The day the Zulus beat the British Empire

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The Zulu victory over British forces at Isandlwana in southern Africa 140 years ago profoundly shocked a Victorian society ideologically bound to the notion of white superiority over black "barbarism". Barry Conway explains why the victory should be celebrated by every socialist.

This month sees the 140th anniversary of the Battle at Isandlwana. This, the first major encounter in the Anglo-Zulu War and a decisive win for the Zulu, will be commemorated and celebrated across KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. Isandlwana brought the name “Zulu” to the attention of the world and established them as the paramount native force on the African continent.

On 22 January 1879 a British army camp was annihilated by a 20,000-strong Zulu regiment sent by King Cetshwayo kaMpande to defend his land and independence. Of the 1,750 British and auxiliary troops defending the camp, some 1,350 were killed by the Zulu army. Zulu casualties were also high, but at around 2,500 (though accurate figures are not known), this was a much lower proportion of the force that attacked the camp.

The defeat was a huge shock to Victorian society, ameliorated only by the successful defence of the Rorke’s Drift camp on the Natal border the same day. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift was immediately marked with an exceptional crop of Victoria Crosses and later immortalised in the film Zulu, starring Michael Caine. Isandlwana was conveniently forgotten for as long as possible.

The Battle of Isandlwana is an object lesson in British arrogance and racist assumptions about the tactical skills of the Zulu.

The British army, led by Lord Chelmsford, had invaded Zululand on the basis that Cetshwayo had stubbornly ignored their demands. The British had insisted that he dismantle his army — a formidable force composed of regiments and an officer class every bit as organised and replete with symbolism and esprit de corps as any European army — and that he change traditional laws that settlers in the British colony of Natal, bordering Zululand, found unpalatable. Cetshwayo did neither.

In truth, these demands were made entirely with the knowledge that they would be turned down and provide the perfect excuse Chelmsford and the governor of Natal Sir Bartle Frere needed to destroy the Zulu Kingdom.

Underneath the bluster around Zulu traditions lay deeper reasons for the invasion. Under Chelmsford the British regiment that was to invade, the 24th regiment, had only recently been involved in the ninth and final Frontier war with the Xhosa people, a war that was to spell the end of their independence and the consolidation of white rule in the Cape colony.

Snatching land

Migrants from Europe had been pouring into the Cape and setting up farms and businesses for decades, moving along the rich coastal land areas snatching land from the incumbent native Xhosa. And as the Europeans spread out, their need for slaves, and then wage labour, became imperative.

Over the course of a century nine wars were fought against the Xhosa using British troops, Boer auxiliaries and native dissidents.

With the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley the need for labour assumed greater importance, and the influx of European migrants setting up businesses to feed the mines and farms added to the demand. With the final destruction of Xhosa independence, the way was clear to sweep away tribal modes of production and begin the process of capital accumulation. Provided, of course, that the Zulu were willing to bow to British power.

At this time British imperialist interests were dominated by India — the source of much of Britain’s wealth and power. Events in South Africa were of little interest except to a growing number of capitalists with investments in diamonds and agriculture.

Nevertheless, a number of politicians and industrialists were won to the idea of a Confederation that would see the whole of South Africa, including eventually the semi-independent Free State and the Transvaal — both Boer states — coming under British imperial hegemony. Their problem was that they were not very likely to win support for fighting wars in Africa from a parliament more concerned with Russian influence in Afghanistan threatening to compromise British power in India.

The British ruling class, or at least that section of it with interests in Africa, then did what it had always done in these situations: ignore parliament and go ahead anyway. Chelmsford’s and Frere’s ultimatum to Cetshwayo to buckle to their demands wasn’t agreed with the cabinet. The invasion of Zululand and the anticipated quick victory was planned as a fait accompli which parliament couldn’t ignore.

