Zulu history - The history of the Zulu Nation

Zulu history - The history of the Zulu Nation

Our Ancient Arena
Southern Africa's contribution to the Cradle of Mankind is borne out by several important archaeological sites...not least the Border Caves of our Zulu Kingdom's northeastern quadrant. Here lies evidence of 150 000 years of human occupation and some of the oldest Homo sapiens remains on earth. These 'ancient ones' were the small- statured, ochre-skinned races of Later Stone Age hunter- gatherer generically referred to as Bushmen. Related neither to the Zulu nor their deeply revered ancestors, the Bushmen were descendants of Early Stone Age progenitors who had enjoyed the same fruits of this bountiful terrain for a million-plus years before them. Clans and loosely-connected family groups followed seasonal game migrations between mountain-range and coastline...living in caves, beneath rocky overhangs or in temporary shelters of branches and antelope skins. These nomadic people neither domesticated animals nor cultivated crops, even though their knowledge of both flora and fauna was encyclopedic. Bushmen 'classified' thousand of plants and their uses - from nutritional to medicinal, mystical to recreational and lethal - while displaying their spiritual connection with the creatures around them in the fascinating rock-art which continues to intrigue modern investigators.

The Bushmen probably imagined no deviations in lifestyle beyond those compelled by the fluctuations of nature, but forces of change were gathering to their north...

Zulu Ancestors
In the Great Lakes region of sub-equatorial Central-to-East Africa lived black races collectively labelled by early European anthropologists as 'Bantu' - a term derived from the Zulu collective noun for 'people', but used in certain scholarly circles to differentiate black languages from the click-tongues of Bushmen to the south.

Among these so-called Bantu were the Zulu ancestors - the Nguni people. Named after the charismatic figure who in a previous epoch had led a migration from Egypt to the Great Lakes via the Red Sea corridor and Ethiopia, this new home of the Nguni is the mystical Embo of Zulu storytellers to the present day. Both pastoralists and rudimentary agriculturalists, Nguni wealth was measured in cattle - a tradition that continues throughout the modern Zulu Kingdom. There was however, no central authority at that time...nor was there even a clan called Zulu among those who constituted the Nguni people.

Affluence and Expansion
The relative sophistication of the Iron Age ushered in a time of plenty for the Nguni and their neighbouring races, with the resulting population explosion of both people and livestock leading inevitably to the quest for new land. Some three thousand years ago, Nguni chiefs began moving their communities east and southeast towards lush tropical stretches flanking the Indian Ocean, while among the other people, the Karanga headed due south from the Great Lakes' western reaches to dominate the territory comprising modern-day Zambia and Zimbabwe. Inter-clan strife among the Karanga forced certain groupings yet further south and, some 700 years ago, these Iron Age invaders known as the Lala people 'collided' with the Stone Age Bushmen.


Harmony of Iron and Metal
This initial impact on the hunter-gatherers was not altogether traumatic, for although the Lala established fairly large villages, cultivated crops and demarcated grazing areas for their domestic livestock, there remained territory aplenty for the Bushmen to pursue traditional wild animal trails and collect vital plants. These ancient ways even received some benefit from the arrowheads and harvesting tools born of the Lala's mining and metalworking skills. Harmony prevailed as trade relations were set in place...followed by the blood relations of inter-marriage - an almost idyllic situation under the circumstances, but destined to last no more than 200 years.

The Nguni Arrive...
Continuing their exodus southeast from the Great Lakes, ever increasing numbers of Nguni tribes began infiltrating seaward of the Lebombo Mountains during the 16th century...their possessions carried on the heads of the womenfolk and their livestock driven by young herd-boys. Many clans put down roots in this lush and beautiful coastal strip...were united by, and prospered under, the king who lent the region its enduring name - Maputaland. Exit the millennia- long Bushmen inhabitants of the earlier-mentioned Border Caves.

...and press South
Those Nguni who forged on soon discovered the country of their dreams - fertile land, mighty rivers, tributaries and streams, nutritious pastures, relief from the merciless tropical heat of their migration and, more importantly perhaps, an absence of the livestock- debilitating tsetse-fly endemic further north. They dispersed and settled in small groups all over this new territory...putting the Bushman lifestyle under extreme pressure and compelling the Lala people to integrate or move on.

