By Phil Portway

Mention the word Zulu to most people and they will reminisce about Michael Cane in the 1964 film of the same name. Understandably so as it was and still is a great film, stirring songs, great lines (Why us?...Because we ‘ere lad, and theres no-body else) loads of extras great battle action and almost historical in its content (which even for the most avid Zulu war fanatic does not detract from the fact it’s a great movie).

The film was made mainly due to Stanley Baker (who played the Engineer, Chard in the film),who had read an article about the VC’s that were won on the 22nd / 23rd January 1879.

I feel that The Washing of the Spears to be an epic and important book on the history of, and the rise and fall of the Zulu nation. I have read the book a few times and it gave me a great incite into the Zulu as a warrior nation (and probably could be said of any number of African warrior nations). From its infancy of when the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama saw the land of the Zulu in the 15th century, (although the Zulu had a longer history before that time) to when it ceased to become a nation when it came under Imperial rule in 1879 when invaded by the British


A short history of the Zulu

The Zulu people rose to become a powerful nation under King Shaka who came to power in 1816 and created a Zulu military system and introduced a new weapon, the broad bladed stabbing spear (Iklwa). Shaka led his nation through conquest of other tribes and bringing them under the “wing” of the Zulu. The Zulu made great importance of cattle which, was used for currency, their clothes and of course food. These herds of cattle required paster and each area of land where the King’s cattle roamed, he would place a regiment of warriors in a military kraal to “police” the area and look after the cattle. These regiments (ibutho) would all be of the same age group (within a two to five years gap) and would grow up, fight and after military service were allowed to marry. As regiments matured in age they would occasionally join it with a younger regiment, so they can benefit from the elders experience. They remained in the regiments all their life, although some would go back to their original village, they would always muster at the regimental kraal in times of war which under Shaka was most of the time.


In September1828 Dingane, (Shaka’s half brother and murderer) took over the rule of the Zulu nation. A man lacking Shaka’s military mind, felt that expansion of the Zulu was not the way forward, but decided to consolidate their lands. Shaka’s favourites were either killed or fled, some to Natal to join the Matabele.The Warrior regiments raised by Shaka were allowed to marry and disband and in turn Dingane formed new regiments on his personal patronage. The main threat to the Zulu was to come from Natal in the form of hunters and Boer trekkers culminating in the Battle of Blood River where the Zulu took very heavy losses attacking a laager of wagons defended by Artillery, firearms and horse. Eventually Dingane was forced to move north and soon lost control of his nation as Mpande (his half-brother) defected with half his army to the Boers and after a short civil war, Dingane’s army was defeated. In March 1840 Dingane was assassinated.

Mpande had already been declared King of the Zulu (February 1840). Mpande lived until 1872 and died a natural death, but the Zulu nation was little more than a third of its former size when his son Cetshwayo KaMpande took to the throne, raising new regiments and began to expand the Zulu lands once more..


Road to War

Sir Bartle Frere, British High Commissioner in South Africa believed there was a threat from the Cetshwayo’s Zulu nation being that its economy was self reliant and as such were a powerbase within Souhern Africa. Frere thought that there was no place for the Zulu in the new South African Union.

In December 1878, Frere sent Cetshwayo an ultimatum of some nine demands.     The Zulu would have to relinquish land, a major part of their cattle herds and the army would have to stand down. These items being the mainstay of Frere’s threat, along with the added bullying of an Imperial invasion to boot. Frere knew the King would not agree and had already informed Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford to ready his army for the forthcoming invasion. Cetshwayo declined the offer and the road to war was inevitable. Without sanction from Whitehall, Frere had declared war on behalf of the crown, which would have costly consequences if there was not a decisive and speedy victory.



Chelmsford invaded Zululand on Sunday 12th January 1879 with three of five columns, two of  which would act as reserves.


•No.1 Column, Col. Pearson situated at the Lower Drift of the Tugela River.

•No.2 Column, Col. Durnford was the reserve at the Middle Drift.

•No.3 Column, Col Glyn was situated at Rorke,s Drift.

•No.4 Column, Col Wood was situated at Bemba’s Kop.

