A partial Solar eclipse now hits the camp, a stillness seemed to come over the atmosphere, and chaos reigned. It was said that it was as if God had closed his eyes for grief to look upon the slopes of iSandlwana. For the Zulu it was a time when the netherworld drew close to that of the living, a time of terrible umnyama, of darkness, were the spirits of the ancestors were said to be able to walk the earth, added to the smoke, noise and fear of the battle, it proved a potent cocktail.
“Our eyes were dark, and we stabbed everything we came across”
uNzuzi Mandla, uVe ibutho.
“The sun turned black in the middle of the battle, we could still see it over us, or we should have thought we had been fighting till evening. Then we got into the camp, and there was a great deal of smoke and firing. Afterwards the sun came out bright again.”
Man of the uNokhenke.
They Fell like Stones.
“When the Carbineers reached the camp they jumped off their horses and never succeeded in getting on them again. When they got into the camp they dismounted, made a stand, and prevented our entering the camp, but things were then getting very mixed and confused – what with the smoke, dust, and intermingling of mounted men, footmen, Zulus and natives, it was difficult to tell who was mounted and who was not. It was a long time before they were overcome – before we finished them. When we did get to them, they died all in one place, altogether. They threw down their guns when their ammunition was done, and then commenced with their pistols, which they used as long as their ammunition lasted; and then they formed a line shoulder to shoulder and back to back, and fought with their knives… I repeatedly heard the word “Fire” given by someone, but we proved too many for them, and killed them all where they stood. When it was all over I had a look at these men, and saw a dead officer, with his arm in a sling and a big moustache, surrounded by dead Carbineers, soldiers, and other men I did not know.”
Mehlokazulu kaSihayo, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.
“One party of soldiers came out from among the tents and formed up a little above the ammunition wagons. They held their ground there until their ammunition failed them, when they were nearly all assegaid. Those that were not killed at this place formed up again in a solid square in the neck of Sandhlwana. They were completely surrounded on all sides, and stood back to back, and surrounding some men who were in the centre. Their ammunition was now done, except that they had some revolvers which they fired on us at close quarters. We were quite unable to break their square until we had killed a great many of them, by throwing our assegais at short distances. We eventually overcame them in this way”
uGoku uKhandempemvu ibutho.
“When the Zulus closed in, the English kept up a strong fire towards the Buffalo. They were concentrated near the rear of the camp, and the fire was so heavy as to enable them to make an opening, and thus a great many of the mounted men escaped through this opening, the attention of the Zulus was directed to the killing of men in the tear and so they did not attend to the closing up of this opening, and thus let the mounted men out… The resistance was stout were the old Dutch road used to go across; it took a long time to drive back the English forces there; they killed us and we killed them, and the fight was kept up for a long time. The British troops become helpless, because they had no ammunition, and the Zulus killed them…”
Mehlokazulu kaSihayo, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.
The British Retired “slowly, and always fighting, up the slopes of Isandhlwana… Gradually the English on the Koppie got fewer and fewer”
Unknown man of the uVe Ibutho.
“They fought well – a lot of them got up on the steep slope under the cliff of the camp, and the Zulus could not get at them at all; they were shot or bayonetted as fast as they came up. At last the soldiers gave a shout and charged down upon us. There was an induna in front of them with a long flashing sword, which he whirled around his head as he ran – it must have been made of fire… They killed themselves by running down, for our people got above and quite surrounded them; these, and a group of white men on the neck were the last to fall”
Man of the uNokhenke ibutho.
“Some Zulu’s threw assegais at them, others shot at them; but they did not get close – they avoided the bayonet; for any man who went up to stab a soldier was fixed through the throat or stomach, and at once fell. Occasionally when a soldier was engaged with a Zulu in front… Another Zulu killed him from behind. There was a tall man who came out of a wagon and made a stout defence, holding out for some time when we thought all the white people had been driven out of the camp. He fired in every direction and so quickly as to drive the Zulus some one way, some another. At first some of the Zulus took no notice; but at last he commanded our attention by the plucky way in which he fought, and because he had killed so many. He was at last shot. All those who tried to stab him were knocked over at once, or bayonetted; he kept his ground for a very long time”
Mehelokazulu kaSihayo, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.
