactured by Sir Bartle Frere, the
Governor of the Cape, who arrived in South Africa in March 1877.
Frere's object, however, was not confined solely to the subjugation
of the Zulu King. Cetshwayo, frightening as he appeared, was merely
a pawn in a much larger game. Not for the first time, it was the
complications of white politics which decided the fate of
For much of the 1870s Cetshwayo viewed the Boers of the Transvaal
in South Africa as the principal external threat to his sovereignty
and he made a number of requests to the Natal Secretary for Native
Affairs, Theophilus Shepstone, requesting his intercession over
increasing Boer encroachment in the north-west. By 1876, relations
between Ceshwayo and the Transvaal were such that open conflict
It was averted when the Boers backed down but shortly afterward
Cetshwayo found himself involved in a more bitter war ... a fight
for the very survival of the Zulu Kingdom, and not against the
Boers but against the British.
Some three years earlier, the British Colonial Secretary, Lord
Carnarvon, a staunch imperialist, had conceived the idea of
federating the independent states of southern Africa. In this way
he hoped to resolve the various conflicts which continued to plague
the country and thus provide Britain with a stable base on the sea
route to the East. Not surprisingly, the main obstacle to such a
federation had been the dogged independence of the Boer republics.
Having struggled manfully for years to escape the British, neither
the Orange Free State nor the Transvaal were willing to barter
their freedom for a somewhat doubtful alliance. Carnarvon had
therefore been obliged to change his tactics. Failing to win over
the republics by diplomacy, he had embarked on a course of
deliberate coercion. He had started with the Transvaal. Using the
bankrupt, ill-organised state of the country as an excuse, he had
sent a British agent, Theophilus Shepstone, into the Transvaal
Republic to bring it under the protection of the British crown. It
has been an audacious move but it had succeeded. What opposition
there was to the annexation had been so scattered and confused that
a promise of eventual self-government had been sufficient to throw
it out of gear.
However, this was merely the first step in Carnarvon's federation
The discovery of diamonds in the late 1860s led to the region been
seen as a source of great wealth that could be exploited in
Britain's interests. By confederation, it was hoped that a strong,
united, white-dominated southern Africa could be created, one that
was suited to the demands of expanding capitalistic
On 12th April 1877 Theophilus Shepstone was able to proclaim the
Transvaal as a British colony and became its first
A few weeks before, a new figure appeared on the South African
scene, a man who had had a distinguished career in India. He
stepped ashore at Cape Town on 31st March, having been appointed
Governor of the Cape Colony, High Commissioner for South Africa and
Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in the region. He was
charged with achieving Lord Carnarvon's Federation Policy. His name
Sir Bartle Frere is
described as another staunch imperialist. He was a committed
evangelical and trained to act vigoroursly on his own initiative.
He considered that it was Britain's high mission to spread the
civilising influence of Christian government and to eradicate
barbarous institutions. By extending British rule over blacks, he
envisaged putting them to 'civilised' labour for wages, so they
could spend their earnings on European manufactured goods to the
benefit of white colonists, and to their own
Quite a different Frere it seems from David Livingstone's time, ten
or so years ago ...
As Frere saw it, there could be no hope of federating South Africa
until the Zulu King had been brought to heel. Scare stories from
Natal convinced him that Cetshwayo was a blood-thirsty monster who
was intent on driving the white men from his borders. The King's
sole ambition, Frere was told, was to "emulate the sanguinary fame
of his uncle Chaka ... whose history is written in characters of
blood". That these stories had very little basis did not bother
Frere and he did not enquire into them too deeply. He had good
reason not to. The possibility of a quarrel with the Zulu King
involved far more than the future of Natal; there was reason to
think that it would answer many of Frere's problems. Not least of
these problems was the Boers' opposition to federation.
For, once the initial shock of the Transvaal annexation had
subsided, resentment of continued British rule had spread
throughout the former Boer republic. It was obvious that a gesture
on the part of the British was needed to counteract the opposition.
What better than the destruction of the Zulu military system? Not
only would the subjugation of Cetshwayo free the Boers from the
possibility of attack, but it would open up the northe of Zululand
to those farmers whose encroachments were already the subject of
dispute. Everything, in fact, seemed to point to Zululand as the
means of bolstering British prestige throughout South Africa and of
winning support for the idea of federation under British
Frere had every reason to think that Cetshwayo's downfall would be
easily accomplished. On this point he had been reassured by the
Lieutenant Governor of Natal, who wrote to him in July 1877 to say:
"If anything brings the Zulu King into collision with the English,
his destruction will follow far sooner that he expects; because
hatred and fear of him as a tyrant are daily increasing in the
minds of the Zulu people." It was all reminiscent of the earlier
reports made about Shaka. Frere, like some before him, believed
unquestioningly what he was told by those on the spot. He was soon
to learn how mistaken such assumptions were.
