The Zulu War
There were other more pressing concerns for the Boer Republics. The two territories of Orange Free State and Transvaal were squeezed between the British-ruled Cape Colony to the south and west, Zululand to the east and other European-ruled colonies to the north (including British Rhodesia and Bechuanaland).
During the 1870s there were a series of skirmishes within the Transvaal between the Boers and local tribes. In particular intensifying struggles between Boers and the Pedi led by Sekhukune I over land and labour resulted in the war of 1876, in which the Boer aggressors were defeated due in part to the firepower bought with proceeds of early Pedi labour migration to the Kimberley diamond fields.
There were also serious tensions between the Transvaal Republic and the Zulus led by King Cetshwayo. The Zulus occupied a kingdom located to the south east, bordered on the one side by the Transvaal Republic and on the other by British Natal. Upon taking the throne King Cetshwayo had expanded his army and reintroduced many of the paramilitary practices of the famous Shaka, king of the Zulus.
He had also started equipping his impis with firearms although this was a gradual process and the majority had only shields, clubs (knobkerries) and spears (throwing spears and the famous assegais). Over 40,000 strong, the disciplined, well motivated and supremely confident Zulu warriors were a formidable force on their own home ground, notwithstanding the lack of modern weaponry. King Cetshwayo then banished European missionaries from his land, and there were suggestions that he might also have become involved in inciting other native African peoples to rebel against Boers in the Transvaal. The Transvaal Boers became more and more concerned, but King Cetshwayo cleverly maintained good relations with the British in Natal in an effort to counter the Boer threat.
In 1877, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, the British Secretary for Native Affairs in Natal, annexed the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic), for Britain using a special warrant. The Transvaal Boers objected but as long as the Zulu threat remained, found themselves between the proverbial rock and hard place; they feared that if they took up arms to resist the British annexation actively, King Cetshwayo and the Zulus would take the opportunity to attack. They also feared a war on two fronts; namely that the local tribes would seize the opportunity to rebel and the simmering unrest in the Transvaal would be re-ignited. The British annexation resulted however in resentment against the British occupation and a growing nationalism.
The Transvaal Boers led by Paul Kruger (the future Transvaal President) thereafter elected to deal first with the Zulu threat, and local issues, before directly opposing the British annexation. Paul Kruger made two visits to London for direct talks with the British government. In September 1878, on his return from the second visit, Kruger met in Pietermaritzburg with the British representatives, Sir Bartle Frere and Lt. General Frederic Thesiger (shortly to inherit the title of Lord Chelmsford), in order to update them on the progress of the talks.
Sir Theophilus Shepstone in his capacity as British governor of Natal had his own concerns about the expansion of the Zulu army under King Cetshwayo and the potential threat to Natal especially given the adoption by the Zulus of muskets and other modern weapons. In his new role of Administrator of the Transvaal, he was now responsible for protecting the Transvaal and had direct involvement in the Zulu border dispute from the side of the Transvaal. Persistent Boer representations and Paul Kruger's diplomatic manoeuvrings added to the pressure. There were incidents involving Zulu paramilitary actions on either side of the Transvaal/Natal border, and Sir Shepstone increasingly began to regard King Cetshwayo (who now found no defender in Natal save Bishop Colenso) as having permitted such "outrages", and to be in a "defiant mood".
Disraeli's Tory administration in London did not want a war with the Zulus. "The fact is" wrote Sir Michael Hicks Beach, the colonial secretary in November 1878 "that matters in Eastern Europe and India ... wear so serious an aspect that we cannot have a Zulu war in addition to other greater and too possible troubles". Sir Bartle Frere however had been sent to the Cape Colony as governor and high commissioner in 1877 with the brief of creating a Confederation of South Africa from the various British colonies, Boer Republics and native states.
He concluded that the powerful Zulu kingdom stood in the way of this so was receptive to Sir Shepstone's arguments that King Cetshwayo and his Zulu army posed a threat to the peace of the region. In December 1878, notwithstanding the reluctance of the British government to start yet another colonial war, Frere presented Cetshwayo with an ultimatum that the Zulu army be disbanded and the Zulus accept a British resident. This was unacceptable to the Zulus as it effectively meant that Cetshwayo, had he agreed, would have lost his throne. Cetshwayo asked for more time but Frere refused and on 11 January 1879, the British No 3 Column under Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand with about 7000 regular troops, a similar number of black African "levees" and a thousand white volunteers.
The British anticipated that the Zulu War would proceed in a pattern typical of numerous colonial wars fought in Africa, namely that relatively small bodies of professional European troops armed with modern firearms and artillery, and supplemented by local allies and levies, would march out to meet the natives whose ragged, badly equipped armies would put up a brave struggle, but in the end would succumb to professional soldiers wielding massed fire-power. Various locals (including Paul Kruger) who from personal experience had great respect for the military capabilities of the Zulus stressed the need for caution, and in particular strongly advocated defensive tactics such as concentrating fire-power from fortified strongpoints such as wagons drawn into a circle (laagers) as the Boers had done at The Battle of Blood River.
However, the advice was disregarded and on 22 January 1879 the British lost more than 1600 soldiers when a Zulu attack caught them in the open at the Battle of Isandhlwana. Shortly after the main battle, a British outpost at Rorke's Drift on the Zululand-Natal border, withstood a second Zulu attack with great losses to the Zulus with the British fighting defensively in and around the stone buildings of a small trading store which had been hastily fortified. After reinforcements arrived, the British won a series of skirmishes and eventually conquered the Zulu capital at Ulundi by July 1879. This war to all intents and purposes signalled the end of the independent Zulu nation. The British consolidated their power over Natal, the Zulu kingdom and the Transvaal in 1879 after the Anglo-Zulu War.
Sir Garnet Wolslely then turned to the Pedi in the Transvaal and they were finally defeated by British troops in 1879.