The British saw Zululand as an obstacle to their expansionist policies in Southern Africa. They realized that before their hopes of a British Controlled Confederation of South Africa could be made into reality, they had to defeat Zululand and it’s 40,000 strong army of warriors.
The Zulu War was not sanctioned by the British government, but was contrived by the actions of Sir Bartle Frere. He had been given the job of bringing the British strongholds in South Africa into a Confederation. The British government wanted to avoid conflict. Frere had other ideas. He told the Zulu King that he must disband his army or war would be declared. The inevitable result of this unacceptable request was the Zulu War which was declared on January 11 1879.
The Battle of Rorke’s Drift followed the disastrous defeat which the British suffered at Isandlwana on January 22 1879. In this devastating ambush over 20,000 Zulu warriors attacked 1,800 British troops and 400 civilians. Losses for the British were huge – over 1,300 troops were killed.
The defeat was seen as all the more remarkable as the Zulus were perceived to have primitive weapons compared to the British. However, this was largely a myth. The Zulus did have spears, but they were also equipped with a large quantity of muskets and rifles. They were not as well trained in their use as the British were, but many of the British troops who died were shot, not speared.
Following the devastating defeat at Isadlwana the British had little warning that the Rorke’s Drift attack was about to take place on the same day. A small group of 150 British troops fended off an attack by an estimated 4,000 Zulu warriors. They held strong and remarkably only 17 British soldiers were killed. 351 Zulu bodies were counted following the battle.
There is some evidence that war atrocities were committed in the aftermath of Rorke’s Drift. These are of course controversial, but are backed by a number of documents held in museums and most notably at Windsor Castle. It is alleged that the British covered up what happened in the aftermath of the battle. There is evidence that the Zulu death toll was much higher than officially acknowledged and that as many as 500 men were killed after the battle had ended.
It is alleged that a British relief force was responsible for executing the wounded and captured Zulus. Some were hanged and others were buried alive in mass graves. The British were said to have been incensed by the massacre that they had seen in the aftermath of Isandlwana. None of the troops involved in the Rorke’s Drift Battle were said to be involved in the atrocities as they were resting after the battle.
The Battle of Rorke’s Drift became one of the most notable British victories in history. The extreme bravery shown by the British troops led to the awarding of a total of 11 Victoria Crosses – this is more than ever awarded before or since at any single battle.