“Dum! Dum! Went his revolver as he was firing from right to left, and I came along beside him and stuck my assegai under his right arm, pushing it throuh his body until it came out between his ribs on the left side. As soon as he fell I pulled the assegai out and slit his stomach so I knew he would not shoot any more of my people”
“For every man they killed, they fired a great many shots without hitting anybody”
Induna Vumandaba kaNthathi, uKhandempemvu ibutho.
“Just as I reached the tents a bald headed man, unarmed, rushed out of one and tried to dodge around it, but was assegaid. I then attacked a soldier whose bayonet pierced my shield and while he was trying to extract it I stabbed him in the shoulder. He dropped his rifle and seized me round the neck and threw me on the ground under him, my eyes felt as if they were bursting and I almost choked when I succeeded in grasping the spear which was still sticking in his shoulder and forced it into his vitals and he rolled over, lifeless”
uMhoti, uKhandempemvu ibutho.
“This man had a red coat and black trousers, he had a brown hat on. He turned to shoot one of my friends of the uVe armed with a umkhonto [spear]. He raised his right arm which had a revolver in it it and as he was about to fire I stabbed him in the armpit. I pushed it in, I did not hear him cry out, I pushed and pushed it in until he was dead”
Mangwanana Mchunu, uVe Ibutho.
“I killed three on that day, the third one was a native, one of the Basutho, who was on the soldiers’ side, [he] was armed with a gun and a sheath or short stabbing spears on his back, his ammunition was finished, he and many others were then using these short spears. I approached him, he struck first with the spear, I lifted my shield to guard, but unfortunately too high and it caught me on my forearm. I jumped upon him, banged him with my shield on his face and speared him. He fell down dead and I praised myself in the name of my regiment.
There was one soldier who and alone killed very many of our men. There were heaps of dead bodies in front of him, he was taking shelter behind tow aloe trees which were growing together, when spears were thrown at him he dodged behind one of these aloe trees. We were w lot of us attacking this man, [but] when they saw the others dropped down by the firing of this soldier they hesitated, and the onward rush checked. I pushed them aside, flew at him and stabbed him at close quarters, praising myself and killing him. He was wearing a red jacket and a cap with a tuft of wool on it.”
Mlamula Matebula, iNgobamakhosi Ibutho.
“[I] Saw a little White House standing by itself and I sprang into its opening, looking for the White man’s drink. At a table there was seated an officer, who when he saw me appear plucked out a little gun and shot me through the cheek. I staggered but found myself still alive. So I sprang upon him with my spear. That is why I am called Maqedindaba [he who finishes the matter], because I killed the chief induna of the army.”
Maqedindaba kaNtshingwayo Mdlalose
“Some seized their rifles and smashing them up the rocks hurled them. They helped one another too; they stabbed those with the bayonet who sought to kill their comrades. Some covered their faces with their hands, not wishing to see death . Some ran away. Some entered into the tents. Others were indignant; although badly wounded they died were they stood, at their post”
“An those red soldiers at Isandhlwana! How few there were, and how they fought! They fell like stones, each man in his place”
“My feeling towards the soldiers was very angry for them coming with their guns to kill us, but I thought they fought like cowards; they shot at us when we were far away but they wanted to run away when we arrived”
Mgelija Ngema uVe Ibutho.
“There was just one big shout of “Usutu” as we fell upon the White men… Many of whom said to us in our own tongue, “Have mercy on us. Spare our lives. What wrong have we done Cetewayo?” “How can we give you mercy,” we replied, “when you have come to us and want to take away our country and eat us up? How can we give you mercy? Usutu!”
uNzuzi Mandla uVe Ibutho.
“I also killed a horse and a donkey, and some oxen that were in yokes”
“During the first phase of the battle our eyes were dark, and we stabbed everything we came across. But when we got light into our eyes again we spared what stock was left”
Nzuzi Mandla uVe Ibutho.
