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Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude

Did a Zulu King Massacre the British Army?

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Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 84: Which Zulu king led his men to victory over British invaders and mounted warfare that killed a French “prince”?

“The distress, anxiety, and humiliation felt here are indescribable,” a correspondent for the Irish Times wrote from Cape Town, South Africa, on Jan. 24, 1879. Here’s the surprise: He wasn’t referring to the subjugation of the South African people by the powers of Europe, but to the British army, which two days earlier had suffered a stunning defeat at the hands of Zulu warriors on the borderland between the Zulu kingdom and Natal. However short-lived the Zulus’ victory was, the Battle of Isandlwana remains one of the all-time David versus Goliath stories.

The leader of the Zulus was King Cetshwayo, the nephew-successor of the legendary Shaka Zulu (ca. 1787-1828), who, early in the 19th century, had united scores of disparate chiefdoms to form his kingdom. Cetshwayo had inherited Shaka’s boldness, and the rout of the British at Isandlwana by his army at the start of the Anglo-Zulu War shocked the world. That it would soon prove to be only a temporary setback to the British, an aberrant prequel to an age of colonial conquest in southern Africa, makes it all the more fascinating and poignant.

Cetshwayo’s Early Years and Rise to the Zulu Throne

Cetshwayo kaMpande was born in emLambongwenya in South Africa around 1826. His uncle Shaka presided over the Zulu Kingdom from 1816 until his death in 1828. His father, Mpande kaSenzangakhona, was Shaka’s half-brother and became king of the Zulus in 1840, initially naming Cetshwayo his successor. Mpande, however, had 29 wives and, as time passed, considered naming a different wife, Monase, as “chief wife,” which would have made her son, Mublazi, his heir. That wasn’t all, as Michael Mahoney writes in the Dictionary of African Biography. Mpande also was jealous that Cetshwayo was becoming more popular than he. When it came to choosing sides, as John Laband writes in his 1995 book Rope of Sand: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century, most stood with Cetshwayo, and at the 1856 battle of Ndondakusuka, his side triumphed and his rival heir, Mublazi, was killed. From then on, Cetshwayo’s father was a leader in name only, while Cetshwayo was regarded as the Zulus’ true king. In 1872, it became official.

Relations With the British

The British, already controlling nearby Natal, had intervened by recognizing Cetshwayo as heir to the throne. But the British weren’t exactly honest brokers. As Mahoney explains, they believed their endorsement had made Cetshwayo king and, thus, their puppet to be removed if and when they saw fit. It didn’t take long for conflicts to emerge. Cetshwayo resented the British for failing to defend the Zulus against the Dutch when the British annexed the Transvaal territory in 1877, and in response, the British began cataloging his offenses, including allowing Zulu raiders to cross the border into Natal.

Chief among Cetshwayo’s opponents was the British high commissioner, Sir Bartle Frere, who thought the British had an obligation to “civilize” the blacks of southern Africa. Really, Frere hoped to forge a confederation of all the southern African territories and then be named governor over them. This, of course, meant ousting Cetshwayo, whom Frere demonized as an “ ‘ignorant and blood-thirsty tyrant’ ” atop a “ ‘frightfully efficient manslaying war-machine,’ ” according to Laband.

In December 1878, the British gave Cetshwayo an ultimatum: Hand over his raiders, pay an indemnity of 600 cattle, disband his military and recognize Britain’s authority, or face invasion. When Cetshwayo refused, the British had the pretext they needed to invade the Zulu kingdom.

War With Britain

The invasion began Jan. 11, 1879, with the British crossing the Tugela River at Rorke’s Drift into northwest Zululand (another column of troops advanced along the Indian Ocean to the southeast). The British had fewer than 2,000 troops but superior firepower. The Zulu weapon was the assegai—essentially a spear—but they had more men, perhaps as many as 12,000, Saul David notes in his 2004 book Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879. Taking a defensive position, Cetshwayo ordered his warriors to stay on their side of the Natal border. But if attacked, he was ready.