At 4am on 22 January Chelmsford took two-thirds of his troops off to attack the main Zulu army, which he thought was stationed south east of Isandlwana. He did not adequately check the surrounding areas, where 20,000 Zulu troops were waiting five miles north-east of the camp.

When the Zulu warriors attacked, surtrounding the camp, the British had little hope of defending themselves. In a further humiliation, hundreds of troops that were returning to the camp having heard about the invasion were intercepted by a messenger who told them it was a false alarm and sent them back on their original course to the south east.

The destruction of British troops at Isandlwana came as a shock to the public and most politicians alike: “Who are these Zulus?” was a common response.

As the news of Isandlwana reached Natal colonists panicked, with farmers and settlers packing up and leaving for the coast. Yet Cetshwayo had explicitly ordered his warriors not to cross into Natal; the regiments were to defend their land and not invade the British colony. In the event, a regiment of exuberant, fired-up and exhausted warriors did continue to run and fall upon the mission station at Rorke’s Drift in Natal at the end of a day’s fighting, only to fall prey to the concentrated fire-power of soldiers behind well-established positions.

The humiliation of defeat galvanised parliament into sending troops to Natal together with a new commander, General Wolseley, to replace Chelmsford. But Chelmsford wouldn’t acknowledge his role in the Isandlwana disaster and re-entered Zululand with a ruthless vengeance to settle accounts with Cetshwayo before Wolseley could take command.

These shenanigans concealed the fact that any notion of a Confederation was dead in the water — the Zulu had not simply thwarted British attempts at establishing hegemony in the region but had given confidence to others to challenge the world’s most powerful empire. Within a few years the Boers of the Transvaal established full independence by crushing British troops at Amajuba.

After Isandlwana Zulu warriors continued to fight in set-piece battles, and conducted guerrilla operations. But their efforts to thwart British incursion were in vain. Their capital Ulundi was eventually overwhelmed and torched in a sea of one-sided bloodshed. Chelmsford and then Wolseley succeeded in dividing the Zulu chieftaincy into factions through the well-established imperial policies of bribery, treachery and violence.

Simmering discontent

The divisions within the British ruling class over South African policy widened as a result of the Zulu War. Although Cetshwayo had been defeated, it hadn’t been the walkover expected and the simmering discontent and frequent outbreaks of dissidence within the Zulu population continued for years to come. Furthermore, five years after Isandlwana, gold was discovered in the Transvaal, now under control of the then independent Boer Republic.

Imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes and Alfred Beit argued and planned for a more aggressive approach to African affairs, which ultimately led to a second war with the Boers, a reckless and messy adventure that exposed the weakness of British military power to European and US competitors.

When Cetshwayo was paraded in London, more as a captive than as a guest, to plead the injustice of the invasion, he was cheered in the streets and one army officer, a Colonel Dewe Wight, was moved to write to the newspapers:

“It should be considered that Cetshwayo, whether he be regarded as a noble savage or a barbarous ruler, at all events fought bravely for the independence of his country against British aggressors, and being eventually conquered, he was unfairly treated in being deprived of those usages of war practised among civilised nations, which he was entitled to, because the colour of Cetshwayo’s skin and his African birth ought not to prejudice his claim to be thus dealt with. In point of fact, the waging war with the Zulu, partitioning their country, and keeping their King as a prisoner of war are three wrong things we have done.”

And this was not a minority opinion at the time. William Gladstone’s Liberals made good use of it in the run up to the 1880 election that saw Disraeli’s Tory government fall. The backbiting and recrimination continued for years afterwards. Lord Chelmsford’s cosy relationship with Queen Victoria saved him from the worst of it, but his reputation never recovered.

Socialists should celebrate this anniversary of the Zulu victory at Isandlwana. In the scheme of things tribal social and economic structures as they were in Zululand are no romantic ideal that we would aspire to; yet the shattering of imperial power, the humiliation of the British ruling class and the humbling of the representatives of that class in politics and in the military is always to be welcomed.