A History of the Zulu People

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The Zulu people are an ethnic group living in South Africa, numbering an estimated 10.5 million and are considered the most well-known ethnic group living in Africa. They are descended from the Bantu, a term derived from t he Zulu collective noun for “people” of Black races who lived in the Great Lakes region of sub-equatorial Central-to-East Africa.  The Bantu-speaking people were divided into two broad groups: Nguni-speaking people who are the Zulu ancestors, and speakers of other African languages.

Around 3000 years ago, an explosion of population by both people and livestock, meant the search for new lands, and the chiefs of these tribes moved their people east and then southeast (modern day Zambia and Zimbabwe) and in the 16th century into modern day Mozambique, where they adapted to and adopted the ways of the inhabitants there.

Before the rise of power, the Zulu kingdom was part of the Mtetwa Paramountcy, or the Mtetwa Empire. This was more of a confederation of over 30 tribes in the 18th century. During his reign from 1808 to 1818, Dingiswayo conquered several chiefdoms surrounding the Mthethwa territory. The major force behind Dingiswayo’s wars of conquest was his desire to end the internal fighting between different communities and to bring them under a single administration. His military missions were mostly successful due to the fact that he had reorganized the former fighting troops of different lineages into unified, age-graded regiments (Deflem, p. 366).

These tribes were finally united under Shaka Zulu. Shaka was the illegitimate son of Senzangakhona kaJama and Nandi. The date of his birth is attributed to somewhere between 1781 and 1787. Shaka was apparently chased into exile by his father and joined the Mtetwa and became one of their bravest soldiers. In 1818, Dingiswayo died during an altercation with the Ndwedwe tribe. Subsequently Shaka killed the legitimate heir of Dingiswayo, appointed a favourite to be the new Mtetwa chief, but soon include the Mthethwa troops under Zulu control and declared himself the new ruler of the Zulu Kingdom.

The series of internecine wars which marked Shaka’s expansion of power early in the nineteenth century led also to a general breaking oral tradition. He ordered the warriors not to get married and weakened the position of the Zulu sorcerers. However, his reign and his control on power went out of control when his mother died. Those who did not show enough grief were slaughtered and he ordered that no cows were to be milked and no crops planted for one year. This led to mutiny among the Zulu. In 1828, three Zulu warriors, two of whom were brothers of Shaka’s, stabbed and killed him. His brother, Dingane, then murdered the other assassins and became the next king of the Zulus.

During the reign of Dingane, the British and Boers were settling in the areas but had not interfered in the Zulu ways. This was mainly due to the military power of Shaka’s army. Mpande, one of Dingane’s brothers, joined the Europeans and drove Dingane out of Zulu territory and into Swaziland where, in 1840, he was assassinated. Mpande then took the throne.

In 1873, Theophilus Shepstone, Natal Secretary for Native affairs, declared Cetshwayo, the son of Mpande, king of the Zulus. Initially, Cetshwayo believed this was to confirm his royal authority, but in reality it was to symbolize that the Zulu kingdom existed only because of the mercy of the British. In 1878, Bartle Frere, the British High Commissioner of South Africa, presented an ultimatum for Cetshwayo to disband the Zulu army, stop the many executions, as Shepstone had already advised during Cetshwayo’s coronation, give missionaries the freedom to teach, and grant young Zulu men the freedom to marry. When the Zulu king did not conform to these demands, a succession of bloody confrontations between the Zulu and the British ultimately led to the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879, after which the Zulu Kingdom was brought under British colonial rule (Deflem, p.379).

The rise of the Zulu empire over a comparatively short period of time, its dominant development over a extensive area, the devastating brutality and terror involved, and the fierce European defeat of the administration have long fascinated scholarly interest from historians, anthropologists, and sociologists of African political systems as well as being made into a movie. Even today, the history of the Zulu people continues to fascinate people from all over the world.


Deflem, Mathieu (1999) Warfare, Political Leadership and State Formation: The Case of the Zulu Kingdom 1808-1879, Ethnology, University of Pittsburgh – of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education.


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