The area of north central KwaZulu-Natal is called the Battlefields because of the many deadly battles that took place in this region among the Zulus, Boers and English over a period of nearly 100 years. There are over 50 historic sights within this part of the province. Some of the more prominent sites are detailed below.
1838 – Voortrekker Zulu Battles
After the implementation of British rule over the Cape Colony in 1806, Voortrekkers began to push northeast into the hinterland of the country in order to establish their own independent territory outside of British control. In 1837 a group of these Voortrekkers, lead by Piet Retief, established a camp on the ridge of the Drakensberg near the border of present-day KwaZulu-Natal. Retief and a small group of men descended into KwaZulu-Natal, and after coming in contact with a number of Zulu, met with chief Dingane in an effort to negotiate a land settlement agreement for the eastward moving Voortrekkers. Dingane struck a deal that if Retief and his men could recover a few thousand cattle that had been stolen from Dingane’s people by neighboring chief Sekonyela, he would agree to make a land settlement. It is believed that Dingane never intended to give up land to the Voortrekkers and that he sent Retief and his men on this mission intending that they would be killed.
A few months later in early 1838, Retief and his men successfully retrieved the cattle and brought them back to Dingane, fully intending to sign a deal for their new land. Dingane signed a contract ceding all the land south of the Tugela River down to the Mzimvubu River to the Voortrekkers, but then promptly killed Retief and all of his men as well as other Voortrekker men, women and children waiting in a nearby camp. The Voortrekkers fled and men regrouped in a commando unit under the leadership of Andries Pretorius.
1879 – Anglo Zulu War
The decisive six-month-long bloody Anglo Zulu war began in early 1879 and marked the end of the independent Zulu nation. In the second half of the 1800s, a complex series of disputes, broken land treaties and an increasing British desire to quash their unpredictable Zulu neighbors and expand economic interests, led the British to issue an ultimatum. In December 1878, British high commissioner Sir Bartle Frere demanded from Chief Cetshwayo that the Zulu disband their armies, surrender certain high-ranking individuals, accept western missionaries onto their land and pay fines for insults against the British notion of justice, or face war. Cetshwayo did not respond to the ultimatum and in January 1879, a British force under Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand, without approval of the British Government back home.
The Battle of Blood River took place on the bank of the Ncome River on December 16, 1838 where Pretorius and 450 armed men and 200 servants set up a fortified camp. The Voortrekkers successfully fended off roughly 12,000 Zulus with their guns and canons. The Zulus suffered an estimated 3,000 casualties, but it is reported that only three of the Voortrekkers were wounded. In remembrance of this historic battle, December 16 has long been a South African national holiday, called The Day of the Vow, because the Voortrekkers took a vow before the battle to erect a church in return for God's help in obtaining victory. After 1994, the holiday was renamed the Day of Reconciliation.
The Blood River Museum is located at the site of the battle where there is a life-sized bronze recreation of the wagons pulled together into a defensive laager.
The Ncome Museum is located across the river from the Blood River Museum and gives the Zulu side of the story.
The Battle of Isandlwana on January 22, 1879 was the first battle of the Anglo-Zulu War. A massive Zulu force of nearly 20,000 warriors attacked a camp of roughly 1,700 British and 2,000 African forces. Although the Zulus fought the heavily armed British mostly with spears, they defeated them. They killed nearly all who fought outside of the camp on the front lines and took food, supplies and weapons from the slaughtered British. The British side suffered roughly 1,300 casualties.
The Isandlwana Interpretation Center is a small museum of the history of the battle of Isandlwana along with a small gift shop. Visitors pay at the museum before entering the Isandlwana Battlefield where numerous white stone cairns mark British mass graves.
The Battle of Rorke's Drift occurred later in the afternoon on the same day as the Battle of Isandlwana. Two British officers who had survived Isandlwana earlier that day made it to Rorke's Drift to inform their comrades of the earlier defeat and of the approaching Zulu forces. Upon hearing the news of the impending attack, a contingent of soldiers deserted the mission station at Rorke's Drift, leaving just 140 British soldiers, including hospital patients. Roughly 3,500 Zulu warriors descended upon the mission station and fought throughout the night. The Zulus came close to defeating the British, breaching the lightly fortified fort walls in a number of places, before retreating before dawn. Amazingly, the 140 British suffered only 17 deaths and 14 wounded.
Rorke's Drift Interpretation Center is a museum and community project coffee shop located beside the battlefield. There is also a separate building housing an art and craft shop. Local guides can frequently be found at the museum and offer guided tours.