Is it true that the Zulus tortured ‘little drummer boys’ at iSandlwana?

iSandlwana at sunset.

It is probably one of the most enduring horror stories to emerge from the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 - a single incident of macabre brutality which stands out even among the carnage and horror of the bloodiest British defeat of the Victorian era, and one which still has the power to induce a frisson of horror 130 years on. It has been repeated in numerous books and alluded to in paintings and movies; young British drummer boys, no more than eleven or twelve years old, savagely hung up on the scaffold erected by their own regimental butchers, their young bodies gashed and torn like meat by a ferocious and unfeeling enemy.

But the question is, like so much of the mythology of this most intriguing of colonial wars - did it ever really happen at all?

The origins of the story lie in the terrible night following the battle of iSandlwana. Early on the morning of Wednesday 22 January 1879 Lt. Gen. Lord Chelmsford had taken half his command out of his camp beneath the distinctive outcrop of iSandlwana, hoping to intercept a Zulu army that his scouts had reported lay in the hills beyond. In fact, that army was closer than he knew, and had already slipped across his front and around his flank; that day, whilst he searched hopelessly through the hills twenty kilometers away, the Zulus had swept down on the camp at iSandlwana behind him – and destroyed it.

It had taken time to dawn on the men under Chelmsford’s command that something was wrong. By the time he had gathered his scattered command together it was late afternoon, and they were then faced with the long walk back to iSandlwana. It was late evening by the time they approached the camp; smoke was hanging over the tents, and here and there fires could be seen burning among them. Off to the right, a low line of hills, the iNyoni escarpment, was covered with dark moving masses - the Zulu army retiring from its attack. An officer of the Natal Native Contingent, Rupert Lonsdale, riding ahead alone, had been close to the tents when someone shot at him. Thinking it no more than a careless piquet, he had ridden on, and it was a moment or two before he noticed that, while the men moving about among the tents were wearing red coats, they had bare legs beneath and dark skins, and that the ground was strewn with stripped white corpses. The camp was full of Zulus looting the dead; he had managed to turn his horse in the nick of time, and had galloped back to find Lord Chelmsford with the terrible news. ‘I can’t understand it,’ someone heard Chelmsford say, ’I left a thousand men to guard the camp!’

In fact, there had been 1700 men, British troops and African allies, in the camp at the start of the battle, just a few hours before; over 1300 now lay dead in the blood-soaked grass below iSandlwana. Of the survivors, less than 100 were Europeans - only one officer holding a front-line command had escaped alive. Chelmsford’s sense of shock, as the news sunk in, remains palpable, and the question which surged around his mind in that moment of terrible realisation - what on earth had happened at iSandlwana? - has fascinated historians ever since.

 Lord Chelmsford’s return to iSandlwana, from the film Zulu Dawn. Note the figure tied and disembowelled!

It was not then the time for recriminations, however – although these would come by the bucket-load later. His own command was tired after its day of marching, and his men were low on ammunition. They had only short rations with them - their reserve supplies had all been in the camp. With darkness coming on, and Zulu movements nearby, it was imperative to re-occupy the camp, and Chelmsford formed them into battle-line and advanced. There was no opposition, and night fell as they returned to the tents they had left so glibly that morning. Further ahead, down the border road, a reflected glow above the horizon revealed that the supply depot at Rorke’s Drift was on fire. Chelmsford’s command would have to spend the night at iSandlwana - and face the possibility the next morning that the Zulus had got behind them and entered the colony of Natal.

