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 Zulu narratives of the battle of Isandlwana

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PostSubject: Zulu narratives of the battle of Isandlwana   Wed Nov 25, 2009 10:36 pm

By Bertram Mitford.

Meaning of * Isandhlwana.

The site of the camp is along the eastern base of Isandhlwana,^ which rises immediately above it in the rear ; fronting it the country is all open to Isipezi mountain, some fourteen miles off, where Lord Chelmsford was engaging Matyana at the time of the attack. On the left, but at right angles to Isandhlwana, which lies north and south, runs the Nqutu range, over which the Zulu army first appeared. At the foot of this range, about two miles from camp, is a conical eminence where the rocket battery was stationed. The actual scene of operations, then, was an oblong plain about three miles in extent, whence, in the event of defeat, escape would only be possible by making for the The meaning- of Isandhlwana, or more correctly Tsandhlwane, is neither * little hand,' nor * little house,' nor any other of the hundred and one interpretations which were devised at the time of the disaster, but refers to a portion of bovine intestinal anatomy. The spelling of the word which I shall observe throughout these pages will be that which is now universally employed, though ' Isandhlwane ' is the more correct. The pronunciation of the word is exactly according to its orthography, every letter being distinctly sounded.


Zulu narratives of the battle.

The following narrative is that of a warrior of the Umbonambi regiment, who was present at the battle ; I give it as nearly as possible in his own words :

Several days before the fight we started from Undini, eight regiments strong (about 25,000 men). The King said, " The white soldiers have crossed into Zululand and are coming further in, soon they will be here (at Undini) ; go and drive them across Umzinyati (the Buffalo) right back into Natal." The impi ^ was commanded by Tyingwayo ; under him were Mavumengwane, Mundiila, and Yumandaba, the induna (chief) of the Kandam- pemvu regiment ; this regiment is also called Umcityu, but Kandampemvu is the oldest name. Matyana-ka-Mondisi was not present, nor was Dabulamanzi. Untuswa, brother of Seketwayo, is the induna of my regiment ; he took part in the fight, so did Mehlo-ka-zulu and Sirayo's other son. The chief Sibepu also fought.

We were lying in the hills up there, when one of our scouting parties came back followed by a number of mounted men ; they were most of them natives, but some were whites. They fired upon us. Then the whole imjpi became very excited and sprang up. When the horsemen saw how numerous we were they began to retreat. We formed up in rank and marched towards the camp. At the top of the last hill we were met by more horsemen, but we were too many for them and they retreated. Here, where we are standing (my informant's kraal was situated close to the rocket hill before mentioned), there were some parties of soldiers in red coats who kept up a heavy fire upon us as we came over. My regiment was here and lost a lot of men ; they kept tumbling over one upon another. (The narrator became quite excited, and indulged in much gesticulation, illustrating the volleys by cracking his fingers like pistol-shots.) Then the Ngobamakosi regiment, which formed the left horn of the impi, extended and swept round on the south of the rocket hill so as to outflank the soldiers, who, seeing this, fell back and took cover in that donga (pointing to a donga) insects the field about a mile from camp), and fired upon us from there. By that time the Ngobamakosi had got among the " paraffin " (rockets) and killed the horses, and were circling round so as to shut in the camp on the side of the river, but we could not advance, the fire from the donga was too heavy. The great indunas were on the hill over there (pointing to an eminence commanding
the north side of the camp, above where the mission-house now stands), and just below them a number of soldiers were engaging the Kandam- pemvu regiment, which was being driven back, but one of the sub-chiefs of the Kandampemvu ran down from the hill and rallied them, calling out that they would get the whole impi beaten and must
come on. Then they all shouted " Usiitu ! " and waving their shields charged the soldiers with great fury. The chief was shot through the forehead and dropped down dead, but the Kandampemvu rushed over his body and fell upon the soldiers, stabbing them with their assegais and driving them right in among the tents.

My regiment and the Umpunga formed the centre of the impi. When the soldiers in the donga saw that the Kandampemvu were getting behind them, they retreated upon the camp, firing at us all the time. As they retreated we followed them. I saw several white men on horseback galloping towards the " neck," which was the only point open ; then the Nokenke and Nodwengu regiments, which had formed the right horn of the im'pi^ joined with the Ngobamakosi on the " neck." After that there was so much smoke that I could not see whether the white men had got through or not. The tumult and the firing was wonderful ; every warrior shouted " Usiitu ! " as he killed anyone, and the sun got very dark,^ like night, with the smoke. The English fought long and hard ; there were so many of our people in front of me that I did not get into the thick of the fight until the end. The warriors called out that all the white men had been killed, and then we began to plunder the camp. The Undi and Udhloko regiments, which had been in reserve, then went on " kwa Jim "^ to take the post there. We found " tywala"^ in the camp, and some of our men got very drunk.
We were so hot and thirsty that we drank everything liquid we found, without waiting to see what it was. Some of them found some black stuff in bottles (probably ink) ; it did not look good, so they did not drink it ; but one or two who drank some.