•No.5 Column, Col Rowlands was the reserve at Luneburg.


Main Battles of The Zulu War

•22nd January Isandlwana

•22nd January Nyzane

•22nd -/23rd January Rorkes Drift

•12th March Ntombe River

•28th March Hlobane

•29th March Khambula

•23rd January – 3rd April Siege of Eshowe

•2nd April Gingindlovu

•4th July Ulundi


Isandlwana was a debacle with supply of ammo, cartridges getting jammed in the breaches of the Martini-Henry, disposition of troops. Many historians and experts on the period have their own opinions, many feasible, some eccentric and some ludicrous, but they are allowed their opinions.

 Rorkes Drift was attacked by a fresh Zulu impi on the same day as the Column at Isandlwana and that so impi had not fought at Isandlwana and could not have used the Martini-Henry rifle against the mission defenders. Some think that one of the reasons so many Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders of Rorkes Drift was due to the Debacle at Isandlwana and the British Empire needed heroes in this dark time.


Aftermath of invasion

Word of the massacre of  the Imperial force at Isandlwana reached London on 11th February 1879 and consequently Prime Minister Disraeli and his conservative government had been forced into a war by Frere’s actions and it could ill-afford to lose in a time of recession which England was suffering at the time. Although the government held Frere responsible for the failed invasion and massacre, reinforcements were sent from British Colonies and Disraeli hoped for a quick and decisive victory to end the campaign.

The Zulu army became “tired” after Isandlwana and although it had a few minor victories it could not fight on all fronts in mass and it could not stop the might of arms against him. Modern warfare had come to the Zulu Kingdom and South Africa changed for ever.


The fall of a Nation

On the 4th July 1879 Lord Chelmsford had advanced with five thousand troops, in square, on the Kings Kraal at Ulundi. Modern weapons such as Gatling Guns, breach loading artillery pieces took many Zulu lives. The battle of Ulundi lasted less than an hour leaving one thousand five hundred dead Zulus on the ground. The Zulu army was routed by cavalry and lancers. Many more Zulu warriors lost their lives in the days after the defeat at Ulundi. Cetshwayo was captured in Late August when he handed himself in to Sir Garnet Wolseley at his beloved and now ruined Kraal of Ulundi. Cetshwayo was exiled in Cape Town and died in 1884 in his beloved Zululand.

 After its capitulation, Zululand was split between three pro-British Chieftans and in the years that followed civil wars broke out.


Usuthu the Idea

I have enjoyed the Colonial period for many years but unfortunately always played the native force, the Imperial player would set out his square and start firing, game over. Then came Principles of War rules and if you stick to the order system, you as a native player can actually beat the Imperial armies.

My thoughts on this game were to let the players have the challenge of playing Zulus and the Imperial and Colonial forces would be Umpire controlled, but most of all two words came to mind…..Achievable and fun. When ever we (myself and co-defendant Dave Barnes) have put participation games on in the past, we always homespin the rules so they are easy to understand and play and due to the complex system most commercial rules employ, they would take ages to explain.

 We have preferred to use card driven system (Hunt for the Lonely Queen being one) as they are the best way to involve various occurrences that have to happen without explaining why they have happened and one deck of cards can be many things such as firing, melee, morale or movement. This in turn frees up the use of dice and questions what do I need?, as the result is on the card ( and not on the floor as another dice disappears under the table or knocks over scenary).


First we talk about the set up of units and what is the “goal” of both sides. Then we look at length of game, movement of troops and the amount of troops under each command. We have found that all the player needs to know is how fast can I move and who can I kill?. We as umpires and the cards determine the rest.

We have sessions normally a over a couple of evenings where we thrash out ideas. Once we have a basic game on paper we then work out the fun bits like the event cards which, if you have ever played Soldiers of the Queen you will know where we’re coming from. But we make sure there is a good mix so as not to over balance the game one way or another. When co-writing rules make sure you all agree with one part before moving on to the next phase or the rules become disjointed and before you know it you are back to square one because you feel they don’t work (when all they needed was to be in the right order).We then usually have a couple of games between ourselves before unleashing on the club members and then the final set ready for the wargaming public.

The Game

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