“The uKhandempemvu climbed up the hill at Isandlwana and killed a few white men up at the very top of the hill, and threw them down off the top of the rock”
Sofikasho Zungu. Ingobamakosi ibutho.
“I remember one incident I heard a lot of talk of that occurred at Isandhlwana. Near where the highest point is, one of the soldiers was chased up the rock by a member of the Nokenke regiment, who was transferred to our regiment as an induna, called Muti Ntshangase. This soldier could speak Zulu and appealed to Muti, saying “Do not kill me in the sun, kill me in the shadows” I imagine he wanted to get into a place to hide. Muti stabbed him to death. It was a funny thing that we all talked about that Muti went mad soon after. Cetewayo was told of this incident. Muti was taken down Isandhlwana to Ulundi under control and Cetewayo, who thought a lot of him, sent for some Shangaan doctors to make him right again, and they succeeded…”
“There was so much water sweeping down the Manzimnyama river that the [Zulu] could not keep their footing to stand and stab the soldiers in the river.”
Mgelija Ngema uVe Ibutho.
“I saw a white man hiding in the long grass in the water’s edge and I crept up to him and stabbed him in the neck. Other [Zulus] were annoyed and stabbed at me, saying “Why put your assegai into our meat”
Sofikasho Zunga. Ingobamakosi Ibutho.
“I saw a man on a white horse who was hiding behind Isandhlwana and the Manzimnyama… He was surrounded and I could see he had no escape. He dismounted and I saw him do something to a wallet on his horse, I thought he was sending.a message for help and he hit his horse, hard and it ran through in the direction of Vant’s Drift. This white man had no gun only a stick, and he was soon killed. I saw no-one get across the Manzimnyama, I saw many stabbed and many sank in the water…”
They Died All Around.
“All the white men had been killed, and then we begun to plunder the camp”
Anonymous member of the uMbonambi.
“When it was over we went into the tents and took want clothes and blankets we could find, and also collected as many rifles as we could. The tents were cut into strips and we left them lying there. We did not touch the food because we thought it might have been poisoned, so we cut open the bags and smashed the boxes, throwing the contents all over the veld. The oxen and mules that were left we took, but we killed the horses because they were the feet of the White men and we had been ordered to take those back to the king”
Nzuzi Mandla, uVe Ibutho.
“I found a bottle and I was so hungry for it that I did not wait to take out its stopper. I just broke the neck off and drank”
“We found twala [beer] in the camp and some of our men got very drunk. We were so hot and thirsty that we drank everything liquid we found, without waiting to see what it was. Some of them found some black stuff in bottles; it did not look good, so they did not drink it; but one or two who drank some paraffin oil, thinking it was twala, were poisoned”
“Some had a few cartridges, most of them had none at all; there were very few found. Some had cartouche boxes, others cartridge belts, the belts were empty but a few cartridges were found in the cartouche boxes. Each man helped himself… The cases of guns and ammunition were smashed open, and broken, with stones… Each Zulu helped himself to watches and property and such property as they could lay their hands on and carry away… ”
Mehlokazulu kaSihayo iNgobamakhosi ibutho.
“We smashed up the whole camp, ripping up the tents, and the harnesses and poles of the oxen. We drove off the oxen but we left the mules. We had never seen a strange animal like a mule before and so we left them as we did not know what to do with them… I took a good red coat anda braided hat, these were lying on the ground. I knew of a man who got 20 gold sovereigns, but I didn’t know what money was…”
Sofikasho Zunga. INgobamakosi ibutho.
“The green grass was red with running blood… And the veldt was slippery, for it was covered with the entrails and brains of the slain.”
uNzuzi Mandla uVe Ibutho.
“The portion of the army which had remained to plunder the camp did so thoroughly, carrying off the maize, bread stuffs… And stores of all kinds, and drinking such spirits as were in camp. Many were drunk, and all laden with booty; and towards sunset the whole force moved back towards the encampment of the previous night…”
Warrior of the uNokhenke.
