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Preparing for Global War: The Anglo-Zulu War

How British fears of European Imperialism led to carnage in South Africa

Published onDec 11, 2021
Preparing for Global War: The Anglo-Zulu War

In 1879, the small South African nation of Zululand was completely destroyed by the British Empire. How this destruction came about is more complicated than many may realize. In general, it was a massive pre-World War-era chess game of Empires attempting to one-up each other, and Zululand was caught in the middle of this game.

Map of South Africa just before the Anglo-Zulu War. All red zones had been taken by the British. Zululand is located on the eastern coast.

Fear amongst a small number of British elites had brought them to war with the Zulus. As it turns out, South Africa was of great importance to the British Empire. The Suez Canal located in Eygpt was Britains main route to its eastern colonies and was dangerously close to aggressive foreign powers like the Ottoman and Russian Empires. If the canal were to be taken, Britain would need to rely on its South African route to keep its empire together. 1

The political landscape of South Africa during this time was far from ideal In the eyes of British administrators. In 1868, the South African Boers discovered diamonds in their independent state of Transvaal leading to the region being flooded with African natives seeking employment. These natives however did not come for the diamonds, they came for guns. The Boers would pay African natives with guns which they found far more valuable than anything else. This alarmed the British who were attempting to keep control of their South African colony.2 If they were to ensure South Africa's defense against foreign powers and the survival of sea routes to Asia, they would need to tighten security in the region. This would include the taking of all independent states in South Africa like the Boers Transvaal and the Zulus Zululand.

A picture of the South African diamond mines sometime during the 1870s.

A man named Henry Bartle Frere was given the administrator position in South Africa and began working on a plan of uniting all states under his control. When troubles began brewing with Bartle Frere and the Zulu King Chetshwayo, war was inevitable. They began their campaign against the Zulus in January 1879 and would quickly encounter some of the most ferocious fighting the British had seen since the battle of Waterloo in 1815. Only five months after it began the Zulus had been defeated.3 Britain had secured South Africa and now was ready for war against another major power if it were to arise.

Fearsome fighting at the battle of Rorkes’s Drift

The major war that the British had foreseen would come about 35 years later. Despite the invasion of Zululand being another black mark for European colonial aggression, the British were correct in their prediction of war with European empires. The Empires of Russia and Germany had made great strides in the latter half of the 19th century which sent the British into a state of panic, desperately attempting to keep hold of its power.4

To the British, the Anglo-Zulu War was just another conflict for ensuring their place in the world was kept at the top. For the small African nation, it was the end of their sovereignty and the beginning of their lives as victims of colonial oppression.

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