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26th August 2005Zulu Victory
By Dawn
Lets turn this around from imagining a British victory at Isandlwana and go back to what it was, a Zulu victory. Ron Lock and Peter Quantrill’s book caused some controversy by saying that Ntshingwayo intended to attack the camp on the 22nd and I’ve read most of what was on the thread ‘Col Pulleine’s chances’ although I may have lost concentration at times and maybe didn’t see what I’m covering here. “Zulu Victory” brought up a good point with the suggestion of an earlier movement of impi which surprised me at first but which I couldn’t dismiss immediately. But I couldn’t reconcile this with the fact that it was the day of the dead moon and therefore bad luck and also the extract in ‘The Times ‘ of 17 March 1879 mentioned in an earlier thread (Zulu Ceremonies) whereby a statement was made that the impi had not had the final doctoring as they were discovered too soon. How about this for a suggestion that aligns both views:
The attack was planned for the next day, 23rd after the new moon, in accordance with Zulu superstition.
Final doctoring would have taken place evening/night of 22nd. I believe that, once final doctoring has taken place, no one eats, but I haven’t had this confirmed or denied yet. If this is so, then final doctoring has to take place as close to the time of battle so that warriors still have the strength. (Although 24 hours without food doesn’t hurt anybody.) I also believe final doctoring puts them into an almost hypnotic state so you don’t want this done too soon. (Can’t have space cadets running around)
On the 22nd Ntshingwayo was manoeurving his troops into place in preparation for an early morning attack on 23rd. By early morning, I mean the really early morning of the 23rd. I would imagine him moving his impi into position on the surrounding hills and plain overnight. On first light, can you imagine thousands of impi rising from the dongas and surging towards the camp, taking it by surprise and overriding the piquets within minutes? He would have had to take a chance on Chelmsford's column returning but he could have a plan in place as below.
Therefore the Zulus were moving forward in anticipation of an attack within 24 hours but were discovered by the vedettes which then initiated attack. I still believe that impi were kept moving around within sight of Chelmsford as a decoy and to keep his men from returning. The impi seen by the vedettes were there to keep the British confused as to the exact position and strength of the full force. I do not believe that Nthsingwayo kept his impi idle in the Ngwebeni valley waiting for the day to pass. Like pieces on a chessboard, he moved them around but, in spite of his best efforts, and maybe it was a calculated risk, the Zulu force was discovered and the rest, as they say, is history.
Well, that's my attempt. Thoughts, anyone?
26th August 2005Steven Sass
I thought a long time before deciding to open my mouth on this one, but here goes. Rather than answer Dawn's excellent queries one by one, I will make a few observations.

First I will say I find the book "Zulu Victory" stylistically very well done. However I feel the ultimate irony has been ignored in that the authors, after an impassioned plea that high time has come to recognize Isandlwana as a Zulu victory, spend a good part of the book attempting to pin the British defeat on Chelmsford et. al., which has in hindsight become somewhat de rigueur.

Problematically speaking, the book's main hypothesis doesn't seem to coincide with the majority of oral testimony and anecdotal recollections from the Zulus themselves. Finally, although I always am somewhat cautious in looking at interpretations of battlefield archaeology, there are certainly enough inconsistensies raised by the recent survey to require that the book be read with a slightly more critical eye.

Overall, I think the debate is moot. Why can't the incident be seen as both a Zulu Victory and a British defeat. Obviously the Zulus did many things right and the British did contribute to their own demise by some ill advised actions. I believe conventional wisdom would argue not to put one's faith in one book, but to continue serious study, both from today's authors and primary source material.

Just my two pence, for whatever worth they many have.


26th August 2005Steven Sass

For those proofreaders out there, my final statement should read, "Just my two pence, for whatever worth they may have," rather than "many have." See what happens when one attempts to get cheeky. Probably should have listened to me Mum and learned to keep my opinions to myself!

