Rourkes Drift and Isandlwana: Key sites of the Anglo Zulu War of 1879

Deep in the signature countryside of Zululand – undulating grassland punctuated by rubble crowned kopjies and shallow river valleys – lie two key sites in the mythology of the black/white struggle for Southern Africa. The Anglo/Zulu War in many respects was the beginning of the end of black independent monarchy in Southern Africa. It came about as a consequence of a number of factors, some political and some visceral, but all of which were defined by one simple defining principal.: the simple fact that an aggressive and expanding British Empire could not tolerate the existence alongside it of of an independent, militarily vigorous, politically cohesive and culturally intact black mass such as the Zulu. Whatever might have been the political machinations that took place to justify the subsequent de-clawing of the Zulu Nation, such an anachronism as it had become was manifestly doomed long before its inevitable defeat.

The end of of black monarchy in Africa

The story of the destruction of the Zulu nation is reflected in demise of many other powerful indigenous societies that fell to the advance of European imperialism. Some succumbed meekly to the inevitable while others fought back. In the case of the Zulu there was never any doubt that the end would be bloody, costly and glorious. This, after all, tended to define the self image of the Zulu people, who were militaristic to the last and committed unto death to their leadership and regimental structure.

The first of the great African strongmen

In many ways the Zulu mindset can be traced to the philosophy of one man. Shaka Zulu was arguably the first of the great African strongmen, who ruled by a combination of terror and personality in an age and in a place unrestrained by the rights of the individual, or indeed by any opposing authority. Notwithstanding a certain latent psychosis, not uncommon, one might suppose, in enormously powerful men, Shaka was a military genius who took an already aggressive martial sensibility, and, upon his assumption of power, fine tuned and developed it, with extraordinarily advanced weapons and tactics, into something that was nothing less than a phenomenon. The result was the rapid expansion of Zulu influence across the coastal littoral of eastern South Africa, advancuing his influence through the spread of fugitives and refugees as far north as the lakes region of the Great Rift Valley.

Most of this took place in the early decades of the 19th century, observed by a few white traders and missionaries, but not in any way influenced by a parallel European expansion underway at the Cape. By the time these two societies met Shaka was long dead and his dynasty had been assumed by his half brother.

The arrival of the white man

The first point of conflict between the white man and the Zulu occurred during the advance of the Afrikaner people into the interior, at which point the Zulu regiments were exposed for the first time to to the power orchestrated musketry. It was not until the Natal region had been more comprehensively settled, and when the power of the Zulu lay under certain understood treaties, that the inevitability of their removal from the overall political scene was finally acted upon.

The Anglo/Zulu War

That a Zulu defeat was inevitable did not protect the British from suffering a shattering reverse in the opening moves of the war. This was the battle of Isandlwana that was fought on 22 January 1879 and which claimed the lives of some 1,300 British troops and local auxiliaries by a force of an estimated 20,000 Zulu. This actions was followed soon afterwards by the equally iconic action at Rourke’s Drift where a detachment of 150 men under the command of a Royal Engineers Lieutenant defended a rear emplacement against a sustained assault by a 5,000 strong detachment of the much larger Zulu force that had a day before annihilated the British at Isandlwana, and which, now flush with victory, sensed a quick and decisive end to the affair with the killing of the few British remaining, many ill or injured in a makeshift hospital.

The battle of Rourke’s Drift very quickly became one of those imperial battles that has since been the steady fodder of schoolboy comics and adventure novels ever since. It ranks alongside the Charge of the Light Brigade for its sheer audacity, if not its hopeless  grandeur, for in fact, against the odds, and with the award of an astonishing combined 14 Victoria Crosses for both battles.

The key sites today

The present day monuments of Rourke’s Drift and Isandlwana are well within a day’s drive of Durban or Johannesburg/Pretoria and close to the town of Dundee. The area does  not attract huge numbers of tourists, and on the whole it is pleasantly quiet, understated and reverent. In the surrounding area there are a handful of hospitality establishment along the bush lodge pattern, usually with a knowledgeable local guide available to chat about this, and the whole subject of warfare in Africa, and if not then there always are a few local hacks around the bar who know much and talk no less. One of the great charms of battlefield touring I hear you say, and you are right.

You certainly do not need a guide to visit the site. There are quite enough books on the subject and a fair amount of literature available on site, but nothing quite brings the event to life as the narrative of an enthusiastic local expert, and that is what I would always recommend. Get in touch for some pointers on South African Battlefield Tours or to book a Guided Excursion.

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