Sir Bartle Frere thus set himself energetically to bringing about
the end of Zulu power and independence. Demonising Ceshwayo was
central to the task. "The monster Chaka is his model," he told the
Colonial Office, "to emulate Chaka in shedding blood is as far as I
have heard his highest inspiration."
Shepstone worked hand in hand with Frere. In August 1877 the
majority of the missionaries working in Zululand, where most of
their teachings were "falling on stony ground", fled to Natal on
his advice, for Shepstone wished to portray Cetshwayo as the
"heathen" persecutor of Christianity. And at a meeting with
Cetshwayo at oNdini he told the Zulus that they should accept the
Boer's boundary claims.
In December 1877 he wrote to Lord Carnarvon describing Cetshwayo as
evil and that the Zulu power and their military organisation should
be dealt with forthwith.
However the Lieutenant-Governor of Natal, Sir Henry Bulwer, eased
tension by suggesting that Cetshwayo submit the boundary issue to
the arbitration of a commission. Both Cetshwayo and Sir Bartle
Frere accepted the proposal, the latter having been convinced by
Shepstone that the Boer claim to the disputed territory would be
In March 1878, the boundary commission gathered at Rorke's Drift
just on the Natal side of the Mzinyathi River and it reported that
the Transvaal claim to the land between the Mzinyathi and Ncome
Rivers was upheld but its claim to the lands east of the Ncome was
When Frere saw the report in July 1878, he found its partial
judgement in favour of Cetshwayo far from welcome. Instead of
sending the report to London promptly, he solicited the advice of
others in South Africa over the effects the report would have on
the conferation scheme. It was considered that the Boers might
rebel and that the Zulus would thus be encouraged to attack
the whites. Frere began to envisage a dreadful scenario in which
the choice lay between risking a Zulu war at once, or bringing
about a Zulu war a few months later, preceded by a Boer
An opportunity to bring things to the necessary climax was
presented when Cetshwayo appeared to violate the border agreement
he had made with the colony of Natal. In July 1878, the unfaithful
wives of two Zulu fled to Natal for protection. They were pursued
by their husbands, captured, and taken back to
When the Natal
authorities demanded that the men who had invaded the colony be
handed over to them for punishment, Cetshwayo made excuses for not
A couple of months
later a further affront to Colonial authority was felt when two
Englishmen were detained by the Zulu for one and a half hours after
they had accidentally wandered into Zululand.
Such incidents could
hardly be described as Zulu aggression but they were seized upon by
Sir Bartle Frere to colour the case he was building again
Cetshwayo. After the abduction of the Zulu women he sent a report
to the British Colonial Secretary which left little doubt as to his
intentions. Unless the incident was "apologised atoned for" he
said, " it will be necessary to send to the Zulu King an ultimatum
which must put an end to pacific relations with our
Frere exploited these incidents that occurred on the
Natal-Zululand border to soften up Lord Carnarvon's successor, Sir
Michael Hicks Beach, who had become Colonial Secretary in early
1878 and who wished to avoid a war with Cetshwayo.
By November 1878 Frere had received the Colonial Secretary's
response to the boundary commission's report - it was not
favourable to his stance as Hicks Beach accepted the report's
Frere was not daunted and began to mass troops near the Zulu border
in anticipation of conflict. He sent word to Cetshwayo that the
findings of the boundary commission and "other communications"
would be delivered on 11th December at the Lower Drift of the
Tugela River, near the Indian Ocean. The "other communications"
would prove to be an ultimatum.
The Ultimatum was delivered on 11th December 1878. It was virtually
a declaration of war. Its provisions, which had to be complied with
in 30 days, set out to destroy the traditional Zulu way of life at
a single stroke. It demanded that the Zulu army be disbanded
immediately, that an end be brought to Shaka's system of military
conscriptions (the system upon which the Zulu nation had been
built) and it generally undermined the King's authority. It would
have been impossible for Cetshwayo to carry out such radical
reforms in so short a space of time even had he agreed that they
were necessary. That he would not agree to them had been obvious
from the start; to have done so would have been tantamount to
On the morning of the 11th, the Acting Secretary for Native
Affairs, John Shepstone (the brother of Theophilus Shepstone)
announced the findings of the boundary commission to the Zulu royal
indunas and their attendants, and presented the British ultimatum
... perpetrators of border incidents that had occurred in July 1878
were to be handed over and Cetshwayo was to pay a fine of 500
cattle for not having already surrendered up the wrongdoers. More
significant, however, were demands that would render Cetshwayo
politically and militarily impotent ... in addition all
Zulus were to be free to marry upon reaching maturity, missionaries
were to be allowed to return to Zululand and operate without
hindrance, Cetshwayo was to observe his coronation oaths regarding
the shedding of innocent blood, and a British Resident was to be
stationed in Zululand to enforce the conditions. It was called an
ultimatum but it was more a "declaration of war".