He is referring to an annular eclipse, which, it is not a little
curious, should have taken place while the frightful conflict was at its height.

Literally, * at Jim's.' Rorke's Drift is so called by the Zulus after
one ' Jim ' Rorke, who formerly lived there.

Native beer. Tlie word is also applied to ardent spirits or any
sort of intoxicating beverage.


paraffin oil, thinking it was " tywala," were poisoned. We took as mucli plunder as we could carry, and went away home to our kraals. We did not reassemble and march back to Ulundi.

At first we had not intended attacking the camp that day, as the moon w^as " wrong " (in an unfavourable quarter — a superstition), but as the whites had discovered our presence the indunas said we had better go on. Only six regiments took part in the fight — the Nodwengu, Nokenke, Umbonambi, Umpunga, Kandampemvu, and Ngobamakosi. The Uve is part of the Ngobamakosi, and not a separate corps ; it is the boys' regiment.'

The above seems a plain unvarnished version of those events of the day which came within the narrator's actual observation ; the following account is that of a Zulu belonging to the Nokenke regiment, which, with the Nodwengu, formed the right horn of the attacking force, and operated at the back of Isandhlwana mountain. The first portion of the narrative, as to how the afiair began, tallies exactly with that of the Umbonambi warrior, albeit the men were unknown to each other, for I picked up this story in a different part of the country. After describing the earlier movements, he went on.

While the Kandampemvu were driving back the horsemen over the hill north of the camp, we worked round behind Isandhlwana under cover of the long grass and dongas, intending to join with the Ngobamakosi on the " neck" and sweep in upon the camp. Then we saw white men beginning to run away along the road " kwa Jim ; " many of these were cut off and killed, down in the stream which flows through the bottom of the valley. More and more came over, some mounted and some on foot. When they saw that the valley was full of our warriors, they turned to the left and ran off along the side of the hill towards Umzinyati (the Buffalo) ;those who had not got horses were soon overtaken. The Nodwengu pursued the mounted men, numbers of whom were killed among the thorns and dongas, but I heard that some escaped. Our regiment went over into the camp. The ground is high and full of dongas and stones, and the soldiers did not see us till we were right upon them. They fought well a lot of them got up on the steep slope under the cliff behind the camp, and the Zulus could not get at them at all ; they were shot or bayoneted as fast as they came up. At last the soldiers gave a shout and charged down upon us. There was an induna in front of them with a long flashing sword, which he whirled round his head as he ran it must have been made of fire.

Supposed to be Captain Youughusband.

Wheiigh ! (Here the speaker made an expressive gesture of shading the eyes.) They killed themselves by running down, for our people got above them and quite surrounded them ; these, and a group of white men on the " neck," were the last to fall.

The sun turned black in the middle of the battle ; we could still see it over us, or should have thought we had been fighting till evening.
Then we got into the camp, and there was a great deal of smoke and firing. Afterwards the sun came out bright again ' Were there any prisoners taken ? ' I asked. — ' No ; all were killed on the field, and at once ; no white men w^ere tortured : it is the Zulu custom to kill everyone on the spot ; prisoners are never taken.'


There seems no reason for doubting this statement, which may be taken as scattering to the winds the numerous absurd and sensational ' yarns ' which got about at the time, and are still credited. Several Zulus whom I questioned on the subject all agreed in saying that it was not the custom to torture prisoners of war, though it was sometimes done in cases of ' umtagati ' (witchcraft). Hence it is comforting to know that our unfortunate countrymen who fell on that fatal day were spared the most horrible side of savage warfare, and met their deaths as soldiers, in the thick of battle, at the hands of a foe in every respect worthy of their steel.
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Carlos Roca



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PostSubject: Re: Zulu narratives of the battle of Isandlwana   Thu Jan 30, 2014 3:11 pm

We should never forget the importance of the Zulu oral tradition. Among the many zulus that I have had the opportunity to interview for my books, in English language two have come out only, but they would lack other three. I remember as the great-great-grandson of a warrior of the ibutho iNgobamakhosi, of name Njabulo KaXula, in their family their partipación was known in iSandlwana. As it was known in the family, the warriors of the iNgobamakhosi, and of the uVe, almost they had more fear to the zulus than they shot behind them, that to the soldiers dresses of red that had before. With this I mean that it is necessary exclusively a book that turns, with the vision and oral tradition of iSandlwana. Maybe, and only maybe, we would take ourselves big surprises.
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