Isandlwana: The Battle that Shook the British Empire

By | September 16, 2019

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Reenactment of the Battle of Isandlwana. Source: (RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images)

The nineteenth century was the apogee of European imperialism. At the front of the countries dominating the globe was the British Empire. With its superior technology, the British were able to subjugate native people around the globe and win almost every battle.

That is why the British defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana in South Africa on January 22, 1879, was such a blow to the British imperial psyche and why it is still used today as a totem for anti-colonialism movements around the globe.

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Map of Zululand from 1879. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Prelude to the Battle

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Zululand was located between the British colonies of Natal to the south and Transvaal to the north-northwest. The British had left the Zulus mostly alone until the discovery of large diamond mines in South Africa. Because of this, the British reconsidered their strategic objectives. In 1877, Lord Carnarvon, Secretary of State for the Colonies, decided to extend British influence by forming a federation of the two British colonies plus the Boer republics. Even though there were no diamond mines in Zululand, Carnavon decided that it would be better to pacify the region under the British yoke. The Zulus had a 40,000 warrior standing army, after all.