Tiers of Society
The head of one such group was Malandela - The Follower - who found the verdant valley of his choice and began a new life with his wives, children, retainers and livestock. There was still no central authority among the Nguni during Malandela's lifetime - his was a complex, volatile political environment. Clans were social units determined by male lineage, while chiefdoms were collectives in which political power was vested in the dominant lineage of the strongest clan. Chiefdoms varied in size from authority over a thousand people or less, to huge paramountcies where subordinate chiefs placed themselves under the control of an 'overlord' chief. These paramount chiefs had insufficient military strength to guarantee loyalty among the vassal chiefs however, and their sphere of influence thus expanded or disappeared as the result of shifting allegiances and constituent clans vying for dominance. Further intricacies came into play when the death of a household head ushered in the birth of new clans as his sons went forth to establish new bloodlines.

Heaven's Time Arrives
And so it was at the end of Malandela's days, when such a clan came into being by virtue of his son, Zulu - a high spirited and determined young man whose name means Heaven. Following the tradition of Nguni heirs, Zulu used part of his inherited cattle herd as dowry for marriage - to this day it remains customary for the bride's father to receive cattle as compensation for the loss of his daughter's labour within the household. It's not known how many wives Zulu accumulated, but not likely more than two or three, as only the very rich and powerful could afford more, and his father Malandela had not been a particularly high-ranked figure.

The First KwaZulu
Whatever their number, Zulu's wives and followers accompanied the new clan head further south to the Mkhumbane River basin where, amid the tall euphorbia trees destined to become the symbol of chieftancy, the man called Heaven established his own small realm - the first KwaZulu, or Place of Heaven. And as was taking place throughout Nguni territory, Zulu built his homestead according to the traditional blueprints. The layout proscribed a central, circular cattle-fold with the pole-and-thatch 'beehive' huts of family members and retainers arranged in a crescent at the higher end of a sloping piece of land. Hut floors were a densely compacted mixture of ant- hill sand and cow-dung, polished to resemble a dark green marble. Small, irregularly shaped fields for planting grains and vegetables were identified nearby and protected from animals with interlaced thorn- branch hedges. Homesteads were thus self-sufficient entities.

Wealth in the Place of Heaven
The cattle-fold's central position within the homestead evinced that animal's crucial role in society. Cattle were of ritual significance, for only through their sacrifice could the ancestors be propitiated - they were being offered what the faithful believed still belonged to them. The dowry system produced an exponential curve of wealth - more cattle meant more wives...who produced more children who in turn, provided more domestic labour and productivity plus the added bonus of more cattle when the girls were married off. Cattle were also the source of meat and milk, with their hides used for clothing and battle-shields. All rituals and ceremonies were conducted within the cattle-fold and deep, camouflaged grain pits for winter storage were dug within its perimeter.

Timeless Routine
Dawn would see young boys lead the cattle to pasture while women and girls fetched water and set about their domestic and agricultural duties. At mid-morning the cows were brought back for milking, followed by communal breakfast for the homestead. This first meal of the day was generally a lighter version of the evening menu. After breakfast the cows were returned to the fields while the womenfolk resumed their chores and the men set about their more prestigious tasks - building and repairing the homestead, digging storage pits, clearing new ground, producing handicrafts, discussing current affairs and, when circumstances demanded, going out to fight rival clans. Hunting parties went in search of ornamental rather than edible trophies, as beef was by far the meat of choice. Not that it always highlighted the main meal, enjoyed after sunset when the cattle had been returned to their fold and the women were home from the fields to once again tend their cooking pots.

The Bill of Fare
Considering the equation of cattle and wealth, it's hardly surprising that only people of rank and affluence regularly enjoyed beef dinners outside of special occasions. Even then, the boiled or roasted chunks were apportioned in hierarchical terms of body parts...from sirloin for the chief down to spleen for the most junior herd-boy. Maize 'porridge' of various consistencies was the principal staple, with assorted side dishes of tubers, legumes and leafy vegetables. This would usually be accompanied by a bowl of pre-prepared, sour clotted milk - almost never 'straight' from the cow. Ranking alongside beef as a luxury for most ordinary folk was traditional beer - a pinkish, nutritious and minimally alcoholic sorghum brew.

