Action at Sihayo's Kraal

The 12 January 1879 action at Sihayo's Kraal[nb 1] was an early skirmish in the Anglo-Zulu War. The day after launching an invasion of Zululand, the British General Lord Chelmsford led a reconnaissance in force against the kraal of Zulu Chief Sihayo. This was intended to secure his left flank for an advance on the Zulu capital at Ulundi and as retribution against Sihayo for the incursion of his sons into the neighbouring British Colony of Natal.

Action at Sihayo's Kraal
Part of the Anglo-Zulu War
Escarmouche de la Batsche.jpg
A depiction of the action, British General Lord Chelmsford observing in the centre foreground
Date12 January 1879
Location28°18′11″S 30°36′36″E / 28.303°S 30.610°E / -28.303; 30.610Coordinates: 28°18′11″S 30°36′36″E / 28.303°S 30.610°E / -28.303; 30.610
Result British victory
 British Empire Zulu Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
Mkumbikazulu kaSihayo  
  • 3 companies 24th Regiment of Foot
  • 1 battalion Natal Native Contingent (NNC)
  • A mixed unit of mounted infantry
200-300 warriors
Casualties and losses
2 NNC men killed; 20 NNC men and 3 officers and NCOs wounded 30 killed, 4 wounded
Action at Sihayo's Kraal is located in South Africa
Action at Sihayo's Kraal
Approximate location in present-day South Africa

En-route to the kraal the British force found a small party of Zulus in a horseshoe-shaped gorge. A frontal assault was launched by auxiliary troops from the Natal Native Contingent (NNC), supported by British regulars, while a mixed unit of mounted infantry moved onto the high ground to the rear of the Zulus. After the NNC attack faltered the regulars reinvigorated the attack and defeated the Zulus in the gorge. The mounted force engaged around sixty Zulus on the high ground and drove them off. The Zulu force suffered losses of 40 killed, 4 wounded and at least 3 captured. The British lost 2 members of the NNC killed and 22 wounded.

After their victory the British moved on Sihayo's Kraal, which they found to be undefended. After burning it down they returned to their camp. The action is believed to have led Cetshwayo to attack Chelmsford's force in preference to the two other British columns operating in Zululand. Much of Chelmford's column was destroyed at the Battle of Isandlwana ten days later.


In the 1870s the British government sought to extend its control over Southern Africa. Apart from the valuable naval base at the Cape of Good Hope they had previously shown little interest in the region but this changed with the discovery of valuable mineral deposits. In 1877 Sir Henry Bartle Frere was dispatched as High Commissioner for Southern Africa with a mandate to bring the existing colonies, indigenous African groups and the Boer republics under British authority.[2] Frere viewed the independent Zulu Kingdom as a possible threat to this plan and sought an excuse to declare war and annex it. He established a boundary commission to look into a dispute between Zululand and Boer Transvaal, hoping for an outcome that would enrage the Zulu king, Cetshwayo. However, when the report was produced it largely backed the Zulu claim.[3]

Frere instead seized on an incident in July 1878. Two wives of Zulu chief Sihayo kaXongo fled from his kraal (homestead) into the British colony of Natal. Two of Sihayo's sons crossed into Natal with an armed band, seized the women and returned them to Zululand where they were executed. Frere mobilised British troops on the border and requested a meeting with Cetshwayo in December, ostensibly to discuss the report of the boundary commission.[3] Frere instead presented Cetshwayo with an ultimatum. He was required to turn over Sihayo's sons to face British justice, pay a fine of cattle, turn over the chief Mbilini who had raided into British territory and admit Christian missionaries to his country.[4][5] Frere also demanded wholesale changes to the Zulu system of government including limits on the use of the death penalty, the requirement for trials, supervision by a British official and the abolition of the Zulu army and associated restrictions on marriage.[4] The ultimatum was harsh, demanding radical change in the Zulu way of life, and it was intended by Frere that Cetshwayo would reject it.[6] Emissaries sent by Cetshwayo requesting an extension to the ultimatum deadline were ignored.[7]

The Buffalo River at Rorke's Drift, pictured in 1882

On 11 January 1879 the ultimatum expired and British forces, under Lord Chelmsford entered Zululand in three columns.[8] One column operated close to the eastern coastline and one advanced from Transvaal in the west.[3] The main force, the centre column under Chelmsford, crossed the Buffalo River into Zulu territory at Rorke's Drift and made camp on the far side.[9] On 6 January Chelmsford had reported to Frere that Sihayo was reported to have assembled 8,000 men to attack the British when they made their crossing, but it was unopposed.[10]

