KZN Battlefields

The Battlefields of KwaZulu Natal cover a very large area of the province. Some of the Battlefields can be visited in one day. Others are further away from Durban and so an overnight trip will be required to visit these areas. Battle of Izandlwana and Rorke’s Drift is a 2 day trip. Areas of Early Zulu Conflicts, Dingaan’s Kraal and Piet Retief’s grave can be done in one day.

On enquiry duration and prices can be quoted.


Early in the 19th century King Shaka transformed his hardly significant Nguni clan into a proud and powerful nation. Born the illegitimate son of King Senzangakhona and Nandi and rejected by Senzangakhona, Nandi and Shaka sought refuge with a paternal uncle living with the Mtetwa people, who were ruled by Dingiswayo.

On the death of Senzangakhona, Dingiswayo supported Shaka’s claim to the throne. Shaka assassinated his half brother and assumed leadership of the Zulu. When the Ndwande under Zwide defeated and killed Dingiswayo, Shaka absorbed the leaderless tribe into the Zulu. Zwide then attacked the Zulu but under Shaka’s brilliant leadership at the Battle of Gqokli Hill in April 1818 the Zulu army defeated a numerically superior Ndwandwe force and ended their threat to the Zulu nation.

After the superiority of the Zulu Nation had been entrenched under Shaka’s leadership, they extended their power base to cover all of what is now KwaZulu-Natal 1n 1828, Shaka was assassinated by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana and he was succeeded by Dingane. Dingane saw the increasing influence of the whites in Port Natal as a threat, exacerbated by the arrival of the Voortrekkers over the Drakensberg range of mountains. The stage was set for more conflict.


The introduction of British rule in the Cape Colony in 1806 led to dissatisfaction among the fiercely independent Afrikaners (of Dutch descent), resulting in an exodus of Voortrekkers to the hinterland, where they aspired to govern themselves and maintain their cultural identity and language.

In 1838 one of these groups under Piet Retief chose to cross the Drakensberg Mountains and enter Natal where their leaders had already made contact with the group of English adventurers and hunters that had established themselves in Port Natal (Durban).

The English informed Retief that before acquiring land in Natal he would need to negotiate with the King of the Zulu, Dingane. Retief and members of his party therefore paid Dingane a visit. Dingane was already suspicious of the white men.  He tasked Piet Retief and his men with recovering cattle stolen from him by another powerful chief by the name of Sikonyela, hoping that Sikonyela would remove them as a threat, but Retief and his men completed the task with relative ease. This placed Dingane in a dilemma and during Retief and his party’s subsequent visit, he had them killed. The Zulu King then unleashed his warriors on the various groups of Trekkers who by now had moved down into Natal in anticipation of obtaining land. Over the period 12th to 19th February 1838 several hundred Trekker families were killed before the remainder were able to regroup and beat off the Zulus’ attacks. The Trekkers then formed a commando to seek retribution and to try and recover some of the stolen cattle but they were ambushed in the eThaleni Valley and forced to flee leaving young 14 year old Dirkie Uys to die fighting alongside his father. Eventually a stronger force, led by Andries Pretorius, was constituted and the Zulu army was defeated at the Battle of Blood River on the 16th December 1838. Dingane fled his capital Mgungundlovu and was eventually defeated by his half-brother Mpande at the Battle of Maqongqo in 1840.


The increasing strengthening of the independent Zulu nation by King Cetshwayo was perceived as a growing threat to the Colony of Natal by the British High Commissioner Sir Bartle Frere and in December 1878 the British government represented by Frere issued an ultimatum that was impossible for the Zulu Nation to accept as it would have required them to disband their army and swear allegiance to Queen Victoria.

When these demands were not met, three British columns, under the overall command of Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford, who despite considerable experience in the field nonetheless made the fatal mistake of underestimating the fighting ability of the Zulus, crossed the Thukela and Buffalo rivers on the 12th January 1879 and invaded Zululand.

The Zulus retaliated and on Wednesday 22nd January 1879 the Zulu Army, comprising approximately 20 000 warriors, attacked and overran the British camp at Isandlwana, killing 1357 Imperial troops, colonial volunteers and native levies. Survivors of the route fled along a torturous route now known as the Fugitive’s Trail crossing the swollen Buffalo River at what became known as Fugitives’ Drift. Among these were Lieutenant Teignmouth Melvill who had attempted to save the Queen’s Colour and Lieutenant Nevill Coghill who went to his assistance. Both were killed on the Natal bank of the river as they scrambled up the hillside. (They were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross).

After the Battle an additional force of approximately 4000 warriors led by King Cetshwayo’s half-brother Prince Dabulamanzi went on to attack the British garrison at the Swedish Mission station at Rorke’s Drift, that was being used as a commissariat and hospital. Here the “heroic hundred” repelled the attackers after an 11 hour battle. The British lost 17 men and won 11 Victoria Crosses.


At the end of the Anglo Zulu war of 1879 the British government decided to divide the Zulu Kingdom into 13 Regions and to govern each of them they placed Zulu Chiefs (amakhosi) who had shown some form of loyalty to them during the Anglo-Zulu War. King Cetshwayo by this time had been incarcerated in the Castle in Cape Town. Many of these amakhosi were of course not the traditional ones of the areas they now governed and discontent began to grow. Matters came to a head when the authorities granted Cetshwayo permission to return to his capital, Ondini 3 (near his former capital Ondini 2).

This resulted in several major clashes taking place between the Usuthu and the Mandlakazi, culminating in an attack by the latter on Ondini 3. Cetshwayo barely escaped with his life but sought sanctuary with the Shezi community before being resettled in Eshowe by the British Resident in Zululand, Sir Melmoth Osborn.

Cetshwayo’s son Prince Dinuzulu enlisted the assistance of the Boers led by General Louis Botha and General Lucas Meyer and after fighting a desperate battle at eTshaneni (the Ghost Mountain) near Mkhuze on the 5th June 1884, the might of the Mandlakazi was broken.


With the discovery of gold in the Transvaal (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek) in 1886, The Boers, fearing an influx of uitlanders (foreigners), amended the voting act. The foreigners on the goldfields protested, certain members of the British government manipulated the situation to their own ends, and war between Britain and the ZAR, who were supported by the Orange   Free State, broke out on 11th October 1899.

The northern triangle of Natal, which bordered both Boer Republics, was an especially vulnerable region and within the first two months of the war the Boers had forced the British troops back below the Thukela River line and besieged the town of Ladysmith, battles having taken place at Talana near Dundee and Elandslaagte.

Britain entered the war promising to give the “Boojers a lesson” believing it would all be over by Christmas, but the three year conflict proved to be the longest, costliest, bloodiest and most humiliating war Britain had fought since the Napoleonic wars.

During the Anglo-Boer War, the Boers besieged the British army in Ladysmith for 118 days, an event that dominated world headlines. In doing so they held off British attempts to break through to Ladysmith along the Thukela River line at Colenso, iNthabamnyama, Spioenkop and Vaalkrans until finally succumbing to a massive 14 day offensive by the British known as the Battle of the Thukela Heights which was the biggest battle fought by the British in Africa until World War 2. The Boers then confounded British strategists by discarding conventional warfare and opting for guerrilla tactics, using relatively small, highly mobile mounted commando units.