Frere expected Cetshwayo to resist and was confident that in the
event of conflict the Zulu nation would soon be
His confidence was based on the superiority of the British military
might and the knowledge that cracks existed in the Zulu polity, for
certain senior Zulus had built up their own power bases and were
known to be on strained terms with their king. Internal discord and
defections were expected and in fact, one of the greatest chiefs in
Zululand, Prince Hamu kaNzibe, had already let the British know
that in the event of war he was prepared to desert Cetshwayo in
return for protection.
At first Cetshwayo responded by stating that he was prepared to pay
the fine and hand over Sihayo's sons who had been involved in the
border incident, but after discussions on the other issues with his
councillors, he withdrew this and further stated that compliance
was out of the question on the matter of dismantling the Zulu
The 30 days' time limit expired on 11th January 1879, and Sir
Bartle Frere formally declared war. "The British forces are
crossing into Zululand to exact from Cetywayo reparations for
violations of British territory" he wrote in a Notification which
was issued in both English and Zulu. "The British Government has no
quarrel with the Zulu people ... When the war is finished the
British Government will make the best arrangement in its power for
the future good government of the Zulus in their own country, in
peace and quietness, and will not permit the killing and oppression
they have suffered from Cetywayo to continue".
(Where have I heard words similar to these said in recent times?
... ah yes, from the United States when they invaded Iraq in April
The purpose of this somewhat over-sanguine document was plain
enough. The King, in whose person the Zulu nation was identified,
was to be made the sole scapegoat. His powers were to be placed
within the control of the British Government. With Cetshwayo out of
the way it would be possible to implement the well tried "native
policy" of divide and rule ... or so it was hoped. As it happened,
it was not to be as simple as that. Zulu loyalty proved
surprisingly strong and the plan met with a good deal of opposition
from Cetshwayo's white supporters in Natal.
Cetshwayo was more fortunate in his white friends than had been his
predecessors. The flickering flame of liberalism, which so often
brightened the darker corners of South African history, had been
dim indeed during the reigns of Shaka and Dingane.
however, it shone in the person of John Colenso, the fiery
controversial Bishop of Natal.
Bishop Colenso had
arrived in Natal with his family in May 1855 and had immediately
identified himself with the Zulu people. He had learnt their
language, studied their customs and consistently championed their
cause. A passionate man, of strong, independent views, he had
clashed with his superiors and had been excommunicated from the
Anglican Church for his unorthodox theological writings. But none
of this had affected his devotion to this Zulu friends. To them he
was Sobantu ... the Father of the People. Throughout the troubled
times ahead, Colenso and his family were to remain steadfast in
their support of Cetshwayo. Unfortunately there was nothing they
could do to prevent Sir Bartle Frere from having his
On 11th January 1879, British forces entered Zululand under the
command of Lieutenant-General Frederick Augustus Thesiger and
second Baron Chelmsford.
War had commenced ...
The Zulu War of 1879 is probably the best known, certainly the most
written about, episode in Zulu history. The British army embarked
upon the campaign with confidence, and were quite unprepared for
its first, unprecedented disaster. At Isandlwana, near the border
of Zululand, the Zulu army launched a surprise attack on an
encampment of soldiers under the command of Lord Chelmsford, the
British Commander-in-Chief. The result was one of the most
devastating massacres in the annals of British colonial warfare.
Chelmsford himself was away on a reconnaissance expedition when the
attack took place; he returned late that evening to find the camp
As outlined previously, the British forces split into columns - 5
in all, three of which would take part in the invasion while the
others Chelmsford hoped would protect Natal and the Transvaal from
any Zulu counter thrusts.
Overall the army consisted of 17,929 men and to supply the men
while on campaign, Chelmsford had assembled 10,023 oxen, 398 mules,
977 wagons and 56 carts - a task that had proved difficult and
Officers of the
infantry regiments were armed with swords and revolvers while the
rank and file were armed with a Henry-Martini rifle and
The two Squadrons of
the Imperial Mounted Infantry were armed with Swinburne-Henry
carbines and had bandoliers instead of ammunition
A number of artillery
guns were provided - 7-pounders which had a maximum range of 3100
yards and were capable of firing shrapnel, common shell, double
shell, or case-shot.
