History Files


Southern Africa

The Zulu Kings

by Mick Baker, 30 November 2003

The area now known as Zululand lies on the south-eastern coast of Africa, between the Drakensberg Mountains and the Indian Ocean. A sub-tropical coastal strip rises through a steep rolling grassland to cool inland heights, many of which were thickly forested.

The region abounded with a plentiful supply of game. Thornbush grew abundantly in the valleys and the area was covered with an extensive variety of grasses which, coupled with the comparative absence of tsetse fly, provided some of the finest cattle country in southern Africa.

The Zulus were part of the wider cultural and racial group known as the Nguni, a people who arrived in the area sometime in the seventeenth century in search of fresh pastures. They extended over the locale, gradually populating it with clan groups, all of whom maintained a claim to a common ancestor.

According to oral tradition, a man named Zulu established his homestead on the southern bank of the White River Mfolozi around 1670. The name 'Zulu' means 'the heavens', and his followers took the name amaZulu, 'the people of the heavens'.

The Zulus were a relatively unimportant tribe in southern Africa until the advent of Shaka. The two dominant tribes in the region were the Mthethwa in the south-east, under King Dingiswayo, and the Ndwandwe in the north, under King Zwide - and they were bitter rivals.

Once again, oral tradition has it that Dingiswayo was a wise and just ruler and Zwide a treacherous despot; this may of course be an example of history being interpreted by the victors, although there does appear to be some corroborative evidence regarding the ruthlessness of Zwide.

At the death of the old Zulu chief, Senzangakhona, Dingiswayo sponsored Shaka for the 'throne' of the Zulus. Other claimants were quietly disposed of. After the death of the Mthethwa king at the hands of Zwide, Shaka revolutionised the Zulu military structure and system of warfare, and went onto establish an empire which was unparalleled in the native history of southern Africa.

He swept all before him, assimilating smaller clans and tribal groups with a ruthlessness which far surpassed anything which Zwide had been able to offer. Shaka was the true founder of the Zulu kingdom, and his descendents continue to govern today.

The Nguni settled into a rich and plentiful land of sweeping grass and game, and they lived quietly and relatively peacefully for about eight hundred years



Text copyright © Mick Baker. An original feature for the History Files.