It was a night of almost unimaginable horror. It was desperately dark, for there was no moon and a light drizzle sprang up, the clouds blotting out even the star-light, and men talking in close, hushed voices could not recognise each other’s faces. Yet the darkness only seemed to exaggerate the presence of the dead, who lay all around, tangled up with the ruin of the camp. The bodies of soldiers and Zulus lay singly or in clumps, mixed up where the fight had been heaviest with the carcasses of hundreds of oxen, horses and mules who had been overwhelmed by the fury of the assault. A heavy smell of blood and death hung in the air. Some of Chelmsford’s men trod on unseen bodies or tripped over them, or lay down to sleep only to find later that they had been lying next to disemboweled comrades. Others awoke in the morning to find their uniforms soaked where they had lain in pools of blood. A few officers lit lanterns, but the only fragile light otherwise was from the smoldering remains of the tents, some of which had been set alight by the Zulus hours before. Now and then a wounded or drunken Zulu would cry out in the darkness, or loose off a shot which provoked an alarm. Far off, jackals howled, smelling blood.

The aftermath of iSandlwana, recreated for the BBC Timewatch documentary Zulu; The True Story

In this desperately overwrought atmosphere, a Trooper of a local volunteer unit, the Newcastle Mounted Rifles, Sam Jones, believed he saw a dreadful sight. One sight, a most gruesome one, I shall never forget. Two lads, presumably little drummer boys of the 24th Regiment, had been hung up by butcher’s hooks, which had been jabbed under the chins, and then disemboweled; all the circumstances pointing to the fact that they had been subject to this inhuman treatment while still alive.

It was a story that went round Chelmsford’s men like wildfire that same night, along with other tales of horrors half-glimpsed in the flickering fire-light. And it was easy enough under those conditions to believe them - exhausted, shocked by the fate of the garrison and fearful for their own survival, Chelmsford‘s men were a prey to the worst of all imaginings. ‘Even the little drummer boys that we had in the band’, wrote one man of the 2/24th, who did not claim to see them himself, ‘they were hung up on hooks, and opened like sheep. It was a pitiful sight’. In one fell swoop, the attack on iSandlwana had transformed the Zulus from an enemy to be despised to fearful, blood-thirsty bogeymen who lurked in the darkness, awaiting their chance to commit further unspeakable atrocities.

Chelmsford, aware of the damage a clear sight of the battlefield would have upon the morale of his already shaken men, had them fall in before dawn could reveal the slaughter. A few officers found excuses to slip away to search for friends left behind or look for personal property, and the sun was just beginning to rise as the rearguard moved away, but for the majority of his command iSandlwana had remained mercifully shrouded by the dark. Along the road back towards Rorke’s Drift, they encountered a few Zulu stragglers, returning from the pursuit of survivors the day before - and with the fate of the 24th’s young drummer boys in mind, they were in no mood to be merciful. If the discovery, on their arrival, that the post at Rorke’s Drift had held after a night of fierce fighting, came as a huge relief, it did little reverse the day’s strategic disasters - or dispel the growing dread of the Zulu themselves.

The story of those drummer boys and their gory demise soon became part of the mythology of the war, widely repeated in the colonial press, and used to frighten more than one raw recruit among the reinforcements fresh out from England. And it grew in the telling, with some survivors adding embellishments about young drummers tossed in the air, and caught on bayonets, or draped over wagons and their throat cuts. Indeed, as the story grew the contradictions between those who claimed to have seen the evidence became increasingly obvious. They would, however, add a bitter edge to the subsequent fighting, fueling vindictive British pursuits months later after the victories of Gingindlovu and Khambula. Nor did it die with the end of the war- the pathos of the incident is enshrined in one of the most famous images of the war, the artist Charles Fripp’s painting Last Stand of the 24th, Isandhlwana, now one of the most widely-reproduced British battle-paintings of the nineteenth century: in it, a young drummer boy, no more than 12 years old, takes centre stage in the composition, pointing out from behind the protective arm of a stalwart sergeant and some threat beyond the picture - a Zulu advancing, no doubt, with meat-hook menacingly in hand.


The ‘young drummer boy’ in Charles Fripp’s famous painting of iSandlwana.

The 1979 cinema epic based on the battle, Zulu Dawn, includes as a character a young drummer of perhaps 11 or 12 who - while spared the horror of the butcher’s hook - dies an equally poignant death, struck by ‘friendly fire’ from his own regiment.


A young drummer boy comes to a sticky end in Zulu Dawn.

