On 11 January 1879, a British Army crossed the Buffalo River, the boundary between the British Natal province and the independent native African kingdom of the Zulus. After the refusal by the Zulu king Cetshwayo of an insulting British ultimatum, a British army prepared to march on the Zulu capital, Ulindi; with the goal of defeating and annexing the Zulu kingdom.
The Zulu War of 1879 was not officially sanctioned by the government of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. It was instead the work of an ambitious colonial official, Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere, High Commissioner for Southern Africa. In an effort to compel the various states of South Africa into a British confederation (which would be comprised of British-run Cape Colony and Natal, the Boer republics: the Transvaal and the Orange Free State), Frere had initiated a policy of annexation of local African tribal states. The British had for most of the century battled the Xhosa tribes between their Cape Colony and Zululand. The last of these was subdued in 1878. Frere now set his sights on the Zulus.
Frere’s ambitions aside, the existence of an independent and warlike Zulu state sharing several hundred miles of open border with British territory was in any case an unstable situation.
Founded by Shaka in the first decades of the 19th century, the Zulus were a people as devoted to and organized for war as were the Romans or the Spartans of old….