Heaven's People
According to oral tradition, Zulu's descendants - the amaZulu, or People of Heaven - settled in the White Umfolozi valley under the chieftainship of Zulu's great-grandson Ndaba kaPhunga - The Man of Affairs. The Zulu continued to live a peaceful existence when the mantle of leadership was passed to Jama - He of the Stern Countenance - even though crucial power struggles were developing all around them as paramount chiefs dreamed of statehood. The Zulu chiefdom was small, relatively insignificant and subordinate to Dingiswayo, ruler of the emerging Mthethwa state. Zulu territory was however, strategically important to Dingiswayo's rivalry with the equally-rapacious Ndwandwe leaders, and he cultivated the allegiance of Jama's heir-apparent, Senzangakhona - He Who Acts with Good Reason. When Senzangakhona succeeded his father in the late 1700s, Dingiswayo afforded him freer rein and military expansion in exchange for securing a 'buffer zone' against the Mthethwa's enemies. Senzangakhona never lived to see the ultimate result of the Mthethwa- Ndwandwe battle for supremacy - he died in 1816, a year before the Ndwandwe defeated the Mthethwa army, overran their territory and killed paramount chief Dingiswayo. All that now stood between the Ndwandwe and total dominance of the entire region between Phongolo and Thukela Rivers was the small Zulu state under its new leader - the illegitimate son of Senzangakhona and Nandi - King Shaka.

James King's sketch of King Shaka
Source:Cape Archives

Enter Shaka Zulu
Nandi had conceived before official recognition as the chief's wife, and her obvious pregnancy was unconvincingly dismissed as affliction by an intestinal beetle known in Zulu medical circles as a 'shaka'. That name was duly given to the baby upon his birth in 1787. Although his father's eldest son, Shaka's ill-timed arrival denied him heir- apparent status, but overlord chief Dingiswayo was aware of Shaka's courage and budding military genius. And after Shaka had orchestrated the murder of his younger brother and legitimate heir to the Zulu throne, Dingiswayo sent a military force to assist Shaka seize the chieftainship. The young leader justified his overlord's patronage with regional military successes against the Mthethwa's enemies, but when that state was overrun and Dingiswayo assassinated, Shaka Zulu found himself the sole object of Ndwandwe battle plans.

Survival and Imperialism
The Zulu repulsed wave after wave of Ndwandwe regiments, eventually forcing them to flee northwards. Shaka, however, realised a more permanent solution was essential and set about building up his army while devising lethal new tactics and weaponry. To maximise the efficiency of his innovative horn-shaped attack formation, the long throwing spear and full-length body shield of his forefathers were replaced by the short stabbing spear and small shield of highly effective hand-to-hand combat. Shaka then set about earning his reputation as the 'Black Napoleon', conquering and dispossessing in all directions. Small chiefdoms that submitted to Shaka gained protection in exchange for army recruits, women and cattle to bolster the burgeoning Zulu state. Larger chiefdoms - some of which still harboured grand ambitions - saw their rulers and important families murdered and replaced by Shaka's carefully chosen 'puppets'. By 1819 the newly forged Zulu nation was the largest and most populous ever seen in southeastern Africa. And their leader was Shaka - King of the Zulu.

Cementing the Realm
Shaka set about consolidating his empire, building enormous military barracks in strategic locations and populating them with vast numbers of new recruits. He also created 'women's auxiliary' regiments and manipulated marriage within the corps, thus integrating men and women of subordinate chiefdoms into the Zulu state, while constantly reminding the vassal chiefs of his authority and power. They withheld tribute at the peril of being dispossessed altogether...their cattle and other prized possessions - including womenfolk - either added to the royal inventory or distributed among those in Shaka's favour. The royal cattle herd was greatly bolstered when Shaka refined the age- old practice of sequestering desirable young women - paid in tribute or seized by force - and offering them as brides to 'social climbers' for vastly inflated dowries.

Enemies Within and Without
Shaka's reign was never secure, and maintaining the Zulu kingdom's boundaries required further military campaigns. Clans driven westwards into the Drakensberg mountain range were left without livestock or the leisure to plant crops, and turned to desperate, grisly means of survival in the so-called Valley of the Cannibals.

Opposition to 'Shaka the Usurper' festered within the divided royal house too, and while an attempt on the king's life in 1824 may well have been a family plot, it was officially blamed on the dissident Qwabe people...many of whom were subsequently hunted down and killed.