Yet a study of the evidence suggests that, whatever Sam Jones and others saw, or thought they saw, that awful night, it was unlikely to have been the mutilated corpses of the 24th’s ‘young drummer boys’.

Firstly, though, before examining the story in more detail, it must be admitted that the Zulus would have killed boys as well as men among the British force. In battle during the nineteenth-century the Zulus made no distinction between an enemy’s soldiers and their non-combatants; since the days of rise of the kingdom under Shaka it had been common tactical objective to ‘sweep everything clear’, to destroy an enemy in whatever way possible to bring a firm end to a conflict. Non-combatants were, in any case, regarded as guilty by association; if they supported an enemy, then they were as legitimate a target as enemy soldiers themselves. It is no coincidence that a young Zulu boy, Muziwento, who lived near iSandlwana and visited the battlefield a few days afterwards, drew no distinction between the bodies of ‘dead white men … and the people who had served them, and fought with them’ whom he discovered there. Several times in Zulu history non-combatants accompanying an army were caught up in the fighting - in 1856, when the then-Prince Cetshwayo had struggled to secure the future crown from his brother Prince Mbuyazi, a catastrophic loss of life ensued when Cetshwayo‘s warriors had over-run Mbuyazi‘s fighting men at the battle of ‘Ndondakusuka and the impetus of the fight had carried them among Mbuyazi‘s camp-followers. Nor was any shame attached to the act of killing a non-combatant in battle - indeed, the novelist Sir Henry Rider Haggard was told on a visit to Zululand that Cetshwayo’s successor, King Dinuzulu, had earned the right to wear the iziqu bravery-bead necklace (awarded only to those who were among the first in a particular engagement to kill one of the enemy) for stabbing a boy as he emerged from a hut during a fight in the Zulu Civil War of the 1880s.

There was, moreover, a feeling of great indignation prevalent among the Zulu army which attacked the camp at iSandlwana, an anger at the presumption of the British who had come to take their country from them. Anyone found among the British forces was by definition an invader, and was considered fair game. And any little ‘drummer boys’ had taken the Queen’s Shilling and wore her red coat - and the Zulu expected them to take their chances, with the rest.

Yet still something does not ring quite true about that best-known of iSandlwana horror stories, and the first thing to note is just how dark it was that night. The Staff Officer Captain Henry Hallam Parr recalled that

The first part of the night was very black and dark, but about one a.m. the sky cleared and the stars shone out, and I received orders to serve out the rations of biscuit and tinned meat we luckily had with us. It was disagreeable work moving about inside the square; in the dark it was difficult to walk without stumbling over the dead and debris of all kinds that was strewn on the ground … One officer – I could not see his face and have no notion who he was – asked leave to draw six or seven of his comrades, and as he had forgotten to bring a haversack, and could not carry six or seven rations of loose biscuit and tinned meat in his hands, I told him he had better hold out his hat for the biscuit. ‘Sir,’ he said stiffly, ‘I must object to your suggestion. I should prefer to go without my rations than carry them in my hat.’

The point to note here is not so much the fastidiousness of Hallam Parr’s fellow-officer, but the fact that, even after ‘the sky cleared’, it was still so dark that it was impossible to see debris on the ground and the faces of men who were close enough to engage in even quiet conversation. It was very dark indeed – and another officer, a Lieutenant Maxwell of the NNC, had his own far grimmer story to tell which says much of the prevailing conditions that night. Asked by Lord Chelmsford to point out the positions of the NNC sentries, Maxwell had set off with a staff-officer carrying a lantern. Even so, the night was so pitch-black that Maxwell stumbled over the rough ground until at last he fell head-first down a slope. Putting his hands in front of his face to protect himself, he had pitched up against something soft and mushy, but there was so little light that even at arm’s length he could not guess what it was; only when the staff officer hurried over to help him, and held up the lantern, did Maxwell realise that he had landed on the disemboweled body of a dead soldier.

