Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 23rd August 2017 | Manchester, UK

Battle of Ulundi 1879

On 4th July 1879, the British Empire fought the Zulu’s at the Battle of Ulundi, the last major battle of the Anglo-Zulu war; as part of their imperial expansion campaign in South Africa.They imagined a confederation of states in South Africa, where cheap black labour could be exploited for British sugar plantations and minesfor diamonds and gold. But the Zulu Kingdom, whichneighboured other British colonies including Natal and Transvaal, threatened to disrupt this union.Therefore, the British intended to destroy the Zulu army led by King Cetshwayo in what turned out to be a series of conflicts in 1879 lasting from January until August.Furthermore, Lord Chelmsford, commander of the British invasion forces, wanted to restore his celebrated military image at home after his earlier embarrassing defeat in January against the Zulu ‘savages’ at the Battle of Isandlawana.Speed was paramount asGarnet Wolseley was selected by the British government to replace his command shortly andhis suppliesdiminishing.The Battle of Ulundi would be as much a battle to achieve long-term imperial aims, as it was a conflict for revenge and repairing military reputations of the day.

Battle of Ulundi 2.png (britishbattles.com)Having learnt from the massacre at Isandlawana, Chelmsford took extra precaution when facing the Zulu army in open warfare. Battle formations began at 6 a.m. for the British army. A guard of mounted troops crossed a ford and onto the Mahlabatini plains just outside the Zulu capital town, Ulundi. By 8 a.m. further British forces arrived creating a large hollow square formation. The perimeter of the square facing outwardsconsisted of 1,000 regular cavalry, 9,000 regular infantry and a further 7,000 men with 24 guns, including the first Gatling gun battery to take the field for the British army. Within the square were engineers, ammunition and hospital carts in reserve. The British army effectively created a mini impenetrable fortress on the field.This would prove to be far superiorto the Zulu army of 20,000. The British saw them as ‘savages’ armed with spears and a few old rifles, and predictable in their tactics, which usually meant hiding from the enemy and then attack at close range. With such primitive weaponry and tactics,the Zulu’s stood little chance against the more prepared British army.

At around 8:45, the British cavalry rode out of the square to encourage enemy attacks. The cavalry fired at Zulu warriors in the surrounding area that were hidden in the long grass. The Zulu’s charged directly at the British. However, concentrated infantry, and fire from the Gatling guns and powerful artillery meant the Zulu’s were unable to get closer than 30 feet from British ranks. It quickly became clear theZulucharges were futile and the majority fled the battle to higher ground. The battle concluded with British cavalry hunting down fleeing Zulu’s until none were left alive on the Mahlabatini plane. The royal capital, Ulundi, was soon after set on fire and Cetshwayo was captured days later. After battles such asIsandlwana andRorke’s Drift, Ulundi would become the last major battle of the Zulu wars.

It was in fact, a rather underwhelming encounter that only lasted roughly 30 minutes. Yet, it was in Britain’s interest to promote it as a great, decisive, battle that ended the Zulu agitation once and for all. Reports that 1000 Zulu warriors died in the battle were likely exaggerated, with Wolseley suggesting it was more like 400 (a stark contrast to 10 British deaths). But portrayed in this way meant the battle’s outcome largely supported the British Empire’s political ambitions. The embarrassment of Isandlwana was overshadowed, and the British Empire could once again appear the convincing, relentless, imperial force. With the exception of a few pockets of resistance after the battle, the threat from the Zulu’s was mainly over. The Zulu kingdom was divided into 13 tribal states to prevent another centralised authority opposing the empire. However, the long-term British imperial plan for a confederation of the entire South Africa region would not be achieved until the outcome of the Second Boer War in 1902. Nonetheless, Chelmsford had his revenge and his military reputation was restored, which was a great victory for him in an age when military figures of the empire, such as General Gordon in China, were heroes in contemporary British popular culture like plays and paintings. This perhaps reveals the vanity and superiority felt by Britain and its military figures.

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