This is the start of my humble attempt to tell the story of iSandlwana as the great victory it was, rather than as a great defeat. There is no coincidence that it is the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Zulu Kingdom by Shaka kaSenzagakhona. It will be told as much as I am able, through the surviving accounts of the Zulu warriors.
“Who are these Zulus?”
When the Persian King Darius met ambassadors from Sparta and other Greek States, before the Greco Persian Wars broke out, he was forced to ask a question; he knew who the Athenians were but, “Who are the Spartans?”. For a proud warrior people this was a humbling thing to hear; they were unknown. Thousands of years later, Prime Minister Disraeli asked nearly the same question about the Zulus.
The tale of the Zulu Kingdom has a Homeric undercurrent to it. Tragic and heroic, brutal and violent, extraordinary in every way, yet it is nevertheless a story in which the Zulus themselves take second stage. Though they lost the war of 1879, in that defeat they won their greatest victory, and I wondered in thinking this, who were the Zulus and what did they see? Why do we forget the Zulus, or merely sympathise with them? I ask myself; who is more out of place in the story: The African warrior or the Redcoat?
It is the irony of the victory of iSandlwana, won by a people of oral traditions, that it is the defeated who draw the focus. The British disaster overshadows the Zulu triumph. Those thin red lines, standing like brick walls amongst the whispering grassland are much easier to pick out amongst the thousands of dead African bodies, who seem to blend in too much with their native soil to be noticed, except as a testament to the bravery of the defeated.
Yet even if it is through the pen of the invader, the Zulus of 1879 speak and though it is sometimes hard to reconcile their accounts with the accepted pattern of events, we should bear in mind that the stories of Homer reached us by exactly the same method. First spoken, then written by later listeners, and to be frank. a book from the Zulu side of the war has been sorely lacking. More to the point of this post, the Zulu first hand accounts of this battle are almost non-existent online.
I remember watching the 1964 “Zulu” on video tape. I was scared to hear my dad tell me that the Zulu’s were still there. It wasn’t until later that the realisation that the Zulus belonged there. And after that I wanted to learn about their side in the war.
My lack of familiarity with the Zulu language and my isolation from their home and culture means that for now, this post is the best I can do to confirm that yes the Zulus were there in 1879, and are still there today, with a heritage to protect. So here in their words, is the story of the Zulu victory.
“Dished up in style”
– We took our chanst among the Khyber ‘ills,
The Boers knocked us silly at a mile,
The Burman give us Irriwady Chills,
‘An’ a Zulu Impi dished us up in style.
Fuzzy Wuzzy: Rudyard Kipling.
The Zulu impi is at once one of the most overestimated and underestimated fighting forces in history, popularly speaking. First of all the terminology is sometimes misunderstood. The spirit that animated the troops is often ignored and replaced by European patinas, their actual makeup and organisation was and is often poorly reported. Meanwhile their limitations are often ignored, their effectiveness enhanced and it is sometimes easy to forget that you are dealing with mortals.
Just to make my ideas clearer to follow I’m going to run through a few points of Zulu military organisation as I understand them.
The Zulu impi was both a professional and a non professional force. They did not volunteer, nor were they paid but they were trained to a high level of fitness and combat efficiency. Theirs was a form of national service, a model by which all males owed the King military service until the age of 30 or 35. It is for this reason that I prefer to use the term impi, as it is much more accurate word to describe the Zulu armed force, in that it can mean any group of men brought together to fight, rather than a single standing entity like a European army.
The organisation was constructed around age groups, from the age of 14 boys began an apprenticeship with their brothers and fathers that would eventually lead to their joining an ibutho (corresponding to a regiment) at the age of 17 or 18 thereby fully coming into the King’s service. Ibutho’s were based at Ikhanda’s or barracks, sometimes known as military kraals or homesteads, here they were taught the military life and the traditions of their ibutho. After a basic settling in the men were allowed to return to their homes, however the young amabutho (plural of ibutho) were at the beck and call of the king at any moment, they were a police, a work force and the military defence of the kingdom.
