A Brief History of the Battlefields
The first major battle in this area took place some 48km (30 miles) east of Dundee, at what came to be known as Blood River. Following the treacherous murder of Retief and his men and Dingaan's ruthless persecution of white settlers, Trekker leader Andries Pretorius moved an Afrikaner commando of 464 men to a strategic spot on the banks of the ironically named Ncome (Peace) River. There he created an impenetrable laager (a circular encampment of wagons, with oxen in the center), with 64 ox-wagons, and prayed for victory. On behalf of the Afrikaner nation, Pretorius made a solemn vow to God that, should they survive, Afrikaners would hold the day sacred in perpetuity. On December 16, 1838, the Zulus attacked. Three times they were driven off by fire before Pretorius led a mounted charge. Eventually, the Zulus fled, leaving 3,000 dead and the river dark with blood. Not one Boer died, giving rise to the nationalistic Afrikaner myth that their Old Testament God had protected them against invincible odds, proving that they were indeed the chosen race. Today, December 16 remains a national holiday (though renamed Day of Reconciliation), and visitors can view the eerie spectacle of a replica laager, 64 life-size ox-wagons cast in bronze, at the original site of Blood River Battlefield. The site is off the R33 and is open daily from 8am to 5pm.
Zulu might rose again under Cetshwayo. This clearly did not fit in with British imperialist plans, and, having delivered a totally unreasonable ultimatum, three British columns under an overconfident Chelmsford marched into Zululand in January 1879. On January 21, Chelmsford set up temporary camp at Isandlwana Hill and, believing that the Zulu army was elsewhere, took a large detachment to support a reconnaissance force, leaving the camp defenseless. Six kilometers (3 3/4 miles) away, 24,000 Zulu soldiers sat in the long grass, waiting silently for a signal. At about 11:30am the following day, a British patrol inadvertently stumbled upon them, and the Zulu warriors quickly surrounded the patrol, chanting their famed rallying cry, "uSuthu" (oo-soo-too).
Two hours later, 1,329 of the 1,700 British soldiers were dead. Survivors fled across Fugitive's Drift, where more died. Two men made it to the nearby mission station called Rorke's Drift, where a contingent of 139 men (35 of them seriously ill) were waiting with provisions for Chelmsford's return. With seconds to spare, the men barricaded themselves behind a makeshift wall of army biscuit boxes, tinned meat, and bags of maize meal, and warded off the 4,000-strong Zulu onslaught. The battle raged until dawn, when the Zulus finally withdrew. Despite incredible odds, only 17 British soldiers died at Rorke's Drift, and 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded -- more than at any other battle in British history. Six months later, on July 4, 1879, the Zulus suffered their final defeat at Ondini.
A year later, the British would begin a new brawl, this time with the Afrikaners. Although a peace treaty was signed in March 1881, it sowed the seeds for the Second Anglo-Boer War, a 3-year battle that captured the world's attention and introduced the concept of guerrilla warfare. On October 20, 1899, the first battle was pitched on Talana Hill, when 14,000 Afrikaners attacked 4,000 British troops. The Brits managed to repel the attackers, but, on November 2, the little town of Ladysmith was besieged by the Afrikaners for 118 days. Thousands died of disease, trapped without access to clean water, and more fell as the British tried to break through the Afrikaner defenses. (Winston Churchill, covering the war for the London Morning Post, narrowly escaped death when Boer forces blew up the train he was traveling on some 40km/25 miles south of Ladysmith.)
The most ignominious and famous of all battles between the British and the Boers took place on Spioenkop (literally, "Spies Hill"), when Boers and Brits battled for this strategic position until both sides believed they had lost. The British were the first to withdraw, leaving the astonished but triumphant Boer in force on this strategic hill (off the R600). On that hill were Louis Botha (the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa); Winston Churchill, then a reporter; and Mohandas Ghandi (the future Mahatma), then a stretcher bearer. Two years later, following the scorched-earth policy of the British -- when hundreds of acres of farmland were burned and Afrikaner women and children were placed in concentration camps, where they perished from malnourishment and disease -- the Boers conceded defeat.
Tip: Look out for David Rattray's audio CDs, Day of the Dead Moon: The Story of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, a series of five audio CDs by David Rattray. Also seek out Andrew Ardington's Spioenkop to Versailles -- A Story of the Anglo-Boer War, which covers the conflict between the British and the Boers in Southern Africa, from the Great Trek through their two wars. Spioenkop forms the major focus of the story, which continues through to South Africa's involvement in the Great War, inspired by Louis Botha and Jan Smuts.