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 imperial federation, a force commanded by Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand in January 1879.
The Zulus proved to be formidable opponents. They were courageous under fire, manoeuvred with great skill and were adept in hand-to-hand combat. Most of the actions fought during the war hinged on whether British firepower could keep the Zulus at bay.
Cetshwayo's army was finally destroyed at Ulundi on 4 July 1879, but not before it had inflicted a devastating defeat on the British at Isandlwana.
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 with the aim of securing the abandoned mission at Eshowe as a base. 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.
Underestimating the Zulus' speed of movement and fighting ability, Chelmsford split his column. On 22 January 1879 his camp, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine, was surprised by the Zulu army at Isandlwana. The camp had not been adequately prepared to resist attack. Pulleine's troops were dangerously strung out. His over-extended line was swamped by sheer weight of numbers and the majority of his 1,700 troops were killed. The Victorian public was shocked by the news that 'spear-wielding savages' had defeated their army.
After their victory at Isandlwana around 4,000 Zulus pressed on to Rorke's Drift. One company of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot held them off for 12 hours. This was a welcome boost to British morale after the disaster of Isandlwana, but it had little effect on the campaign as a whole.
Unsurprisingly, it was the defence of Rorke's Drift and the subsequent award of eleven VCs, rather than the defeat at Isandlwana, that passed into British folklore.
Meanwhile, Colonel Charles Pearson's column had defeated 6,000 Zulus at Nyezane on 22 January 1879 and occupied Eshowe. Hearing of the defeat at Isandlwana, he fortified the post and his 1,300 troops and seamen, and 400 wagoners, remained there, blockaded by the Zulus.
Lord Chelmsford, having marched to Pearson's relief, defeated the Zulus at Gigindhlovu on 2 April 1879 and evacuated the Eshowe garrison two days later. By the end of the month most of Chelmsford's men were back in Ulundi, Natal.
In the north, Wood's column had withdrawn to a camp at Khambula. On 29 March he defeated a major Zulu attack, inflicting at least 3,000 casualties. Wood knew that the Zulus were going to attack for part of his force had run into them at Hlobane the previous day, so he had prepared accordingly. His men were well dug in and were able to concentrate their fire to devastating effect.
As the Zulus fell back, their retreat was turned into a rout by Lieutenant-Colonel Redvers Buller's irregular cavalry. Khambula proved a crushing blow to Zulu morale.
At the end of May 1879, Chelmsford invaded Zululand again, this time with a reinforced army. Despite problems of supply, constant skirmishing and the embarrassing death of the French Prince Imperial while on a patrol, Chelmsford's force made steady progress.
On 4 July he drew up his 5,000-strong 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. The 17th (The Duke of Cambridge's Own) Lancers then drove the survivors from the field.
Around 6,000 Zulus had been slain for the loss of 10 men killed and 87 wounded. The British were so impressed by the courage of their opponents that, most unusually, they built a memorial to them at Ulundi along with their own.
King Cetshwayo 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 having been greatly reduced, he died the following year. In 1887 Zululand was declared British territory and finally annexed to Natal ten years later.
Lieutenant Nevill Coghill (1852-79) and Lieutenant Teignmouth Melvill (1842-79), of the 1st Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot, were killed attempting to defend their unit's Queen's Colour (rather than the Regimental Colour as depicted here) in the aftermath of the British defeat at Isandlwana on 22 January 1879. The Zulus pursued them as they attempted to carry the colour across the Buffalo River. Despite their brave efforts they were eventually overwhelmed.
Although 23 Victoria Crosses were won during the Zulu War, Coghill and his fellow officer had to wait until January 1907 to receive their posthumous awards.
Coghill died in a vain attempt to defend Lieutenant Teignmouth Melvill who was carrying the Queen's Colour of the battalion from the battlefield of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879. Both officers were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross in January 1907.
The diary was later recovered from the battlefield of Isandlwana and returned to Coghill's family. The final entry in the diary was made on 20 January. He describes the result of patrols sent out into the countryside from 'The San hlana Camp'.