The Battle of Isandlwana was joined on the morning of Jan. 22, 1879, when the British, under the command of Lord Chelmsford, crossed over the Buffalo (Mzinyathi) River at Rorke’s Drift. Dividing his army, Chelmsford foolishly left a third of his force behind at Isandlwana under Col. H.B. Pulleine. On the scene was Frank Bourne, a sergeant in the British 24th Regiment, who later wrote:

Lord Chelmsford learned that the enemy was in force ahead of the Camp, and he moved out on the morning of the twenty-second with nearly half his force to attack them. But as he advanced they disappeared, and in his absence his Camp was attacked and overwhelmed by four thousand Zulus. So swift was the disaster that the few survivors who got away could give no reliable account of it, but the evidence of the dead who were afterwards found and buried where they lay told the unvarying tale of groups of men fighting back to back until the last cartridge was fired. … Fully twelve hundred men were killed. And by half past one no white man was alive in Isandhlwana Camp.

Including the battle in his list of 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, our old friend Joel A. Rogers claimed that Cetshwayo, “King of Zululand, South Africa, massacred an entire British army sent against him in 1879, and a few days later defeated and killed the Prince Napoleon, heir to the French throne.” Was he right?

Although Cetshwayo’s Zulu warriors did not kill every British soldier in sight, they came close. According to Laband, the British lost 52 officers, 727 white troops and 471 black troops.

But what about Rogers’ other claim, that the heir to the French throne, Prince Napoleon Imperial, was “defeated and killed”? According to Ian Knight, author of the 2003 account The Zulu War 1879, the Prince Imperial was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, son of Napoleon III, who had risen to power in France in 1848 only to be chased by the Prussians into exile in England 30 years later. There, Knight writes, Napoleon III’s “young son—also called Louis—became the heir in exile to Bonapartist dreams of a restoration.” Joining the British military, the Prince Imperial was allowed to go to the Zulu kingdom as an observer. Out on patrol away from the British camp there, he was, indeed, killed by Zulu forces on June 1, 1879!

So Rogers was right that Prince Napoleon was killed in battle, but, really, it was a stretch to say that an observer like him had been “defeated.” Also, it happened more than four months after the Battle of Isandlwana, and while Rogers chose to end his story with the Zulus on top (he even made the exaggerated claim that “Cetshwayo taught the Europeans the skirmish line of warfare”), their triumph at Isandlwana was anything but a done deal.

After the Battle

The reporter for the Irish Times referred to Cetshwayo’s forces at Isandlwana as that “overwhelming Zulu Army” while remarking that “[t]he greatest gloom and consternation” had swept over “the Cape Colony” when news of the British defeat arrived. Clamoring for a response, the Times argued that “the moral effect of [the Zulu] victory on the morale of the natives in the British colonies is likely to cause new risings, unless the prestige of the British force is recovered by a brilliant victory.”

Clearly, the Zulu king had attracted Europe’s attention with his victory at Isandlwana. And the British response was swift—and deadly. In fact, later that same day—Jan. 22, 1879—another Zulu force under Cetshwayo’s brother Dabulamanzi kaMpande was repulsed when it attacked the British camp at Rorke’s Drift. The fight continued into the next day, but in the end, the approximately 120 British soldiers stationed at the depot there gunned down 500-plus Zulu warriors. (For more, see Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Frank Bourne was one of those British soldiers. He recalled: “To show their fearlessness and their contempt for the red coats and small numbers, they [the Zulu warriors] tried to leap the parapet, and at times seized our bayonets, only to be shot down. Looking back, one cannot but admire their fanatical bravery.”

As the Anglo-Zulu War rolled on, the British, it seemed, racked up one devastating victory after another. These included the Battle of Kambula on March 29 and at Gingindlovu on April 2, when, according to Britannica, “more than 1,000 Zulu were killed. Chelmsford’s troops then moved on Cetshwayo’s royal villages at Ulundi, where on July 4, 1879, they inflicted a final defeat on Cetshwayo’s surviving soldiers. Cetshwayo himself was captured in August, and the Zulu nation was at the mercy of the British government, which had not yet considered how to incorporate Zululand into its Southern Africa holdings.”

