1879: The Battle of Isandlwana

In the game world of 1879, some of the key events of our history turned out differently. This is the story of one such.

In late January of 1879, a prince of the Zulu Protectorate rose in rebellion against King Nbomani. inDuna (Prince) Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza had been at odds with King Nbomani for some time, and had never formally accepted the treaty with the British that created the Zulu Protectorate. kaMahole had set out from his ikhanda with an Impi of five thousand warriors, intent, as he said in his war council, to “march slowly, attack at dawn, and eat up the red soldiers”. A victory over the British would demonstrate the weakness of the king’s allies, and thus the weakness of the king, allowing kaMahole to overthrow Nbomani and take the crown for himself, re-establishing a free and independent Zulu Nation.

Many years before, Mpande, king of the Zulus, had invaded Swaziland. King Mswati II of the Swazi appealed to the British Empire for aid. Faced with the arrival of British forces, Mpande retreated back across the border. In the process, his son Mbuyazi was captured, and later ransomed back. During his captivity, Mbuyazi met with British military commanders and diplomats, who laid the groundwork for a possible alliance. Shortly after Mbuyazi’s return to the Zulu Kingdom, he clashed with his brother Cetshwayo over the succession. Arguments led to fights, which led to open warfare between the factions. At the Battle of Ndondakusuka in 1856, Cetshwayo’s forces pinned down Mbuyazi’s, and all hope seemed lost, when British reinforcements arrived. Cetshwayo’s forces, caught between the British and the rallying troops of Mbuyazi, were slaughtered in a day and a night of intense and savage fighting. Mbuyazi returned home with his brother’s head on the end of a spear, deposed his father, and took the throne. Mbuyazi then signed a treaty of mutual support with the British Empire, based on the standard pacts used in Europe. Mbuyazi died in 1869, prematurely aged by the stress of his position. His second son Nbomani took the throne, but given the instability of his nation, signed a treaty of protection in 1870, bringing in British troops and administrators to help hold his people in check, and creating the Zulu Protectorate. This did not sit well with kaMahole, or with several other princes, but only kaMahole felt strongly enough about it to rebel against his king.

To further complicate matters, diamonds were discovered at Kimberley in 1867, touching off a rush. By 1872, Kimberley counted its population at fifty thousand. Britain annexed the lands, touching off another diplomatic incident between the British and the Boers. The efforts of the Colonial Secretary to organize a federation between the British territories in Africa, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal Republic failed in 1875, partly because the Boers were still smarting over the loss of Kimberley. In 1877, Britain attempted to annex the Transvaal by a special warrant, based on the threat posed to the Transvaal by the Zulu Protectorate. If the Transvaal became a British possession, it would be off limits to Zulu encroachment under the treaty between Britain and the Zulus. The Transvaal Boers objected strenuously to this. Diplomatically speaking, the Boers were boxed in. If they obviated the warrant, or took up arms against the British, the Zulus would sweep in and obliterate them. If they didn’t oppose the British, they would end up like Cape Colony, thoroughly Anglicized, their cultural inheritance washed down the river to the sea. Starting a fight between allied enemies would weaken both, and perhaps allow the Boers some breathing room. When kaMahole went looking for arms for his forces, to counterbalance the Martini-Henry rifles of the British, the Boers drew on their contacts in Prussia and the Ottoman Empire, and started importing guns, which they in turn sold to kaMahole. When kaMahole’s impi marched south toward the Zulu-British border, they carried Prussian and Ottoman-made rifles as well as the traditional iklwa, knobkerrie, and cowhide shield.

Lord Chelmsford, the senior commander of British forces in the region, had set out with a large contingent, intent on reinforcing a series of border fortifications, and investigating rumors of unrest. Chelmsford dropped off a battalion at each of three posts along the British-Zulu border, greatly reducing his forces, before reaching Isandlwana on 20 January 1879. He brushed aside reports of Zulu movements in the area, saying that he had five thousand men, artillery, and the Treaty with Nbomani to put the fear of God into anyone thinking of causing trouble. As such, his camp at Isandlwana was arranged more for logistical purposes than defensive, working around the vast numbers of wagons of supplies to be delivered at the next several forts, and the herd of oxen required to draw them.

The Zulu forces under kaMahole had meanwhile advanced in parallel columns, maintaining sight of each other but spaced a few miles apart to prevent an attack from engaging the entirety of the force at once. Skirmishers and mounted scouts went ahead of the columns, with orders to kill any enemy scouts as quickly and quietly as possible. Unburdened by wagons, the Zulus moved at three times the speed of Chelmsford’s forces, and outflanked the two battalions of Natal Native Contingent soldiers that Chelmsford had sent out to scout. A few riders from the Natal battalions escaped the ambush, and rode hard to Isandlwana for assistance.

Chelmsford, outraged at the attack, immediately took half the encampment and charged off to reinforce the Natal battalions. He left Brevet Lt. Col Henry Pulleine in command, a rear-echelon administrator with no combat experience. Pulleine ignored the advice of his second to laager the wagons, reportedly saying that he wasn’t going to put the supplies they were supposed to protect out in front for the enemy to ravage. Instead, Pulleine deployed firing lines, intending to repel the enemy with concentrated rifle fire. Col. Anthony Durnford arrived from Rorke’s Drift with a small group, but did not take command, despite being senior in rank. Instead, Durnford requested reinforcements for Rorke’s Drift. Pulleine refused, saying that he needed every man he had to protect the wagons. Durnford returned to Rorke’s Drift, where his arrival with a rocket battery would turn out to be critically timed, providing the break in the assault that the defenders at Rorke’s Drift needed to turn a siege into a victory.