In all aspects of life there was a ritual to be observed. Birth life and death had a ceremony to it for the children of heaven. Whether you gave or took life a meaning had to be attached to it otherwise the act was insignificant. War, as with many tribal people, was a metaphor of the hunt for the Zulu. The Zulu practice of ukuhlomula was a ritual carried out after hunting and it was now employed upon the British dead. The ferocity of the fighting had led some men to stab fallen soldiers as they rushed forwards but this was different.
“Those hlomula’ing became more numerous by reason of the fact they had been fighting such formidable opponents, who were like lions – for it is the custom amongst us in lion-hunting that the one who hlomula’s first, i.e. After the first stab, gets a leg, the second gets a foreleg, whilst the last gets the head. This custom was observed with regard to Isandhlwana because it was recognised that fighting against such a foe and killing some of them was of the same high grade as lion-hunting… Anyone hlomula’ing first, second or third… Was looked on as responsible on some way for its death.”
The rituals undertaken before the battle had been to create a battle fury. It had essentially made them into killers, killing was their main purpose after they left oNdini and it would remain as such until correcting medicines and rituals could reset the balance and begin to repair and correct the chaotic world that had been unleashed by the cataclysm they had just gone through. At this point the Warriors were in a limbo, they were apart from the human race, they were dangerous and to return to the normal world they needed to enact certain acts.
“After killing them we used to split them up the stomach so that their bodies would not swell”
“All the dead bodies were cut open, because if that had not been done the Zulus would have become swollen like the dead bodies… As a rule we took off the upper garments, but led the trowsers [sic], but if we saw blood upon the garments we did not bother”
Mehlokazulu kaSihayo, iNgobamakhosi ibutho.
“We took off the European’s things at Isandlwana. They were all stripped. This was done to zila with. The things of the deceased were put on, for the warrior does not want his things smeared with blood and things of harmful influence”
This practice is a rough description of a ritual that was a precursor to cleansing. A warrior had to qaqa a body, to cut the abdomen, and out on some part of that man’s clothes. He was not permitted to clean his weapons. This would mark his as a hero, he had visible signs that he had taken life, they were izinxweleha. “wet with yesterday’s blood”. For a people who lived in a land of great heat, not only was it a spiritual act to cut a body, but one that was necessary to stop the enemy dead from bloating as they would be left for the scavengers. Zulu traditional belief saw the swelling of a body as a the inability for the spirit to escape and thus cut a hole for it to escape, lest his own body bloat as if dead. Some took this too far however.
“One of our big Indunas told those men who had cut off the bearded chins of the English to thrown the trophies away. He told them the mighty Zulus did not get their strength by cutting up dead bodies and carrying bits around with them”
“A soldier had been lying there [amkng the tents] and seeing a Zulu approach, fired at, and killed him, and then made a run for it; but was soon overtaken and speared”
uMhoti, uKhandempemvu Ibutho.
“Zulus died all round Isandlwana”
Mehlokazuli kaSihayo iNgobamakhosi Ibutho.
The Zulu Victory.
Every victory is tinged with defeat. The British had exacted a punishing price for the victory, it is approximated that 1,000 Zulus were killed in the battle, with an equal and probably higher number wounded. Most were given brief burials by friends or comrades, others were buried in the days that followed as friends and relatives went out in search for them. Some wounded were taken away for rudimentary care, but the British rifles created wounds that even the most skilled isangomas would be unable to treat effectively, many died in the weeks following the victory and it is certain that some wounded simply crawled away to die alone.
This then is the story of the Zulu victory at iSandlwana in the words of the men who won it. Ordinary men, herders, artisans and hunters, some were just boys others were old men. They fought for their country and though in the end they were overpowered their stand at this obscure mountain brought the name of their nation to the world and gained them an enduring place in history. I had not set out to tell the story, rather to let the “Boys from iSandlwana” tell it, so many of whom fell around the slopes of the mountain, where perhaps on quiet days perhaps the wind still whispers their names as it rises up from the Manzimnyama and troubles the grasses of iSandlwana.
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