Zulus vs the British: Battles of Isandlwana & Rourke’s Drift

On 22 January 1879, at Rorke's Drift on the Natal border with Zululand, in South Africa, a tiny British garrison of 140 men ‑ fought for 12 hours to repel repeated attacks by up to 3,000 Zulu warriors. This defence was rewarded by Queen Victoria's government with no fewer than 11 Victoria Crosses, and was later immortalised by the film Zulu (1964). Few, however, realise that it was fought on the same day that the British Army suffered its most humiliating defeat at nearby Isandlwana. Why? Because it suited those responsible for the disaster to exaggerate the importance of Rorke's Drift in the hope of reducing the impact of Isandlwana.


Isandlwana represents the most glorious moment in Zulu military history. The first engagement of the Anglo‑Zulu War, it represented a triumph of spear over the most modern weaponry of the day. While the Zulu would have other victories, this was their finest.


The Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879 was the first major encounter in the Anglo–Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. Eleven days after the British commenced their invasion of Zululand in South Africa, a Zulu force of warriors attacked a portion of the British main column consisting of about 1,800 British, colonial and native troops.

The Zulus were equipped mainly with the traditional assegai iron spears and cow‑hide shields,but also had a number of muskets and old rifles though they were not formally trained in their use.

The British and colonial troops were armed with the state‑of‑the‑art Martini‑Henry breech‑loading rifle and two 7‑pounder mountain guns deployed as field guns, as well as a Hale rocket battery. Despite a vast disadvantage in weapons technology, the superior Zulus ultimately overwhelmed the British, killing over 1,300 troops, including all those out on the forward firing line. The Zulu army suffered around a thousand killed.

The battle was a decisive victory for the Zulus and caused the defeat of the first British invasion of Zululand. The British Army had suffered its worst defeat against an indigenous foe with vastly inferior military technology.

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