Chelmsford determined to attack Sihayo's Kraal which lay some 8 km (5.0 mi) from his camp. He intended this to secure his left flank for the advance upon the Zulu capital of Ulundi and as a punitive measure against Sihayo.[5] A reconnaissance party of mounted colonial auxiliaries approached Sihayo's Kraal along the Bashee River valley and reported hearing war songs being sung by a large party of Zulu but could not locate them. Parties were also sent out from the camp in other directions and captured a large number of Zulu cattle.[11]


Movements during the action at Sihayo's Kraal.
  British advance
  Movement of 1/24th
  Movement of 1/3rd NNC
  Initial engagement
  Movement of mounted units
  Advance on kraal
  Sihayo's Kraal
The locations and movements are as per Smith (2014, p. 29) and Knight (1992, p. 41). The underlying map, created by the British in 1879, mistakenly labels the location of the initial action as the location of the kraal itself

Chelmsford ordered a force, commanded by Colonel Richard Thomas Glyn of the 24th Regiment of Foot, to leave the camp at 3:30 a.m. on 12 January; this was later described as a reconnaissance in force.[12][13] Glyn's command was a mixed force of men from his regiment; auxiliary troops of the 3rd Regiment Natal Native Contingent (NNC), commanded by Major Wilsone Black;[nb 2] and some irregular mounted infantry, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel John Cecil Russell.[15] Chelmsford also chose to accompany the force and, with Glyn, helped direct its movements.[15]

The British troops proceeded north-east from the camp keeping to a track on the right hand bank of the Bashee River.[16] After around 8 km (5.0 mi) a quantity of cattle were observed on the far side with a number of Zulus to the hills above them. Chelmsford ordered the force to cross the river and prepare for action.[16][12] Whilst Glyn and Chelmsford consulted on their battle plan, the Zulus taunted the British, shouting "Why are you waiting there? Are you looking to build kraals? Why don't you come on up?".[15]


The Zulu defenders were commanded by Mkumbikazulu kaSihayo, one of Sihayo's sons involved in the Natal raid.[17] They held a horseshoe-shaped gorge on a steep hillside, with the open end of the gorge facing towards the Bashee River and the British. Chelmsford ordered Russell's mounted infantry to move to the south where the slope was climbable and to sweep around behind the Zulus on the heights to threaten them and cut off any retreat.[15][16] In the meantime three companies of the 1st battalion of the 24th Regiment (commanded by Captain William Degacher) and the entire 1st battalion of the 3rd Regiment of the Natal Native Contingent (under Commandant George Hamilton-Browne) were to assault the Zulus on the lower ground and attempt to seize the cattle.[15][18] The 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Natal Native Contingent (commanded by Commandant Cooper) and additional men from the 24th were held in reserve.[15][19]

The Zulu were grazing cattle, goats and sheep in the Bashee valley and as the column approached, led by the 1/3rd NNC, the Zulu herdsmen drove the livestock into the gorge and raised the alarm. The NNC were in good spirits until they came within gunshot of the "several score" Zulu warriors who were hiding among boulders, shrubs and caves at the edges of the gorge.[20][15] At this point they were challenged by a Zulu shouting "By whose orders do you come to the land of the Zulus?".[15] A newspaper reporter with the British, Charles Norris-Newman, recorded that no reply was made but Hamilton-Browne claimed that his interpreter, Lieutenant Duncombe, replied "By the orders of the Great White Queen".[15] The Zulus then opened fire on the British right flank, their first shot striking a man of the Natal Native Contingent (NNC) and breaking his thigh bone.[15][16]

An 1879 photograph of members of the NNC

Glyn ordered the 1/3rd NNC into line and backed them with the companies of the 24th.[19] Hamilton-Browne ordered Black to lead some of his companies into the rough ground at the edge of the gorge where the Zulus were sheltering. The NNC became pinned down and, except for one company,[nb 3] were reluctant to assault the Zulus, who fired from the rough ground. Attempts by their non-commissioned officers to force them forwards by clubbing them with rifles failed and Black, seeing the attack faltering, ordered men of the 24th Regiment forwards in support. This succeeded and the NNC followed Black, who led the charge with his sword in one hand and his hat waved above his head in the other. Black's hat was soon shot from his hand but he escaped unscathed despite being almost struck by a boulder thrown at him by a Zulu from above.[15]

Part of the 2nd Battalion of the NNC was also brought up in support but the action on the low ground was over by 9:00 a.m., lasting around half an hour.[15][21] At least a dozen Zulus were killed along with two NNC men, around twenty NNC men and three of their European officers and non-commissioned officers were wounded.[13][19] The companies of the 1/24th managed to work their way up the steep slopes to the high ground and drove away some fleeing Zulus.[22]

