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6th July 2003The eclipse at Isandlawana
By Peter Young
I have read a number of books, listened to some very entertaining CD's and attended some extremely interesting lectures, all on the subject of the Anglo-Zulu Wars of 1879.

The eclipse on the 22nd January is mentioned in a number of these, and it's occurence seems to be accepted as a matter of fact.

The questions I have of this forum are; How did the Zulu know of this eclipse? Would their number have included astonomers?

Much is made of their reluctance to fight on the 22nd January 1879, because of this event, what was the cause of their superstition?

Apologies for the pun, but, can anyone shed any light on this for me?
6th July 2003James Garland
Re your question... how did the Zulu know of this eclipse. I don't think they did know about it in advance. As far as I'm aware it coincided with the attack but I don't know of any evidence that this was planned. I was under the impression that the Zulu's did not intend to attack until the 23rd and that they only attacked on the 22nd when scouts discovered their whereabouts.

7th July 2003Julian Whybra
You're confusing two events.
1) the Zulus did not know of the coming eclipse
2) the Zulus thought it inauspicious to fight on the 22nd because it was the day of the new moon - an event which they were able to predict.
7th July 2003Peter Young
Julian / James

Thanks for the replies.

I went back to the books after posting the message, and came across the word "inauspicious" relative to the attack on the 22nd, in a number of them, also the reference to the phases of the moon, which they would have had knowledge of due to crop gathering etc. I assume.

Thaks for clearing up my confusion.


7th July 2003Mike McCabe
It's also possible that the eclipse was not as obvious as some accounts render. There were, for instance, no recorded observations of it at Rorke's Drift, by the Evelyn Wood column, or at Inyezane. So, perhaps there was some cloud obscuration on the day itself and the visible manifestation of the eclipse was fairly near the horizon. It would be interesting to hear an astronomer's view.
7th July 2003Peter Ewart

I, too, think the absence of a recorded account of the eclipse from anyone at Rorke's Drift is noteworthy. The men were less occupied (& therefore less distracted?) than the defenders of the camp at the relevant time (if any at the camp were still alive). Smith's, Witt's & Reynolds' long & peaceful sojourn up on Shiyane at the right time surely provided the perfect opportunity - if the sky was clear. All three left accounts of that day (of varying length & reliability) but none mentioned the eclipse.

There are accounts of clear skies that day (as well as observations of the eclipse from as far afield as Mangeni, Luneberg and - possibly - Helpmekaar). And yet Philip Gon implies more than once that the morning was overcast at Isandlwana. (Starting cloudy, rain expected, overcast well after nine but getting oppressive, and still dull as noon approached - although he doesn't quote his sources in footnotes & apparently gets the eclipse time wrong anyway).

Perhaps a hazy sun, perhaps fluffy clouds? Either might reduce or obscure the effect - which was, it would seem, minimal anyway. And is there not an account somewhere (can't remember where!) of a thunderstorm brewing up in the district from late afternoon onwards? Too late to obscure the eclipse, I know, but it may have been preceded by haze or clouds. I don't think it rained at Isandlwana or RD that night, or we'd know about it, but what about Helpmekaar, Dundee etc?

Would be surprised if the eclipse was low on the horizon at that time of day but there seems little doubt that the effect of the eclipse was minimal, if anything - especially going by the scientific calculations which have previously appeared on this site.

8th July 2003Julian Whybra
it was an ANNULAR Solar eclipse.
From that you will see that the eclipse was about 70% in KZN, still pretty

If the RD participants were unaware of the eclipse, it is unlikely that
they would have really noticed it. The sky may have got a touch darker
(steely colour) but that is all.

Duration of annularity - zero.
Eclipse magnitude 68.2%
Altitude of sun at Max eclipse - 58 degrees at azimuth 278 (almost due west)
Duration of eclipse (based on Lat 28.5 S, Long 28.5 E) 11h04 - 13h50 UTC,
13h04 - 15h50 local)
Maximum eclipse at 12h32 UTC (14h32 local).

The eclipse was visible at both Isandhlwana and Rorkes drift. Most
8th July 2003Peter Ewart
That answers an important point, Julian. Although the trio on Shiyane no doubt glanced back at the mission now & again, they were primarily looking due east and south-east - in the opposition direction to the eclipse. (Which, as you imply, they probably had no advance knowledge of anyway & so didn't notice).

9th July 2003Julian whybra
There really is no reason why anyone at RD should have noticed a 68.2% eclipse - it is pretty unnoticeable. In a London eclipse where it was 95% hardly anyone noticed at all.
I think the surprising thing is that anyone at all noticed at Isandhlwana considering what was going on. If my memory serves me right I don't recall any European, survivor or part of Chelmsford's force, noticing the eclipse. The only mention of it comes from Zulus - perhaps it's got more to do with native Africans living closer to Mother Nature than Europeans and being more attuned to small changes in their environment.
10th July 2003Keith Smith

A small correction: there are two mentions of the eclipse by white men in Chelmsford's foray, as follows:

"The sun was shining on the Camp at the time and then the Camp looked dark, just as if a shadow was passing over it;" (Letter from Inspector George Mansel, Natal Mounted Police, to Colonel E. Durnford, Wood Papers file 32, Killie Campbell Aficana Library).

"About this time an oppressive gloom pervaded the whole atmosphere. This was due to an eclipse of the sun but we never thought of that at the time." (Diary of Trooper Fred Symons, Natal Carbineers, Talana Museum, p. 22.)

It is also mentioned by Commandant Schermbrucker in a letter Colonel E. Wood, dated 23rd January, 1879. WO 33/34 p. 253.
"9. Yesterday's partial eclipse of the sun (between 3 and 4 p.m.) is looked upon by the natives as a sign of Umbelini's power, who is reported to have particular power over that luminary."

A reference by Philip Gon in his "The Road to Isandlwana",p. 228 to a Helpmakaar sighting is misleading. An email conversation with Martin Everett some time ago revealed that Heaton did not mention the eclipse in his entries, but the reference was printed by the diary publisher. Still, I record what Gon said:

" and at Helpmakaar, Lieutenant Wilfred Heaton of D Company noted in his diary that the eclipse of the sun began at 11:51."

10th July 2003Julian Whybra
Thanks - I didn't know of Mansel's letter - obviously a perceptive bloke. I do have a copy of Symons's war diary but discounted it because of the phrase 'but we never thought of it at the time'. The entries were written up later and it seemed to me as though Symons was writing about the eclipse with the benefit of hindsight - though I could be completely wrong of course. Either way with only 1 or 2 men-on-the-veld recording the event it still demonstrates how barely perceptible it was.
17th July 2003Alex Rossiter
When there was the last eclipse ,here in bristol u couldnt actually really see it but the atmosphere was really spooky , it felt like the end of the world , imagine that effect at isandlwana as all the salughter mixed with the atmospheres of a eclipse , it must have been a sppoky mixture