We continue our journey to see the Battle of iSandlwana as the Zulu’s saw it with the testimonies of the men themselves:
Royal Kraal 8th January 17th January 1879.
For days trails of warriors had been arriving at the royal homestead at kwaNodwengu, just across the plain from the Capitol of oNdini. The deep resonant songs they were singing identified them as specific amabutho, marching with the telltale swish of long grass to join the main impi at the Kings residence. The great cattle pens inside the wheels of encircling huts, were empty, the livestock having been driven out for the coming ceremonies. They dominated the landscape of grassy hills for miles around. The excitement at the homestead was palatable, emotion lying close to the surface. War had come to kwaZulu, faced with impossible British demands, resulting from the irreconcilable violation of colonial territory and Zulu law, King Cetshwayo kaMpande faced the inevitable and called in his troops. Once the impi had been mustered, preparations were made.
Unlike in the great Shaka’s time most of the young troops were carrying throwing spears with their iklwa and smaller umbhumbhulozi war shield, the older men retained their larger isihlangu. The shields were no longer uniform, the comparative lack of available cattle precluded the totally regimented matching of hides of old. Many of the izinduna were on horses. Another difference was firearms, there may well have been over 20,000 musket and rifles in Zululand, but bullets would need to be made and the caliber varied. The King believed in the power of guns and after his troops arrived at the homestead the King had inspected the guns of the amabutho. It was predictable that the older men would have the most guns, therefore the younger the regiment, the fewer there were. The youngest was the uVe, they had been asked by the King after arriving:
“‘Lift up your guns” we did so “So there are no guns?” Each man with a beast from his place must bring it up next day and buy guns from (John) Dunn’.” (Dun was a white entrepreneur who sold arms to the Zulus, and married many of the local women, Cetshwayo considered him an induna, but he was a former enemy of the King and was eventually forced to side with the British anyway).
Mpashana kaSodondo uVe ibutho.
Having ascertained the state of their equipment, the business of spiritual and mental preparation began. At a series of deep holes dug where the Ntukwini stream joins the Mfolozi Mhlope, the amabutho gathered. Squatting down on the hills, creating an amphitheatrical sense of spectacle. Cleansing rituals were being carried out by isangomas below, to prepare the impi for battle.
“Two, three or four may go up to this hole at one time. There is naturally a desire to finish quickly, and have done with the vomiting, but the doctors will not allow crowding. These two of them, stand either side of the hole and see that everyone conforms to his instructions. Here and there a stick may be used on men who have merely pretended to drink the medicated water and therefore are unable to vomit into the hole as required. And so the vomiting goes on practically all day long.”
Mpashana kaSodondo uVe ibutho
The induced vomiting emptied the body of impurities, but cleansing over 25,000 men took time. Once it was over twists of grass were then dipped into each hole and the grass was bound into the sacred grass coil called inkatha yesizwe, the symbol of the nation. The reward for enduring this unpleasant ordeal was to face a black bull from the royal herd held at kwaNodwengu. Each ibutho was required to wrestle and kill one with their bare hands in the cattle pen, the meat was then cooked, cut in strips and smeared with medicine which the presiding isangoma then distributed by tossing them into the air. The men were to catch them chew the end and throw back in the air for others to do the same.
“… many of the troops are extremely hungry and even evacuated [and] they sometimes swallowed the piece bitten off, although it is quite contrary to custom and requirement to do so… It not infrequently that forbidden [dropped] meat was picked up and consumed during the excitement going on round about… During the eating of the meat-strips ceremony, several of the half starving and weak men may be seen to fall forward fainting on account of the exertion and heat caused through being in the midst of so large a concourse violently contending for the meat strips. These will perhaps pitch forward, shield and assegais falling clattering from them, and thereafter be helped by their friends or relations to some place were they can recover”
Mpashana kaSodondo uVe ibutho
The second trial was the ukuxoxa, “Challenge”, designed to turn the natural rivalry of the amabutho into fighting spirit.
“A man of the Ngobamakosi lot got up and shouted “I shall surpass you, son of so-and-so. If you stab a whiteman before mine has fallen, you may take the kraal of our people at such-and-such a place… You may take my sister, so-and-so” having said this he will then start leaping about (giya’ing) with his small dancing shield and stick (for assegais are not carried on such occasion in the presence of the King, for it is feared that the troops may stab one another with them). The other who has been addressed may now get up and say “Well, if you can do better than I do, you will take our kraal… And my sister” he will then giya. Whilst the giya’ing goes on, he is praised by those of his regiment, and if a man happens to be known by the king and trusted by the king, the king will hold out his arm towards him, pointing the first two fingers at him, and shaking them and that hand approvingly”
Mehlokazulu kaSihayo, iNgobamakosi ibutho.
