The Zulu War Eclipse

After the great Rocky Mountain eclipse of July 1878, the next one was annular, visible as such on a line passing over Africa on January 22, 1879. It is only the partial eclipse as seen from the southeastern segment of the continent that is of interest to us here.

This was the time of the Zulu Wars, when the British were trying to wrest from the native peoples the region of South Africa now known as KwaZulu Natal. One particular battle in those wars, occurring at Rorke's Drift, is well known to many because it was the subject of the 1960s movie Zulu (starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker). At Rorke's Drift, a Swedish mission station far from civilization, 100 British soldiers held off an attack by 4,000 Zulu warriors. The highest-ranking medal awarded for bravery in the British armed forces is called the Victoria Cross: at Rorke's Drift more of these were won than in any other battle in history. Seventeen of the defenders died; countless attackers also perished.

The Zulus who attacked Rorke's Drift, beginning at about three o'clock in the afternoon of that January 22, had sped there from another battle just completed nearby at a rocky pinnacle called Isandlwana. The outcome was not so favorable for the British; in fact it is often cited as being the greatest disaster in British military history. Only a few escaped unhurt from a contingent that had been surrounded by over 20,000 Zulu fighters. Of the 1,700 men on the British side, 1,329 were killed. That said, the number of Africans who died under the rain of bullets was estimated to be about 3,000.

The progress of that ferocious battle was affected by the eclipse, leading to it being remembered as the Day of the Dead Moon. In fact, because of the Zulu superstition about the state of the Moon, they had not intended to fight on that day. When the Moon disappears near conjunction they believed there were evil spirits in the air, and so they were waiting for the new moon to appear the following day. When a detachment of British troops blundered into the Zulu army, hidden from view in the undulating terrain, a spontaneous attack began, with their opponents being forced back towards the stony outcrop that is Isandlwana.

The Zulu commanders had gathered together a massive army, the warriors being deployed into a formation known as the "Buffalo Head." That is, there was a main central contingent of men, but with two horns to the sides. In this case the distance between the tips of the horns was huge, about five miles. The tactic then was to advance on the enemy, and let the horns wrap around each side, meeting at the rear to cut off any retreat by their opponents. This formation, on its grand scale, is what the British saw from Isandlwana, advancing over the horizon towards them shortly before noon.

Unlike the British, with their heavy clothes, guns, ammunition, and other equipment, the Zulu soldiers were able to move quickly on foot. Very rapidly most of the British troops who had any chance of escape dashed from them. And then, soon after one o'clock, the eclipse began, as if it were a divine sign to the Zulu that they should massacre the foreigners. At the location of the battlefield, the eclipse reached a maximum at half past two, with two-thirds of the Sun being covered.

The significance of the eclipse here is not that it hid part of the Sun, but that it made visible, as a silhouette, part of the Moon.

The Zulu initially did not want to fight because of the bad portent represented by the Moon not being seen at that time in the month. The solar eclipse, paradoxically, made the Moon obvious in the sky, giving great heart to the Africans. The eclipse was still in progress as they stormed down towards the Buffalo River to begin the assault on Rorke's Drift.

Did the Zulu know in advance about the impending eclipse? Unlike the case of the Shawnee Prophet and the eclipse of 1806, there is no evidence of any prior knowledge on the part of the Africans. The British officers, however, could and should have known about it. If they had studied military history, they would have known that it is often a good thing to avoid an engagement during or soon after an eclipse, of any variety. They might even have used it to their advantage. But that's not what happened. The Battle of Isandlwana remains one of the worst reverses the British ever suffered, although the role played by the eclipse is often neglected.

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