When they had reached 30 or 35 they were married off to female amabutho, who were wards of the King. The men where still liable to call up in emergency but now they had homes and families of their own to consider, and were allowed to get on with their own business. The system provided a smooth rotation of experience and vigour, and ensured a constant military force to defend and expand the kingdom. That these amabutho could and did attain certain political power and over time played a large part in the politics of the kingdom, especially in the war of succession during the 1850s, as amabutho backed contending rivals.
The Zulu men were warriors and cattlemen, crops were cultivated by the women, they were also craftsmen and hunters, their military belief and belonging was tied into rituals and ceremonies that were sometimes universal to the impi, and sometimes specific to fostering the identity of particular amabutho. Their oral history harkened back to king Shaka who created the kingdom in 1816 and the system of amabutho. Loyalty to king and hearth was everything and was exhibited most dramatically by deeds against the enemy, black or white.
Their principle weapons were the spear and cowhide shield, the famous stabbing iklwa was accompanied by throwing spears, knobkerries and even European guns. The specialised short spear of the Zulu was the iklwa. Whereas traditional spears, common throughout the country, were long and slender this was short and thick. The shields were uniform and unique to each ibutho, though this was not always possible. To begin with they were large, almost the size of a man, as time went on the shields became smaller and more manoeuvrable. The uniform of the amabutho was, at first, distinctive too, full war regalia being falls and foams of cow tales, flowers, animal skins and bird feathers all arranged to be unique to a given ibutho. Again, as time went on, this was increasingly reserved for ceremonies.
Individually warriors fought up close, with the option to throw spears or shoot before the final rush. They kept behind their shields to disguise intention and to parry blows. A shove, or a hook, to make an opening followed by underarm thrusts into the soft parts of the body would be enough. Or if with a knobkerrie, using the same shield technique coupled with shattering blows on the knees and lower legs would bring an opponent to the ground, where an overhead strike could crack his skull. Previous to contact spears would have been thrown and guns discharged. King Shaka had been impressed by guns but overall he thought them too slow, what guns they had were mostly muskets and as such they were still viewed as a secondary or hunting weapon by 1879, this was despite new trade rifles coming in. As a group the impi deployed in the traditional, impondo zenkomo, meaning horns of the beast, though the closing jaws of a leopard would also be quite fitting, however the Zulu were cattle people. Two horns on either side of a central chest, backed up by loins. The fastest and fittest men men made up the horns and the strongest and most veteran men the chest and loins. The applications are obvious and militarily speaking quite sophisticated. As a model it was extremely malleable, but in part depended on everyone in the impi intuitively carrying it through. Upon coming up with the enemy the impi would form one or more large circles, so the commanders could fire the men up, and ceremonies could be undertaken. The impi then took up battle formation, first consisting of thin columns fronted by lines of naturally aggressive, fast men which were then sent against the enemy to engage them. To begin with the Impi advanced in open order, utilising techniques of deception and concealment to fool the enemy, when a chance was observed the main impi charged. It did so in close order and very fast, the British infantry would be ordered to treat Zulu warriors as cavalry.
Often criticised for a lack of discipline the truth is that, though often sometimes drawn into disadvantageous fights and very hard to control once in action, capable General’s were able to turn such high spirited zeal into great victories, the Warriors often could and did respond obediently to commands in high stress fast moving situations. A simplistic simile is to think of a hunter with one shot in his gun, he had to pick the right moment otherwise he might only wound what he was aiming at. The Zulu way of war was like a large hunt, but they also had a hunter’s ethos about the chase, a defeated enemy was chased until wiped out.