English Medicine
Shaka's recovery received assistance from a most unlikely quarter in colonial adventurer Henry Francis Fynn who, with a small negotiating party, had arrived at the king's homestead in August 1824 to seek trading rights. These British had created a tiny settlement at Port Natal - now Durban - having sailed north from the already-established Cape Colony in search of ivory and exotic animal hides. Shaka's gratitude was shown in a document he signed ceding 'chieftainship' of Port Natal and its environs to the white traders...who returned to their settlement, hoisted the Union Jack and formally took possession of their gift in the name of Great Britain. It was undoubtedly not King Shaka's intention to renounce sovereignty in favour of King George IV, but the die was cast...

Henry Francis Fynn

The Fatal Thrusts
Shaka's reign - and life - came to an abrupt, if not altogether unexpected end, on 24 September 1828. Spurred on by a powerful aunt who believed his incessant campaigning was in fact weakening the kingdom, King Shaka's half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana speared him to death within the royal household. Another half-brother, the 'soft and slow-witted' Mpande, had been excluded from the plot, which no doubt saved his life...for not too long after Shaka's body had been interred in a grain pit within the royal cattle-fold, Dingane murdered his co-conspirator Mhlangana and ascended to the Zulu throne. Mpande was somehow destined to have his day though, for he was spared when Dingane's first act as king was to execute a dozen other royal kin. And all this because a life of mistrust and the ever- present spectre of assassination had seen King Shaka leave no heirs...

The King of Contradictions
While on the one hand Dingane sought to reverse some of Shaka's excesses, such as summary execution for looking into the face of a royal concubine, he embarked on extreme tactics of his own devising. Dingane knew that many subordinate chiefs had seen through the smoke- screen surrounding Shaka's death - that Mhlangana alone had devised and carried out the assassination - and set his army against Shaka's known favourites, killing and replacing them with his own puppets. They in turn used Dingane's policy to claim 'royal approval' of their personal vendettas.

Captain Allan Gardiner's sketch of King Dingane
Source:Africana Museum

Settlers and Refugees
Dingane was unhappy with developments at Port Natal, and not only because the white population was growing. The British offered refuge to thousands fleeing his rule, employing and even training some of them in modern weaponry. To Dingane the idea of armed Zulu malcontents alongside settlers who believed a new British colony had been born was totally unacceptable. Another worrying element was added in October 1837 when Boers on their Great Trek from British tyranny in the Cape Colony arrived in the Zulu kingdom. They sought land from Dingane for an independent Afrikaaner homeland, but the king doubted their motives and feared their firepower, knowing the Boers had defeated two black armies en route from the south. Dingane's advisors warned him of Boer duplicity, and on 6 February 1838 - the mutually agreed 'land treaty day' - Dingane had Boer leader Piet Retief and 101 of his followers put to death. Voortrekker families camped in the vicinity were then attacked and almost annihilated at the 'Place of Weeping'.

Revenge and Assassination
The surviving Boers regrouped and within 10 months believed themselves capable of exacting retribution. On 16 December 1838 - a week after making their now famous vow to God - they defeated the Zulu army at the Battle of Blood River. Some three thousand Zulu lay dead, and after putting his royal household to the torch, King Dingane fled north to rebuild his authority. Six months later he attempted to defeat and occupy the Swazi kingdom with what remained of his military resources. Dingane failed, and his humiliation was compounded by surviving half-brother Mpande's defection - along with 17 000 adherents - to the Boers. Mpande and the Boers then launched a joint campaign against the Zulu king, who was eventually hunted down and assassinated near the Swaziland border.

Broken Rope and a New King
The Zulu people were thus split along ideological lines, the Dingane- Mpande conflict having 'broken the rope that holds the nation together'. To Mpande fell the difficult task of plaiting the nation back together and healing the rift between his followers and those of the recently killed Dingane. As with King Shaka, Dingane had left no legitimate heir to the throne and Mpande's Boer allies hailed him as 'Reigning Prince of the Emigrant Zulus'. The Mpande-Boer alliance was however, never without mutual suspicion - the Zulu monarch foresaw a Boer land-grab, while they in turn kept vividly alive the memories of their 'Place of Weeping'.