A prisoner of war, Cetshwayo was exiled to Cape Town and later transferred to a farm in the Cape Flats. Still, the Zulu king had allies, including the Anglican bishop of Natal, John William Colenso, who successfully argued for Cetshwayo’s release. In 1882, Cetshwayo traveled to London to make his own appeal to the British authorities that he should be reinstalled as king. And he was, sort of, over a much smaller territory and under British supervision in January 1883. By then, however, a number of rival chiefs had enhanced their own power under the British, so that when Cetshwayo returned, they were ready to battle his still-loyal forces in a civil war.

Cetshwayo did not live to see how that war ended. He died Feb. 8, 1884. The cause is unclear, but many of his allies believed he had been poisoned. Cetshwayo was buried near the Nkandla Forest, and artifacts from the wagon that carried his body are displayed at the Ondini Museum near the former capital of the Zulu kingdom in Ulundi. King Cetshwayo was succeeded by his son Dinuzulu, but the rule of the independent Zulu kings was over.

In Context

Cetshwayo’s short-lived victory at Isandlwana was rare at a time when the powers of Europe were crushing the kingdoms of Africa into “a continent-wide submission to colonial rule,” John Reader writes in his sweeping, monumental history, Africa: A Biography of the Continent. The other African rulers to fall in the scramble included Lat Dior of Cayor (Senegal); Samori Ture of West Africa; Abushiri of East Africa, whom the Germans strung up for his valiant defense; and, as Reader describes, “Lobengula of the Ndebele”; “Prempeh I of the Asante”; “Mwanga of the Buganda”; “Kabarega of the Bunyoro”; and “Behazin of Dahomey.”

It looked like Ethiopia was going to go the same way. Miraculously, its leader, King Menelik, defeated the Italian army at Adowa on March 1, 1896, carrying for divine protection what Ethiopians claim to this day was the actual Ark of the Covenant, purportedly still housed at St. Mary’s Church in Axum. Though Menelik wasn’t able to take Eritrea back from the Italians, he kept Ethiopia secure within its borders, making it, Reader says, “the only African state that successfully resisted European colonization.”

Over and again, African kings issued ultimatums to the Europeans to leave their lands alone, and over and again, the Europeans swept those demands away. Why? According to Reason, even though the armies of Europe were outnumbered along “ ‘the thin white line’ of colonial authority,” they had overwhelming military technology, and when they developed quinine to prevent malaria, their advantage was secured. On one side of the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the 19th century, Jim Crow segregation was taking hold over African Americans, while on the other, the groundwork was being laid for extraction, oppression and colonization of Africans and their resources.

Cetshwayo in Film

Of note, Chief Cetshwayo was played by one of his descendents, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, in the popular 1964 British film Zulu, which, not surprisingly, focused on the British victory at Rorke’s Drift after its defeat at Isandlwana that morning. The film, which introduced Michael Caine in his first starring role, premiered in the United States on June 17, 1964 (50 years ago tomorrow!), a few weeks before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Meanwhile, in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was beginning his long prison sentence on Robben Island. “[I]t’s hard to get around the fact that Zulu features more Blacks literally tossing spears and taking bullets than any movie Hollywood ever made,” John Strausbaugh writes in his 2007 book Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture.

It wasn’t until 1979, near the tail end of the blaxploitation film movement, that Hollywood got around to making the prequel, Zulu Dawn, which centered on the British defeat at Isandlwana. That movie starred Bob Hoskins, Burt Lancaster and Peter O’Toole, with the role of Cetshwayo played by South African actor Simon Sabela.

To Americans, the colonists who defeated the British on North American soil in 1776 are heroes, the fathers of our great country. In stark contrast, many who flocked to see Zulu 50 years ago saw those noble black warriors fighting for the same thing in Zululand as savages. Is race the difference? Who knows. Had Cetshwayo won the battle and the war, he might have been remembered as the George Washington of South Africa. But because Cetshwayo lost, he became “the last king of the independent Zulu nation” while the role of nation-builder had to wait another 115 years to be filled by the man known throughout his nation as Madiba: the immortal Nelson Mandela.


As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.