Isandwala 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 with.



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 Zululand.

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 appeared imminent.

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.


Lord Carnarvon

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 plan.

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 development.

On 12th April 1877 Theophilus Shepstone was able to proclaim the Transvaal as a British colony and became its first Administrator.
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 was ...


Sir Bartle Frere

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 advantage.

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 protection.
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 vindicated.

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 judged invalid.

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 rebellion.

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 Zululand.

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 doing so.

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 neighbours".

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 findings.

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 abdication.

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 overcome.

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 military.

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 2003)
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.

For Cetshwayo, 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 war.

On 11th January 1879, British forces entered Zululand under the command of Lieutenant-General Frederick Augustus Thesiger and second Baron Chelmsford.

The Anglo-Zulu 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 obliterated.

Lord Chelmsford

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 expensive.

Officers of the infantry regiments were armed with swords and revolvers while the rank and file were armed with a Henry-Martini rifle and bayonet.

The two Squadrons of the Imperial Mounted Infantry were armed with Swinburne-Henry carbines and had bandoliers instead of ammunition pouches.

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 unattainable.

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 scenario").

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 assegai.

Gradually however, 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 killing.

Within a few hours, Isandlwana and much of the countryside within its vicinity had transformed into a scene of desolation, littered with the wreckage of war.

While Chelmsford was groping in the darkness amid the debris of the Isandlwana camp, another desperate battle was being fought a few miles away.

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 Rorke's Drift.

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 instead.

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 short-lived.
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 deserted him.
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 finally defeated.
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 attack.
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 Africa.
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.

W.E. Gladstone
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 himself.


Paul Kruger

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.


Jan Christian Smuts

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 the 1860s.
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 themselves.
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 Anglicised.


Sir Henry Bartle Frere (1815-84)
 Victoria Embankment, London



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