Several important battles took place for the Zulu nation before the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Here are a few of the more important encounters.
Gqokli Hill -- April 1818
Dingiswayo, the Chief of the Mtetwa people, was one of the most prominent Nguni chiefs in what is now KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1800s. His main rival was Zwide, chief of the Ndwandwe. But Dingiswayo had one major advantage over Zwide -- Shaka kaSenzangakhona, who had undergone military training as part of the iziCwe regiment.
By 1818 Shaka was chief in his own right of the Zulu people, and was fighting for Dingiswayo in his campaign against Zwide. When Dingiswayo was killed, Shaka took over the now leaderless Mtetwa army and chose Gqokli Hill as the place to make his stand against Zwide's forces.
Using decoys (some oxen and warriors who were told to light camp fires), Shaka encouraged Zwide to split his forces, one section of which moved towards the Noela drift on the White Mfolozi river. Shaka's army was deployed on Gqokli Hill in traditional bull's head and horns, with 500 warriors at the summit of the hill, and two horns on either side.
Zwide's son Nomahlanjana commanded the attack on Shaka -- sending his troops charging up the hill, but they became tightly packed beneath the superior Zulu position. Zwide's forces were forced to disengage after heavy hand-to-hand fighting.
A second attack followed, with Nomahlanjana sending around 1,500 warriors up the hill. This time, when the enemy got within striking distance of the throwing spears (imikhonto) Shaka released his 'horns'. The Zulu army enveloped the Ndwandwe army with obvious results.
The final tally for the battle is given in the order of 7,500 Ndwandwe killed (including five of Zwide's sons) for 2,000 Zulu.
It was this battle which honed Shaka's military tactics and set his path of conquest of the various Nguni people in the region, uniting them as the Zulu nation.
Dingane's Kraal (uMgungundlovu)
There is disagreement as to why the battle at Dingane's Kraal took place. Zulu histories show that the agreement made between Dingane and Riet Retief at uMgungundlovu ('abode of the elephant') was only reached under duress, and that after seeing what happened to other Zulu chiefs, such as Mzilikazi and Sekonyela, Dingane had no alternative but to attack Retief and his men. Boer histories say that the agreement was fair and that Dingane attacked without provocation.
On 6 February 1838 Dingane and his warriors attacked -- to the war cry of Bambani aba thakathi ('Kill the wizards') Piet Retief, 69 Boers and 30 Coloured attendants were clubbed to death. The specific site is now known as KwaMatiwane, the hill of execution, and there is a memorial listing the names of the Boer victims.
Following the attack on Piet Retief's party at uMgungundlovu, the Zulu army targeted other Boer encampments, known as 'laagers', in the region. The Boers determined to fight for their survival, and assembled a commando of around 460 men under the command of Commandant Andries Pretorius.
Pretorius' men assembled at Maritzlaager, crossed the uThukela and moved towards Danskraal (now Ladysmith). When they crossed the Ncome river on 15 December they received intelligence that the Zulu army had departed uMgungundlovu and was headed towards them. There were an estimated 10,000 warriors in the Zulu forces, commanded by Ndlela Ntuli.
On the morning of 16 December Ntuli ordered the left horn of his army to attack the Boers, the remaining Zulu forces waited on the other side of the river. The Boers were well prepared, having arranged their 64 wagons in a protective circle, and armed with muskets (each man had up to three with him) and two 2 ½ inch muzzle loading cannon (which fired various bits of metal debris once the traditional ammo ran out). The Zulu, armed with spears, lined up approximately 40 metres in front of the laager, waiting for the command to attack, when the Boers opened fire. The closely packed Zulu had no chance of survival and hundreds died in the first few volleys.
When what was left of the left horn disengaged, Pretorius turned his gunfire on the main army across the river, killing some of the Zulu command. Enraged, the Zulu army attacked on mass in an attempt to storm the laager. Once again they were mown down by musket and cannon fire.
After the fourth wave of Zulu warriors attacked the laager, Pretorius noticed the impetus has slowed, and ordered Field Cornet Bart Pretorius (his younger brother) to harass the Zulu impi with a 100 strong mounted commando. On his third attack Bart cut through the Zulu lines to attack from behind. The Zulu army was beaten, and those that could fled the battle site.
The number of Zulu killed at Blood River is estimated at 3,000. The Ncome River ran red with their blood. The Boer Commando only suffered four wounded.
The Boers took a vow that the victory against the Zulu would be remembered as a holy day, as important to the Boers as the Sabbath -- the Battle of Blood River. To the Zulu it was remembered as the Battle of Ncome River. During the Apartheid era of South Africa, 16 December was a national holiday, with the battle site commemorated by a granite ox wagon (later replaced by a full-sized replica laager of bronze ox wagons). In 1999 the new South African government opened the Ncome Museum, which finally acknowledged the battle form a Zulu point of view.