Isandlwana, South Africa (1879 AD)
The Battle of Isandlwana was the first and most famous engagement of the Anglo-Zulu war, and arguably the greatest military victory of a native force over a modern European army in sub-Saharan African during the Colonial Era. The battle was an important milestone in the British conquest of South Africa, which later expanded into the Boer War. In some ways it also marked the beginning of the European Scramble for Africa, which would see the entire continent divided among the European powers by the beginning of World War I. Although the Zulu ultimately lost the war, the victory at Isandlwana is considered one of the greatest moments in the history of South Africa.
Throughout most of the 19th-century, European colonization in Africa had as yet largely been limited to the coastal areas. However, by the 1870s, interest in the natural resources of the African interior began to rise, and European colonies began to spread inland. Among the earliest and most notable instances was that of the Cape Town colony, which the British sought to expand from coast to coast and northwards.
Standing in their way was the Zulu kingdom, one of the largest and most powerful native realms in Africa. The Zulu had a distinctive warrior culture that had steadily expanded throughout the 19th century under a series of capable leaders. When the British decided to invade the kingdom in 1878, the Zulu were at the height of their power. Their king, Cetshwayo, had at his command large numbers of strong and disciplined (if ill-equipped) warriors, and they were ready to fight.
In January of 1879, a large british force invaded Zululand in three large, well-armed columns. The British commander of the invasion, Lord Chelmsford, was capable but completely underestimated Zulu numbers, capability, maneuverability and stealth. His biggest mistake was the division of the British forces in his attempt to engage the enemy. On January 22, the Zulu army caught a large but isolated continengent of British troops and their native allies at their base camp of Isandlwana.
The camp, manned by about 1,800 soldiers and not prepared for a proper defense, was assaulted by about twenty thousand Zulu warriors. Thanks to at least some warning, and vastly superior weaponry, the British force held out for several hours. However, wave after wave of fearless Zulu warriors eventually overwhelmed the defense. All of the British soldiers and many of their auxiaries were killed. However, despite the great victory, the Zulu also took significant casualties, which foreshadowed the later defeat at the hands of superior European weaponry.
The Isandlwana Battlefield is one of the great national historic treasures of South Africa. A large, open area of low grassy hills dotted with trees, the field is marked with important sites, most notably the Isandlwana Memorial commemorating the Zulu victory. Also of note are the white stone rock piles, or cairns, which mark the sites of the mass graves of the fallem British soldiers.
The Isandlwana Battlefield is located in the shadow of the rocky, isolated Isandlwana Mountain, approximately eighty miles southeast of Johannesburg. The battlefield is an open site. Web: www.southafrica.net (official tourism website of South Africa).