Jan. 11, 2023

The Invasion of Zululand

The Invasion of Zululand

January 11, 1879. The Anglo-Zulu War begins when a British army invades Zululand in modern-day South Africa.


Cold Open

It’s 11 AM on January 22nd, 1879 on the plain of Isandlwana in Zululand, what is now South Africa.

A Zulu warrior raps his spear against his cowhide shield. Thousands of other Zulus around him do the same. Then the warrior gazes across the dusty plain, easily spotting the bright red coats of British soldiers. They are scattered and disorganized. The Zulus have caught them by surprise.

Eleven days ago, this British army invaded the Zulu warrior’s homeland, Isandlwana, where the occupiers set up camp. The self-assured British have made little attempt to dig defenses. They are confident that their superior technology will prevail against the rudimentary weapons of their enemy. But the Zulus are determined to prove the British wrong. 

Having sprung their trap, the Zulu warrior and the thousands around him break into a run toward one of the scattered and disorganized British. The red coats hurriedly form a firing line and raise their rifles.

As the British fire, some of the warrior fellow Zulus stumble to the ground. But he keeps going, bullets zipping past his head. 

With a yell, the warrior lifts his spear and crashes into the British line. He jabs with the sharp iron tip. And the British try to fight back with bayonets, but they are no match for the sheer number of Zulus. Within seconds, the British firing line is overwhelmed.

By the end of the day, more than two-thirds of the 1,800 British soldiers at Isandlwana are dead. They are routed by a Zulu force that outnumbered them ten-to-one. This conflict will be the worst defeat the British Empire will ever suffer against an indigenous foe with inferior technology. But eventually, the British will triumph over their enemy in the Anglo-Zulu War, but the path to victory will not be easy, largely thanks to the ill-conceived pretext for war that led to the rushed invasion of Zululand on January 11th, 1879.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 11th, 1879: The Invasion of Zululand.

Act One

It’s September 17th, 1878 near the Tugela River in the British colony of Natal, four months before the Zulu victory at the Battle of Isandlwana.

Standing near his horse, David Smith reaches into a large pouch attached to his saddle and carefully extracts a tool for measuring angles called a theodolite. He places the instrument on the ground and then, David looks uneasily into the distance, checking to see if anybody is watching him. David is a British surveyor, and he’s here on a delicate mission; one to map a route for a new military road that could facilitate a future invasion of Zululand.

For the last 70 years, the British Empire has been steadily growing in southern Africa, and the British want to further expand their colonies. But African tribes already live on the land that the British have their eyes on—and none are more likely to be an impediment than the Zulus, the most powerful tribe in the area. But the details of British foreign policy are over David’s head. He just wants to survey the riverside and get back home before the Zulus become suspicious of the British man staking out the border between their territories.

David points the theodolite to the southwest, the direction he has just come from. He peers through the eyepiece and records a few observations. He’s too far away to see Fort Buckingham, a British army base, but David knows a road from there to here will allow troops to reach the border in a matter of hours. Then David turns 180 degrees and looks to the northeast, where the Tugela River flows. David glances at his map. The river marks the border between the British colony of Natal and Zululand. This section of the river is a crossing point known as Middle Drift, one of the main routes into Zululand.

David is about to bend down and look through the theodolite again when a movement across the river catches his attention. He looks over and sighs; it seems he’s been spotted. On the opposite river bank, a small group of Zulu warriors are watching him with interest.

Still, David picks up the theodolite and walks to the bank of the river, undeterred by spectators. He knows he has every right to be here. But there is a crackle of tension in the air. The Zulus shout at him from across the river, but David doesn’t understand. So, he ignores them as he takes another couple of measurements. Then he mounts his horse and guides it toward a sandbank in the middle of the river. He doesn’t imagine the Zulus will have a problem with him entering the river. But David is wrong.

The Zulus step into the water and cross onto the sandbank too. Their faces are twisted in anger and they shout in a language David can't comprehend. So instead, David spreads his arms to show he doesn’t have any weapons. But a Zulu warrior still grabs him from behind, clamping his arms to his side. Then another Zulu rifles through his pockets, pulling out a handkerchief and a smoking pipe.

David begins to protest as one of the Zulus grabs his horse’s bridle and walks it across the river onto the bank marking Zululand. He tries to negotiate through gestures, sign language, and simple English, pointing back to the British side and pleading to be let go. But the reaction of the Zulus shows they are still very angry. 

After almost an hour of bickering and pleading, another group of Zulu warriors arrives. David watches their body language as the two groups interact. It quickly becomes obvious that the newcomers are senior in rank and one of them, who seems to be their leader, glares at David. But he scowls at his own men too, and the Zulus who stopped and brought David to their side of the river hang their heads.

Then the Zulu leader orders the warriors holding David’s horse to lead the animal back to the sandbank. He looks at David and points to the British river bank. His meaning is clear. He wants David to leave, who is all too pleased to obey and get out of the uncomfortable situation. Within moments,  he's riding swiftly back to Fort Buckingham.

There, David reports the incident at the Middle Drift river crossing. But the officers who sent him on the mission are not worried, because David assures them he was not injured or mistreated. This report is sent back to Cape Town and then London emphasizing that this is the kind of trivial incident that occasionally occurs between two rival nations.

But some within the British colonial administration will view this minor altercation at the border as an opportunity. The Middle Drift incident will be exaggerated, and the threat posed by the Zulus will be deliberately inflated. And soon, the spat at the river crossing will become justification for the issuance of an ultimatum, one designed to trigger war between the Zulus and the British Empire.

Act Two

It’s December 11th, 1878, three months after the incident at the Middle Drift river crossing.