Despite having been wounded in the foot a few days previously, Schiess (1856-84) displayed great bravery throughout the night in fighting off the Zulus after they had occupied the wall of mealie bags.
Born in Burgdorf, Switzerland and raised in an orphanage, Schiess later settled in South Africa and joined a British colonial unit, serving with them throughout the Zulu War. He became the first Swiss National to be awarded the VC and the first man serving with South African forces to be decorated with the supreme British award for gallantry. He later died in poverty during a sea voyage to England in 1884.
The assegai, of which there were two forms, the thinner bladed throwing spear and the broad bladed stabbing spear, was the weapon of the Zulu armies.
The French Prince Imperial, Louis Eugene Napoleon, then in exile in England, served on Lord Chelmsford's staff during the Zulu War. He was ambushed and killed near Ulundi on 1 June 1879 after setting out on a reconnaissance patrol without his full escort. When it was recovered, the prince's body had 18 assegai wounds and he had been ritually disembowelled.
Louis Napoleon's death caused an international scandal. He had only been allowed to go to South Africa after the Empress Eugenie and Queen Victoria had intervened on his behalf, but with the proviso that he be kept out of danger.
This large cowhide ‘ishilunga' shield was taken at the Battle of Ulundi on 4 July 1879, an engagement that witnessed the final destruction of the Zulu army of King Cetshwayo. The colour of a shield helped identify warriors in battle as well as whether they were married or not. Many chiefs and great warriors had white shields with one or two spots, the young and inexperienced had black shields whilst the middle warriors had red and white shields. The patterning on the shield also identified which 'Impi' or regiment a warrior fought with.
This belt was taken from the possessions of King Cetshwayo after his capture in August 1879. It is likely that Cetshwayo had earlier received it as a war trophy from his army after their victory at Isandlwana on 22 January 1879. Five companies of the 24th Regiment's 1st Battalion and one company from the 2nd Battalion were engaged at Isandlwana. The regiment lost 540 men including the 1st Battalion's commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine.
Cetshwayo was taken prisoner in August 1879. This necklace was found among his possessions. Only kings and great chiefs were allowed to wear lion or leopard claw necklaces as they were symbols of power. Deprived of his kingdom by the British, Cetshwayo was sent into exile at Cape Town.
Cetshwayo became a fugitive after the Battle of Ulundi on 4 July 1879. He was taken prisoner in August. This stick was taken from the king after his defeat and brought back to Britain by a Colonel Bell. It is carved with two snakes coiled around the shank. It is a typical example of the staffs carried by men of high status; the snake was a common symbol representing the protection of the ancestral spirits.
This wristlet was the property of one of King Cetshwayo's wives and was taken from the royal kraal at Ulundi by Major Richard Marter of the 1st (King's) Dragoon Guards. Marter captured the king in August 1879. Originally it was one of a pair, the other being presented by the grandfather of the donor to Queen Victoria and incorporated into the Royal Collection.
Shepstone's Native Horse originally formed part of the Natal Native Horse. Mounted on their own ponies, they served mainly as scouts. The unit was led by Captain Theophilus Shepstone (1843-1907), a son of Sir Theophilus Shepstone, administrator of the Transvaal (1877-79). After the Battle of Isandlwana (1879) Captain Shepstone was sent to the Orange Free State to recruit more men, his command reaching a strength of 186. Shepstone's Native Horse was among the irregular cavalry at the Battle of Ulundi (1879) sent out to lure the Zulus on to the British square.
The Natal Native Contingent (NNC) was formed in 1878 to bolster the defences of the British colony of Natal. Most recruits came from the Basuto and Mponso tribes. NNC troops wore their traditional tribal apparel with a red cloth bandanna around their foreheads, the only item to distinguish them from Zulu warriors who were traditional enemies of the Basuto and Mponso.
Natal's white population had long feared that arming the black population would constitute a security risk, and as a result only a small percentage of NNC soldiers were issued with guns. These were obsolete muzzle-loading muskets rather than modern rifles. Soldiers issued with firearms were only given four rounds of ammunition at any one time. Most NNC soldiers fought with traditional African weapons during the Zulu War (1879).