History of Northern Natal

Northern Natal is the biggest of the tourism regions of KwaZulu-Natal, but is the remotest of the areas. The area includes few bigger towns, the best known being Ladysmith, Colenso, Dundee, Glencoe, Newcastle and Vryheid. Large parts of this area consist of bleak, austere landscapes, but the above mentioned towns are busy hubs of activity, in both the commercial and industrial sectors. This area is steeped in local history and is famous for its battlefields. As a tourist venue, it is best known for these Battle Sites and for several Game Parks.

History of the KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields

This area is famed for its Battlefields Route. It is hard to imagine that this tranquil and beautiful area was once the centre of military clashes, of the Anglo-Boer War. In fact, this region boasts the largest concentration of battlefields in South Africa and attracts thousands of history lovers each year. Every town, historical building, battle site and memorial has a fascinating tale to tell, so do not miss out on the opportunity to go on the Battlefield Tours.

1. There are several early Zulu historical and cultural sites:

  • The emaKhosini - the Valley of the Kings, where nine of the Zulu line are buried.
  • The grave of Senzanghakona - Shaka’s father, the first of the Zulu line, where the actual site of the grave has been established with certainty.
  • Umgumgunhlovu – Dingane’s Royal Residence, now partially reconstructed, and kwaMtiwane, Dingane’s hill of execution, where the Boer leader Piet Retief was massacred. This is one of the area’s favourite sites, capturing the feeling that gives a glimpse of Africa at the time. It has a small display of artifacts found during the excavations on the site.
  • The Grave of Zulu - progenitor of the Zulu Tribe.
  • The KwaZulu Cultural museum - contains a wonderful exhibit of beadwork. It is also the site of Ondini, the Royal Homestead of King Ceteswayo, the Zulu king at the time of Zulu war, now also partially reconstructed.
  • There are other significant sites, for example, Qokli Hill and Mtonjaneni (Dingane's Spring), which are significant in Zulu history but which are not marked for visitors.

2. Zulu-Boer Conflicts

There are two main sites in this area.

  • Piet Retief’s Grave is located at KwaMatiwane, Dingane’s hill of execution. The Boer leader and his whole Commando of 70 men was massacred here while trying to negotiate a land treaty with Dingane.
  • Blood River is the site of a major battle between the Zulus (numbering an estimated 150 000) and the Boers (464 men) on 16 December 1838. It is significant not only for the decisive victory gained by the Boers, but also because it is the first time the Zulus were to encounter guns in significant numbers. This Boer Commando later became known as the Wen Kommando - the Victorious Commando.

The location of the Battle of Italeni, where the Boer Vlug Kommando (Fight Commando) were routed by the Zulu's, is not known.

3. Anglo-Zulu War of 1879

There is no dispute of the centrality of this location for exploring these sites. All seven Battlefields are within this area. There are also several other important sites related to the War which may be visited en route to the Battlefields.

  • Ultimatum Tree and Fort Pearson. The place on the Tugela River where the Ultimatum, which precipitated the Zulu war, was delivered by the British, to the Zulus and where the British crossing point into Zululand in the south was situated. The tree has died, but the fortifications of Fort Pearson are probably the best preserved of any relating to the Zulu War.

  • The Battle of Nyezane (22 January 1879) was the opening battle of the war fought between Col. Pearson's No 1 or Right Flank Column in the south. It was a relatively easy victory for the British who were outnumbered only 2 to 1.

  • The Battle of Isandlwana (22 January 1879) here Lord Chelmsfords No 3 or Centre Column, invading Zululand from the west, was to encounter the full fury of the main Zulu army. The consequence was that the British suffered their worst defeat ever in the history of their Colonial warfare: the casualties amounted to 907 white soldiers and 471 of the 800 black soldiers fighting on the side of the British, a total of 1329 men. The victory for the Zulus, no doubt their greatest ever, was not achieved without severe losses: it is estimated that between 1500 and 3000 Zulu's perished during the battle.

  • Fugitive's Drift (22nd January 1879). Is the site where most of the British fleeing from the Battle of Isandlwana were to cross the flooded Buffalo River. The most famous incidence is the saving of the Queen’s Colour of the 1/24th regiment by Lt. Melville and then the mutual courage of Lt's Melville and Coghill in trying to assist each other, these two officers being the first to be awarded the VC posthumously - 28 years after the event.