Changing Horses
The 1842 Boer-British confrontation in Port Natal-Durban that led to Dick King's historic ride to summon reinforcements - and subsequent Boer submission to the Crown of England - also saw King Mpande switch allegiance from Boer to Brit. He signed a British-authored document naming him 'King of the Zulu Nation' and declaring the Thukela River as official Natal-Zululand boundary. Boer leaders were incensed and embarked on yet another exodus, the rigours and tragedies of their Great Trek having resulted only in further British dominion. The seeds of their War of Independence and the terrible Anglo-Boer War that followed were truly sown...

More Puppets and Purges
As was now the norm, Mpande consolidated his realm by replacing potentially threatening subordinate chiefs with his own favourites. The 'enemy within' reappeared in 1843 when the king's advisors urged him to kill his half-brother Gqugqu for harbouring aspirations to the throne. Mpande duly ordered a purge, starting with Gqugqu and his entire family, and extending to every alleged conspirator the king's henchmen could lay their hands on. Thousands of refugees took flight across the Thukela River into the protective arms of the British, joined by 'emigrating' Zulus seeking a more 'liberal' existence outside of strict customary practices. Vast cattle herds accompanied these population transfers, so Mpande's army - brandishing the firearms now demanded from white would-be traders in Zululand - began raiding neighbouring states.

King Mpande reviewing his troops.

The King's Rise and Fall
These incursions peaked in 1852 with the successful, full-scale invasion of Swaziland. Following Dingane's rationale, Mpande figured on a second, 'stand-by' kingdom, should he lose Zululand to either the British or the Boers. Anticipating an unwanted influx of Swazi refugees, the British pressured Mpande into withdrawing his army. A long and drawn out struggle for future succession then erupted between two of Mpande's sons, Cetshwayo and Mbuyazi, culminating in the 1856 'Battle of the Princes' that left Mbuyazi among the thousands of dead. Cetshwayo immediately set about usurping the authority of his aged father, whose sphere of influence and health declined until he died - of natural causes, surprisingly - in late 1872.

British Law in Zululand
Cetshwayo was crowned twice - by the Zulu people and by agents of Queen Victoria. The 'colonial coronation' was accompanied by 'laws' - allegedly agreed to by the new king - that gave Britain the discretion to depose him. These 'laws' dealt with the proportionate powers of subordinate chiefs and the requirements for execution of Zulu subjects. The first five years of Cetshwayo's reign followed a now familiar pattern the 'raising up' of favourites within the Zulu hierarchy and courting of the British against Boer expansionism. Disease had meanwhile decimated Zululand cattle herds and the resulting tension led first to internecine raids and murder, then spilled over to affect white settlers in the form of harassment and stock theft. Both contravened Cetshwayo's 'coronation laws' and invoked Britain's 'right and duty' to depose him.

King Cetshwayo. Source:Cape Archives


Ultimatum and War
On 11 December 1878, alongside the Thukela River, colonial agents delivered an Ultimatum to 14 Zulu chiefs representing King Cetshwayo. The document demanded that the king pay taxes, return stolen cattle and order the immediate cessation of anti-settler forays. Having anticipated Cetshwayo's lack of response, Britain invaded Zululand immediately after the Ultimatum expired on the last day of 1878. Shocking news was to reach London - 1 300 British soldiers killed on 22 January 1879 as 25 000 spear-wielding Zulu overrun the British encampment at Isandlwana, with the 200 fleeing survivors overtaken and killed at nearby Fugitive's Drift. On the same day a Zulu force attacked Rorke's Drift, a Swedish mission station used by the British as a magazine and field hospital. It was here that the 'heroic hundred' repelled 4 000 Zulu warriors for 12 hours, losing 17 men and earning 11 Victoria Crosses - the most ever awarded for a single engagement. The campaign became a brutal slogging-match as British firepower was pitted repeatedly against Zulu numbers and bravery. This continued for six months until the Battle of Ulundi, where on 4 July 1879, the Zulu army was totally defeated and Cetshwayo's royal homestead burned to the ground.