The wagers were not important, but by speaking out these men aspired to be abaqawe, hero, and after the fighting the King would ask the izinduna (plural of induna, leader officer) whether they had lived up to their boasting. This Homerically nuanced event, replete with dancing and singing, could have deeply shameful results if a man failed to live up to his boasts, but it fostered a courageous fighting spirit, a sense of do or die.
The last trial required the army was to form a umkhumbi, circle. In the centre the isangoma had cooked up more medicines, which they boiled in a pot.
“I have noticed, the stuff burnt in the circle of men smelling like flesh, without thinking what flesh it could be”
Mpashana kaSodondo uVe ibutho.
The troops were to jog past the isangoma in a line, who would use cow or gnu tails to splatter them with the magical contents of the pot, and thus prepared it was done. The entire process had been a trial, spent some days without food, others with the gift of beef and beer, undertaking stressful and strenuous tasks in the hot sun and dust. At the end the army was part keyed up and part drained from physical and mental exhaustion. The impi was now psychologically and spiritually cut off from everyday life and we’re now existing in a sort of garrulous trance, the coming battle was all they were living for now, through the medicines and magic they had entered a sort of warriors paradise, and release would come only when they had killed.
As the rituals were reaching their peak, the British had invaded kwaZulu and burned Chief Sihayo’s homestead on the Buffalo River. King Cetchwayo’orders to his commanders before they left oNdini were clear. “I told Tsingwayo who was at the head of these troops not to go and attack the English at once, but to have a conference and then send some Chiefs and ask the English why they were laying the country waste and killing Zulus“.
The council had chosen nTsingwayo kaMahole to command the army, and he was strictly ordered only to defend the King’s territory and not by any means to cross the border into Natal. The King appointed a trusted deputy to report on his performance. At the end of the ceremonies which took about ten days, the king had decided on a strategy and mustered the entire impi at kwaNodwengu in a great umkhumbi on the 17th.
“He [Cetshwayo] then gave Tsingwayo orders to use his own discretion and attack the English wherever he thought proper [Indicating clearly that Ntsingwayo was at liberty to attack as and when he thought fit]…”
Meholokazulu kaSihayo iNgobamakosi ibutho.
“He told us, that he wanted certain regiments to go and eat up the White men at Isandhlwana. The first one [ibutho] he pulled out was the Unokenke, the next was the Ukandempemvu, then came the Indhluyengwe, who were followed by the Umbonambi, the Ingobamakosi the Uve and the Udhloko”
Mhlahlana Ngune uKhandempemvu ibutho.
“I am sending you out against the whites who have invaded Zululand and driven away your cattle. You are to go against the column at Rorkes Drift and drive it back to Natal… You will attack by daylight as there are enough of you to eat it up, and you will march slowly so as not to tire yourselves…
I have not gone over the seas to look for the White man, yet they have come into my country and I would not be surprised if they took away our wives and cattle and crops and land. What shall I do? I have nothing against the White man and cannot tell why they come to me. What shall I do?”
King Cetshwayo kaMapande. (Reported by a deserter of the uNokhenke, and Mahlahlana Ngune)
“Give the matter to us, we replied, we will go and eat up the White men and finish them off. They are not going to take you while we are here. They must take us first… We, the chosen ones, sang loudly, saying Cetewayo, Zulu, Ndabezita, Gumede, you are the little mealie cob that puts out the fire started by Mantshonga and Ngelebana. You are the bow legged one who, on account of his legs, can baffle the police. You are the stalk that grows by itself at Nhlungwana, while other stems grow in larger clusters. You are the one who turns his back on the Ulundian the Drakensberg mountains. Bayete!”
Mahlahlana Ngune uKhandempemvu ibutho.
The great royal impi marched out performing a giya and singing their individual war songs. Singing and dancing were as much a part of the ceremonies as anything, all ceremonial rituals were built around the uniting power of voices and movement all doing the same thing, the shrill accompaniment of the women imparting courage and valour as they marched out of the cattle pen and towards the south, seeming:
“to stretch from there right to the sea”
The March to iSandlwana, 17th to 21st January 1879.
Like many national service armies heading out to war, the Zulus believed that the fighting:
“Would take a single day”
Mshapi kaNoradu uKhandempenvu
They had better reason than most the think this way. Zulu campaigns were usually short in duration, dependant on rapid marches and quick victories, however while this was possible in Shaka’s wars of expansion, a widening empire put more burdens on the supply system, and rations of amasi (curdled milk) pumpkin, sweet potatoes and maize ran out quickly. Putting strain on local populations. Many of the young udibi, boys over 14 serving as assistants to relatives carrying equipment, were still with them even though they would normally have gone home after the first day, most of the girls had indeed left for home however.
“As we went the people hid their food and fled with their cattle, into the most inaccessible places. Nevertheless, we managed to get at them, and fed. Our path was known by the cattle bones which strewed it, by the remains of dishes and corn, and here and there a body. What people were they, say you? Why our own people – the Zulus”
Unidentified Zulu witness.
