The Battles of Isandlwana and Blood River, South African Military Heritage Sites

Isandlwana Battlesite today

Two of the most impactful and symbolic battle sites in southern Africa are Isandlwana and Blood River, both of which involved the powerful and highly militaristic Zulu, against the British and the Boer respectively. The first battle took place on January 22 1879, and the second on 16 December 1838. During Blood River a force of over twelve thousand Zulu were defeated by an opposing force of under 500 Boer, and  thirty years later a British column was virtually annihilated by a force of some twenty five thousand Zulus.

I do not intend to discuss the battles themselves in any detail here, but rather the monuments and memorials that were established to mark these two iconic episodes, so powerfully embedded in history of both white and black South Africans.

The Blood River Memorial

The Blood River Memorial is located about 60kms out of the small town of Dundee in South Africa’s KwaZulu/Natal Province. It lies more or less on the border of white commercial farming land and an extensive tract of traditional Zulu communal land, almost as if the battle lines are still symbolically drawn. In fact there are two memorials associated with this battle, the first is that dedicated to the efforts of the Boer, now a little jaded and neglected, representing an aspect of history that is more than a little discredited at this point in history, and the much grander, some might say ostentatious, Ncome museum complex, still under construction, which is obviously receiving the lion’s share of current budget allocations for museums and monuments in the area.

That notwithstanding, the Blood River Memorial is a moving icon of what must have been a momentous day. It comprises a large number of bronze replica Boer trek wagons arranged in a laager formation on the precise spot where the original stood. The simplicity of this structure is deeply impressive, gazing as it does over the grass plains where the Zulu horde would have borne down on a vulnerable and isolated body of pioneers in a vast and hostile wilderness. The gravity of the moment as it must have appeared then is tangible.

The Blood River Memorial Sculpture

That such a large force of highly trained, disciplined and aggressive infantrymen as the Zulu were at that time were defeated by a comparative handful of front-loading muskets and small field guns is hard to believe, but Boer history tends to portray the event as a triumph of a hardy people fortified by God, and buoyed up by the quality of their own breeding.

A more believable version of the story was told to me after I had crossed the half a kilometer or so of no-man’s land between the Blood River Memorial and Ncome, where I was met by an earnest young historian by the name of Sakhile Maphumulo. Sakhile oozed enthusiasm for this episode, reciting to me a highly believable tale of court intrigue and division within a disunited Zulu kingdom led by the unpopular king Dingane. As if to make his point he referred to the battle of Isandlwana, just thirty years later, when the same Zulu army, united this time, obliterated a much stronger British detachment, proving beyond doubt that the Zulu army was a force to be reckoned with.

Isandlwana Lodge

On the site of that battle there is also a melancholy monument, or a series of monuments, mapping out the key points of a veritable slaughter that took place on that day in 1879. The scene is dominated by the spired promontory of Isandlwana that broods over the scene. A handful of cenotaph type monuments make mention of individuals and units involved in the battle, but more poignant are the whitewashed cairns scattered across the field of battle where individuals and groups of British and allied troops met their ends. It is easy to trace the progress of the battle from the vantage of the flanks of Isandlwana itself, and the route that those attempting to flee took by the distribution of cairns where they fell. A scene of utter horror can easily be imagined, even now as the grass birds shrill and the cheerful chatter of herdsmen drifting among the cairns is carried on the wind.

Nearby is the Isandlwana Lodge, a superb example of South African hospitality where those visiting this, and many other local sites – Rourke’s Drift and Fugitives Drift being among them – might stay, and indeed where Eco Travel Africa guests stay when visiting this area. And additional point of interest is the fact that Isandlwana is now locate within an area of traditional Zulu settlement, which offers as one drives between monuments a rare insight into how life is lived on a normal, mundane and human level in the back country of rural South Africa.