Anglo-Zulu War

The intriguingly sphinx-shaped mountain known as Isandlwana in Zululand lies in a flat valley carved out mainly by the Nxibongo River. To the north, the valley is fringed by the Nyoni heights and iThusi Mountain. Behind those is the next river valley, the Ngwebeni.


Midge Carter’s fascinating account of the behind-the-scenes goings on during the making of the movie “Zulu Dawn” (provided by Pam MacFadden and published on 26 August 2021 - click here to read), brought back many memories, some of which can be safely shared with a respectable journal such as The Heritage Portal.


The battle of Kambula (29 March 1879) is the definitive battle of the Zulu War. After the disaster at Isandlwana, when Lord Chelmsford’s Centre Column had temporarily ceased to exist, the focus of the Zulu War had turned to Evelyn Wood’s Column in the north. Not that the British had yet fully learned their lesson about underestimating the Zulus. The Northern Column suffered two disasters – one at Ntombe Drift (12 March) and the other at Hlobane (28 March), before the rampant Zulu army tried their luck on the British base camp at Kambula the following day.

Sotondose’s Drift on the Buffalo River is not really a drift at all. Situated at the bottom end of an upside-down triangle with Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift comprising the other angles, access is down very steep rocky hillsides on either flank. At low water it consists of a difficult boulder-hopping crossing for foot traffic only. It is marked by a curiously shaped so-called “coffin rock’.


It’s always a thrill to meet up with someone who has specifically come thousands of miles to the KZN battlefields to trace where their ancestors fought so long ago. On 17 February 2016, I had the privilege of meeting the Michell family, from Edington in Somerset. Simon Michell was born in Zimbabwe, which gave us immediate commonality. But even better, Simon’s ancestor, Captain Charles Michell, had fought in the Zulu War of 1879, and Simon had the campaign medal and a studio portrait of Charles wearing it to prove it.

As early as 1873 a Colonial government commission had been set up to investigate the establishment of laagers for defensive purposes in the Newcastle Division. They recommended that 2 laagers be built, one on Newcastle town lands and the other not that far from where Fort Pine stands today. In 1874 £5 000 was allocated for the construction of laagers and armouries throughout the Colony of Natal.

It is early March 1879 in Zululand. It is the end of the rainy season and it is bucketting down on a daily basis on those men stationed at Fort Clery near the German Lutheran church and settlement at Luneberg, tucked away in the north west quadrant of Zululand about 6 miles from the Transvaal border. It is hot, sticky and sweaty in the intervals between showers. Roads dissolve into glutinous rivers of mud and the men are wet though and shivering most of the time. Shelter is, at best, corrugated iron or thatched lean-tos.

Battle of Isandlwana painting - via Ditsong Museum

Physical combat has to be the most exhilarating experience that any man can have. Obviously, all-out effort, commitment and ferocity are required to win the day. None have displayed this more effectively than the Zulus, and their reputation is legendary. However, over some time various authors have postulated that, apart from an adrenaline-induced state of hyper-aggressiveness, the Zulus were “doctored” with hallucinogenic material to enhance these effects prior to engaging in battle.

"An ancient song, as old as the ashes, Echoed as Mageba’s warriors marched away." South African Contemporary Folk Song. Johnny Clegg and Savuka.

Colonel Anthony Durnford is probably the most enigmatic, controversial and colourful character associated with the British defeat at Isandlwana. Incontrovertibly the senior officer present, history has blamed him for the disaster for failing to exercise effective command and control.


A Northumbrian by birth, Dr Prideaux Selby was already a middle aged bachelor when he sailed with the Byrnes' settlers to South Africa in 1850. He became the first doctor and Justice of the Peace to the Boer families in the Biggarsberg and lived at “Mooiplaas” for 25 years. He was held in high regard and loved by the Boer families – so much so that the names “Prideaux” and “Selby” were used extensively by the Boer families to name their children.

Major William Knox-Leet was born in Dalkey, County Dublin on 3 November 1833. The youngest son of a Episcopalian rector, he graduated from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland and became an ensign in the 13th Prince Albert's Light Infantry in July 1855. In 1858 he was sent to British India where he saw action in several engagements during the Indian Mutiny. From 1867 until 1872 he served as an arms instructor in England. In July 1872 he became Deputy Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster-General in County Cork, Ireland.

A documentary currently in the making will take a fresh look at the shooting of a classic film made in KwaZulu-Natal in the Sixties. And the producers are appealing for help. Stephen Coan reports.

Plans are afoot for the shooting of a feature length documentary Zulu and the Zulus in KwaZulu-Natal next year.

In researching this article, it became evident that hardly any photographer active during the Anglo-Zulu War (AZW) period has been written about. In the majority of sources consulted, photographers also generally have not been acknowledged where their work was used – be that as photographers out in the field or studio based photographers. This may be a simple matter of us not being aware of who the photographers were in the majority of instances.

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