Prelude to the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879.  The British Ultimatum 

(Historical Note)

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The map of southern Africa in 1879 showed an inherently unstable mix of republics, kingdoms and colonies littering the region, with the British Cape Colony at the tip of the continent forming the strongest economic and military power.

On the south-east coast the most powerful of the southern African Kingdoms, the Zulu empire, was ruled by King Cetshwayo kaMpande, fourth King in line after the founding King Shaka who had created the empire during his rule of 1818 to 1828. Sandwiched between the empire and the mountain kingdom of the baSotho to the west, lay the small British colony of Natal. For sixty years the Zulu kingdom maintained its status as the most powerful indigenous military force in the southern African region. The Anglo-Zulu war was about to change all that.

Queen Victoria

In 1867 diamonds were discovered in the arid northwest region of the Boer Republic of the Orange Free State. In the early 1870s, ethereal gold deposits in the far northern Drakensberg Mountains, a region governed by the Boer Transvaal Republic, triggered the first southern African gold rush.

As the wealth of minerals and metals hidden beneath the region’s soils became apparent, Britain began a renewed interest in the region. She had recently succeeded in creating the Dominion of Canada and it seemed to her that the concept could be successfully repeated in southern Africa, bringing economic growth to the region, an end to the warring and general instability, and unhindered access to its wealth. A confederation of states was planned with its political focus at Cape Town, and the colonial authorities set about discussions with their Boer neighbours.

Little headway was achieved. The republics were virtually bankrupt. Their deeply Calvinist farmer citizens held scant regard for stifling administrations or taxes, and industrialisation was unheard of. As a result in April of 1877 Britain simply annexed the Transvaal Republic.

No discussions were held with the Zulu. In British colonial opinion the ideals of capitalism were completely foreign to their cattle-based economy, and their customs were considered to be pagan and barbaric. Zululand was viewed however as a potentially important conduit in exporting the raw materials of the interior to Britain where they would be processed and returned as finished goods for the benefit of the people of the region. As a result, all would be brought into the realms of the civilised, God-fearing capitalist world of her empire. To do this, she needed Zulu labour. In addition, covetous eyes of the settlers looked towards Zululand to expand their farms. The Zulu King ignored labour demands but carefully maintained cordial relations with his settler neighbours.

Thus the British High Commissioner in Cape Town, Sir Bartle Frere, viewed the Zulu Kingdom as a major stumbling block to achieving the confederation and saw no other way through the dilemma than to bring it down. His challenge lay in finding a pretext for war.

King Cetshwayo kaMpande

The Anglo-Zulu war was not of the Zulu king’s making. He was anxious to maintain the status quo and had no wish to take on the British Empire with its small but disciplined army, modern breech loading rifles, field artillery and Gatling guns. Border disputes were however fairly common and incidents on the northern boundaries of Zululand gave Sir Bartle cause for a fight.

A Prince by the name of Mbilini of the neighbouring Swazi kingdom had taken refuge in Zululand and was causing mayhem amongst white settlers and Swazis in the northern border regions. Imperial troops were sent in to restore order and as the Zulu King had given the Prince sanctuary he was quickly viewed as a guilty party.

Perhaps the most significant incident for the Zulus concerned an incursion into Natal by the sons of a district chief by the name of Sihayo. When two of his wives fled with their lovers to the colony, the chief sent his sons to get them back. The wives were returned to Zulu justice and executed. The colonial authorities demanded that the sons be handed over to them for trial. Sihayo, however, was a loyal chief and, on the grounds that his wives had disobeyed Zulu law and were therefore subject to Zulu retribution, the King refused to comply with the request.

On the 11th December 1878 an ultimatum was read to a Zulu deputation of the King’s Royal Emissaries on the banks of the uThukela River boundary. It was carefully explained to them that if the points of the ultimatum were not met within thirty days of the date of reading, Britain would consider herself to be in a state of war with the Zulu Kingdom. The points of the Ultimatum were as follows: 

  • The Zulu army was to be disbanded.
  •  A British Resident was to be stationed in Zululand.
  • The King was not to make war without the consent of the British Resident and his council.
  • The Swazi Prince Mbilini must be handed over for punishment.
  •  The sons of Chief Sihayo were to be surrendered to the colonial authorities for trial and a fine of 500 cattle was to be paid for not having surrendered them earlier.
  •  A fine of 100 cattle was to be paid for an affair involving a Zulu regiment threatening road engineers working on the northern colonial border.
  • All young warriors were to be allowed to marry before the age of thirty years. (Under the Zulu system young men were conscripted into the army and were not allowed to marry until the age of thirty.)
  •  Missionaries were to be readmitted to Zululand. They had been banned by the Zulu some years before for causing disturbances.

King Cetshwayo kaMpande Under Arrest After The War

Military preparations for the invasion of Zululand had been proceeding for some time and by the 13th of December 1878 they were complete.

The Zulu King had no need for war nor did he understand why he was being forced into one, and pleaded for clarity, further negotiations and extensions to the deadline. The points of the Ultimatum were impossible to meet just as Sir Bartle Frere had thought they would be. On the 11th of January 1879, British Colonial and Imperial forces under the military Commander-in-Chief, Lord Chelmsford crossed the Zulu border at three points, his Lordship being in personal command of the centre column which entered the kingdom at a place known to him as Rorke’s Drift, and to the Zulu as kwa Jimu, ‘the place of Jim’. Fresh from victory over the Xhosa nation on the eastern border of the Cape Colony and despite warnings from British and Boer settlers alike he held scant regard for the Zulu or their disciplined, well developed military system of officers, men and regiments.

The British infantry men of the time wore scarlet tunics and dark blue trousers, and as there columns marched through the hills and valleys of Zululand became known to the Zulu as red soldiers.

And so began the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879.

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