A Few Right Royal Battles in Northern KwaZulu Natal.
Article by Pat de la Harpe
Photography by Roger de la Harpe
Travelling through the tranquil countryside in northern KwaZulu Natal it is difficult to imagine that the area cost the lives of Boer, Brit and Zulu in a series of bloody battles during the 19th century and the early part of the last one. Difficult, that is, until one visits the various battlefields and sees the graves and monuments that bear mute testimony to the futility of war.
Even if one is not an avid military enthusiast, the battlefields in the region provide a unique glimpse into the turmoil of South Africa’s past and present a historical overview of the events of the Voortrekker Zulu Wars (1836 to 1852), the Anglo Zulu War (1879) and the Boer War (1899 to 1902). The involvement of several historical greats like the Prince Imperial of France, Winston Churchill and the Zulu King Cetshwayo in some of the battles fought in the area, has lent additional status to the sites and it is not unusual to see ex military types pacing out the distances between the cairns of white stones dotted around the veld, which mark the graves of those who perished for King and Country.
The four battlefields of Blood River, Isandlwana, Fugitives Drift and Rorke’s Drift provide a mixed bag of victories for Boer, Brit and Zulu and are a good place to start, as they are not too distant from one another and can be explored on the same day.
The Blood River Battlefield, situated on the R33 between the towns of Dundee and Vryheid, is easily accessible and pamphlets available at the office allow for an informative self-guided look at the site. In 1838, the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief negotiated with the Zulu King Dingane for land on which to farm. While ratifying the agreement at the royal homestead, Retief and some of his followers were murdered on the orders of the King, who, at the height of festivities, leapt to his feet shouting, “Kill the wizards”. After their deaths, several skirmishes took place between the Boers and the Zulus, but it was only later that year after the trekkers had regrouped and moved further north that they successfully repulsed the Zulu army at the Battle of Blood River on 16 December 1838. After the Zulu defeat Dingane was forced to flee, taking refuge across the Pongola River, where he, himself was later murdered by members of a Swazi clan.
A week before the battle, the Boers had vowed that in the event of a victory over the Zulus they would commemorate the day annually, and would build a church in God�s honour. They repeated the vow daily at the same spot in their encampment and a stone cairn at the site marks the centre of the laager and probably the place where these ceremonies occurred. After their victory they kept their vow to God and duly built the Church of the Vow in Pietermaritzburg in 1841.The reconstruction of the Boer laager on the battlefield certainly illustrates the courage of the 460 Voortrekkers in the face of the attack by some 15 000 charging Zulu warriors, the circle of the 64 replica wagons appearing totally devoid of any cover, placed as they are in the open veld. Ironically the river next to the encampment, that provided a line of defence on the one side and which was described as flowing red with blood after the battle, was known to the Zulus as Ncome, the peaceful one.
Across the river there is a memorial to the Zulu warriors who died in the battle, which is built in the shape of a bull’s horns. It was Dingane’s predecessor, King Shaka, who devised the shrewd military strategy called the ‘Horns of the bull’, which described the fighting formation assumed by his warriors and which contributed to the repeated success of the Zulus in battle. Their sheer numbers and their traditional weapons of sticks, spears and shields however, were no match for the guns and cannons of first the Voortrekkers and later the British – as history was to prove.
Mpande succeeded Dingane as King of the Zulus in 1840 and during the 32 years of his reign relative peace descended on the area. He in turn was succeeded by his son, Cetshwayo, who set about strengthening the Zulu Kingdom, which had grown soft from years of inactivity. The British colonists in neighbouring Natal viewed his actions as a threat and an ultimatum was presented to Cetshwayo, the conditions of which were impossible to meet. On expiry of the ultimatum, British troops invaded Zululand in January1879.
The battlefields of Isandlwana, Fugitives� Drift and Rorke�s Drift, situated off the R68 between the towns of Nqutu and Babanango, are easily explored with the help of the interpretative literature available from the site museum. To really get the most out of the experience, however, a guided tour by one of the local historians is recommended. These three battles are interwoven; all occurring between the British and the Zulu forces on the same day and were the first engagements of the war. Sitting on the side of Isandlwana mountain, on the spot where General Lord Chelmsford set up camp after the British invasion of Zululand, the saga of events which led to the defeat of the British army by a force of 25 000 Zulus becomes all the more incredible. The date was the 22 January 1879 and as the tour guide describes the battle, it comes alive before you and you will see the redcoats and the Zulu warriors locked in a desperate struggle of life and death, smell the cordite in the air thick with sounds and sense the fear and courage of all involved. Looking down onto the site of the battle below and the scattered white cairns that mark the positions of buried British soldiers, one can only guess at the thoughts of the men of the 24th Welsh Regiment as the hordes of Zulus kept coming.
With defeat staring them in the face, it became imperative to save the Queen�s colour and Lieutenants Coghill and Melville left the battlefield in an attempt to do so. Crossing the swollen Buffalo River into Natal they were killed along with other fugitives from the battle by the Zulu reserve regiments, at a point in the river that became known as Fugitives� Drift. The Queen�s colour was lost in the churning waters but was later miraculously recovered further downstream and today hangs in the mess of the 24th Regiment in Brecon, Wales. The bodies of Lieutenants Coghill and Melville are buried on the side of the hill that overlooks the drift in the river below, the site where so many lives were lost.
A few survivors of Isandlwana managed to reach the British post at Rorke�s Drift, manned by a handful of men who had been left to guard the supplies and hospital when General Lord Chelmsford crossed the Buffalo River to invade Zululand. On hearing the news of the British defeat the officers decided to remain and defend the post which was attacked by some 4 000 Zulus later that same day. The story of how 100 soldiers successfully fought off repeated attacks by the Zulus for 12 hours, leading to the award of 11 Victoria Crosses (the most ever awarded for a single engagement), certainly did much to restore the morale of the soldiers after their disastrous showing at Isandlwana. This was the first time that a so-called �savage army� had trounced the British forces and the ripple effect of this defeat changed the course of the Empire. Cetshwayo’s declaration, after the Zulus had been routed at Rorke’s Drift, that “An assegaai has been thrust into the belly of the nation”, proved all too true as the Zulu army was finally crushed by the British and their sovereignty destroyed at the Battle of Ulundi on 4 July 1879.
And so it was that within the space of a few short decades victory and defeat had swirled around three great nations and left them the poorer for it. When viewed from a distance in time, these desperate struggles of life and death seem puny and pointless, an unwelcome result of man’s greed.
For more information on the various battlefields in the area contact the KwaZulu Natal Battlefields main office in Ladysmith on tel. no. (036) 3527152.
CONTACT US TO NEGOTIATE A PACKAGE FOR YOUR SPECIFIC NEEDS
AFRICA MEDIA ONLINE MAY AMEND THIS POLICY AT ANY TIME. AMENDED TERMS SHALL BE EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY UPON THE POSTING OF THE REVISED POLICY AND ANY SUBSEQUENT ACTIVITY IN RELATION TO THE WEBSITE SHALL BE GOVERNED BY SUCH AMENDED TERMS. IF YOU DO NOT AGREE WITH ANY TERM IN THIS POLICY, PLEASE DO NOT USE THIS WEBSITE.
This Agreement was last revised on 31-03-2020.
Enquiries: Kate Dearlove
Note: Your password will be generated automatically and sent to your email address.