While walking around the Isandlwana battlefield in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, I was in awe at how the Zulu were able to defeat the British at the height of the British Empire. This was the British Empire of Queen Victoria that had around 500 million inhabitants (25% of the world’s population) under the Union Jack by the late 19th century. This was arguably the largest and most powerful empire in world history. Remember, “the sun never set on the British Empire.” So when this empire went to war with the Zulu Kingdom in 1879 at Isandlwana, it seemed that the Zulu would be easily defeated. What the British did not know, or failed to appreciate, was how powerful the Zulu Kingdom was, both militarily and politically. This is a great story of the resistance that black Africans put up to the colonization of their land by both the Afrikaners and the British in the 19th century. Contrary to the popular belief that the British and Afrikaners easily took over present-day South Africa due to their superior weaponry and superior military training, the Zulu Kingdom’s victory in this battle shows us a positive story of people triumphantly and courageously fighting for their homeland and their freedom. This battle was utilized throughout the anti-apartheid movement as evidence of earlier movements where people took up arms to stand up to their oppressors.
It was while walking around the grounds of this historic battlefield that I started to see many comparisons between this battle in 1879 with the Battle of Little Bighorn in the U.S. in 1876. These two battles share many similarities despite occurring in two different nations, and serve as a historical comparison of colonialism and nationalism in the 19th century.
Just three years separate these two battles that saw the mighty nations of Britain and America defeated by indigenous populations.
In 1876 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors annihilated Custer’s Seventh Cavalry on the Little Bighorn. Three years later and half a world away, a British force was wiped out by Zulu warriors at Isandlwana in South Africa. In both cases the total defeat of regular army troops by forces regarded as undisciplined barbarian tribesmen stunned an imperial nation. Both were attempts at seizing land from indigenous populations, and both ended in humiliating defeats for the aggressor.
By the early 19th century, the Zulu had carved out an empire by political will and brute force and became both feared and respected by all ethnic groups in South Africa. The existence of a powerful, respected, feared, and independent black empire in South Africa was a matter of great concern to the British. The British argued that the existence of a strong independent Zulu nation could cause wider conflict, fearing that it would cause other natives to rise up against white civilization in all of South Africa and interfere with British plans to use the natives as a cheap labor pool for their mines in the colony.
The need for cheap labor or challenges to white supremacy did not figure into the United States’ plans to grab the Black Hills. For the Americans the reasons were much simpler; the railroad barons wanted to complete the Northern Pacific through Montana to the Pacific, and gold had been found in the Black Hills. Since the Sioux refused to cede the land through treaty, US President Ulysses Grant was persuaded to use military means. It was thought that this would open land to the railroads, settlers, and miners.
In 1876 Gen. Custer’s 7th Cavalry was savagely defeated during an unprovoked war to seize the Sioux hunting grounds. Three years later the redcoat troops of Queen Victoria launched an equally outrageous grab for Zulu lands in South Africa, and repeated Little Bighorn history at Isandlwana with their own humiliating destruction.
The comparison of the battles of the Little Bighorn and Isandlwana shows the advantages of the Western armies over indigenous people. The ability to manufacture weapons and maintain armies in the field were the decisive advantages that the British and Americans held over the Sioux and Zulu nations. This combined with the almost total determination by Britain and the United States to conquer and dominate the West and South Africa would provide them to overcome any advantage that modern guerrilla warfare could muster.
These battles occurred in the context of late nineteenth century imperialism, an era when the less technologically developed nations were subjected by the great global economic expansion of the time. They mark the high point for both Sioux and Zulu forces and the Western nations responded with brutal campaigns that led to the total defeat of both native nations.
The victories of the Sioux and Zulu at Little Bighorn and Isandlwana set the stage for the final defeat of these native people by the Western powers in the late nineteenth century. Despite achieving total victory over Western armies the battles marked the beginning of the end of independence for both of the native nations.
These victories proved costly to the native people as both created avenging armies that would destroy both peoples. Conducting a brutal winter war in 1876-77, the US army so devastated the Sioux and Cheyenne that by spring the majority had surrendered to the agencies and returned to the reservations. The British conducted an equally brutal march across Zululand that resulted in the Zulu capital of Ulundi being burned and their king imprisoned. After these wars neither nation would ever regain the power they processed before the battles.
During the reign of King Shaka (1816-1828), the Zulu beame the mightiest military force in southern Africa. Shaka initiated a series of military reforms that rendered the Zulu virtually unbeatable.
By the late 1800s, British colonial officials and the commander-in-chief in South Africa, Lord Chelmsford, considered the independent Zulu Kingdom ruled by Cetshwayo a threat to the British colony of Natal with which it shared a long border. Cetshwayo, who was the King of the Zulu Kingdom from 1872 to 1879, was a half-nephew of the Zulu king Shaka.
In December 1878, the British demanded that Cetshwayo should disband his army within thirty days. Cetshwayo’s response was to mobilize approximately 30,000 men. On January 11, 1879, a British force of 7,000 British regulars, about as many Natal African auxiliaries, and a thousand colonial volunteers invaded Zululand. One division of this force – 1,760 British soldiers and auxiliaries – spent the night of January 21 unprotected as the British failed to order entrenchments around their camps and reconnaissance ahead of the march. A Zulu force of 20,000 warriors swept into the camp at Isandlwana, annihilating this division of British forces. Only 55 whites and 350 African auxiliaries survived the onslaught.