  • The Battle of Rorke's Drift (22/23 January 1879) was a gallant defense by a small garrison force of 152 British soldiers, part of the Centre Column, against seemingly overwhelming odds of between 3000 and 4000 Zulus. The British were to award 11 Victoria crosses to defenders, the most ever in a single action in the history of the British Army.

  • Siege of Eshowe (February/March 1879). Col Pearson fortified the kwaMondi Mission at Eshowe after the news of Isandlwana reached him. The Zulus getting annoyed by his apparent impertinence tightened their grip on Eshowe so that Lord Chelmsford eventually had to organise a relief column to extricate Pearson.

  • Ntombi drift (12 march 1879). Here the Swazi renegade, chief Mbilini, ambushed a supply column, under command of Capt. Moriarty, heading for Khambula to replenish Col. Sir Evelyn Woods’ No 4 of left Flank Column. With only half the wagons over the Ntombi River, it flooded, forcing the British to spend several days there. The laager was poorly fortified and was ambushed at dawn. The British lost 73 officers and other ranks while the Zulu casualties were negligible.

  • The battle of Hlobane (28 March 1879) was where the British force of the No 4 Column under Col. Sir Evelyn Wood was touted by the Zulus in a spectacular running Battle, which lasted the entire day, in which 93 British were killed. There are three main focal points on this Battlefield, namely the graves of Campbell and Lloyd (killed while storming a rebel stronghold), Ntyenka Nek (where the troops of Cmdt. Weatherly and Captain Barton were driven off the cliffs by the Zulu's) and the Devil's Pass (where Sir Redvers Buller was to be awarded the Victoria Cross). This Battlefield is a close second to Isandlwana in terms of atmosphere - and, once on the mountain, the time clock seems to turn back easily to 1879.

  • The Battle of Khambula (29 March 1879) is considered by most commentators on the Zulu war to be the turning point of the War. The Zulus, in incredibly courageous but suicidal frontal assaults on Woods’ strongly fortified position, suffered an estimated 2500 casualties while the British lost relatively few: only 3 officers and 25 other ranks. The Battlefield remains relatively unspoiled.

  • The Battle of Ginginhlovu (4 April 1879). Lord Chelmsford’s relief column encountered the last of the organised resistance of the Zulu coastal detachments, before relieving Eshowe. The Zulus attacked Chelmsford's laagered position and were easily repulsed, after sustaining about 500 casualties.

  • Prince Imperial Memorial (1 June 1879). Here Louis Napoleon IV and two troopers, Abel and Rogers, were killed in an ambush by a party of about 40 Zulus. It was to be the most publicised event in Britain in 1879! The site stands in a grove of trees and has an atmosphere different to the other sites, although this is fast diminishing, as settlements are starting to close in on the site.

  • Battle of Ulundi (4 July 1879) was the final Battle of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Today the developments and settlements, resulting from the establishment of the town of Ulundi on the plains surrounding the battlefield, detract form the site.
The earthworks from numerous Forts, particularly those along the line of the advance of the 2nd Division during the 2nd Invasion of Zululand, are still visible.

4. Anglo-Boer Conflicts

The area is located on the periphery of the major opening Battles of the Boer War. However, Talana at Dundee, the site of the opening battle of the Boer war, has a very good museum. There are two Battles which occurred in this area, during Gen. Louis Botha’s incursion into Natal, in September 1901.

  • Battle of Itala. A force of 380 men, commanded by Maj. Chapman, managed to stave off a determined assault on their poorly chosen encampment, by a force of about 1500 Boers. The remains of small forts can still be seen and a memorial on the summit requires an effort to get to!
  • Fort Prospect. On the same day as the Battle of Itala, a small garrison force of British, in a well-fortified position, repulsed an attack by about 600 Boers.


In 1847 after buying land from the Zulu king Mpande, a number of Boers settled in the area and called it the Republic of Klip River with Andries Spies as their commandant. The republic was annexed by the British in the same year and on 20 June 1850 was proclaimed a township called Windsor. On 11 October 1950 the name was changed to Ladysmith after Juana Maria de los Delores de Leon Smith also known as "Lady Smith", the Spanish wife of Sir Harry Smith, the Governor of the Cape Colony. Sir Harry Smith was the British general governor of Cape Colony and high commissioner in South Africa from 1847 to 1852.

A fort was built in 1860 to protect the villagers from the Zulus.