With first-hand experience of both the night’s horrors and its darkness, Maxwell was nevertheless among the first to express doubts about the drummer boys story. Speaking of the return to Rorke’s Drift, he wrote,

"… on the way I heard some terrible stories about mutilated bodies. These were invented for the occasion, as it was impossible for those who told these yarns to distinguish anything in the night, it being exceptionally dark."

And were there, in any case, ‘young boys’ in the ranks of the 24th Regiment that day, drummers, band-boys or otherwise? It is certainly true that ‘Boy’ was a rank in the British Army. It dated to a social and military experiment of as long ago as 1795, when three regiments had been formed to relieve parishes of the burden of feeding ‘boys between the ages of 10 and 16’. This experiment seems to have been abandoned once the boys grew old enough to enlist in the regular army, but during the Napoleonic Wars infantry battalions were authorised to maintain ‘a certain number of boys’ as drummers or non-combatants. By 1876 the practice had largely been regulated, and battalions were allowed to maintain 1% of their strength as boys to serve as musicians and 0.5% to serve as tailors and shoemakers. Boys could be recruited from the age of fourteen while the age of enlistment for an adult was officially eighteen (although it was not unknown for men to lie about their ages - and much else besides - on enlisting). In that regard it is interesting to note that the Elementary Education Act of 1870 provided provision for the education in Britain of children between the ages 5 and 12; once a boy reached 13, if he was not from a background well-off enough to pay for his further education, he was expected to earn his own living. In other words in civilian society, as well as the military, Victorian teenagers were by and large considered old enough to shoulder the burdens of adulthood. In fact, however, most Boys on the Army strength were the sons or orphans of serving soldiers who were taken on as part of the responsibilities of the Army community. While some were indeed employed as musicians in regimental band, they were not, for the most part, battalion Drummers; Drummer was an appointment open to adult soldiers on the fighting strength, and most of them were mature men. Although sometimes called upon to play the drums on parade, the main duty of the Drummers by 1879 was to play the bugle-calls by which orders were transmitted on the battlefield; they were also, incidentally, called upon to fulfil the decidedly adult duty of flogging men sentenced to corporal punishment by regimental courts-martial. Of the twelve 1st Battalion 24th Regiment Drummers killed that day at iSandlwana, the two youngest were each eighteen and the oldest was in his late 30s - all of them very much grown-ups by the standards of the day.

Perhaps, then, the ‘young drummer boys’ were actually musicians in one of the battalion bands? Certainly, the band of the 1/24th Regiment had been left at iSandlwana when Chelmsford marched out on the morning of the 22nd - most were employed as stretcher-bearers during the fighting, and were killed there - as were some elements of the 2nd Battalion. Altogether there were five in the camp that day with the rank of Boy - Thomas Harrington and Robert Richards of the 1/24th and Daniel Gordon, James Gurney and Joseph McEwen of the 2/24th. None of them were Drummers although they may well have been in the battalion bands. Although the records are incomplete, the youngest of these appears to have been 15 - officially - on 22 January; certainly too young by modern standards to be exposed to such risks, although by no means so according to nineteenth-century attitudes - and in any case certainly not the callow youth of eleven or twelve years apparently conjured up by the story

The Ill-fated band of the 1/24th, photographed at King William’s Town on the Eastern Cape before the invasion of Zululand.

And would the Zulus have hung anyone up on butchers’ hooks? There’s no doubt that in the adrenaline rush of combat, particularly a sustained fight at close-quarters, fueled by hate and fear, men often do terrible and irrational things, but there is no reason on this occasion to suppose so. Eye-witness accounts of iSandlwana are almost universal in their agreement that when the Zulu finally broke through the British line, pushing the firing companies through the tents and among the rear-echelon personnel, they stabbed, in the confusion of smoke and dust and noise, at anything that moved - men, boys, if there were any, and animals - and even a few things that didn’t, like mealie-sacks piled up on wagons. To have hung the ‘little drummer boys’ up by the chin would have required a degree of deliberation which seems implausible under the circumstances, and was certainly not in accordance with any Zulu rituals or beliefs. Moreover, it would have depended on the Zulus recognizing the butchers’ meat-scaffolds for what they were – which is by no means likely, given that in 1879 most Zulus had very little previous contact with the white world. Moreover, after the battle, the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, asked why his men had not brought him any prisoners among the British officers, and was told by his commanders that at the height of the bloodshed the warriors could not be restrained from killing everything they came across. In that bloody press of struggling figures among the tents, to have identified, selected and captured ’little drummer boys’ alive, then killed them in such a refined manner, reflects a degree of deliberation that seems deeply inappropriate to the reality of the fighting.  