An emissary of Zulu king Cetshwayo nimbly leaps from a boat as it moors on the British side of the Tugela River. The emissary waits for his warriors to secure their own boats, holding his spear straight. Then he pushes out his chest, lifts his shield, and confidently leads his men toward the British contingent waiting for them.

One month ago, the British colonial administration requested a meeting with representatives of the Zulu king. The Zulus were told that the British wanted to present the results of a boundary commission appointed to mediate a recent border dispute between Zululand and the Boer Republic of Transvaal.

The Zulus are now anxious to hear the commission’s ruling. But the British are hardly a neutral arbiter. Tensions between the Zulus and British have continued to simmer after the surveyor David Smith was briefly detained at the Middle Drift river crossing. The British are also unhappy that the Zulus have encroached into colonial territory to capture fugitives, and that King Cetshwayo refuses to apologize.

But why should he? the emissary thinks. The British know very little of this place, standing in attention in thick, red uniforms. The emissary knows they are sweltering in the heat. So to illustrate how it should be done, the emissary gestures to his own men, and the Zulu warriors squat down in the shade of a tree and relax.

As they get settled, a British official approaches waving a piece of paper and says he has the final decision of the British boundary commission. The Zulu emissary glances down at the paper. He can read and speak English, but for the sake of time, he just asks what the result is. The British official replies that the commission has ruled in favor of the Zulus; any Boer settlers in the disputed territory are required to leave.

The emissary is glad to hear this. The boundary commission’s findings are exactly what he hoped for. But then the British official clears his throat as though he has more to say. The official says that the British colonial authorities think it's only right and proper that the Zulus compensate the Boers who are obliged to leave. The Zulu emissary shakes his head. If the Boers have encroached on Zulu land, the Zulus should not have to pay them to leave.

A moment of silence follows. The Zulu emissary hopes that the British official is considering his point. But instead, he simply presents a second piece of paper and suggests that they move on to other matters. This confuses the emissary because he doesn’t have the authority to discuss anything apart from the boundary commission. But the British official continues, saying he has a list of terms that the Zulus must accept following recent offenses by the Zulu people.

The emissary looks at this new piece of paper and sees a list of 13 items. As he scans the page, the official explains that the Zulus must pay 100 head of cattle for falsely detaining surveyor David Smith. The emissary is incredulous insisting that the incident was just a misunderstanding, and the surveyor was released as soon as a Zulu commander arrived. But the British official goes on, saying there have been times when Zulus crossed into British territory to seize runaways. And for those incursions, they must pay another 500 head of cattle.

The emissary turns away in disgust. But still, the British official continues. He says that the Zulus must allow Christian missionaries to live and preach freely in Zululand and that the Zulu king has no right to punish Europeans. Then the official pauses, as though even he is uneasy about the next point. He clears his throat, before then saying that the Zulus must disband their army and dismantle their system of militias.

The Zulu emissary’s mouth drops open in shock. He stutters that these terms are utterly unrealistic. Then, he pushes past the British official and stalks back to his boat, calling on his warriors to follow. He’s thankful that his men do not speak English and don't understand what has just taken place. Because the emissary knows that the British terms are insulting, and he worries that the British are deliberately provoking a war.

The emissary will report the developments back to Cetshwayo. The Zulu king will choose not to respond to the ultimatum, letting a one-month deadline pass without comment. But his silence will suit the British just fine. Because the colonial leaders have no interest in the Zulus agreeing to their demands. They simply want a pretext for war—any excuse to invade Zululand.

Act Three

It’s January 11th, 1879, at Rorke’s Drift, a ford across the Buffalo River along the Zulu border.

Major General Lord Chelmsford, the commander of the British army in South Africa, gathers a group of his senior officers. Then, he asks for an update on how many troops have crossed the river into Zululand.

It’s exactly one month after the British ultimatum was presented to the Zulus. And for the last few weeks, Lord Chelmsford has been plotting the invasion of Zululand. His plan is to split his troops into three columns each crossing the border in separate places before converging on Ulundi, the Zulu capital. Chelmsford has already won a short war against another tribe in southern Africa, and he is confident that the Zulu militias will be no threat to the British army.

But Chelmsford listens with surprise as one of the senior officers reports that the invasion is not going well. The commander is confused. So far, there are no Zulus blocking their way and they are not making any attempt to fight back. Chelmsford asks what exactly is the problem.

The officer replies that Rorke’s Drift is almost impassable. Months of summer rains have swelled the Buffalo River, and the water is too deep and fast-flowing for horses to pull wagons across. They're forced to use ferries, but it’s a slow process. The officer suggests it would be better to delay the invasion for another month or two so that the river level can drop. But Chelmsford won't hear this. His orders are to commence the invasion today, and that is what he intends to do.

But Chelmsford’s commitment does not work in his favor. The British army will eventually make it onto enemy territory, but there they encounter thick mud that further delays them. And the slow-moving British soldiers are an easy target for the Zulu militias.

The rushed invasion leads Chelmsford’s men to a blistering defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana that will shock Britain. But the British will soon recover from their loss and defeat the Zulus after a second invasion, eventually declaring Zululand British territory in 1887.

This belated success will alter the balance of power in South Africa. With the Zulus subjugated, the British will try to impose an unpopular system of confederation on the region. But it will provoke another war, this time with the Boers, and the British will once again struggle to defeat a supposedly inferior foe. But after many setbacks and much bloodshed, Britain will eventually unite their colonies and form a new British Dominion: the Union of South Africa - solidifying its regional dominance three decades after the first rushed British invasion of Zululand began on January 11th, 1879.


Next onHistory Daily. January 12th, 1956. The FBI solves one of the largest heists in US history, arresting members of the Great Brink's robbery gang just five days before the statute of limitations runs out.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.