Siege of Ladysmith

During the Second Boer War British commander Lieutenant General Sir George White made Ladysmith his center of operations for the protection of Natal against the Boer forces. Starting on 29 October 1899 a number of short lived battles were fought in the area around the town, but after suffering heavy casualties the British forces retreated to Ladysmith and the Boer forces promptly surrounded the town. The siege lasted 118 days, from 2 November 1899 to 28 February 1900, during the most crucial stage of the war. A total of around 3,000 British soldiers died during the siege.

Relief of Ladysmith

Three attempts by General Sir Redvers Buller to break the siege resulted in defeat for the British forces at the battles of Colenso, Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz.

On 6 January 1900 the Boer forces of Commandant-General Piet Joubert attempted to end the siege by taking the town before British could launch another attempt to break the siege. This led to a battle at Platrand and Wagon Hill, south of the town.

Buller finally broke the siege on 28 February 1900, after defeating the Boers by using close cooperation between his infantry and artillery.

Sir Winston Churchill, then a young war correspondent for the The Morning Post (London), was present at the Relief of Ladysmith after having been taken prisoner (between Ladysmith and Colenso) and escaping earlier during the war.

Boer War memorials

A large number of the Second Boer War Battlefields around Ladysmith have been preserved as memorial sites. Monuments and memorials to those who died during the battles have been erected at most of them.


The coal mining town of Dundee is situated in a valley of the Biggarsberg mountains in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa (28°10'S, 30°14'E). It is part of the Endumeni Local Municipality, Umzinyathi District. It is rich in coal deposits. More populous than the town of Dundee itself is its adjacent township named Sibongile.


  • The Boers reported surface coal here and named one of the streams Steenkoolspruit (Dutch for Coal Stream).
  • Peter Smith, a Scottish settler, started sending wagonloads of coal, which was discovered close to the surface, to be sold in Pietermaritzburg. This actually started the coal industry in Natal.
  • The first geological survey of the Natal coalfields was made in 1880 and proved that there were workable coal deposits.
  • In 1882 a town was laid out and named after Smith’s Scottish hometown of Dundee.
  • Smith, with partners Dugald MacPhail and Charles Wilson, floated the Dundee Coal and Estate Company, on the London Stock Exchange in 1899.
  • The British started massing troops at Dundee and were given an ultimatum by the Boers to remove the troops. On 20 October 1899, the first shots of the Boer War were fired. The news of this battle hit the headlines in Britain, the "Battle of Glencoe", which was corrected the following day, to the "Battle of Dundee" and on the third day to the "Battle of Talana." It was on the slopes of Talana Hill that the British army troops wore khaki uniforms for the first time in battle. After the battle, the British troops retired to Ladysmith and Boer forces occupied the town, renaming it Meyersdorp. This occupation lasted seven months. Dundee was relieved after the battle of Helpmekaar in May 1900.
  • The town's folk, who had left before or shortly after the battle, returned and the town began to flourish again. Dundee soon emerged as a boomtown, graced with stately homes and the first theatre north of Port Natal (Durban).
  • Pioneer traders from the Indian sub-continent settled here during the following decade, when Dundee became the meeting place of seven roads into the hinterland and coast of Africa.


Newcastle is a town in north-west KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, on the Ncandu River. It is moderately industrial. The town started off  life as Post Halt Two, on the journey between Durban (then Port Natal and the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek and Johannesburg. The town was strategically placed in 1854, by the Surveyor General of the Natal Colony, Dr PC Sutherland. The town was later known as the Waterfall River Township, because of the Ncandu River.

In 1864, the town of Newcastle was founded on the site, becoming the fourth town to be established in Natal, after Durban, Weenen and Pietermaritzburg. Newcastle was named after the British Colonial Secretary, the Duke of Newcastle. In 1870, the Fort Amiel was built, to ward off the Zulus.

To commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond (60th) Jubilee a sandstone construction of a town hall started in 1897, being completed two years later. The town was used as a depot by the British, during both the First and Second Boer War. Newcastle functioned as a major transport junction and popular stopover for wagons and post chaises, during the second half of the 1800s. In 1890, the first train arrived in Newcastle. In 1891, Newcastle was declared a borough. The discovery of coal brought a new era of prosperity and several ambitious building projects were planned.

The uppermost part of the Drakensberg mountain range curls along the west side of the town. A large proportion of the population lives in Madadeni Township, in the south-western part. The N11 is the principal road running through it.

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