The Gatling gun was
also employed, mounted on a carriage and consisted of ten rifled
barrels propelling .45inch calibre round, and Hale's rockets with
9-pounders and 24-pounders and possessing either an explosive or an
incendiary warhead - their high-itched shrieking sound in flight
was calculated to disconcert the Zulus, who were unfamiliar with
such a weapon.
It was Cetwayo's aim to fight a defensive war and thus he forbade
his warriors to cross the border, in the hope that a purely
defensive strategy would reap political dividends. He knew that the
British resources were far greater than his own and that a
violation of British territory would doubtless provoke a response
of such magnitude that victory for the Zulus would become
Cetshwayo's spies informed him that the Centre Column was the
strongest of the invading forces, and so he decided to send the
bulk of his army against it. The warriors were told to conserve
their energy by advancing slowly, and were to refrain from
attacking entrenched positions. Furthermore, they were to avoid
night attacks and, after driving back the enemy, were not to follow
them across the border.
The exact number of warriors Cetshwayo had at his disposal is
unknown. The army's nominal strength was proabably about 40,000 but
some of the reigments consisted of men who were very advanced in
years and thus of little worth, so that the number of effective
warriors available was about 29,000. (A "David and Goliath
Warriors' traditional arms consisted on spears, knobkerries and
shields with the standard spear being the stabbing spear and a
re-introduction of the throwing spear.
By this date firearms
supplemented traditional weapons and had been acquired in
substantial numbers but most were the old-fashioned Brown Bess
muskets. this fact, combined with a lack of training, absence of
spare parts (the Boer traders had taken the liberty of removing
crucial bits when they sold them to the Zulus originally), and
irregular supplies of ammunition, rendered guns less deadly than
would otherwise would have been the case.
Isandlwana was a scene of desperate conflict, for the fighting had
reached fever pitch as the British fought desperately against the
engulfing mass of determined warriors.
Shots and screams
rent the air, which became thick with smoke and dust. Moreover, a
partial eclipse of the sun cast darkness over the carnage.
Confusion, fear and death were everywhere.
In the hand-to-hand
fighting the Zulus learned that a long bayonet at the end of a
rifle thrust proved far more effective than an
Zulu numerical superiority overruled and the number of dead and
dying British soldiers increased. Many of them fell as they
withdrew through the camp and those who managed to escape across
the nek through a narrow gap in the Zulu were harried from both
sides over difficult ground by warriors with particular intent on
Within a few hours,
Isandlwana and much of the countryside within its vicinity had
transformed into a scene of desolation, littered with the wreckage
While Chelmsford was groping in the darkness amid the debris of the
Isandlwana camp, another desperate battle was being fought a few
At a Swedish mission
station, near the crossing of the Buffalo river known as Rorke's
Drift, a small band of British soldiers, huddled behind a makeshift
barricade of mealie bags and biscuit boxes, were courageously
holding a huge Zulu impi at bay. The bitter struggle, lit by the
flames from the blazing mission hospital, raged throughout the
night and ended in the early hours of the following morning. Eleven
Victoria Crosses were distributed among the heroic defenders of
The heroic defence of Rorke's Drift presented him and Frere with a
propaganda coup that was exploited to the full in an effort to
redeem the fiasco of Isandlwana. It was portrayed as a major
strategic reverse for Cetshwayo, an action that thwarted a Zulu
invasion of Natal.
The news of the battle of Isandlwana reached London on 11th
February and was discussed at a cabinet meeting that afternoon. The
Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, and his ministers were horrified
by what had happened and arrangements were made to send out
substantial reinforcements post-haste.
The government, which was preoccupied by a conflict in Afghanistan,
had suddenly found itself entangled in a costly and essentially
disastrous war it had not wanted, a war brought about by the
wayward Sir Bartle Frere.
In parliament the opposition party demanded his recall. The
government declined to do so, but censured him
Frere was informed bluntly that neither he nor Chelmsford had
"authority to accept a cession of territory nor to proclaim the
Queen's sovereignty over any part of Zululand".
Lord Chelmsford came under heavy fire from military critics. Much
of this criticism has since been shown to have been unfair, but
there can be no doubt that the catastrophic defeat at Isandlwana
stunned the British public.
The Zulu King was no
longer seen as a colourful monster in the wilds of Africa, but as a
foe to be respected and feared.
