Historical Overview

Brief Historical Background & Overview

South Africa had been the scene of conflict between indigenous peoples and colonial contingents since the arrival of the Dutch to the Cape in the seventeenth century, and after the British wrested permanent control of the Cape Colony from the Dutch in the early nineteenth century, such conflicts did not subside. In many respects, the conflicts became more complex as the British and the Dutch settlers maneuvered against one another even as they confronted indigenous peoples.

Nineteenth-century settler-native relations and conflicts were often entangled with the relations and conflicts between the British and Dutch settlers in the region that became South Africa. Dissatisfaction with British colonial policies, particularly the abolishment of slavery, prompted large numbers of Dutch settlers, known as Boers or Afrikaners, to migrate in large numbers into the southern African interior to get beyond the reach of the British authorities in the 1830s. The "Great Trek" brought some of the Boers into direct conflict with the Zulus. The Zulus had built a powerful indigenous polity through warfare against neighboring tribes in the late 1810s and the 1820s. The Zulus sought to check Boer numbers, and they would turn on a Boer group that they were meeting with in 1837. The Boers would retaliate with a victory over the Zulus in the Battle of Blood River in 1838. The Boer victory exacerbated discord between Zulu leader Dingane and his brother Mpande. Mpande, with Boer support, ousted Dingane to become the leader of the Zulus. The Boers supported Mpande in hopes of better securing their colonial position in the Natal region, but their work would be foiled by British intervention in the region. As the new Zulu leader focused his energies to the north of Natal, several Africans who had been previously forced out of the region by the Zulus began moving back into it. Concerned about rapidly increasing African numbers in the Natal, the Boer settlers took actions to try to halt and reverse the population movement. The British, however, intervened and took control of the colony of Natal in 1843. To avoid the British rule they so despised, most Boer settlers from Natal subsequently moved on to join fellow Boers who had settled in the highveld interior during the Great Trek. Conflicts and tensions between the Boers, African groups, and British authorities occurred in this region as well. The Boers managed to forge the highveld colonies of the Transvaal and the Orange Free States, and the British conceded to their independence in 1852 and 1854 respectively. Meanwhile, Mpande's oldest son Cetshwayo overcame his brother and rival Mbuyazi in a bloody internal conflict to become the effective leader of the Zulus in the 1850s, and he began exercising his new authority by concluding treaties with the Boers in Transvaal and the British in Natal in the early 1860s.

The colonial-indigenous conflicts involving the Zulus witnessed their apex during the 1870s as the British tried to forge a confederation of the settler colonies in the region under their command. Sir Theophilus Shepstone, the British secretary for native affairs in Natal, wished to promote a confederation in Africa among the European peoples with the British holding hegemony, but two obstacles impeded his hopes of expansion: the Boers in the Transvaal region initially refused to accept British authority and the Zulu kingdom under Cetshwayo continued to assert their sovereignty. Initially, Shepstone looked to counter the Transvaal Boers by strengthening British ties to the Zulus. In 1873, Shepstone attended the coronation of Cetshwayo as Zulu king where he claimed that Cetshwayo recognized that his own authority was derived from the British. In the wake of the coronation, Shepstone tried to impose a prohibition on capital punishment on the Zulus which caused tensions. At the same time, he demonstrated support for Cetshwayo's claims to borderlands also claimed by the Transvaal Boers. However, Shepstone flipped his position on the contested borderlands after the Transvaal became a British colony in 1877, and he now pressed the Zulus to concede on the issue. The Zulus resisted his attempts to control their internal affairs and to force their concession on the border issue. Shepstone responded by convincing Sir Henry Bartle Frere, the governor of Cape Colony and the High Commissioner of British South Africa, to send an envoy to Cetshwayo requiring him to disband his army of forty-thousand Zulu warriors and accept British sovereignty, knowing that Cetshwayo would refuse the ultimatum. Shepstone hoped that this would not only give the British a pretext for war but that it would also establish an affinity between the British and the Dutch colonists, who held apprehensions about a strong Zulu nation. After Cetshwayo refused to disband his warriors, Frere, authorized a military campaign against the Zulu.

The Zulus scored some impressive victories on the battlefield against the British, but the British rebounded and won the larger war. The military campaign reached its lowest ebb for the British at the battle of Isandlwana on January 22, 1879, in which 1,800 British troops were defeated by Zulu warriors. However, the British soon recovered from their defeat with the successful defense of Rorke's Drift by a greatly outnumbered British garrison, and on April 1, 1879, British troops under General Frederick Thesiger defeated a contingent of Zulu warriors who were besieging the town of Eshowe. Within two months, British troops had captured the Zulu capital of Ulundi, ending the conflict. After securing victory, the British, on the advice of Shepstone, divided the land possessed by the Zulu into thirteen separate territories, an action which substantially weakened the Zulu and ensured inter-tribal conflict for the ensuing years.

Sources, Suggested Readings, & Websites

Bhaumik, Pradip. "Zulu Wars." Historical Dictionary of the British Empire. Edited by James S. Olson and Robert Shadle Westport. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Chadwick, G. A. "The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879." The Military History Journal of the South African Military History Society.  http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol044gc.html

Gump, James O. The Dust Rose Like Smoke: The Subjugation of the Zulu and the Sioux. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Knight, Ian, and Adrian Greaves. The Who's Who of the Anglo-Zulu War: Part I The British. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword, 2006.

__________________________. The Who's Who of the Anglo-Zulu War: Part II Colonials and Zulus. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword, 2007.

Laband, John. The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1997.

Morris, Donald R. The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965.

Saunders, Christopher, Nicholas Southey, and Mary-Lynn Suttie. Historical Dictionary of South Africa. 2nd ed. LanHam, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2000.

Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1995.


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