26th August 2005Dawn
Sounds like the Zulu sidestep.
Zulu Victory is not the only book I have read. It is because I have read others that I started the topic because I too believed that the attack started with the discovery of the impi in the valley. However that was turned upside down with Zulu Victory. The authors make good points and back it up with evidence. what I'm trying to do is see if the two points of view couldn't come together somehow. Another what if?
26th August 2005Paul Cubbin
I for one have really been a great fan of Zulu strategy. Their tactics were fine but were honed on other native tribes, and a few contacts with Boer commandoes had, as far as I can tell, very little effect on the mindset of your average Zulu commander. Ceteswayo had a healthy respect for firearms but the continued indiscipline of his troops somewhat undermined his sound, cautious advice.
I really don't think there is any evidence for a Zulu masterplan to hoodwink the British generals. They used the terrain to good effect and stayed hidden as long as possible but the enemy that Chelmsford was gleefully pursuing were tail-enders who failed to hide well enough! Zulus wre well used to going without food for long periods of time and travelling huge distances before a battle, so the state of them before Isandlwana wouldn't have been anything unusual. I think this is just one of those occasions when two enemies clashed with very little idea as to the abilities of each other and the side that made the least errors won a victory (albeit a Pyrrhic one given the casualties and British reaction).
26th August 2005Julian whybra
Dawn, it might be interesting for you to re-read Lock and Quantrill's evidence using the primary sources and see if you agree with the interpretation put upon it.
29th August 2005Dawn
As you suggested, I went back to the primary sources in 'Zulu Victory'. The question I was struggling with was 'why'? Why would Ntshingwayo go against his king's instructions and Zulu superstition and decide to attack on the 22nd. On re-reading pg 151 (paperback), I found the answer. Hearing of Dartnell's column out on reccon, (1800 men in total) Ntshingwayo decided to attack whilst that column was out of camp and the strength of the invading force split. The cherry on the top was Chelmsford moving out the next morning, now leaving the camp 'ripe for the picking'. Sorry, the idea was so new that when I first read it I did not pick up the subtle points which became apparent on a second reading.
30th August 2005Keith Smith

The matter of the whereabouts of the Zulu army when it was found has engrossed me ever since I had a pre-publication discussion about the matter with Ron Lock in Durban (May 2002). Most writers seem to have followed Morris but not one of the three eye-witness accounts corresppnds to his view of the matter.

As an example, if one takes Essex's two statements, which corroborate each other, about his ride to the top of the spur, he says that the firing began about noon (discovery?) and before Melvill's recall of the two companies from there at 12.30, he observed a Zulu force crossing to the north at a distance of 800 yards. One must presume that this was the Zulu right horn. Given that this point was some seven kilometres, as the crow flies, from the Ngwebeni ravine behind Mabaso hill, the Zulu must have travelled at about 14km/hour to cover the distance in 30 minutes or less. This is a cracking pace and it therefore seems unlikely that Mabaso was their point of origin. If one then assumes that they started from behind the Ithusi ridge, only some 3500 metres away, then the timing is much more acceptable. There are other such timings which might be examined with some reward - Higginson was sent out to intercept the two NMC troops on the plateau but the discovery occurred just before he caught up with them. See Jackson, Sphinx, p. 28 for a review of this matter. One might also consider the time taken for Shepstone to ride down to the camp with news of the discovery. He reached the camp about 12.15, at the same time as Gardner arrived from Chelmsford's column. If the discovery took place just before noon, how could he have covered the disance from Mabaso in about 20 minutes? Not possible, so the discovery must have been elsewhere.

My own view is that much of the Zulu force had already left the bivouac before they were discovered by Raw's troop. I await contemporary evidence to the contrary.
30th August 2005Michael Boyle
I suppose that it would depend on when Ntshingwayo became aware of Dartnell's departure and when he would have known Dartnell would not be returning. I have little doubt that there were Zulus observing every facet of the columns movements since Jan. 11, without them all being spotted by the vedettes. I don't think Ntshingwayo could have known that Dartnell was not returning until the recon set up camp for the night, so his descision would have been made rather late. As that night had no moon it would have been too difficult to get 20,000 men into position until first light.

Assuming that being the case it still begs the question why they hadn't been in position by noon and why there are so many Zulu accounts affirming that no attack was planned for that day. Of course those accounts could be dismissed depending on how far down the chain of command a tactical change would have been communicated. I would imagine that Zulu 'squaddies' or 'snuffys' would have been as much in the dark as their British counterparts as to planned tactical deployments. There is as well the fact that a 20,000 man impi hadn't been deployed in decades and the Zulus didn't seem to practice that size of an operation any more than the British did, thus leaving much room for error, especially given a last minute change to the original attack plan.

