Zulu King Cetshwayo address his warriors at the great military kraal of Nodwengu

Friday, 17 January 1879

On the afternoon of 17 January 1879 the Zulu king Cetshwayo addressed 20 000 of his warriors at the great military kraal of Nodwengu: "I am sending you out against the whites, who have invaded Zululand and driven away our cattle. You are to go against the column at Rorke's Drift and drive it back into Natal."

During the Zulu War, on 20 January 1879, British and Natal colonial troops under Lord Chelmsford, commander of the British army, moved into Zululand and set up camp on the eastern slopes of the saddle-shaped hill known as Isandlwana (Isandhlwana). Ignoring the advice of no less a person than Paul Kruger of the Transvaal, and his own seasoned colonial officers, the British Commander pronounced the ground around the camp too rocky for digging trenches and did not bother to form a laager. Sixteen hundred British soldiers spent the night of January 21 unprotected, beside the sphinx-like outcrop. Thinking he had the camp adequately defended, Chelmsford trotted off early in the morning with half the force to search the hills for the Zulu army. About 1,000 men of the 24th Regiment (one of Her Majesty's finest battalions), together with a detachment of African troops under Colonel A W Durnford, some Natal Carbineers and Natal Police were left to guard the camp. When the Zulu struck at noon, the British were taken unawares. Some 24,000 Zulu warriors surrounded the hill.

Colonel Henry Pulleine had strung the defending troops far out around the front perimeter of the camp and on the plateau above, and the rear of the mountain had been left unguarded. Moreover, there was confusion over the issue of whether Colonel Henry Pulleine or Colonel Durnford was in charge, and about distribution of the ammunition. Hearing the sound of distant firing and thinking that General Chelmsford was in trouble Colonel Durnford left the camp with a force of men to go to his aid, further depleting the camp, and Colonel Pulleine did not withdraw his men to a good defensive position. The story about the British not being able to get their ammunition because they could not open their well-screwed down ammunition boxes was not entirely true. The sliding lid of the ammunition box was held by a single screw that could be turned by hand or by the point of a bayonet. The ammunition supply failed at Isandlwana mainly because of reasons in no way concerned with the construction of the boxes. While the ammunition lasted, the British put up a gallant defence of the camp and the Zulu took many casualties. But, reinforced by warriors from behind, the Zulus rose and charged repeatedly until the British could no longer withstand them.

Then it became a contest of spear against bayonet, sabre and rifle butt, until the defenders were overwhelmed. Chelmsford returned to the camp too late. When it was over the stunned survivors surveyed the carnage. Altogether, 1,271 of the British force were killed. A bare handful of British troops survived. Chelmsford returned to bivouac his exhausted troops in darkness on the saddle at Isandlwana where their comrades had been massacred. During the night, they watched a red glow coming from the direction of Rorke's Drift.

At first light Chelmsford ordered his men to fall in and the column marched away from the bloody battlefield towards Rorke's Drift. An impi of about 3,000 warriors was seen approaching from the direction of the Buffalo River, but the warriors made no effort to attack. Although the Zulus won the battle, they lost many men and it was clear that Britain would pour in reinforcements to avenge the defeat.

Related events:

20 January 1879 - British troops establish their camp at Isandlwana

22 January 1879 - Cetshwayo's men defeat British troops

23 January 1879 - The British successfully thwart the Zulu attack at Rorke's Drift.


  1. Reader's Digest Illustrated History of South Africa

Last updated : 17-Jan-2013

This article was produced for South African History Online on 16-Mar-2011