It also suggests a considered sadism which was generally uncharacteristic of Zulu warfare at the time. Stoked by days of pre-battle ritual which encouraged and harnessed their aggression, the Zulu entered battle in a heightened state of emotional intensity which they characterised as ‘seeing red’, in which their objective was focused on the destruction of the enemy rather than the inflicting of slow and deliberate pain. No doubt with the fate of the ‘drummer boys’ in his mind, the traveler Bertram Mitford asked a number of Zulu veterans of iSandlwana whether ‘any prisoners were taken’ and received the simple reply - chilling in its own way - that no; all were killed on the field, and at once; no white men were tortured: it is the Zulu custom to kill everyone on the spot; prisoners are never taken.

Even the 24th Regiment, who suffered most at iSandlwana, were bound in the end to agree. Captain William Penn Symons of the 24th - who was out with Lord Chelmsford that day and later wrote an important history of the Regiment - went out of his way to state categorically ‘no single case of torture was proved against them. The wild stories current at the time, and repeated in the English papers, were untrue.’

That the five Boys of the 24th were killed, with the rest, at iSandlwana, cannot be doubted; the manner of their deaths is unlikely ever to be known. Certainly, only one survivors’ anecdote refers to them, and it mentions nothing of meat-hooks and scaffolds. Simeon Nkambule, an NCO with a unit of mounted auxiliaries known as the Edendale Contingent, described how, in the closing stages of the battle, he came across a lad whom he described as a ‘drummer boy’ of the 24th guarding a supply of ammunition in the camp; the Edendale men were running short of rounds and asked to be given some, but the ‘drummer’ refused to allow them to plunder his charge. Nkambule begged him to come away with them, as the battle was clearly lost, but the boy refused - he was later seen flinging his short regulation-issue drummers’ sword at the approaching Zulus. It should be noted that Nkambule could not speak English, and that his story was not only transcribed but recorded by a missionary, the Rev. Owen Watkins who may, or may not, have had a vested interest in stressing the youth of the ‘drummer boy’ in order to reinforce the popular settler view that the invasion of Zululand was a triumph of civilization over savagery. No other reliable fragments survive in relation to their fate.

There were, of course, almost certainly other boys in the camp - and some quite possibly younger than the 24th’s teenagers. They were not soldiers, but it is quite likely that some of the civilian wagon-drivers had brought their sons with them to help in the management of their vehicles and livestock, but since they were not on the Army rolls no official record of their loss exists. And undoubtedly many of the black voorloopers - team-leaders - who walked beside the wagon-teams driving the oxen with their long whips were young lads, too. Certainly the Zulu boy Muziwento noticed the bodies of youngsters on the field when he visited it a few days after the fight; ‘we saw some boys who had died in a tree, [lying] underneath it. They were dressed in black clothes.’

iSandlwana photographed a few months after the battle.

Who were these ‘boys’? Dressed in black - or even dark blue or brown, affording Muziwento’s account some leeway - they were not the 24th’s red-coated Drummers, certainly. The dark clothing suggests they were members of one of the settler units from Natal, most of whom wore black or dark blue - and it is also likely they were not so young as a first reading of this account might suggest. In Zulu society males were considered ‘boys’ until they had assumed the full rights of adulthood which were often not accorded until their early 30s – young men of fighting age were routinely referred to as izinsizwa which means ‘youths’.