I've yet to see any evidence that the 'phantom' impi Lord Chelmsford was chasing was a decoy rather than the 'local' Zulus moving off to join the main impi. I am keeping an open mind and did find "Zulu Victory" a compelling book but someone still has 'a lot of 'splaining to do' before before all these new pieces of the puzzle fall into place for me at least.

(If anyone at the time had a quarter of the interest we do today there would be far fewer questions to answer!)
30th August 2005Dawn
My understanding is that the impi were called for battle to the Nodwengu military barracks for 'doctoring' prior to the march from Ulundi so local impi could not have been on their way to catch up with the main army as they should have been with it from the start. You cannot, however, exclude local impi breaking off from the main mass to visit their own homesteads maybe to warn their loved ones or to fetch food.
30th August 2005Michael Boyle
You're keeping me up! It's my understanding that the entire Zulu Army was not called to Ulundi. The impi that lost to Pearson that day were local Zulus who probably got their 'doctoring' at their own homesteads. ( By the way, I've read that the 'highland' Zulus thought little of the military prowess of the 'lowland' coast clans....). Those that opposed Wood that day were not even 'proper' Zulus in the eyes of some Zulus and may have 'doctored' on their own as well. (Someone correct me if I'm wrong, please.)
30th August 2005Dawn
Sorry for keeping you up.
From my understanding, most of the corps in the Zulu army were already at Ulundi for the First Fruits ceremony and were obligated to assemble at the Nodwengu barracks. Cetshwayo only sent them out after he realised he could not broker a negotiated settlement. If they had not gone for this ceremony then it is reasonable to assume that the doctoring and arming took place in their own homesteads.
30th August 2005Peter Quantrill
Your posting of 30 August re: decoy.This has been a major debating point in the past on this forum with differing views.
Our contemporary supporting evidence is as follows:
1.Natal Witness report 1879. " .... The General, however, did not of course at this time imagine that the Zulus were carrying out a conceived scheme, but thought they were probably falling back on their supports."
2. Norris-Newman. " The idea did not seem to occur to anyone that the enemy were carrying out a pre-conceived plan."
3.Milne to Commodore Sullivan. " No doubt the force we were after on Wednesday was a blind as we could never get near them, they kept edging away, drawing us further from the camp."
4. Memorandum from the Intelligence Department dated 11 February,1879.
" He [Lord Chelmsford] was led away by the Zulus who decoyed him from the camp."
The source for this is The Royal Archives, Windsor,RA VIC/033/92.
Cannot be plainer and note the use of the word ' decoy.'
30th August 2005Mike Snook
Here we go again!! (But not me this time!). Julian looks like he's still up for it!! Peter, nice to hear from you. Good luck!
31st August 2005Steven Sass

Your above response seems to only underscore my point regarding Zulu testimony failing to be taken seriously. Every source you list above is of British origin. I fail to see how Norris-Newman, Lt. Milne, the Natal Witness or even the Intelligence Department, would have the vaguest clue as to what the occupying the mind of Ntshingwayo or any of the Zulu commanders during that period of time.

On page 184 of the hard-covered version of "Zulu Victory," it is stated that "The Zulu witnesses more often than not are described as either deserters, prisoners, or spies." I am curious as to what other category of Zulu the British would have had occasion to interview? I find it a giant leap of faith to cast doubt on the majority of these testimonies because of these categorizations. Granted the second part of "Zulu Victory' rests greatly on the supposition that "some of their testimonies are not to be wholly trusted."

Great weight is given to the fact that the authors feel much of the testimony by these gentlemen were given under duress and that Ntshingwayo himself was never interviewed (however his untimely death in 1883 certainly precluded this from happening after a subtantial slacking of British Military intervention). The issue I have with this hypothesis is that surely once the immediate threat of British retaliation had lessend, the brilliant decoy strategies of Ntshingwayo should have become part of Zulu oral tradition to be passed down and solidified throughout the ensuing years. The fact that such a story does not regularily appear in ensuing western studies and more importantly consistently in Zulu oral tradition throughout the years is what gives me pause. As I am very familiar with several researchers who interact regularily with today's Zulu community, I have been assured this version of events that envisions planned decoy tactics, is not part of common lore.