Their limitations were in the fact that large impis were hard to supply for more than a few days, their supply system was non existent and dependant on foraging and living off the land, which usually meant looting, hence it was more desirable to fight out of their own country. Their inclination was to use close combat weapons, even against rifle armed opponents, which is of course a huge disadvantage against a steady enemy, or one that is entrenched with artillery. The population at large probably owned a large amount of guns, stocks of ammunition was problematic however, they could make their own or buy it but with no universal calibre supplying enough shot and powder was impossible. Another drawback was that the Zulu did not concentrate their firepower like Europeans did, thus reducing the skill required to hit the enemy, but focused on individual marksmanship, this meant that only seasoned hunters understood how to use firearms scientifically. Command and control was by signal and word of mouth, later officers, (Indunas) would begin to mount horses but in the heat of battle it was often up to the skill of low level commanders on the spot to do as best as they could until orders arrived. There was an admitted problem therefore of young warriors being drawn into rash actions, and unwise General’s allowing battles to commence on unfavourable terms, the high spirit of the amabutho would remain a blessing and a curse for as long as the kingdom lasted.
There is also the subject “drugs”. It has been a common facet of some histories and critics to include juicy items about why the Zulu were so courageous. It is really stunning how if the British won a battle they would just be brave and clever, but the amount of reasons that is given for how the Zulus overcame the British actually borders on insulting. For some reason the simple idea that they were brave and clever is too simple, so a popular myth has arisen from the pre battle rituals their isangoma’s (‘witch’ doctors) administered. This being that the majority of the Zulu impi ran practically stoned into battle. Not being a medical man I will largely depend on some erstwhile members of the Victorian Wars Forum (see link in sources) for my basis.
Put simply the Zulus did not have a “Battle drug” of any holistic or narcotic form. They had Cannabis, but because the affect of the drug depends on the natural disposition of the recipient, it’s as likely to mellow you out as make you feel immortal. It was not therefore practice to administer snorts of it en masse before a battle, rather individuals might dose themselves if they had time and depending on their disposition. There is a vague references to a suicide drug made of mushrooms, but which was taken only by men who wished to die in the battle. The physical impossibility of doping up 20,000 men in an emergency situation is absurd, as is the idea of doing so in advance of any military action, and as we shall see the impi that fought at iSandlwana had already completed its rituals (largely at least) by the time they came to the mountain. They did not as a rule attack in their “altitudes” IE stinking drunk either. Zulu beer, brewed in rural areas had something like a 3% alcohol level and not much higher, and it was not part of the rituals to get them recklessly inebriated. Even if all of this was so, for the Battle of iSandlwana the rituals in which drugs and drink were administered were undertaken during a 10 day period at oNdini, which was followed by a five day March to iSandlwana. I don’t know of many people who can maintain a fifteen day high or indeed buzz. The impi was a much more disciplined force than many think, focused on the hunt, and operational control was hard enough without everybody thinking they were supermen.
Though often overestimated there is no doubt that against both traditional and foreign enemies the impi was a formidable fighting machine. Indeed iSandlwana marked only one of a series of British reverses in kwaZulu. At Eshowe, a siege much more prolonged and dangerous than Rorkes Drift occurred, which saw the British right column become utterly isolated until Lord Chelmsford resumed his advance later in the year. At iNtombe in March a portion of the 90th foot was wiped out by a sudden dawn attack and at Hlobane General Wood’s advance Guard was repulsed in no uncertain fashion. It beggars the imagination, given what they accomplished against the British, what they could have done had they had time to fully modernise their weaponry of been left to themselves. Nevertheless one of the key elements to a successful fighting force is to fight in a way that makes the enemy uncomfortable, and as we shall see, given the right opportunity the Zulus could certainly do that.
(Note. Due to the fact that most Zulu accounts are held in obscure newspaper archives, little known books and academic libraries, I am forced more or less to draw on the quoted passages in the books I own in the following posts.)
The Zulus: Ian Knight.
Zulu Rising: Ian Knight.
The Zulu War: Angus McBride.
The National Army Museum Book of the Zulu War: Ian Knight.
The Washing of the Spears: Donald R Morris.
Zulu Warriors: John Laband.
History of the Zulu war and its origin;. London, Colenso, Frances E. (Frances Ellen), 1849-1887. 1880.
Zulu Kings and their Armies, By Diane Canwell