In 1877 Lord Carnarvon, Secretary of State for the Colonies, wanted to extend British imperial influence in South Africa by creating a federation of British colonies and Boer Republics. He appointed Sir Bartle Frere as British High Commissioner in southern Africa to execute his plan.
To implement Carnarvon’s policy, Frere had to gain control over Zululand, a warrior kingdom bordering Natal and the Transvaal. King Cetshwayo refused Frere's demands for federation, or to disband his Zulu army, as it would mean losing his power.
War began in January 1879 when a force led by Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand to enforce British demands.
Lord Chelmsford split his invasion force into three columns. He planned to surround the Zulus and force them into battle before capturing the royal capital at Ulundi.
The right column crossed into Zululand near the mouth of the Tugela River to secure an abandoned missionary station at Eshowe as a base. The left column entered Zululand from the Transvaal and made for Utrecht.
Finally, the centre column, led by Chelmsford himself, crossed the Buffalo River at Rorke's Drift mission station to find the Zulu army.
‘If I am called upon to conduct operations against the Zulus, I shall… show them how hopelessly inferior they are to us in fighting power, although numerically stronger.’
Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford, 1878
Cetshwayo, fearing British aggression, had started to purchase guns before the war, so the Zulus had thousands of old-fashioned muskets and a few modern rifles. But their warriors were not properly trained in their use. Most Zulus were armed with shields and spears called 'assegais'.
But they still proved 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.
On 22 January 1879 Chelmsford established a temporary camp for his column near Isandlwana, but neglected to laager his wagons. Following intelligence reports that part of the Zulu army was nearby, he then led part of his force out to find them, leaving behind a poorly-defended camp.
‘March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers.’
King Cetshwayo's orders to his troops at Isandlwana, 1879
Over 20,000 Zulus, the main part of Cetshwayo's army, then launched a surprise attack on the camp. The British, fighting in an over-extended line and too far from their ammunition, were swamped by sheer weight of numbers and the majority of their 1,700 troops were killed. Supplies and ammunition were also seized.
The Zulus earned their greatest victory of the war and Chelmsford was left no choice but to retreat. The Victorian public was shocked by the news that 'spear-wielding savages' had defeated their army.Find out more about Isandlwana
After their victory at Islandlwana around 4,000 Zulus pressed on to Rorke’s Drift where a small British garrison held them off for 12 hours. Although a welcome boost to British morale, the siege had little effect on the overall campaign.
After Colonel Charles Pearson's right column defeated 6,000 Zulus at Nyezane, it occupied Eshowe station, but was then besieged by the Zulus for two months.
Upon hearing news of the defeat at Isandlwana, Colonel Evelyn Wood's left column established a fortification near Khambula. His men were the only effective British force left in Zululand.
Chelmsford began preparations for a second offensive into Zululand. The same day, news of the defeat at Isandlwana reached London, and reinforcements were dispatched to South Africa.
Chelmsford ordered Wood's column to distract the Zulus with a diversionary attack near Hlobane, while he marched to relieve Eshowe. Wood was forced to retreat, but lured the Zulus back towards Khambula where his men had dug-in.
Wood's column, firing from entrenched positions, repelled over 20,000 Zulus at Khambula. Their concentrated fire inflicted around 3,000 Zulu casualties. As the Zulus fell back, their retreat was turned into a rout by the cavalry. Khambula proved a crushing blow to Zulu morale.
Marching to Pearson's relief, Chelmsford defeated an attack by the Zulus at Gingindlovu.
Eshowe was evacuated following the arrival of Chelmsford's relief force. By the end of the month most of Chelmsford’s men were back in Natal.
The British government was concerned about the lack of military progress and possible Zulu threats to British territory in Natal, so orders were issued for Lord Chelmsford to be replaced by Sir Garnet Wolseley.
The Zulus were aware of Chelmsford's plans for a second invasion and King Cetshwayo sent envoys to negotiate peace. But eager to redeem himself before his replacement arrived, Chelmsford ignored Cetshwayo's pleas and invaded again at the end of May 1879. His reinforced army made steady progress despite supply problems and constant skirmishing.
The French Prince Imperial, Louis-Napoléon, then in exile in England, served on Lord Chelmsford's staff during the war. He was ambushed and killed near Ulundi on 1 June 1879 after setting out on a reconnaissance patrol without his full escort. His body was found with 18 spear wounds and he had been ritually disembowelled.
Louis-Napoléon'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.
On 4 July Chelmsford 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 cavalry 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.
After Ulundi, King Cetshwayo was hunted down and captured. The Zulu monarchy was suppressed and Zululand divided into autonomous areas.
Cetshwayo's possessions were seized, and he was sent into exile in Cape Town, and later London.
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.