On this day in 1879, the British Army was defeated by the Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana. The loss at Isandlwana marked the worst military defeat sustained by the British Armed Forces against a technologically inferior indigenous force, with the Zulu forces outnumbering the British almost 10 to 1.
In an effort to consolidate its rule over southern Africa, the British committed to war against the Zulu Kingdom on January 11, 1879. Taking place during the “Scramble for Africa”, where various European powers sought control over unclaimed lands of Africa, Victorian Britain believed that the war against the Zulus would be easy work and a matter of putting down token tribal resistance. The British commander-in-chief in South Africa, Lord Chelmsford, had much experience in dealing with wars on the African continent, and it was believed he would be able to satisfactorily win victory for the British yet again. This was not to be the case, however.
On January 20th, a column of the British force made camp on Isandlwana Hill, and using other columns, Chelmsford sought to scout out the locations of the Zulu army. Chelmsford was unable to locate the Zulu force, which had snuck around Chelmsford on its way to attack the British at Isandlwana, until it was too late. Though the Zulu were only armed with spears and shields (though it should be noted they did have muskets, however were ill-equipped and trained to operate these weapons) and the British with their top-of-the-line Martini-Henry breech-loading rifles and artillery, on January 22nd, 1879, the British were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Zulu soldiers at Isandlwana and defeated.
Upon returning to Isandlwana after the battle, Chelmsford was devastated. The defeat at Isandlwana damaged the psyche of the British military and nation, with vows to avenge the loss in Zululand. More resources and attention were consequently placed by the British into the Anglo-Zulu War, resulting in British victory later on in July.
The following are some British links that may be of interest for further reading:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1193666/Remains-British-soldier-died-battle-Zulu-war-identified-130-years–tunic-button.html – Remains of British soldier who died in first battle of Zulu war identified after 130 years.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/zulu_01.shtml – A nice write-up of the events of the Anglo-Zulu War and the controversy behind Lord Chelmsford.