Again I stick by my previous statement that "Zulu Victory" is a well written book crafted by two talented writers. It simply tends to frustrate me when indigenous oral tradition is so easily discredited and given less weight than the assumptions of people like Lt. Milne. Afterall, we all know his judgement is open to question, wasn't it his opinion that nothing unusual was happening in camp whilst he viewed events through his naval telescope?


I'm a tad surprised at some past remarks you made regarding "Zulu Victory." You've referred to a book that some important scholars see as mainly speculation and termed it " a breath of fresh air." However, in the past I've seen you call out others on some rather small inconsistencies, demanding historical accuracy beyond reproach. Are you starting to go soft on us?



31st August 2005Michael Boyle

I understand what you're saying. However, having read through your "Red Book" (where there are a number of similar remarks as well), Noggs' " In Zululand" and Milne's remarks in a couple of other books, as well as references to the intel memo, I haven't seen any evidence presented that indicates a planned deception. They all seem to be based on assumption, with the underlying conviction that the Zulus couldn't have beat "us" without resorting to subtrafuge. Granted that militarily the tactic had long proved successful (and migrated to commerce in the 'bait and switch' consumer ploy) and the Zulus were known to have used it both previously and subsequently, I have yet to read a Zulu account where they say "Yeah, we sure pulled one over on you guys that time!". On the contrary.

In order for me to accept it as having been a planned deception someone must explain why the 'large' number of Zulus Dartnell had seen the previous day (and campfires reported by Noggs that night) were no longer there when Lord Chelmsford arrived the following morning and why the few Zulus pursued were falling back in a north by west direction rather than a north by east direction which would have increased the distance from the main camp. As well as why, if it had been a planned deception, had the main impi taken so long to capatilize on it and why the deployments it had undertaken were done with none of the Zulu panache for avoiding detection.


31st August 2005Mike McCabe
Even the 21 March 1879 War Dept reporton 'The Isandlana (sic) Disaster' records:
"A large force of Natives known to be along the road some 10 or 12 miles to the east, more believed to be in the country to the south-east of the camp, while there were indications of Zulus moving up in the direction of the camp from the east, and of their being behind the hills to the north of it, on which side no reconnaissance had been made. Reports were also current that a large force was in the neighbourhood. "

This, by implication, being official recognition that Chelmsford might reasonably have formed the same assessment (or perhaps actualy had) prior to deploying forward as soon as he did..
Though the same report later firmly concludes that the Zulus did not plan to attack on 22 January "...for religious reasons..." etc here were substantive key judgements of a force capable of concentrating at or near Isandlwana within the next few hours.

If we, as the least contentious conclusion, suppose that this was just the routine manoeuvring action of an army concentrating its forces, and simply marching near or past Dartnell, then C still had much to fear from any move that depleted his ability to defend Isandlwana camp and its vital war materiel. And, C might have given more realistic thought to the 'area of influence' (in modern parlance) of such a force, and the known tactical flexibility of the Zulus in all but large scale set piece attacks.
Whether a deception was planned or not, one was achieved (even if C only deceived himself), and it is not inconceivable that one was indeed planned, or, that one was improvised over a short term period once the Zulus perceived how C was reacting to their deployments.
The 'block' counter-argument is that the Zulus were concentrating for a deliberate attack on 23rd January, were not prepared to be distracted much from their preparations, did not see Dartnell's force as a major threat, and were generally surprised to discover that C had split his force and yielded them a great tactical advantage, that consequently dumped Pulleine into a grave tactical predicament - that of defending a camp laid out to be defended by a force that was twice as large.
There are some speculations and intelligent suppositions in Zulu Victory, but the authors in most cases make that clear as they argue their narrative case.
The general effect is one of additional, often alternative, interpretation.
However, the source material marshalled to disparage the notion of an operational deception or a series of lower level tactical ones is largely the quoting of a succession of contemporary opinions - not individually or collectively constituting a counter-proof by any means. Zulu use of camouflage, observation and ground, and tactical enterprise, would in any case have decived an opposing army that could be seen miles away marching about in red coats, on predictable routes, and with little in the way of flank guards and information gathering patrols.