Highlights of South Africa

Kwazulu-Natal Battlefields

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Kwa-Zulu Natal is steeped in history with dramatic battles between the local Zulus, Afrikaners (known as ‘Boers’ – ‘farmer’ in Afrikaans) and the British Empire, shaping the extraordinary politics of today.

Various Anglo-Zulu Battlefields are located west of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park around Ulundi and Eshowe (together with a staged opportunity to learn about traditional Zulu culture). However, the most famous battlefields are in the north-west of KwaZulu Natal.

The Boer–Zulu war of 1836-1852 included the battle of Blood River in 1838. The Afrikaner Voortrekkers, refusing British rule in the Western Cape Colony, headed over the Drakensberg mountains and clashed with the local Zulus over land agreements. The Boers inflicted a convincing defeat, causing King Dingane of the Zulus to flee.

Isandlwana Battlefield was the site of one of Britain’s most humiliating military defeats on January 22 1879 when 1,200 men were overrun by spear wielding Zulus. A colonial ultimatum issued to the Zulu was followed up by three columns of British troops, one of which camped 6km from Isandlwana Hill. They were oblivious to the 25,000 Zulu warriors over the brow of the hill who, once they had been spotted by a scouting party, outflanked and destroyed the British contingent. The defeat shocked Victorian Britain from its notion of total colonial power.

On the same evening as the Battle of Isandlwana some 4,000 of the Zulu King’s reserve troops who were eager for action attacked the British Field Hospital at Rorke’s Drift against King Cetshwayo’s orders. ‘Washing a spear,’ i.e. killing an enemy, was required of a Zulu warrior before he was allowed to marry. The hospital, just across the Buffalo River from Isandlwana, was bravely defended by a hundred mainly sick and injured British troops, earning eleven Victoria Crosses in the process – still the largest number ever awarded in one battle – and going some way to restore British pride.

Then in 1880 (after the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley in 1871) and from 1899-1902 (following the discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1886) it was the turn of the British Empire to fight the two small independent Boer republics of the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State. The Boers caused the British embarrassment at Ladysmith where they were besieged for 118 days in 1899. The Boers prevented the British advance into Northern KwaZulu-Natal mainly by guerrilla warfare techniques. 40km south of Ladysmith near Chieveley, the Boers blew up an armoured train carrying the young Winston Churchill. How history may have changed! The Ladysmith Siege Museum is a mine of fascinating information on the subject.

The battles of Colenso and Spioenkop (or Spionkop) were other bloody defeats for the British, both involving troops sent to relieve the siege at Ladysmith. Spioenkop is the name of a small hill where 1,700 British troops were attacked by 3,600 Boers on 24th January 1900. There was great loss of life on both sides, a mass withdrawal and an eventual reclamation of the deserted hill by the Boers. The history of the 20th century could have been dramatically altered during this encounter as Winston Churchill, Mahatma Ghandi and the first premier of the South African Union, Louis Botha, were all present at Spioenkop on the day and survived.

The events of the Kwa-Zulu Natal Battlefields is brought to life by the inspirational historians who lead guided tours to the sites, making the experience fascinating even to those with the mildest of interest.

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