Zulu Wars, Africa

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Zulu Wars, Africa

The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 was fought between Britain and the Zulu nation in South Africa. The war remains one of the most dramatic in both British and southern African history during the colonial period. It marked the end of the independence of the Zulu nation and the entrenchment of British colonialism in South Africa.

The Zulu kingdom emerged early in the nineteenth century along the eastern seaboard of southern Africa under its legendary ruler Shaka Zulu (1787–1828). The background to the war must be located in contestations over land between the Zulu, the Boers, and the British. British adventurers were attracted to Zululand in search of trade and by the 1840s the British colony of Natal had sprung up on the southern borders of Zululand. The expansion of the Boer into the southern African interior from 1835, the attempt by the Zulu to defend their own independence, and the aggressive policy of the British to control South Africa by imposing their authority over the Boer and the Zulu led to a chain of events that resulted in the war of 1879, in which the British suffered humiliating defeat before they eventually subdued the Zulu.

The prelude to the war was the dispute that emerged between the Zulu king, Cetshwayo (ca. 1836–1884), and his brother Umtonga. In 1861 Umtonga fled to the Utrecht district. Cetshwayo offered the Boer farmers a strip of land along the border if they would surrender his brother. But he later rescinded his endorsement of the deal after his brother fled to Natal. The contestation over this ceded land and the boundary issue that developed attracted the British into what could be regarded as a local dispute. Indeed, by the 1870s the British began to adopt a policy that would bring the various British colonies, Boer republics, and independent African groups under common British control. The British high commissioner in South Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere (1815–1884), believed that an independent and self-reliant Zulu kingdom was a threat to this policy. Frere was convinced that economic development and peace in South Africa could only be achieved by curtailing the power of Cetshwayo and the Zulu nation.

To achieve this goal, the British pursued a policy of unwarranted aggression. In 1878, Cetshwayo was presented with an ultimatum as part of the British plan to bring about the confederation of states in South Africa, including Zululand. One of the demands made of Cetshwayo was that he disband his armies within one month and accept a British resident commissioner as co-ruler. This ultimatum was rejected. On January 20, 1879, British troops under the command of Lt. Gen. Lord Chelmsford (1827–1905) invaded Zululand in a three-pronged attack. The initial outcome was a humiliating defeat of British forces by the Zulu army at Isandlwana Mountain. Over 1,300 British troops and their African allies were killed. In the aftermath of one of the worst disasters of the colonial era, the Zulu reserves mounted a raid on the British border post at Rorke's Drift, but the Zulu were driven off after ten hours of ferocious fighting. The British collapse at Isandlwana left the flanking columns at Nyezane River and Hlobane Mountain vulnerable. But the success at Isandlwana exhausted the Zulu army and Cetshwayo was unable to mount a counteroffensive into Natal. The British rushed reinforcements to South Africa from various parts of the British Empire.

The war entered a new phase in March when Lord Chelmsford assembled a column to march to the relief of the other embattled commands. On April 2, Lord Chelmsford broke through the Zulu cordon around Eshowe at kwaGingindlovu, and relieved Pearson's column. The defeat of the Zulu king's forces in two battles demoralized the Zulu. British troops continued to advance toward the Zulu capital, Ulundi, which they reached at the end of June. Chelmsford defeated the Zulu army in the last great battle of the war on July 4, 1879. The Zulu capital of Ulundi was burned and Cetshwayo became a fugitive. But it took several weeks for the British to suppress lingering resistance outside the capital. Cetshwayo was captured on August 28, and exiled to Cape Town. The end of the war had many implications for the Zulu and for the British. The British divided the Zulu kingdom among pro-British chiefs—a deliberately divisive move that resulted in a decade of destructive civil war among various Zulu chiefdoms.

see also Britain's African Colonies.


Greaves, Adrian. Crossing the Buffalo: The Zulu War of 1879. London: Orion, 2005.

Knight, Ian. The Sun Turned Black: Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, 1879. Rivonia, South Africa: Waterman, 1996.

Morris, Donald R. The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation under Shaka and Its Fall in the Zulu War of 1879. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965.