An engagement between British mounted irregulars and Zulus

When they reached the heights Russell's mounted contingent found around sixty Zulus, they dismounted and opened fire.[13] By 10:00 a.m. the fighting here also ended; outnumbered, the Zulus had been driven off with the loss of ten killed.[13][23]

Burning of the kraalEdit

After the action a force of four companies of the 2/24th and part of the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd NNC, under the overall command of Colonel Henry Degacher of the 24th Regiment was sent to Sihayo's kraal with orders to burn it to the ground.[24] The kraal was located some 6 kilometres (4 mi) further along the Bashee valley and 60 metres (200 ft) above it.[13][15][21] Degacher found the kraal, its neighbouring homesteads and mealie fields deserted aside from three old women and a young girl.[13][15][24] The settlement was burnt to the ground and the entire force marched back to its camp by the Buffalo River, reaching it by 4:00 p.m.[21][23][25] The march was affected by a heavy thunderstorm and Chelmsford allowed the force a day off on 13 January to rest and dry their equipment. The force was afterwards engaged in guard duties, reconnaissance and preparing the roadway into Zululand. The force left camp early on 20 January and reached the next camp, at Isandlwana, by noon.[26]


The British defeat at Isandlwana

The British commanders were reasonably pleased with the day's events and considered that the NNC had performed well in their first action.[13] The total Zulu casualties were estimated at thirty killed, including Mkumbikazulu kaSihayo, and four wounded.[27][25] In addition to the wounded, at least three unwounded Zulus were taken prisoner by an NNC officer.[22] The prisoners were interrogated with physical violence but did not reveal the presence of the Zulu field army, 25,000 warriors and 10,000 followers and reserves, which was then at a position just over 20 miles (32 km) from the Centre Column. The prisoners were released on 13 January and took refuge at Sotondose's Drift.[28] One of the wounded prisoners was treated at the British hospital at Rorke's Drift, he was killed when the hospital burnt down during the Battle of Rorke's Drift on 22/23 January.[29] Chelmsford had intended to release the wounded prisoners once they had recovered.[30]

A late 19th-century photograph of Zulu cattle

The British captured 13 horses, 413 cattle, 332 goats and 235 sheep with some of these being driven into Natal.[13][21] The British soldiers were pleased with this as they anticipated payment of prize money for the livestock.[23] They were left disappointed when the animals were sold to army contractors at a low price.[31] A number of obsolete firearms and a brand-new wagon were also recovered from Sihayo's Kraal.[32]

Chelmsford wrote to Frere:

I am in great hope that the news of the storming of Sihayo's stronghold and the capture of so many of his cattle ... may have the salutary effect in Zululand and either bring down a large force to attack us or else produce a revolution in the country. Sihayo's men have I am told always been looked upon as the bravest in the country and certainly those who were killed today fought with great courage.[13]

The engagement was reported in the Natal Times of 16 January as a victory over a Zulu attack. The newspaper mistakenly reported that one NNC officer was killed and two Natal Mounted Police members killed or wounded. It noted "the prediction of those best acquainted with the Zulus, that they would never stand the fire of regular forces, has been abundantly verified".[28]

A modern view of Fugitive's Drift

Sihayo and his senior son, Mehlokazulu, escaped the action, having left the day before with the bulk of his fighting men to answer Cetshwayo's call to arms at Ulundi.[13][15] He had left just 200-300 men to defend his kraal.[33] News of the attack reached the Zulu king whilst he was considering which of the three British columns to engage. The action seems to have convinced him to attack the centre column.[25] Cetshwayo may have been persuaded that the centre column was the most important of the British forces by the presence of Chelmsford directing the attack.[34] Cetshwayo sent the bulk of his army against it and part of Chelmsford's force was subsequently annihilated at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January.[25] The prisoners released by Chelmsford on 13 January may have helped the inhabitants of Sotondose's Drift attack British survivors of the battle.[28] The survivors of Sihayo's Kraal were certainly present, harassing the fleeing men and killing stragglers.[35] The dead included Lieutenants Teignmouth Melvill and Nevill Coghill who were killed while trying to save the Queen's colour of the 1/24th and the drift afterwards became known as Fugutive's Drift.[28]


A depiction of Hamilton-Browne during the action from his own 1912 book of his experiences in Southern Africa

