This Day In History: The British-Zulu War Begins (1878)

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

On this date in 1878 the first British-Zulu War began. The war was started when  British troops under Lieutenant General Frederic Augustus invaded Zululand.  In 1843 the British became the rulers of the Republic of Natal. The Republic had been established by the Boers, descendants of Dutch settlers. The Zulus had originally lived to the north of Natal and they had migrated south in the 1600s. they were originally a small and insignificant tribe but under a succession of charismatic leaders, they were able to become a major power in the area. The developed a sophisticated society and a formidable war machine. Zulu society was geared towards war.  The army was highly disciplined and the British were so impressed with them that they compared them to the Roman Legions.

Zulu warriors outside a Kraal (1880s?)

The Boers had formed the Natal Republic as they did not want to live under British rule in the Cape Colony. They had fought a bitter war with the Zulus and their rifles allowed them to inflict a heavy defeat on the Zulu warriors. The Africans did not have access to firearms. The Zulus became the vassals of the Natal Republic and the Boers even deposed the king and replaced him with one of his sons. When the British took over Natal and also Zululand, this provoked great resentment among many Zulus. In 1872 a new Zulu king was crowned and he was determined to regain the independence of his people. He formed an army and began to form alliances with tribes to the north. The new King, Ceyshwayo refused to disband his army and ignored the British demands. This resulted in the British sending a large force to Zululand. The British had expected an easy victory but the Zulus were well-prepared and they had even secured a limited number of guns.

The British were overconfident and poorly led and they suffered a serious defeat at Isandlwana. Here some 1,400 British soldiers were killed or wounded. They also suffered a minor defeat at Hlobane Mountain. However, the British managed to beat the Zulus back at Rourke’s Drift after a heroic defense. The British began to pour more and more soldiers into Zululand. This was to prove decisive but on March the 29th 1878, the British crushed the Zulu army at the Battle of Khambula. The Zulus were forced to retreat and the British pursued them. At Ulundi in July, Cetshwayo’s remaining forces was defeated, and the Zulus were forced to surrender to the British.  This was not the end of Zulu resistance and many groups resorted to a guerrilla tactics. In 1887, the British annexed Zululand, and it was later merged with the Union of South Africa in 1910.