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The Battle of Isandlwana Essay

Examine the events that lead up to the Battle of Isandlwana and its subsequent consequences and highlight why you think that the Battlefield of Isandlwana is an important heritage site.

The Battle of Isandlwana was the first of six battles during the Anglo-Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. This battle took place at Isandlwana in South Africa on the 22nd of January 1879. The Battle of Isandlwana had major consequences for both the British and the Zulus that lead to the making of one of South Africa’s most important heritage sites; the Battlefield of Isandlwana.

The British decided to form a Federation of South African colonies for uncomplicated administration. They not only desired this, but also hoped to expand into Central Africa and they assumed that Natal and the Transvaal would support these wishes. Their work was cut out for them, as the Zulu power was at its height and their kingdom blocked the British expansion to the North. All these desires to end the military strength of the Zulu Kingdom, lead to plans for war.

Eventually the British presented the Zulus with an ultimatum on the banks of the Tugela River, under the ‘ultimatum tree’. This ultimatum was presented on the 11th of December 1878 and gave the Zulu’s thirty days to disassemble their military system and forfeit their independence. The ultimatum expired on the 10th of January 1879, as the Zulus could not meet these demands. A day later, the British, as commanded by Lord Chelmsford, invaded Zululand.

Lord Chelmsford was appointed the new Officer commanding the British forces in South Africa. The Lord was a favorite of the Queen herself, yet he had insignificant appreciation for the fighting standards of the Zulus.

The Zulus spent approximately three to four days spiritually purifying themselves of any evil spirits, this was due to their belief that by killing another person, an evil spirit force would diminish your resistance to disease. Thus by cleansing themselves, they would be strengthened for combat.

The Zulus decided that, if possible, the King would negotiate with the British. But they knew that this was an unlikely situation and they had many battle tactics up their sleeves. The Zulus used traditional weapons such as stabbing spears, throwing spears, knobbed sticks and battle-axes and because of this, fighting at close range was almost essential. This sort of battle required the Zulus to be skilled fighters. The Zulu soldiers also carried shields made out of cattle hide; the younger, unmarried men carried black shields, while the older, married men carried white ones.

If a Zulu killed a British man, he could not just leave him lying there, he had to disembowel the British soldier to release his spirits into the afterlife. If, by misfortune, a Zulu killed one of his own men, he had to take an item of their clothing from the corpse and wear it until the performance of a cleansing ritual.

On the 11th of January 1879 the British army separated into three columns, the Left Column was led by Sir Evelyn Wood and was instructed to keep attacking Zulus in the area. The Right Column was moved towards Eshowe and there was not much news from them, which was problematic. Lastly the Center Column headed for Siphezi Hill, but the track was too muddy, so they settled at Isandlwana. Their main concern was the site, rather than an attack from the Zulus.

The British planned to take control of the Zulu Kraal at Ulundi by attacking it from three directions, whilst the Zulus planned on ambushing them from three sides, by attacking from the center, before extending to the left and right.

On the 17th of January 1879 the Zulus left oNdini. Four thousand men departed towards the South East to meet the British Right Column at Mangeni, whilst the remaining twenty-four thousand men split into two columns that advanced parallel and in sight of one another. Zulu scouts reported the Isandlwana location, resulting in the Zulus approaching the Ngwebene Valley, in small groups. The fact that they remained quiet and concealed by the Nyoni Heights, kept the British eyes at bay and because of the Zulu’s slow approach, they were refreshed and well rested.

On the 21st of January 1879 Chelmsford sent forces to search the area and they reported sightings of large groups of Zulus. Chelmsford decided to join the scouts and left Pulliene in charge of the left over troops at Isandlwana.

Because of the British decision to divide their forces to search the Mangeni, the Zulus had been gifted with an irresistible opportunity. The British had fallen into the Zulu’s trap!

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