The action at Sihayo's Kraal was the first of the war.[36] Anglo-Zulu War historian Adrian Greaves, writing in 2012, regards the action at Sihayo's Kraal as a token victory against a small Zulu force consisting of old men and boys. He considers there was no military value to the engagement as Sihayo's warriors had already left the kraal to assemble with the main army and could not threaten Chelmsford's supply lines. Greaves thinks the action may have given Chelmsford false confidence that the Zulu would run from future engagements.[37] Ian Knight considers that Chelmsford took the wrong lesson from the action, rather than noting the determination of the Zulu to hold their ground and the courage of their leaders (Mkumbikazulu having been killed leading his men), he focussed on the ease with which the Zulu had been defeated in a one-sided engagement. Knight thinks this led to a sense of complacency in the column, which may have had been a factor in their subsequent defeat at Isandlwana.[33]

The location of the action and Sihayo's Kraal is not certain as records kept by the British were vague and no battlefield relics have been recovered.[38][24] The historian Keith Smith places Sihayo's Kraal at Sokhexe, a settlement still occupied by Sihayo's descendants and the earlier action at a location somewhat to the south near Ngedla hill.[39] Knight notes that Sihayo's Kraal was known by the name kwaSokhexe or kwaSoxhege ("the maze") and Greaves that it was called kwaSogekle.[40][15][41]


  1. ^ Kraal was a term used in contemporary British and Afrikaans to refer to a Zulu settlement. More properly the term refers to the livestock enclosure at the centre of such settlements; this was surrounded by dome-shaped huts and a stockade fence. There were two types of kraal: the homestead of a family grouping, known in Zulu as an umuzi (plural imizi), and what the British called a "military kraal", the ikhanda (plural amakhanda), a headquarters for the Zulu age-grouped social unit which, in times of war, functioned as a regiment. Sihayo's kraal was an umuzi.[1]
  2. ^ Black had been seconded from his regiment by Chelmsford to temporarily command the 3rd NNC. Their usual commander, colonial officer Commandant Rupert de la Tour Lonsdale was recovering from concussion received after falling from his horse.[14]
  3. ^ The 1/3rd NNC contained three companies of Zulu warriors from the inDluyengwe regiment. They had fled the Zulu kingdom after being attacked by the rival inGobamakhosi regiment, which was led by Mehlokazulu, one of Sihayo's sons. They were well regarded for their courage and one company was present in the action at Sihayo's Kraal; they were the only one to follow Blacks's order to close with the Zulu.[14]



  1. ^ Knight 1992, p. 63.
  2. ^ Knight 2008, p. 4.
  3. ^ a b c Knight 2008, p. 5.
  4. ^ a b Greaves 2012a, pp. 30–31.
  5. ^ a b Smith 2014, p. 26.
  6. ^ Paulin 2001, p. 70.
  7. ^ Greaves 2005, p. 112.
  8. ^ Knight 2000, p. 292.
  9. ^ Morris 1965, pp. 322–323.
  10. ^ Greaves 2012b, p. 12.
  11. ^ Greaves 2012b, p. 18.
  12. ^ a b Rothwell 1989, p. 26.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Williams 2015, p. 67.
  14. ^ a b Morris 1965, pp. 308, 323.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Knight 1992, p. 37.
  16. ^ a b c d Smith 2014, p. 27.
  17. ^ Duminy & Ballard 1981, p. 102.
  18. ^ Morris 1965, p. 323.
  19. ^ a b c Morris 1965, p. 324.
  20. ^ Morris 1965, pp. 323–324.
  21. ^ a b c d Rothwell 1989, p. 27.
  22. ^ a b Knight 1992, p. 38.
  23. ^ a b c Smith 2014, p. 30.
  24. ^ a b c Smith 2014, p. 28.
  25. ^ a b c d Canwell 2004, p. 98.
  26. ^ Morris 1965, pp. 326–327.
  27. ^ Rothwell 1989, p. 276.
  28. ^ a b c d Greaves 2012b, p. 23.
  29. ^ Greaves 2012a, p. 120.
  30. ^ Morris 1965, p. 325.
  31. ^ Greaves 2012b, p. 24.
  32. ^ Knight 1992, p. 39.
  33. ^ a b Knight 2004, p. 79.
  34. ^ Greaves 2012b, p. 27.
  35. ^ Knight 2004, p. 105.
  36. ^ Laband 2009, p. 256.
  37. ^ Greaves 2012b, pp. 26–27.
  38. ^ Knight 1992, p. 36.
  39. ^ Smith 2014, p. 31.
  40. ^ Knight 2004, p. 77.
  41. ^ Greaves 2012b, p. 30.

General sourcesEdit