In 1877 Lord Carnarvon, Secretary of State for the Colonies, sent Sir Bartle Frere to southern Africa as British High Commissioner. Both men were intent on creating a federal dominion of the British colonies and Boer Republics. To implement Carnarvon's policy, Frere had to gain control over Zululand, a warrior kingdom bordering Natal and the Transvaal. After King Cetshwayo refused to disband his Zulu army or to cooperate with the plan for federation, a force commanded by Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand in January 1879.
Chelmsford's invasion force was split into three columns. The right column, under Colonel Charles Pearson, crossed into Zululand near the mouth of the Tugela River. The left column, under Colonel Evelyn Wood, entered Zululand from the Transvaal. The centre column, which Chelmsford himself accompanied, crossed the Buffalo River at Rorke's Drift mission station to seek out Cetshwayo's army. The Zulu king split his forces to match the invading columns.
Underestimating the Zulus' speed of movement and fighting ability, Chelmsford divided his column. On 22 January 1879 the Zulus surprised his camp at Isandlwana, under the command of Colonel Henry Pulleine. The camp had not been adequately prepared to resist attack and the troops were dangerously strung out. Pulleine’s over-extended line was swamped by the sheer weight of numbers and the majority of his 1,700 troops were killed. After their victory at Isandlwana around 4,000 Zulus pressed on to Rorke's Drift across the Buffalo River, where the British had established a depot and hospital.
Dabulamanzi kaMpande (1839-86) led the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift. Cetshwayo's half-brother, he had commanded the Undi Corps at Isandlwana. His men were formidable opponents. They were courageous under fire, manoeuvred with great skill and were adept in hand-to-hand combat. Although the Zulus had some old-fashioned muskets and a few modern rifles, most of their warriors were armed with shields and ‘assegais’. The latter came in two forms, a thinner-bladed throwing spear and a broad-bladed stabbing spear.
The British garrison at Rorke’s Drift was around 150-strong. It consisted of ‘B’ Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment, under Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (1845-91), a small contingent of Natal colonial troops, and part of No. 5 Field Company, Royal Engineers, commanded by Lieutenant John Chard (1847-97).
When survivors from Isandlwana reached Rorke’s Drift with news of the approaching Zulus, Chard, Bromhead and Assistant Commissary James Dalton of the Commissariat and Transport Department met to decide whether to retreat or defend the station. Dalton argued that their small force, travelling in open country and burdened with hospital patients, would easily be caught by the fast-moving Zulus. It was agreed that they would stay and fight.
They set about building improvised barricades from ‘mealie’ (maize) bags, biscuit boxes and crates of tinned meat. The buildings were also loop-holed for defence, but shortly after the first shots were fired at around 4.30pm, most of the Natal Native Infantry and Natal Native Horse left, reducing the garrison to around 150 troops.
When the Zulus attacked they were unable to reach the men behind the barricades with their assegais. Many warriors were shot down at point blank range and the bayonets of the defenders repulsed any that did manage to climb the barricades. Those Zulus who did have firearms were poor shots, unlike the well-drilled British redcoats behind the defences. The soldiers who were too badly wounded to shoot reloaded guns and distributed ammunition to those who could still fire.
As battle raged, the Zulus set fire to the hospital, burst in and began to assegai the patients. They were fought off with bayonets and the surviving patients were rescued after soldiers hacked holes in the walls separating the rooms and dragged them through and into the barricaded yard. As night fell the British withdrew to the centre of the station where a final redoubt had been hastily built. Fighting continued, but after 12 hours of combat the Zulus were eventually beaten off leaving over 400 dead on the battlefield. The garrison suffered 17 dead. Almost every man had sustained some kind of wound.
The Victorian public was shocked by the news that 'spear-wielding savages' had massacred their army at Isandlwana. The heroic stand at Rorke’s Drift was thus a welcome boost to British morale, but it had little effect on the campaign as a whole.
Pearson's column had meanwhile defeated the Zulus at Nyezane on 22 January 1879 and occupied Eshowe. Hearing of the defeat at Isandlwana, he fortified the post and remained there, blockaded by the Zulus. Chelmsford, having marched to Pearson's relief, then defeated the Zulus at Gigindhlovu on 2 April and evacuated the Eshowe garrison. By the end of the month most of Chelmsford's men were back in Natal. In the north, Wood's column had withdrawn to a camp at Khambula and on 29 March he defeated a major Zulu attack.
At the end of May, Chelmsford invaded Zululand again. On 4 July he drew up his reinforced army in a large square opposite Cetshwayo's capital at Ulundi. Around 20,000 Zulus attacked in their usual fashion but, faced with Gatling guns and artillery, their brave charges soon petered out. Cetshwayo’s army was utterly defeated and he was later hunted down and captured.
The Zulu monarchy was suppressed and Zululand divided into autonomous areas. Civil war followed and in 1883, in an unsuccessful attempt to restore order, the British returned Cetshwayo to his throne. His powers had been greatly reduced, and he died the following year. In 1887 Zululand was declared British territory and finally annexed to Natal ten years later.
In the hope of diverting public attention away from the disaster at Isandlwana Disraeli’s government seized upon the successful defence of the station, issuing 11 Victoria Crosses (VC) and five Distinguished Conduct Medals to the survivors. It did not work and his administration, already foundering on the issue of foreign policy, lost the 1880 election, brought down in part by the Zulu War.
Unsurprisingly, it was the defence of Rorke’s Drift and the subsequent award of 11 VCs, rather than the defeat at Isandlwana, that passed into British folklore. The artists Elizabeth (later Lady) Butler and Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville both contributed to this by quickly producing highly popular dramatisations of the battle. Butler’s ‘Defence of Rorke’s Drift (1880) was shown at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1881, attracting a ‘great crush’ of onlookers.
Public fascination with the battle has continued through books, films and video games, but it was the film ‘Zulu’ (1964) that gave the battle worldwide fame. Directed by Cy Endfield and produced by Stanley Baker (who also played John Chard), the film also starred Michael Caine (Gonville Bromhead), Jack Hawkins (missionary Otto Witt) and future South African politician Mangosuthu Buthelezi who played his great-grandfather King Cetshwayo.