Horns of the Bull: British Tragedy and Triumph at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift
Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift are located in South Africa, about 60 miles inland from the Indian Ocean near the border where Natal and Zululand meet.
Strategic Importance of the Location:
The border between British-controlled Natal and the Zulu kingdom was formed in the north by the Buffalo River, which flowed southwards into the Tugela River. Just south of Rorke's Drift the river dumped into a gorge and became a raging torrent that could only be forded safely at Tugela Drift, 60 miles south and close by the Indian Ocean. To the north and west of Natal and Zululand was the Transvaal, the area claimed by Dutch settlers known as the Boers.
The Zulu Army:
The Zulu army was composed of units known as amabutho or impi- the equivalent in many ways of a European regiment. These units engaged in both military tasks and non-military labors at the behest of the king. Zulu men at 18 were inducted into an amabutho, and served in the unit until such time as the king authorized them to marry (typically when the man was 35-40 years of age). Amabutho were grouped together in military homesteads known as amakhanda. Food and agricultural labor were supplied to the amabutho by female relatives of the warriors. Even after marriage Zulu men served in the king's army in one of its so-called married regiments.
Several amabutho were combined into a corps, with the ages of men in the combined amabutho differing so that older men could help teach the younger ones how to be good warriors. The Zulu army at the time of the Zulu War of 1879 consisted of 34 regiments organized into 12 corps. Seven of these regiments, however, were composed of men too old to actively campaign in the field, so King Cethswayo probably had about 40,000 men actually able to go off to war.
Discipline in the Zulu army was harsh. A man could be killed (normally beaten to death by other warriors) for failing to follow orders or to meet standards of performance. A Zulu army in the field could if necessary march fifty miles or more in a day. They traveled light, with just their spears and shields. Boys 14-18 years of age oversaw a herd of cattle that followed the army; these boys also carried the blankets and sleeping mats of the warriors.
The Legacy of Shaka Zulu:
King Shaka Zulu is credited with teaching the Zulu army its aggressive (some would say brutal) tactics. It was already aggressive, however, when Shaka took control of a regiment. His innovation was to order warriors in the regiment to melt down their inefficient throwing spears and reshape them as Ikwa, Shaka's famous stabbing spears (the Ikwa name derives from the sucking sound made when the Ikwa was pulled from a victim's body). Zulu warriors carried several throwing spears, and a club or axe, but their weapon of first resort was always the Ikwa. Shaka also had his men make new, smaller shields that could be hooked under an opponent's shield and used to pull it away from his body, so that the Ikwa could do its deadly work. Single men carried colored shields, while married men carried shields made from white cowhide.
Some of Cethswayo's men at the time of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift were in fact armed with firearms, and others were able to gather arms and ammunition from the dead at Isandlwana. Zulu men received no formal training in firearms use or marksmanship, however, and so were generally less proficient in their use than were British regulars. The weapons traded to the Zulu prior to the Zulu War of 1879, moreover, were generally older muzzle-loading weapons, not the newer, more accurate breech-loading weapons carried by British soldiers. Finally, the Zulu had no source of spare parts to repair damaged weapons or men trained to do so, and no equipment or trained men to make new ammunition or reload used cartridges.