5 colonial-era battles in Africa that shocked the world

Zulu king Cetshwayo in 1878.
Zulu king Cetshwayo in 1878.

While the rest of Africa was under colonial rule after the infamous partition by European powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884, Ethiopia was a sovereign nation with a formidable army and a strong monarchy.

A few years after the division of the continent, the Italian Kingdom – which had obtained Eritrea and Italian Somalia as its African territories – wanted to add Ethiopia to its kingdom on March 1, 1896.

This was a failed effort after the defeat of the Italian army in the Battle of Adwa which is also described as the First Italo-Ethiopian War. The battle fought near the northern town of Adwa in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region is the first victory by an African country over a colonial power.

Ethiopian forces surprised the world by defeating heavily-armed Italian troops that attempted to conquer it in 1896. There were, of course, other interesting conflicts and battles that took place during the colonial era in sub-Saharan Africa apart from the Battle of Adwa.

Here are four other such battles where indigenous African armies clashed with colonial powers.

Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935 – 1939)

Italy’s second attempt at invading Ethiopia in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935 – 1939) though successful, was also met with strong Ethiopian resistance under the leadership of Emperor Haile Selassie I. On the eve of the attack, Ethiopian leader Selassie ordered men from the country to assemble and defend its lands. Although his troops outnumbered Italian leader Benito Mussolini’s, many of Selassie’s men were armed with primitive weapons and even more had no experience with military operations.

Ethiopian soldiers gather for an offensive in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War in 1935.

Selassie’s men were therefore continually outgunned by the more experienced and well-equipped Italians. The Ethiopian forces were spirited, however, doing their best to pluck off enemy forces. Mussolini had to use chemical warfare after Ethiopian soldiers took down an Italian air pilot, sending a message to Selassie’s army. Italy’s defeat in World War II, however, compelled it to relinquish control over Ethiopia and formally recognize it as an independent nation.

The Anglo-Zulu War

It was a battle that took place in 1879 between the British Army and the Zulus in South Africa. The war began on January 11, 1879, and was sparked by the imperialists who wanted to expand on the territory they held and also the diamond rush that brought thousands to mine for the treasure in the area. However, the Zulu Kingdom of Cetshwayo kaMpande and its proud warriors were in the way of the land-expansion conquest.

Zulu king Cetshwayo in 1878.
Zulu King Cetshwayo in 1878.

Around 20,000 Zulus armed with traditional spears, shields, and a smattering of firearms they were not trained to use, stormed a British column of 1,800 troops and 400 civilians. Zulu second-in-command Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza led the fighters in the attack, which left around 1,300 British dead. The Zulus suffered losses of around 1,000 men. The Zulus handed the British a resounding defeat, although they would soon go on to lose the conflict months later.

The Gun War

Also known as the Basuto War, the Gun War (1880-1881) occurred in the British territory of Basutoland (present-day Lesotho) in Southern Africa and was fought between Cape Colony forces and nationalist Basotho chiefs over the right of the Basotho people to bear arms.

Before the conflict, the “discovery of diamonds and the flood of diggers” caused a huge demand for cheap, unskilled labour. Africans were willing to provide this labour as long as they could get guns in exchange. This went on until whites in South Africa became nervous and decided to disarm all Africans in the Cape Colony following their war with the Xhosa in 1877-78.

The Basuto War in South Africa. Photo Credit: Look and Learn.

But the Basotho refused to disarm and hand in their guns leading to conflicts between Basotho rebels and Cape soldiers. At the end of the day, the Cape Colony made peace with the Basotho in April 1881. The Basotho victory over the Cape Colony “is one of the few examples in Southern African history of black Africans’ winning a conflict with colonial powers in the 19th century,” according to a report. It’s also the reason Lesotho is surrounded by the country of South Africa, rather than being a part of it, the report adds.

The Anglo-Boer War

The Anglo-Boer War (October 11, 1899 – May 31, 1902) was fought between the British Empire and two Boer states, the South African Republic (Republic of Transvaal) and the Orange Free State, over the Empire’s influence in South Africa. Though the war ended with the British being victorious and annexation of the two Boer republics, it is worth mentioning as it was the largest and costliest war that the British fought during the 19th century.

Photo: Britannica

The two annexed Boer Republics would, alongside the British colonies of Cape and Natal, later form the Union of South Africa in 1910. The Union, however, came to an end on May 31, 1961, paving the way for the formation of the Republic of South Africa through the ratification of a new constitution.


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