A British army’s defeat at the hands of spear-carrying Zulus sent shock waves across southern Africa, and it left Britain humiliated in the eyes of rival European powers. Leonard Thompson in A History of South Africa wrote that Isandlwana was “the greatest disaster to British arms since the Crimean War.”
Martin Meredith, in Diamonds, Gold, and War, wrote that “The British army that day suffered one of the worst disasters in its history.” In fact, it was the first defeat by a tribal army on a British force.
Days later, the Zulu were eventually defeated at Rorke’s Drift by the British. The military campaign was not the end of the Zulu kingdom, though. Having defeated the army, the British set Zulu against Zulu, preventing a revival of Zulu power without cost to Britain. They abolished the monarchy, banished Cetshwayo to prison in Cape Town, and divided Zululand into 13 separate territories under 13 appointed chiefs in a ruthless display of divide-and-rule tactics.
Battle of Little Bighorn
Gen. Custer’s last battle was part of the United States government’s 1876-77 campaign to retake the Black Hills region of South Dakota, ceded in perpetuity by an 1868 treaty to the Lakota. But when gold was discovered in the area in 1874, the army was sent to push the American Indians to a reservation set up for them.
The Battle of Little Bighorn occurred in 1876 and is commonly referred to as “Custer’s Last Stand”. The battle took place between the U.S. Cavalry and northern Indians, including the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Prior to the Battle of Little Bighorn, the tribal armies, under the direction of Sitting Bull, had decided to wage war against the whites for their refusal to stay off of tribal lands in the Black Hills. In the spring of 1876, Sitting Bull and his tribal army had successfully battled the U.S. Cavalry twice. The U.S. Cavalry was attempting to force the Indians back to their reservations.
One of the U.S. Cavalry divisions, consisting of over 200 soldiers and warriors from the Arikara and Crow, was led by Lt. General George Custer, who spotted a Sioux camp and decided to attack it. However, Indian forces outnumbered his troops three to one.
The battle occurred June 25–26, 1876 near the Little Bighorn River in eastern Montana.
It took less than an hour for the arrows and bullets of the Indians to wipe out General Custer and his men. Custer and all his soldiers – more than 200 in number – were killed by over 3,000 Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors during their attempt to reclaim the Black Hills region from as part of a US government campaign. Custer was killed, as were two of his brothers, a nephew, and a brother-in-law.
It was an overwhelming victory for the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho.
Despite having won this battle, the Indians were not victorious. Outrage over the death of the popular Custer led the U.S. government to redraw the boundaries of the Black Hills so that the land would not be part of reservation property, which left it open for white men to settle.
There is still a Zulu nation today within South Africa, and its chief – Goodwill Zwelithini – has ruled this kingdom since 1968, although this is a largely ceremonial role under the country’s Constitution. The Zulu represents the largest ethnic group in South Africa today with up to 10-11 million people. And the Zulu language, the largest spoken language in the country, is one of South Africa’s official languages. The president of South Africa today, Jacob Zuma, is a Zulu, and is in fact the first Zulu to lead the country.
The Sioux and Cheyenne have no such power today as the Zulu. They still have reservation set aside for them by the US government. The Great Sioux Reservation mainly lies in South Dakota, but also stretches into North Dakota and Nebraska. The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation today lies in eastern Montana, while the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation lies in South Dakota today.
What is very telling of the classic statement that “history is written by the victors” is these battlefields today. I have been to both the battlefields of Little Bighorn and Isandlwana, and what stood out to me is the decidedly one-sided version of history portrayed at both sites. Both sites undertook attempts to provide memorials to the victorious indigenous nations only in the early 1990s.
Little Bighorn has dozens of markers and memorials to the fallen US soldiers with nothing dedicated to the Sioux who courageously fought for their land. In 1881 the War Department had erected a monument for the 7th Cavalry. The U.S. Army also took custody of the site, controlling access and historical interpretation for decades. It was only in 1991- 115 years later – that the U.S. Congress ordered construction of a privately funded memorial for the American Indians. “The public interest,” according to Public Law 102-210, ‘will best be served by establishing a memorial…to honor and recognize the Indians who fought to preserve their land and culture.” In 1991, President George Bush signed legislation to also change the battlefield’s name from “Custer” to “Little Bighorn” Battlefield National Monument and to create the Indian Memorial.
Indian Memorial at the Little Bighorn battlefield
Isandlwana is scattered with memorials to the British soldiers who died during the battle, but no monuments or memorials to the victorious Zulu who fought for their land and freedom. In the early 1990s when Nelson Mandela was released and radical change was inevitable in South Africa, many were becoming aware of the indefensible bias of the history of the country in general and how this was reflected in monuments in particular. The Isandlwana battlefield was a telling example: the fact that memorials to British soldiers had been erected on the site, but nothing existed there to commemorate the Zulu warriors who won a decisive victory over the British in 1879 was embarrassing. It was only in 1999 that a memorial was erected at the site commemorating the valor of the fallen Zulu – unveiled on the 120th anniversary of the battle.
Zulu Memorial at the Isandlwana battlefield