1860-1899 | Massacres | Media propaganda | South Africa | Wounded killed

After the Battle of Rorke’s Drift – the mass butchery of the wounded

The 'heroic stand' of British troops at Rorke's Drift as depicted in the Penny Illustrated Paper, 1 March 1879.
The ‘heroic stand’ of British troops as depicted in the Penny Illustrated Paper, 1 March 1879.

23 JANUARY 1879

On 23 January 1879 hundreds of Zulu warriors, injured during the battle at Rorke’s Drift the previous day,  were murdered by British troops.


Almost everyone has heard of the heroic defence of the missionary outpost the previous day, made famous by the 1964 film Zulu starring Michael Caine which remains a television favourite.  The Victoria Cross was awarded to eleven of the British officers and soldiers, the largest number ever awarded for a single action.

One hundred and fifty well armed British redcoats, a tiny fraction of an invasion force assembled to seize Zululand, proved more than a match for a much larger force of Zulus, armed with iron tipped hardwood spears and cow-hide shields.  Seventeen British soldiers were killed and ten wounded.  The Zulus suffered far greater casualties. At least 351 died during the fighting and many hundreds more lay seriously wounded in close proximity to the outpost.


What the film of the battle never showed was the subsequent slaughter of the wounded Zulus, the day after the battle.  Some were shot, some were hung, a few were burned alive, and other clubbed or bayoneted to death. Inspector George Mansel of the Natal Mounted Police declared that what happened was ‘as deliberate a bit of butchery as I ever saw.’1

Commandant Hamilton-Browne of the Third Natal Native Contingent, confessed that his soldiers – a mixture of allied African troops, non-commissioned officers and British troops of the 24th Regiment of Foot, ‘quickly drew these fields and killed them (the Zulus) with bayonet, (rifle) butt and assegai (Zulu spears they picked up and used in order to conserve ammunition).’

Reflecting on the murders, he commented that ‘it was beastly but there was nothing else to do. War is war and savage war is the worst of the lot,’ and sought to excuse the orgy of killings as being motivated by ‘a pitch of fury by the sights they had seen in the morning,’2 even if the corpses of their comrades around the outpost had been far outnumbered by the Zulu bodies ‘piled up in heaps.’3

Other Zulus were dragged or marched to a makeshift gallows, a tall wooden rack which until the day before had been used for the drying of buffalo hides, where they faced death from slow strangulation. An official army investigation concluded that ‘it was a case of lynch law,’ but those involved were exonerated because they were ‘incensed men who were bitter at the loss of their comrades.’4


The pretexts the British used for the killings, were the same as those routinely resorted to in justifying colonial massacres. Besides vengeance and ‘heat of the battle’ explanations, there were claims that Zulus were feigning surrender or death so they could attack British troops. Captain Hallman Parr, a staff officer, insisted that sudden assaults catching soldiers off guard were the reason it was difficult to extend ‘to the brave but savage enemy precisely the same rules of conduct that are observed in civilised warfare.’5

Wounded Zulus lying helpless on the battlefield were automatically assumed to be active combatants. This however did not mean that those who attempted to flee the battlefield could escape the slaughter, with Lieutenant Berkeley Milne recounting in his official report that as the British relief column arrived, ‘firing was still going on at wounded (Zulus) trying to escape.’6


Naturally, there was no mention in the press of the butchery of the wounded after the battle.  Instead, newspapers competed with one another to laud the valour and glory of the British troops with euphoric coverage of the ‘gallant conduct’ and ‘noble effort’” of the ‘heroic little garrison,’ ‘the handful of gallant fellows who beat off thousands of assailants’ and, according to The Times, of ‘military heroism never yet surpassed.’7

Not to be outdone, the Daily News, under a headline of ‘Brilliant Repulse of the Zulus – Gallant Defence by British Troops’ published its own correspondent’s report describing the battle at Rorke’s Drift as a ‘splendid affair,’ adding excitedly that ‘the Gatling gun did great execution.’8 At the same time the Zulus were demonized as animal like, with The Times cautioning its readers that they were ‘live and active as panthers,’ and could conceal themselves by thousands like serpents,’ while the following lines from a poem appeared in the Dundee People’s Journal portraying them as

‘Thirsting for blood, On rush the blacks in horrid swarms and dense. Thinking how soon they’ll overcome, and slay them (British redcoats) where they stand.’9


4 July 1879 – British slaughter Zulu wounded and burn down the city of Ulundi.

Another piece of Victorian propaganda shows the Battle of Isandlwana - like Rorke's Drift it was fought a day earlier on 22 January. Oil on canvas by Charles Edwin Fripp - National Army Museum - I didn't notice any reference in the museum to the massacre of Zulus the following day at Rorke's Drift - Photo by Alisdare Hickson 2021 BY-NC
Another piece of Victorian propaganda shows the imagined British heroism at the Battle of Isandlwana – like Rorke’s Drift it was fought the day prior to the massacre on 22 January. Oil on canvas by Charles Edwin Fripp – National Army Museum – However, I didn’t notice any reference in the museum to the massacre of Zulus the following day at Rorke’s Drift – Photo by Alisdare Hickson 2021 BY-NC.
  1. George Mansel cited in Saul David, Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879, Penguin Books, London, 2005, p. 184.
  2. Hamilton-Browne cited in Saul David, Op. cit., p. 184 and in Edmund Yorke, 1879: Rorke’s Drift: Anatomy of an Epic Zulu War Siege, Tempus Publishing, Stroud, 2001, p. 121.
  3. Private Waters quoted in “The Massacre at Rorke’s Drift,” The Burnley Advertiser, 14 June 1879 p. 7
  4. Lieutenant Smith-Dorrien cited in Edmund Yorke, Op. cit., p. 120.
  5. Captain Hallam Parr cited in Edmund Yorke, Op. cit., p. 120.
  6. Lieutenant Berkeley Milne cited in Edmund Yorke, Op. cit., p. 119.
  7. The first three quotes from “Rorke’s Drift, January 1879,” The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 15 March 1857 p. 627, the fourth from ‘The South African News,’ The Dundee Courier, 25 February 1879, p. 4 and the last from ‘The Zulu War,’ The Times, 21 February 1879, p. 9.
  8. ‘Brilliant Repulse of the Zulus – The Fighting at Rorke’s Drift – Gallant Defence by the British Troops,’ The (London) Daily News, 21 February 1879, p. 5.
  9. ‘The Zulu War,’ The Times, 21 February 1879, p. 9 and ‘The Gallant Defence of Rorke’s Drift,’ Dundee People’s Journal, 15 March 1879, p. 6.

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© 2021 Alisdare Hickson All rights reserved

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