In the Cape Province a recently appointed High Commissioner, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, made a calamitous decision to subjugate the Zulu Kingdom without the authority of the British government. In 1879 a force under Lord Chelmsford entered the country and left part of it encamped while he went in search of the Zulu army. That army of 20,000 was already in the vicinity and attacked the camp, armed with assegais, at Isandlwana, and massacred almost all the 1,700 people there. This was regarded as the worst day in the history of the British Army. Later the same day more Zulus attacked a British medical outpost at Rorke’s Drift, where a handful of soldiers and auxiliaries held off more than 3,000 until Chelmsford’s columns arrived and killed the Zulu wounded as revenge. Frere was demoted for his actions but Chelmsford was greeted and absolved by Queen Victoria who had a high opinion of him at Court.
The war lasted another year before Britain won it under a different commander.
The following year an altercation took place in the Transvaal where Britain had claimed sovereignty. The Afrikaners opened fire and thus opened what is known as the First Boer War. In this conflict the British fared badly in every aspect of soldiering and were comprehensively beaten in a few months. They then agreed to reinstate the title of South African Republic under Boer governance.
One year later in 1882 an Egyptian uprising threatened control of the Suez Canal in which the former British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli had just bought the controlling shares for Britain. A British force under Sir Garnet Wolseley defeated the insurgents in one battle but left the government with the problem of defending access to its vital waterway in the future. Britain declared it a ‘Protectorate’ and Egypt remained under occupation for 70 years, nominally ruled by its Khedive (king) but heavily influenced by the British presence. This continued until the 1956 coup by General Abdel Gamal Nasser.
Egypt had appropriated The Sudan as its southern province earlier in the century and following Britain’s intervention in its affairs, General Sir Charles Gordon was appointed Governor General in Khartoum. The capital was captured by the Muslim fundamentalist leader known as The Mahdi and Gordon was murdered at his residency. There had been several abortive attempts by Egyptian forces to recapture Sudan but almost two decades would elapse before an Anglo-Egyptian force under General Kitchener’s command was able to avenge Gordon’s fate.
This expedition and the second and major Boer War will be briefly covered in the next article. Then it will be back to the unfolding events leading to the inevitable cataclysm of WWI.