Perhaps these were the very same ‘boys’ seen by Sam Jones (himself a Volunteer) – and what was clearly a tree to Muziwento in broad daylight had seemed by the flickering light of burning tents in the darkness the butchers’ scaffold.

Is it even possible that the slender, pale and torn bodies dimly glimpsed on that terrible night by men who’s sensitivities were overwhelmed by the enormity of mass slaughter looked like sheep because they were sheep – or at least, the battalion ration of fresh meat, hung up and butchered, but overwhelmed before the cooks had time to prepare them?

The reports of the burial details add further to the mystery. Chelmsford had left iSandlwana on the morning of the 23rd, and with the British hard-pressed strategically it was not until 21 May that he was in a position to mount a proper burial expedition. By that stage the dead had lain exposed to the elements, scavenging wildlife and local Zulu non-combatants for nearly four months, who, while they were undoubtably wary of the dead, had nevertheless disturbed remains in removing many of the useful artifacts left on the battlefield. While some of the bodies were still recognisable, many were not, and the remains had been badly broken up. While some among the burial party claimed to have seen sights which supported the scaffold story, the tale itself was well-known by that stage, and it is difficult to gauge the extent to which their impressions were coloured by their preconceptions. One man claimed to have seen the butcher’s scaffold, and the bodies of drummers nearby - not in itself impossible - while another described in lurid detail finding the body of a band-boy lying with his base drum, and apparently beheaded; quite why any bandsman, young or old, would have died with his instruments when it is known they had been employed as stretcher-bearers during the battle is not explained. It is perhaps significant that no officers with the party made any reference to any remains connect to the ‘drummer boy’ story. What that expedition saw of the moldering dead on that stricken field, and what they thought they saw, cannot now be judged with any certainty.

iSandlwana photographed several months after the battle.

There is one last point to be considered before leaving the subject of the dead boy-soldiers at iSandlwana. During the rout at the end of the battle, James Brickhill, a civilian interpreter serving with the column, noticed with some surprise as he fled that several of the Zulus pursuing him were very young men, no more than teenagers - ‘I knew not that there were any so young in the Zulu army’. Zulu regiments - amabutho - were recruited at intervals from young men of a common age, and in fact the youngest regiment to fight in the battle, the uVe, was composed of youths who were no more than about 20 on the day of the battle. In addition, the Zulu army on campaign was accompanied by young boys, not yet old enough to be enrolled in regiments, who carried sleeping mats and shields for their fathers or older brothers. These were truly boys, varying from about age 10 to 16 or 17; in theory, they were supposed to stay well clear of the fighting, and to remain at the bivouac when the regiments went forward to battle. Boys being boys, however, many of them found excuses to join in the excitement, and there are many family traditions of boys accompanying the attack at iSandlwana; some even apparently crossed the Mzinyathi river with their fathers in the reserve amabutho, and watched the fighting at Rorke’s Drift from the hillsides nearby. At the battle of kwaGingindlovu, a few months later, one mat-carrier actually reached the British entrenchments and was taken prisoner; at the battle of oNdini on 21 July 1883, during the Zulu civil war, one white mercenary who took part noted that two prominent Zulus were ‘run down’ and killed by his mat-carriers.

And if Zulu boys took part in the battle of iSandlwana, there is a very good chance that several of them were injured there - or killed.

All in all, while it seems on balance that the Zulus can be acquitted of the charge of deliberately hanging up ‘young drummer’ boys on butchers’ scaffolds and ‘gutting them like sheep’ - not least because there were no truly ’young’ drummers present - there can be no doubting the terrible and all-consuming maelstrom of violence which characterized the final stages of the battle was no respecter of age or sensitivities. Yet the reluctance to look beyond the exaggerated stories of the time has led to the non-existent ‘little drummer boys’ becoming a trope of the battle – and one, sadly, perpetuated by those who still prefer to repeat accusations of atrocities without a sufficient burden of proof, and who still like to characterize the Zulus as savages.

The iSandlwana Battlefield today