Meat was a precious commodity to cattlemen like the Zulu, and not usually eaten every day, however witnesses testify to meat being consumed fairly regularly during the iSandlwana campaign, the passage of the army, dependant on local food stores and the proximity of streams and rivers for survival, therefore was having a dramatic effect on the prosperity of local regions.
“We accordingly left Nodwengu late in the afternoon, and marched in column to the west bank of the White Umfolosi, about six miles distant, where we bivouacked for the night. Next day we marched to the Isipezi military kraal, about nine miles off, where we slept and on the 19th we ascended to the table-land near the Isihlungu hills, a march of about equal duration with that of the day previous. On this day the army, which had hitherto been marching in single column, divided into two, marching parallel to and within sight of each other… under the command of Tyingwayo, the other commanded by Mavumingwana… ”
Testimony of a deserter of the uNokhenke ibutho.
Alert Scouts who knew the ground were sent ahead now and the army rested at Babanango, then marched on the 20th on towards Siphezi mountain. It had begun to rain heavily, and storms broke over the timeless landscape with typical tropical force. The impi huddled together in the darkness, amongst the damp grass against the banks of sheltered stream beds, as much for shelter as to be assured of fresh water the next day.
There were a few mounted men belonging to the chief Usirayo, who were made use of as scouts. On the 20th we moved across the open country and slept by the Isipezi hill.
The commander of the main army, nTsingwayo marched on foot, he was a traditionalist and was determined to fight in the way his ancestors had. The British had been moving up from the Buffalo on the 20th, the local population of the omaQunebengi fled before them, and desperately hoped for the appearance of the royal impi from oNdini, for these refugees caught between the two armies some had decisions had to be made. They could surrender to the British, or hope the Kings men ate them up, but if the red soldiers guns proved too strong then where would they be?
The army lit their fires and camped behind the slopes behind Mdutshana and by the 21st they had arrived at the deep Ngwebeni valley and and settled down along the misty banks of the stream. Though foragers brought in meat, fires were quickly ordered extinguished, making it an uncomfortable night for all.
“Mahaweni” (Place of the War shields) Ngwebeni valley 21 January 1879.
We saw a body of mounted white men on this day to our left (a strong reconnaissance was made on the 20th, to the west of the Isipezi hill, which was probably the force here indicated).
“On our way there we saw about ten mounted men who were the advance party of the English, and we knew that they saw us too… Orders were given to hide ourselves so that the English would not know how many we were.”
Nzuzi Mandla uVe ibutho.
“On the 21st, keeping away to the eastward, we occupied a valley running north and south under the spurs of the Ngutu hill, which concealed the Isandlana hill, distant from us about four miles, and nearly due west of our encampment. We had been well fed during our whole march, our scouts driving in cattle and goats, and on that evening we lit our camp-fires as usual. Our scouts also reported to us that they had seen the vedettes of the English force at sunset on some hills west-south-west of us (Lord Chelmsford with some of his staff rode up in this direction, and about this time, and saw some of the mounted enemy).”
Testimony of a deserter of the uNokhenke.
No one was particularly worried however.
“No orders were given at all. It was not our day. Our day was the following one; We had not planned to attack on the day of the new moon. Our intention was to attack the camp the following day at dawn,”
Meholokazulu kaSihayo, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.
“We arrived… 8 regiments strong (20,000 25,000) and slept in the valley of a small stream which runs into the Nondweni River to the east of Sandhlwana… It was our intention to have rested for a day in the valley were we arrived the night before the battle”
Uguku. Kandampenvu ibutho.
“On the 21st keeping away to the eastward, we occupied a valley running North and South under the Spurs of the Ngutu hill which concealed the Isandlana Hill, distant from us about four miles, and nearly due west of our encampment… On the morning of the 22nd of January there was no intention whatever of making any attack, on account of an superstition regarding the moon”
Mhlahlana Ngune uKhandempemvu ibutho
This superstition was tied up with the Zulu belief in the power of celestial beings and weather, also of darkness. What became known as the day of the dead moon, is more specifically identified as the fear of umnyama.
“Umnyama is what affects an impi as a whole, it brings darkness onto them whilst it is light on the side of their assailants. And this word darkness is used also in a metaphorical sense, for it means anything that may overtake or come on the enemy, either physical darkness, paralysis of action inspired by fear, oversleeping themselves, futility or stupidity of plan when engaging their assailants, being overtaking by a mist whilst it is clear for their foes, etc… Moon dying. Attack not to be that very day. It is a time of umnyama…”
Mpashana kaSodondo uVe ibutho.
(For sources, please see part 1.) https://adventuresinhistoryland.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/isandlwana-the-zulu-victory-part-1/
Thanks for reading. See you again for another Adventure in Historyland.