top of page

The Highlights of the Anglo-Zulu War

One of the most fascinating stories to hear when travelling to a foreign land is the rich history and heritage the country possesses. For people travelling to South Africa, one interesting topic is when and how European settlers first set foot in the land and their interactions with the locals.

For South Africa and its people, the past is not a smooth sailing one as it was filled with wars and conflicts. One of the most historic conflicts that occurred was the Anglo-Zulu War between the British military and the Zulus, a nation of people in KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa.

To learn more about what happened during this period, here are some of the notable highlights of the Anglo-Zulu war in a timeline format.


The Dutch, led Jan van Riebeeck, founded a colony in South Africa. At first, the Dutch people who were referred to as Boers, traded with the native people but they eventually faced conflict. The first war was fought in 1658, which was only the first of many wars.


The British captured Cape Colony but returned it back to the Dutch in 1803. They took it again in 1806.


Approximately 4,000 British settlers arrived in South Africa from April to June 1820. They were granted farmlands but not everyone remained to farm. While there were settlers who remained at the farmlands, many of the settlers were not adept at agriculture. This prompted them to seek better opportunities in surrounding towns.

Some of these settlers settled at KwaZulu Natal or Zululand, a land inhabited by the Zulu people and ruled by King Shaka. The settlers were allowed permission by King Shaka to stay at Natal because of the technological advances they were bringing with them.


Cetshwayo ka Mpande became the King of the Zulus, with a well-disciplined army of 40,000 to 60,000 men. When the British became more interested in Zululand, he refused to submit to their demands. The British settlers wanted the Zulu kingdom to provide labour in the diamond fields, abolish autonomous African states, and claim more land territory.


British high commissioner for South Africa Sir Bartle Frere issued an impossible ultimatum to King Cetshwayo. Frere realized that the king is a major stumbling block in the attempt to bring all of Southern Africa under British control and wanted to break his resistance.

The ultimatum demanded King Cetshwayo to dismantle their military system within 30 days, handover offenders and pay reparations for alleged insults. This ultimatum was not met as expected, which paved the way for the Anglo-Zulu War.


22 January: Invasion and the Battle of Isandlwana

In January 1979, the British troops invaded under the leadership of Lord Chelmsford. On January 22nd, the Zulu army attacked the British troops in Isandlwana which was not usually King Cetshwayo’s style. The king normally preferred a defensive approach by holding back his troops with the hope of negotiating a settlement.

The unexpected Zulu attack killed 800 British soldiers and 500 more auxiliary African troops. This was considered one of the worst defeats of the British army especially with the Zulus having inferior weapons.

22 – 23 January: The Battle of Rorke’s Drift

Forewarned by the few survivors from the Battle of Isandlwana, some 120-150 British troops successfully defended Rorke’s Drift against attacks by 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu fighters who attempted to overrun the British depot there. The victory produced distinctive honors for the British troops and eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded.

11 February

Although the British Army were victorious at Rorke’s Drift, the embarrassing defeat at Isandlwana prompted the British government to go into a full-scale campaign to save face.

July – August

King Cetshwayo’s forces were defeated and the king was captured and stripped of his position.


King Cetshwayo arrived in London for a month long visit to seek an audience with Queen Victoria. His goal was to plead for the restoration of his kingdom. He was received by Queen Victoria in Osborne House in the Isle of Wight. The meeting lasted for 15 minutes and he was promised that his old powers as king will be restored upon his return to South Africa. After the meeting with the Queen, he was given a tour of the grounds and gardens of Osborne House.

What was interesting about his visit was how the British press did a complete 360 turn in depicting King Cetshwayo. While he was considered as a barbarian before, news of his impending visit depicted him as an impressive, dignified figure which fascinated the British public. He was dressed in European clothes which was contrary to what the public expected as they were all expecting him to be a savage dressed in loin cloth.


King Cetshwayo was reinstated as king but only granted a third of his lands. He died in the same year after an attack by his rival Zibhebhu.


King Cetshwayo was commemorated by the English Heritage with a blue plaque at the Kensington House in 18 Melbury Road, Holland Park, where he stayed in 1882.

3 views0 comments


bottom of page