The Realm Dismantled
The king survived and fled north with his 11-year-old heir, Dinuzulu, while remnants of his army dispersed in all directions. A fortnight after the decisive battle, colonial authorities informed the Zulu nation that their kingdom was a thing of the past, and that chiefs should surrender their arms and royal cattle. Cetshwayo was captured a month later and taken by ship to prison-exile in Cape Town, while Britain divided Zululand into 13 autonomous chiefdoms to stifle any possible 'resurgence of royalty'. This policy required the occasional show of force, but ultimately succeeded in eliminating the power of any potential king by destroying the centralised military system. The colonially-recognised chiefs were thereby left to their own devices while the Zulu homestead economy pursued its timeless traditions. Thus, for the majority of ordinary Zulu citizens, the absence of a monarchy made little difference to their daily lives. That is until conflict among the 13 chiefdoms spiralled to a point of civil war in Zululand.

Meeting the Queen
Many colonials believed that only direct British rule in Zululand would restore law and order and remove the threat to Natal. Certain more cynical observers felt this to be the long-term goal of the post- war agreement in any case. So concerned were the British with Zululand's deteriorating circumstances that they allowed King Cetshwayo to sail to England from his Cape Town prison. His arrival on 5 August 1882 aroused enormous public interest, as did his audiences with Queen Victoria and numerous other dignitaries. Cetshwayo arrived back in Zululand in January 1883, having agreed to keep the peace with his enemies, make no attempt to revive the military system and, alongside a British Resident, 'rule' a much- diminished buffer territory to be known as the Reserve.

New Monarch - Old Allies
Within six months of his return however, the king became embroiled in inter-chiefdom war and found himself once again in hiding this time from renegades among his own people. Cetshwayo died - quite possibly poisoned - on 8 February 1884. His teenage heir, Dinuzulu, who had remained secluded in Zululand throughout his father's travails, was declared Cetshwayo's successor. Dinuzulu was not without rivals though, and he sought Boer assistance as a self- destructive stalemate descended on Zululand. Boer interest lay not in rescuing the monarchy but in promises of territorial reward. They duly secured a tract of land large enough for an independent self- government after swearing an oath to protect Dinuzulu from his enemies and proclaiming him King of the Zulu and of Zululand. He was in fact though a powerless king reduced to, as the British articulated, 'a nominal ruler in the hands of the Boer invaders'.

Britain Strikes Back
These developments greatly troubled the Natal settlers, who began lobbying extensively for increased British control, particularly when Boer claims escalated to include five-sixths of Zulu territory outside of the buffer-reserve. After initial tardiness, the British government annexed Zululand in May 1887 a move not whole-heartedly accepted by the Zulu as a satisfactory solution to their multiple problems. Dinuzulu fell into dispute with colonial authorities who responded by informing him that 'the rule of the House of Shaka is a thing of the past dead like water spilt on the ground. The Queen who conquered Cetshwayo now rules in Zululand - and no one else!'

King Dinizulu

Another King in Prison
War erupted between Dinuzulu and his rivals, leading to the nominal king's arrest, trial and conviction for 'high treason and public violence'. In December 1889 Dinuzulu was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment on St Helena Island off West Africa - in the footsteps of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte - and the House of Zulu lost its role in the guidance of its people. Dinuzulu was pardoned and returned eight years later not to glory as the Zulu people had hoped, but as a salaried traditional leader in British government employ. A Zulu uprising then saw Dinizulu receive a four-year jail sentence in 1909 for 'harbouring rebels'.

Free Yet Still Captive
The Union of South Africa came into being on 31 May 1910, however, and its first Prime Minister was Boer leader and former ally of Dinuzulu - General Louis Botha. Dinuzulu was released and spent the last three years of his life on a farm in the Transvaal province leaving his son Mshiyeni and grandson Bhekuzulu to become Paramount Chiefs in title, but salaried officials of the white government in practice.

King Goodwill Zwelithini. Photo: Artworks

Risen as the Phoenix
Though never totally cowed by the disastrous events of history, Zulu pride and unity were reborn along with the new, democratic South Africa. Reviving links with an independent and awe-inspiring past, the Zulu monarchy of post-apartheid KwaZulu-Natal is constitutionally recognised and protected.

A Final Irony
Reigning monarch, His Majesty King Goodwill Zwelithini, lives in the Nongoma district of central Zululand the home territory almost two centuries ago of those who tried without success to destroy an emerging nation and its first true sovereign Shaka -King of the Zulu.