Zulu Empire

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Zulu Empire

From the 1810s until its destruction by the British in 1879, the Zulu kingdom was the largest in southeastern Africa, occupying most of what is today KwaZulu-Natal province, in South Africa. The Zulu kingdom was rather small and insignificant until King Shaka (ruled c. 1816–1828) conquered many neighboring polities. Shaka is a highly ambiguous figure in popular memory today. For Zulu ethnic nationalists in South Africa, and for many Pan-Africanists throughout the world, he serves as a symbol of African achievement and anti-colonial resistance. For many whites, in contrast, Shaka became a symbol of African barbarism. However, the debates about Shaka do not necessarily follow racial lines: some whites have seen Shaka as a rather heroic figure, while many black South Africans have seen Shaka as an oppressor who indiscriminately slaughtered not only his opponents, but also innocent noncombatants, including women and children.

Already in the 1820s, when Europeans began expanding into the lands of the Zulus and their immediate neighbors, a territory that the Europeans called Natal, Europeans used Shaka's alleged atrocities to justify their own activities. As elsewhere in the colonized world, Europeans portrayed themselves as saving native peoples from the often deadly upheavals fomented by the natives' own leaders. In the Zulu case, however, this rhetoric ultimately became a highly detailed and well-developed complex of stories and historical arguments, all centered around Shaka and the chain of events that he allegedly set in motion, which became known as the mfecane.

According to European accounts of the mfecane, Shaka revolutionized African society, politics, and especially warfare. In this version of the events, the entire Zulu kingdom became a permanent standing army, highly centralized, disciplined, and aggressive. Not only did Shaka and his armies attack their immediate neighbors, they also chased refugees for hundreds, even thousands, of miles, sending them as far away as the Great Lakes region of East Africa. In the process, Shaka's forces supposedly killed more than a million Africans, a figure which received the sanction of authority when it was cited by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). At the same time, most of South Africa was cleared of its inhabitants, becoming "empty land" conveniently awaiting colonization by Boer trekkers and British settlers. During the twentieth century, apartheid ideologues claimed that the thirteen percent of South Africa's land set aside for blacks as "homelands" or "Bantustans" coincided with the small pockets in which the refugees from Shaka's mfecane huddled.

Since the 1960s, research by numerous historians has demonstrated that much of the mfecane was actually a myth created by South African whites. Indeed, the term mfecane itself, though seemingly of African origin, was actually coined by whites. The Shakan military system had been developed by numerous people for generations preceding Shaka, and it was not unique to the Zulu kingdom. Shaka's rule did not even effectively extend throughout the whole of present-day KwaZulu-Natal province, let alone the vast territories beyond. Refugees from the Shakan wars did indeed ultimately migrate as far as East Africa, but over decades and of their own accord: The Zulu army was barely able to act just beyond the borders of the Zulu kingdom; it had neither the ability nor the desire to "chase" refugees farther than that.

Those who died during the Shakan wars probably numbered only in the tens of thousands, as the KwaZulu-Natal region itself had only a few hundred thousand inhabitants at the beginning of Shaka's reign. Blacks were largely confined to what became the homelands, not by Shaka's wars, but by decades of land expropriation by white settlers. One historian, Julian Cobbing, has even gone so far as to argue that white slave raiders of the 1810s and 1820s invented the idea of the mfecane as an alibi to cover up their own attacks on Africans. This last argument has received a lot of attention, but has not held up in the face of further research. Nevertheless, the other criticisms of the mfecane, by Cobbing and others, have become accepted by most specialists in the subject.

The debate surrounding Shaka's reign has often had as much to do with the nature of the evidence as with the actual historical events. For example, two of the richest sources on the Shakan era are the diaries of the English adventurers Nathaniel Isaacs and Henry Francis Fynn. Both observers were clearly biased against Shaka, and both accounts were written well after the fact. There is even a letter in which Isaacs urges Fynn to sensationalize his account in order to attract more readers. In the 1920s, the missionary A. T. Bryant published a compendious history of the Zulu kingdom based on oral traditions he had collected, but Bryant never makes it clear what comes from the oral traditions and what stems from his own admitted efforts to "clothe the dry bones" of history.

The most exhaustive and well-documented collection of Zulu oral tradition is that produced by James Stuart, a British colonial official in Natal during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Though Stuart was also arguably biased against the Zulus in some ways, he seems to have been rather meticulous and even-handed in his recording of the evidence that Africans gave to him. Certainly, although the testimony collected by Stuart contains much that is critical of Shaka and other Zulu kings, there is also much that is positive, and there is no shortage of criticism of European rule. More recently, the Zulu-speaking poet Mazisi Kunene has published a novel-length praise poem on Shaka's life based upon oral traditions, but another black South African, Mbongeni Malaba, has taken Kunene to task for glossing over the negative aspects of Shaka's rule. Black South Africans have never been unanimous in their opinions on Shaka.

Although the numbers and geographical extent of the killings during Shaka's reign have been exaggerated by many white commentators, there is little doubt that Shaka (and his successor, Dingane, who ruled during the period from 1828 to 1840) did order the extermination of large numbers of people, including innocent civilians. Some of this killing was ordered out of personal vindictiveness, but even that done "for reasons of state" could still be considered genocide. Like other perpetrators of genocide, both Shaka and Dingane targeted whole categories of people for elimination, including at various times all the subjects of the Ndwandwe, Mthethwa, Langeni, Thembu, and Qwabe kingdoms. On the other hand, Shaka and Dingane did not always ruthlessly pursue such objectives to their logical conclusions, but rather relented and even incorporated some of their former enemies as full-fledged subjects of the Zulu kingdom. Over time, many of Shaka and Dingane's victims, or at least their descendants, not only forgave and forgot, but even came to identify themselves as Zulus.

SEE ALSO Apartheid; Shaka Zulu; South Africa


Etherington, Norman (2001). The Great Treks: The Transformation of Southern Africa, 1815–1854. London: Longman.

Hamilton, Carolyn, ed. (1995). The Mfecane Aftermath: Reconstructive Debates in Southern African History. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press; Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.

Mahoney, Michael R. (2003). "The Zulu Kingdom as a Genocidal and Post-genocidal Society, c. 1810 to the Present." Journal of Genocide Research 5:251–268.

Michael R. Mahoney