KwaZulu Natal, ancestral home of the Zulu people and site of many a bloody battle between the British, the Boers and the Zulus during the 19th century, has a multitude of significant towns, memorials and battle sites. This land once encompassed the Zulu kingdom led by legendary Shaka Zulu, and then by his half-brother Dingaan, who clashed with both the English and Afrikaner settlers in what are today recorded as some of the most important battles in South African history. Over a period of about 70 years, the plains, rolling hills and river valleys saw numerous brutal, blood-soaked conflicts over land ownership, political independence and the desire for colonial domination. The first major battle, and one of the most terrible, took place in 1838 between the Voortrekkers and the Zulus in what became known as the Battle of Blood River.
Then followed the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879 in response to British dissatisfaction regarding the increasing strength of the Zulus, and the battles that took place at Isandlwana Hill and Rorke's Drift are remarkable for their tales of heroism and brutality. In 1880 and again in 1889, anti-British sentiment among the Voortrekkers, as well as a desire for Afrikaner independence, led to the two Anglo-Boer wars that captured the attention of the world and resulted in heavy loss of life among both the Boers and the British. The devastating siege of Ladysmith and the Battle of Spioenkop are among the most famous battles that took place during the second Anglo-Boer War from 1889 to 1902.
Battle of Blood River
Following the treacherous murder of Piet Retief and his men at the hands of Dingaan, the Zulu chief, the Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius, prepared for battle against the Zulu kingdom on the banks of the Ncome River on 16 December 1838. They formed an impenetrable laager (a defensive camp encircled with their ox-wagons) and fought the 15,000-strong attack until the Zulus finally fled, leaving thousands dead and the river red with blood. The violent encounter became known as the Battle of Blood River.
The battle at Isandlwana Hill on 22 January 1879 stunned the British Empire in what was to be the worst defeat in the history of their imperial warfare. The news that an entire battalion of British troops had been wiped out by a 'native' army was unbelievable. The Zulu kingdom, under the leadership of King Cetshwayo, had been gaining strength and was perceived to be a threat to the British colonists, refusing to submit to British rule. British troops were ordered to invade Zululand, but grossly underestimated the Zulu warriors, and the surprise attack on the British camp on the slopes of Isandlwana Hill left thousands dead. Today the battlefield is dotted with memorials, and mounds of white stones that mark the British mass graves.
Fought on the same day as the nearby battle at Isandlwana Hill, the Battle of Rorke's Drift is remembered as one of the most famous sieges of the Anglo-Zulu War. Survivors from Isandlwana fled to the Swedish mission station that was used as a British field hospital and storehouse, and sounded the alarm. Inside, the 139 men, many of them seriously ill or wounded, barricaded themselves in and prepared for the onslaught of 4,000 Zulu warriors. The Battle Museum dramatically tells the tale of the 'Heroic Hundred' who desperately defended the station for 12 hours, until the Zulus finally retreated with a heavy loss of life. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders, the most ever given at any other battle in British history.
Fugitives' Drift Battlefield Tours
Flagship tours to Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift are led by registered tour guides Andrew Rattray, Mphiwa Ntanzi, Charl Grobler and Alastair Lamont who are superb storytellers and make the history of that day come alive. You will learn of the bravery and mobility of the Zulu army that defeated the British Army at the Battle of Isandlwana and listen at sunset to the famous story of Rorke's Drift, where 139 British soldiers were attacked by 4000 Zulu warriors; a British victory which saw the award of more Victoria Crosses than in any other battle in history.
When it comes to historical sites, you never quite get the feel for it until you’ve been. KwaZulu Natal should be on every historian’s wish list and with Africa Travel you can see it in the best possible way. To book your bespoke trip to South Africa or to find out more about what we have to offer, chat with us online, send us an email or call us on 020 7843 3500.
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