The next engagement of any significance took place 2 months later
at Kambula in the north of Zululand. Here, on 29th March 1879,
British troops repulsed a large Zulu force. Spectacular as was this
victory, it was by no means decisive. British optimism was
Two months later, while Chelmsford was reorganising his forces for
a more determined onslaught, there came another disaster. The
Prince Imperial of France, who had arrived in Zululand as a
non-combatant, had been allowed to accompany a scouting party and
had been killed in a skirmish after the rest of his troop had
Rarely had British military prestige sunk so low. Not everyone was
able to share the detachment of the British Prime Minister,
Benjamin Disraeli, who coolly observed: "A very remarkable people,
the Zulus ... they defeat our Generals, they convert our Bishops,
they have settled the fate of a great European dynasty".
Criticism of Chelmsford's handling of the war mounted to such a
pitch that it was decided to sent out Sir Garnet Wolseley to
replace him as Commander-in-chief. Already smarting under a great
deal of abuse, Chelmsford was determined not to return home under
such humiliating circumstances. Spurred into decisive action, he
pushed his troops on the Cetshwayo's royal kraal at Ulundi, near
the White Mfolozi river. Here, on 4th July 1879, the Zulu army was
There is substantial evidence to show that Cetshwayo was genuinely
bewildered by the invasion of Zululand. He had not sought a war and
repeatedly sent messengers to negotiate a truce with the British
authorities. All he peaceful overtures had, for one reason or
another, been spurned. His last attempts to come to terms with Lord
Chelmsford, were made shortly before the battle of Ulundi. When
these failed, he was forced to flee and escaped from the royal
kraal as the British troops were advancing for the final
Chelmsford having, in his own opinion, vindicated himself by
bringing the war to a successful conclusion, lost no time in
telegraphing his resignation and began preparing to leave South
What became of Sir Bartle Frere is yet to come to light but he it
would seem he was also involved in Shepstone's plan to undermine
the new Matabele King, Lobengula, in present-day Zimbabwe, for
Shepstone had written to him in 1878 stating that the granting of
asylum to Kuruman, the opposition leader of Lobengula, by President
Kruger would "give Her Majesty's Government the means of exercising
great influence over the reigning Matabele king".
Frere was one of the leading thinkers on the issue of defending the
British Empire from the threats posed by the emerging Great Powers
of France, Russia, Germany and the USA.
In particular he was concerned about the threats to the ports of
the Empire posed by foreign naval forces - he considered Cape Town
to be "utterly defenceless" - and his fears about a potential
Russian attack on South Africa during the tense days of the 1878
Balkan Crisis was one of the chief reasons for his decision to make
a pre-emptive strike on the Zulus.
Frere was also one of the main contributors to the Carnarvon
Comission on Imperial Defence (1878-82).
Frere was strongly criticized by the British parliament and was
recalled to London in July 1880.
Frere was also a leading opponent of slavery and in 1873 abolished
the trade in Zanzibar by the simple expedient of blockading it with
gunboats until the Sultan gave in to his demands. However
successful this action, it was to earn him the enmity of W.E.
Gladstone who he had upstaged somewhat.
Frere and Gladstone loathed each other from then on and while Frere
pilloried Gladstone in print, Gladstone got his revenge when he
became Prime Minister in 1880. Frere was publicly, humiliated and
then sacked without being given a chance to defend
After 1877 when Britain had annexed the Transvaal and Sir Bartle
Frere contolled it, Paul Kruger emerged as the national champion.
Twice he was sent to London to try to persuade the British to
cancel the annexation. Kruger discovered as he said, that there
were two separate men called Frere: one Frere, the charming
diplomat with whom he spoke; the other Frere, the man who was
planning to subdue the Transvaal.
In 1899, as Jan Christian Smuts put it, the same question could be
asked of Milner as of Frere. Well in due course, Milner must pay
the price. He had insulted the "spirit of Afrikanerdom". Smuts did
not conceal the personal satisfaction it would give him to force
Chamberlain to have Milner recalled in disgrace, like that other
great English proconsul, Sir Bartle Frere.
However, Henry Bartle Edward Frere was one of the leading 'Indian'
statesmen of the Victorian age. He had spent most of his career in
India and rose to become the legendary Governor of Bombay during
Convinced that India was a civilisation that was only temporarily
in disarray, he believed that it was Britain's duty to rule it for
the benefit of Indians until such time as Indians could rule
To this end he promoted economic development - the modern cities of
Bombay and Karachi owe their existence to him - education and
worked to preserve the religion and heritage of Indi against those
who wished to see the subcontinent Christianised and
Henry Bartle Frere (1815-84)
Victoria Embankment, London