The main Zulu force went around the Natal battalions, leaving just enough warriors to keep the Natal contingent pinned down. When Chelmsford’s forces arrived, the Zulus fell back, lit grass fires to cover their retreat and box in the British, and quick-marched south to join the main columns. By the time Chelmsford’s troops got the grass fires extinguished and were able to move again, the Battle of Isandlwana was fully under way.

The Zulu forces arriving at Isandlwana deployed in the traditional horns and chest of the buffalo. Pulleine initially could only see the right horn and the chest, and focused his fire on the center of the enemy line. His artillery forced the center Zulu troops into cover behind a hill. Unfortunately, Pulleine then pressed his advantage with a forward movement, pulling in his flanks and attempting to crush the center of the Zulu forces. That’s when the left horn appeared, and the Zulus moved in for the kill.

As Pulleine began an orderly retreat back to the encampment, a solar eclipse began. The sudden darkness threw his troops into a panic. The Zulus, seeing the sudden darkness as divine approval of their cause, switched to night fighting tactics, slinging their rifles and moving in with iklwa and knobkerrie to avoid telltale muzzle flashes. Nearly half of Pulleine’s forces were slaughtered in the ensuing rout.

As the sun returned, the British forces took heart once more, and raised the chorus of “Men of Harlech”, rallying at the edge of the encampment. They dug in as best they could, with no laager and no prepared entrenchment, and resigned themselves to make a final stand. The chorus faltered when a larger Zulu contingent appeared over a distant rise. A scout with a spyglass, however, identified the banners as those of inDuna kaMpande, loyal to King Nbomani. Pulleine ordered free fire and distribution of all remaining ammunition. Taken aback by the sudden renewal of resolve by the British, kaMahole’s forces slowed their advance to regroup, and then realized their danger. The new forces were not arriving to support them.

Having gotten word from a spy in kaMahole’s ikhanda, King Nbomani had ordered inDuna kaMpande to take his impi and depose kaMahole. On reaching kaMahole’s ikhanda and finding the inDuna and his impi gone, kaMpande quick-marched his troops after kaMahole. Arriving at Isandlwana and finding kaMahole’s impi attacking the British, kaMpande ordered a charge. Caught between the remains of the British and kaMpande’s impi, kaMahole’s forces were massacred. Chelmsford arrived with his forces and the remains of the Natal Colonials to find everything done but for the mopping up. Word came later that Rorke’s Drift had also been attacked, by a lesser force dispatched more as a diversion, and had held out with the timely arrival of Col. Durnford.

In the aftermath, the Boer arms sales to kaMahole were uncovered, and became yet another fuse in the regional powder keg. Under Boer law, the sales were legal, and the British could do no more than make token diplomatic protests. The British command, however, now regards the Boers as a dangerous enemy rather than just a fractious lot of colonials. Military action against the Transvaal, by either the British or the Zulu Protectorate, may be inevitable at this point.

Lord Chelmsford was relieved of command and recalled to Britain, where he was given a sinecure position as a supply administrator. He never held field command again. Pulleine died in the last defense, shot through the head by a Zulu sniper. Col. Durnford received an OBE for his relief action at Rorke’s Drift. A number of Victoria Crosses were awarded to the survivors of Isandlwana, including Lieutenants Melville and Coghill of the 24th, who recovered their unit colors after the standard bearers were killed, and brought the standards back to the encampment, raising them again during the last defense, and Pvt. Peter Ashburne, a cook’s assistant who took over ammunition distribution after the man carrying the cartridge bag was killed, wresting the bag from a Zulu warrior and killing his foeman with a butcher’s cleaver.

King Nbomani rewarded inDuna kaMpande with the honor of being the first prince of the Zulu to leave for the Gruv, becoming the first representative of his king in the new world. kaMpande’s ikhanda now resides by Fort Alice, and hosts the First Zulu Imperial Regiment as well as the prince’s own impi. inDuna kaMahole was killed in battle at Isandlwana. His lands were forfeited to the Zulu crown, and his ikhanda is now ruled by Mavumengwana kaNdlela Ntuli. Queen Victoria sent a delegation to King Nbomani, which presented him with the title of Guardian of the British Empire, a set of gold armbands made by the Queen’s own goldsmith, and a library of five thousand volumes with sufficient funds to build a public library in the capitol of the Zulu Protectorate, “for the edification of the most noble and brave people”.

The British military attitude toward the Zulus shifted markedly, with troops loyal to King Nbomani being regarded as fellow soldiers with common battlefield experience instead of uncertain allies of diplomatic convenience. In the months that followed, British and Zulu soldiers mixed freely, learning to enjoy each other’s alcoholic beverages, trading stories, and merging their cultures just a little bit. The bonds that were forged in the blood and slaughter of Isandlwana led to many, not just in the lower ranks, seeing past skin color and uniform and origin to the commonality of the warrior. The repercussions of this setting aside of racial differences is still echoing up through British society, and laid the ground work for the civilian crossing of racial and cultural lines seen at Fort Alice, where British and Zulu cattle farmers have been working together to establish stock lines that thrive in the Gruv. Instead of driving the two nations apart, kaMahole’s rebellion has brought them together.

Tally Ho!