January 22, 1879: Zulu Dawn, The Battle of Isandlwana

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A Brief History

On January 22, 1879, the British Army got a taste of colonial medicine when it suffered its worst defeat in its history against a native force armed mostly with archaic weapons.  The British numbered about 1800 soldiers counting colonial and native troops, and were accompanied by about 400 civilians.  A Zulu force of perhaps 20,000 warriors, armed mostly with indigenous weapons (spears, etc) and some obsolete firearms (muskets) attacked the British column that was invading Zululand, resulting in a resounding defeat of the British in the area of Isandlwana. (Note: There are various spellings of Isandlwana.)

Digging Deeper

The battle occurred 11 days into the invasion of Zululand in present day South Africa, and the British soldiers were equipped with the then state of the art Martini-Henry single shot breech loading rifle.  The British also had the advantage of having 2 field guns of 3 inch caliber (7 pounders) and a rocket battery, but this firepower could not match the enormous difference in numbers and the bravery of the Zulus in the face of a withering hail of lead.  The Zulu battle tactic was their classic use of the double envelopment, a technique they likened to the horns of a buffalo bull going at both sides of the enemy while the head butts the enemy center.  About 1300 of the British force died that day, including virtually all those on the front firing line.  Of the British officers involved, 52 died and only 5 survived!  Only about a thousand Zulus were killed.  Zulu victory can also be attributed to superior maneuvering by the Zulu army and the luring of British forces into chasing after phantom Zulu forces, allowing the bulk of the Zulus to attack at the place and time of their choosing.

The shocked British knew after the disaster that an enormous effort must be made to conquer Zululand, and that effort was made, with Zululand being conquered 5 months later.  Efforts at reaching a peaceful resolution by Zulu King Cetshwayo were destroyed by the great battle.  Later battles included the famous battle at Rorke’s Drift, the subject of the major motion picture, Zulu (1964).

The Battle of Isandlwana is memorialized in the 1979 film, Zulu Dawn, a prequel to the 1964 movie, Zulu.

The star power of Peter O’Toole, Burt Lancaster, John Mills and Simon Ward fuels the film, which depicts British inefficiency and overconfidence as reasons for the disaster.  The film also depicts captive Zulus being tortured by the British, and British soldiers running out of ammunition because of an incompetent quartermaster who did not distribute ammo in a timely manner.  Also depicted is more effective artillery fire than was actually the case, including Congreve rockets, all of which results in more Zulu warriors (known as Impis) killed on screen than in the real battle.  In spite of the film’s connection to Zulu, a profitable and popular film, Zulu Dawn did not garner either a rousing critical acclaim nor a large box office.  (The author thought the movie was pretty good, if not totally accurate.)

In addition to the massacre of British soldiers, the Zulu forces recovered a thousand modern rifles, the artillery pieces, 400,000 rounds of rifle ammo, 130 wagons of provisions and a whopping 2000 draft animals.

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you seen either or both of these Zulu vs. British motion pictures?  We recommend if you have seen one, you really should see the other as well.  Let us know what you think of the films and what you think of British colonialism in Southern Africa in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see The Daily Mail.

The featured image in this article, an image of an incident at the Battle of Isandlwana in which Lts Melvill and Coghill were attacked by Zulu warriors, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewerThis media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1925, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.