A road to iSandlwana

Research is something I do. Sometimes for no reason. And that is the best way I can explain the following post. If you are interested in the Anglo Zulu War of 1879 then I’m sure you will be interested. If you’ve never heard of it, you will likley have more questions to ask than are answered.

 Last year around the time of the iSandlwana anniversary I happened to comment on a tweet regarding the British advance into Zululand prior to the battle. The stream had in broad terms described the crossing of the Mzinyathi (What European’s call the Buffalo) river and the subsequent activities of number 3 column under command of Lieutenant General Lord Chelmsford, and would go on to outline the “Parallels” with Custer’s last stand and iSandlwana, (Just the usual similarities). I have a grave dislike for the word “parallel” when used in conjunction to events of historical importance, separated by continents and cultures, but that’s another story.

I noticed that the author had left out two facts that I remembered Ian Knight writing about in his excellent National Army Museum book of the Zulu War. Namely that the weather was or had been bad, and that the roads where bad too, slowing down the column. I had read the book twice and was fairly confident, even though I did not have it to hand, of commenting about this to deepen the picture. The reply I got was rather interesting, in that it rather tartly said that there where “no roads, the Engineer corps had to build them” though he did not make any argument about the weather, a point which I was sure of.

Nevertheless I was confused, and wished I had my book nearby, but I conceded the point, it seemed logical when I thought about it, the Zulu did not build roads plain and simple, and though I toyed with rejoining with a comment about them at least having beaten tracks from major river crossings and routes, (cattlemen as they where could not fail to leave some kind of trail), but it seemed a little petty and awkward in 140 characters, for a trail is not a road and these could have been upgraded by the Engineers so I let it lie.

Then later in the true spirit of esprit de escalier, the thought occurred to me, even if the Royal Engineers had to make a road over a cattle or wagon track or out of the virgin grassland, the quality would hardly be that of a turnpike would it, the road would still be bad would it not?

 The memory was stirred by my reading Zulu Rising by Ian Knight and with these things in mind I picked up the National Army Museum volume and flicked through it. In the familiar passages I found that he does not make mention of the Engineers “Building roads.”

In two places near the beginning he talks of and uses the word roads. First he quotes an officer complaining of the bad roads due to recent rain on the Natal side. Then once the column has crossed, he references James Rorke “Pioneering” a road towards iSandlwana that Chelmsford used to raid the surrounding area. A little later on he says that despite the Engineers best efforts the wagon tracks were too muddy to make much headway and then instantly talks of a road again.

In Zulu Rising he has Definitely said the there where roads on the Natal/Transvaal side of the Mzinyathi and that indeed the three offensive columns were following well worn tracks at often used entry points into Zululand, however the website British Battles specifically states that there where no roads, but what is also significant is that the British writing home seem to constantly be referring to roads. (IE the day before they crossed the Mzinyathi an officer tells of exploring roads on the Zulu side)


So this leads me to believe the following:


A rough outline of the course of the road from Rorke's Drift.
A rough outline of the course of the road from Rorke’s Drift. Map from Google Maps.

1: The “roads” on the Zulu side where actually well worn relatively wide dirt tracks, that where most evident at the crossing points and at the Homesteads and petering out in between, (looking in part perhaps like drover’s roads in Scotland or wide public rights of way). They formed over well used trade routes and entry points, some had been deliberately made by people like Jim Rorke, who put a road out from his border post at Rorke’s Drift (The Zulu called it kwaJim “Jim’s Place”) in the valley of the Mzinyathi to cross the Batshe river that flowed into the Mzinyathi from the North. But others appeared out of the grass over time with the passage of countless cattle herds and the wheels of traders’ wagons, raiders, hunters, and a few armies now and again. This is specifically born out by an officer who wrote that work parties of the 24th Foot where used to repair the road “A rough wagon track”

2: The bad January weather had indeed turned these tracks into mud during the 1879 British invasion of Zululand.

3: Due to the bad weather the Engineers (and Natal Native Pioneers NNP, and work parties) did their best to shore up the way ahead through the Batshe valley during the pause between the 12th and 20th of January, and during the march to iSandlwana, indeed on the day of the battle the when Lt Gen Lord Chelmsford sent back to Col Pulleine (24th Regiment) to strike camp and join him, the senior Engineer officer began to ride back to supervise the work that needed done on the road, inferring the wagon track continued out from iSandlwana. This is born out by another officer wrote that during the battle as the impi rushed the camp, he saw the Zulus driving cattle before them along the “road” that lead between iSandlwana Hill and the kopje (solitary hill or outcrop). After consulting some maps I think this cannot be any other than the one called Mahlabamkhosi, which the Zulu witnesses refer to as the Kopje too. Most battle maps have this road trailing off to the east. At any rate they where continually having to dig the wagons out and repair the wagons at the rear in field smithy’s. Chelmsford speaks of needing the roads being made workable after crossing but much of the repair also seems to have taken place on the Natal side to speed up supplies, and it is therefore Likely the roads where built up in the wake of the column for this purpose.

 As a final note I am convinced to within a reasonable margin of doubt that there was a rough hewn road from Rorkes Drift to the river Batshe, which became little more than a rutted wagon wheel track from there to iSandlwana and then on to the principle homestead and nearest mission station.


0 Replies to “A road to iSandlwana”

  1. history is very much about getting the facts and getting them right – research and investigation are the only way – great article – inspires to dig deeper.

  2. An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment.
    I think that you should write more about this issue, it may not be a taboo subject but generally people do
    not discuss such issues. To the next! Many thanks!!

Leave a Comment

Discover more from Adventures In Historyland

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading