The Zulu arose to prominence from the peoples of southern Africa, achieved dominance through force of arms, and enforced a hegemony which fundamentally changed the history of Africa. In the end, although defeated by a technologically advanced colonial power, they landed telling blows on one of the world’s most formidable military forces.
In the late 18th century, the Zulu were semi-nomadic Nguni clans in the south-west of Africa, grazing cattle and raising crops. Zulu women farmed and managed the families. Men fought, hunted, and cared for the cattle. Cattle are an integral part of Zulu culture, a denomination of wealth and status, a key part of ritual, and more practically their primary source of food.
Each family group bound itself to others through a network of social obligations, family ties, and allegiances. This web accelerated the aggregation of the Zulu into a more organized state, led by chiefs whose power was growing by the start of the 19th century.
Enter Shaka, and the transformation of the ibutho system of recruitment and the impi into a formidable, standardized army (see both Shaka's entry and the Impi entry for additional details). Shaka came to power with fewer than 2,000 Zulu under his command, controlling an area smaller than Monaco. Eleven years later, the impi had over 50,000 warriors, and the Zulu had conquered and subsumed all their regional rivals. Warfare, too, changed from small-scale raiding and conquest to scorched-earth tactics. But the Zulu were the unrivaled masters of southern Africa, and at the time of his assassination, Shaka had conquered on the scale of Alexander the Great.
This conquest had profound ripple effects throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Shaka’s conquests touched off a wave of refugee migrations and ancillary wars that transformed central and eastern Africa. This event, known as the Mfecane, is still studied and debated today, as it was a catalyzing moment in African history, and would eventually result in the creation of new African nations that would later resist colonialism.
Dingane became king after assassinating Shaka, in response to Shaka’s increasing brutality as ruler, and it was during his reign that the Zulu began to come into conflict with European colonists in South Africa, namely the Boers who were beginning to move into territory vacated in the Mfecane.
Mpande, the longest-reigning Zulu king, began his reign by overthrowing Dingane. Mpande stayed on better terms with the Boers (some of whom had helped his rebellion), but rising tensions due to colonial expansion and the cutthroat politics of reigning over the subjected nations (and his own succession) left his reign with a somewhat mixed historical assessment. Mpande was succeeded by his eldest son Cetshwayo in 1872, his exact date of death concealed to cement Cetshwayo’s ascent to the throne. Cetshwayo, an admirer of his great-uncle Shaka, set about rebuilding the impi and expanding its ranks.
Now, matters with the European colonial powers came to a head. Claims to land ownership by the British and Boers (made more pressing with the discovery of diamonds in the region) were hotly contested by the Zulu, who remained the most powerful African nation in the region. The British pressed ahead with a plan to confederate South Africa, and in doing so made a series of provoking demands against Cetshwayo. The proverbial final straw was that Cetshwayo disband his army. Cetshwayo refused; the British declared war in 1879.
The British Army was a modern, sophisticated, industrial-era military force, with professional officers and NCOs, Gatling guns, repeating rifles, a highly-developed sense of cultural superiority, and the latest (extremely racist) cultural theories of the age, so it was a considerable shock when it lost the Battle of Islandlwana to Cetshwayo’s impis, suffering greater than 70% casualties in the process. The Zulu out-maneuvered, out-fought, and thrashed one of the best armies in the world in a straight-up fight in the field, and then repeated the process twice more at Intombe and Hlobane.
This unforgivable blow to British pride resulted in much public pearl-clutching at home, many self-justifying memoirs, and a full-throated jingoistic response. Victories had proved costly to the Zulu armies, and the British continued to supply reinforcements and refine tactics until finally, the British invaded Zululand, besieged the capital at Ulundi, and captured Cetshwayo. He was taken to London and paraded about as a captive until the public sentiment judged the whole affair unseemly gloating (Cetshwayo’s manner during this time was judged to be stoic, and his personal dignity befitting a monarch). Cetshwayo was returned to Zululand where he ruled as one of thirteen vassal chiefs of the British.
Their heartland divided, the Zulu would be subject to almost a century of harsh colonial rule and apartheid in South Africa. A diaspora due to cattle disease and lack of economic opportunities led to Zulu working in the mines and cities of South Africa, sometimes organizing their own labor unions. KwaZulu was set up as an "Bantustan" or territory set aside for ethnic groups within South Africa. In the 1970s, a Territorial Authority for KwaZulu was established, giving it some additional autonomy. In 1994, the province of KwaZulu-Natal was established with additional regional autonomy, and encompassing some of the lands of the old Zulu Kingdom. Two areas in KwaZulu-Natal are UNESCO World Heritage Sites today: uKhahlamba-Draksenberg Park, and iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Both sites have considerable natural beauty, ecological value, and cultural importance.
The Zulu retain pride in their military and cultural heritage, practicing both traditional dances and newer forms, like the gumboot dance. The Zulu king serves as a ceremonial head of state, a guardian of traditional culture, and as a living link to the diaspora and the world.