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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Castrioti

January 22nd, 1879 - The Battle of Isandhlwana

Conflict: Zulu War

Combatants: British vs. Zulus

Location: South Africa

Outcome: Zulu victory

In 1877, Great Britain annexed the Transvaal. In exchange for disbanding his powerful, professional army, the British remapped the border in favor of the neighboring king of Zululand, Cetewayo. By 1879, however, Cetewayo had not disbanded his military and ignored a British ultimatum establishing a protectorate over the African kingdom. In January of that same, an army of about 13,000 British and native troops under the command of General F. A. Thesiger, the Viscount Chelmsford, entered Zululand to force compliance with the ultimatum.

Battle of Isandhlwana by Charles Edwin Fripp

The British established a camp at a giant rock formation called Isandhlwana. Chelmsford took the bulk of the army out to track down the Zulu forces. Left behind were 1,800 British and 1,000 native soldiers. On the morning of January 22nd, the camp was surprised by 10,000 Zulu warriors. The Zulus rained assegai (spears) down on the British soldiers before overwhelming the camp. When Chelmsford returned, only 55 British and 300 natives had survived the attack.

The Battle of Isandhlwana by an unknown artist

Points of Interest:

  • Although a disciplined and professional army, few of the Zulu warriors possessed firearms. They instead used a short spear, called assegai, of which there was a throwing and stabbing version.

  • Lightly burdened and well-trained, the Zulu formations maneuvered at a run which made their movements in battle nearly as fast as men on horseback.

  • Cetewayo did not participate personally in the Zulu War. After the conflict, he was captured and imprisoned for four years before returning to Zululand. He died the following year.

  • The Battle of Isandhlwana is depicted in the film Zulu Dawn (1979) with Burt Lancaster and Simon Ward.

Razboiul zulusilor (1879) by an unknown artist

A Zulu regiment attacking at Isandlwana by Charles Edwin Fripp



Dupuy, Trevor N., Johnson, Curt, & Bongard, David L. (1992). The Harper's Encyclopedia of Military Biography. New York: Castle Books (HarperCollins).

Dupuy, R. Ernest & Dupuy, Trevor N. (1993). The Harper's Encyclopedia of Military History. New York: HarperCollins.

Eggenberger, David (1985). An Encyclopedia of Battles: Accounts of Over 1,560 Battles from 1479 B.C. to the Present. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

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