The British Empire


Shepstone crowned Ceteway king

Cetewayo (or Cetschwayo)  was a Zulu king who succeeded to the Zulu kingdom in 1873. The kingdom had been established as a powerful state by King Shaka during his reign from 1816 to his murder by his half brothers in 1828. By the time  Cetewayo became king, the British had established a strong presence in Natal to the west of Zululand and the Boers had established a republic to the north in Transvaal. At this time relations between the British and the Zulus were quite cordial and Theophilus Shepstone, the Natal Minister for Native Affairs had attended the crowning of  Cetewayo. The price of British support for Cetewayo was that he end indiscriminate violence and summary executions.

Cetewayo however was concerned at what was happening throughout the region. His former friend, Shepstone, was now part of the administration of the Transvaal -  the land of the Boers, with whom the Zulus had fought for years for control of territory on the border of Zululand.  There were seventy five Boer families occupying land on their northern border (Utrecht, in the map below). It seemed to Cetewayo that Shepstone was part of the Boer plan to steal their land.

In 1876 a huge wedding festival was planned for the marriage of hundreds of Cetewayo’s warriors who had been kept celibate until they were forty. If the women and girls refused they were executed and dumped by the roadside as a warning to others. If their families attempted to retrieve the bodies their family homes were destroyed and they themselves were killed. When the Governor of Natal protested he was told by Cetewayo that this was the custom of the Zulu people and the killing would continue.

Zululand lay to the south of Transvaal and to the east of the British colony of Natal. The disputed area of Utrecht was eventually awarded to the Zulus at the infamous meeting between British and Zulu delegates in December 1878.

The arrival of Bartle Frere changed everything

The coming of Sir Bartle Frere to the Cape Colony as High Commissioner in 1877 was to change everything. Bartle Frere wanted to destroy the Zulu nation as a martial power and with the support of the army commander in the Cape, Lord Chelmsford, the British waged war against the Zulu nation in early 1879.

When Shepstone went to visit the Zulu chiefs in 1878 he found them aggressive.  Frere was also getting reports that missionaries in the border area were being intimidated by Zulu bands. In May a Reverend Filter of a community in Luneberg, in the disputed area of Utrecht, asked for help fearing that Zulus were intent on building villages close to his mission. In July, a Zulu band of 100 men crossed the border onto Natal and took from a police station two Zulu women who had fled from unhappy marriages and were seeking protection form the Natal police. Having captured the two women, they were then killed. In response to Bulwer’s protest at the killings Cetewayo offered £50 in compensation.

Frere, thinking of the time of the Indian Rebellion, feared a repeat, but this time in Africa. Frere had spent much of his short time in South Africa dealing with an uprising of the Xhosa people. He feared a racial war between the black tribes of the region and the European - a war for the control of South Africa.

Frere made his feelings known to Disraeli’s government but was told not to engage in any kind of conflict with the Zulus. The British government were at the time having to face a war in Afghanistan and a possible war against Russia. Frere was denied the additional troops he wanted, and it was made clear that he was not to bring the Zulu people to war. In his despatches to London, Frere made the situation appear much worse than it was. Frere was ordered to Pietermaritzburg to meet Henry Bulwer and although at first Bulwer did not accept the scenario painted by Frere he eventually won him round to  his point of view.

What helped change Bulwer’s mind was the action taken by Cetewayo to close the roads into Zululand and the reports of Zulu bands massing in Ulundi. A new military commander-in-chief had arrived in South Africa, General Thesiger, shortly to become Lord Chelmsford, and he began by inspecting the 200 mile frontier between Natal and Zululand.  On 8 December, Frere telegraphed the Colonial Secretary, Hicks Beach telling his that the time had come for Cetewayo to be dealt with.

The ultimatum given to the Zulus would mean the loss of their sovereignity

Cetewayo was summoned to meet with Frere’s delegates and on 11 December, delegates from both sides, but without Frere or Cetewayo, met under a tree beside the Tugela. Over four hours a proclamation was read out giving the Zulu delegates an ultimatum. They had to comply with the British instructions to give up the murderers of the two women, pay a fine for intimidating two British subjects, disband the Zulu army and bring to an end the Zulu traditions on marriage. The Zulus would get the disputed lands on their border with the Transvaal. Cetewayo was given between twenty and thirty days to comply with these demands however he did not even bother to reply for to do so would mean the end  of the Zulus as a sovereign nation.

The Last Stand at Isandhlwana by Charles Edward Fripp, 1885

The Battle of Isandhlwana - the most humiliating defeat of the century

Soon after the ultimatum had expired, on 11 January,  Lord Chelmsford led a column of troops into Zululand. Two other columns entered Zululand, one from further north and one from close to the coast. Chelmsford led the middle column which crossed into Zululand at Rorke’s Drift. He had 1,700 troops together with many oxen and wagons. It was slow progress but when the column reached a flat plain at the bottom of the mountain called Isandhlwana, Chelmsford did not even bother to lay out a defensive camp. He had no intelligence as to where the Zulus were and when he was given a report indicating a sighting of Zulus off to the south east Chelmsford split his force taking most of the guns, and made for where the Zulus had been sighted. Meanwhile the main Zulu force of some 20,000 warriors were resting close to those soldiers who remained at Isanshlwana. When a couple of scouts from the remaining British force sighted the main Zulu force resting in a nearby valley to the north east , it forced the Zulu army to engage the British and in the next few hours destroyed the British contingent.

At  the Battle of Isandhlwana, a superior Zulu destroyed a British column of 1200 men, inflicting on the British their worst defeat of the Victorian era. Chelmsford had made a number of errors leading to that defeat and before he was recalled was determined to rescue his reputation.

The Zulu army destroyed at Ulundi

In June, with additional resources and determined not to make the same mistake of dividing his forces, Chelmsford attacked Cetewayo’s main camp at Ulundi.  This time the fire power of the British, using new Martini-Henry rifles was too much for the Zulus who were defeated.  Their capital was burned to the ground by the British.

The Zulu war machine was broken. At Isandhlwana, despite their victory, the Zulus lost between 1,000 and 2,500 men  – a serious loss of men who could not be replaced. The Zulu army had been weakened and against a British army at Ulundi  with better weapons and  deploying the traditional square formation, the British won the day.

Cetewayo managed to get away from Ulundi, and with Chelmsford recalled to Britain it was left to Wolseley to find Cetewayo. Patrols were sent all over Zululand and Cetewayo was eventually found on 28 August and brought to Wolseley’s main camp at Ulundi three days later. He had the humiliation of Wolseley taking his necklace as loot before being sent to prison in Cape Town.  Wolseley subsequently divided up his kingdom to be ruled by Zulu chiefs who had been appointed by Wolseley. Cetewayo was eventually restored as a puppet ruler in 1883 but his people refused to now recognise his authority and drove him into exile. He died a few weeks later, a broken and sad man.

Lord Chelmsford, the military commander at Isandhlwana and Ulundi

Lieutenant General Wolseley, who replaced Chelmsford as  Commander-in-Chief.

Cetewayo, taken soon after his capture

Peter Crowhurst, April 2019

Further reading:

Running the Show by Stephanie Williams, 2012

Diamonds, Gold and War by Martin Meredith, 2007

The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War by Saul David, 2005

Zulu Rising by Ian Knight, 2011

Cetewayo, from the collection of John Young