With no written records from the Zulus themselves, historians and anthropologists have pieced together their history from a smattering of sources. We first learn of the Zulu as a minor tribe of the Bantu people, living in South Africa. Shaka Zulu, the man who would organize them into an empire, was born the illegitimate son of a Zulu king. He was sent away with his mother Nandi to grow up in her tribe, the Langeni, but he eventually caught the attention of Dingiswayo, the leader of another powerful tribe called the Mtethwa. Appointed as the leader of a squadron called an ibutho, Shaka developed new tactics including a short “iklwa” fighting spear and a simple but effective military maneuever called “the Bull Horn.” When his father died, Shaka – now a successful military leader – returned with Dingiswayo’s backing to assassinate the rightful heir and assume control of his native tribe. Just a year later, though, the neighboring Ndwandwe tribe murdered Dingiswayo and Shaka vowed revenge on their leader, Zwide. He then launched a bloody war that, combined with the strains created by European colonization, led to the Mefacane, or the Crushing.
Shaka sought vengeance for Dingiswayo on Zwide and the Ndwandwe. He expanded his control over the Mtethwa and other tribes, then launched his assault on the Ndwandwe. Shaka scored two crushing victories over the course of an eighteen month war, although Zwide escaped both times. Shaka invaded the main Ndwandwe village, capturing Zwide’s mother and burning her to death in place of her son. Shaka had won the war, but the people he pushed out created a ripple of instability across Africa: the Mfecane or the Crushing. Shaka himself became dangerously disturbed when his mother died and he began to take his grief out on his people. His brothers assassinated him to take the throne, leading to a new king: Dingane. Dingane began to treat with the Dutch colonists in South Africa, but what began as a friendly relationship became a betrayal when he turned on them. Dingane attacked their wagon train at the Battle of Bloody River, but the Dutch with their guns held him off. The Dutch then threw their support behind Dingane’s last surviving brother, Mpande, who successfully overthrew him and became the new Zulu king.
Europe had a presence in South Africa dating back to 1652, but the colonies and the native tribes really began to clash in the 1800s. The conquest of the Netherlands by Napoleon had left the Dutch colonists in a state of limbo, with the British claiming authority over them despite their homeland being ruled by the French. Many of these settlers, known as the Boers, moved inland to escape British oversight and pushed into land owned by the Zulus. Mpande, the new Zulu leader, attempted to keep the peace between the British and the Boers, but the treaties he negotiated on both sides only led to further conflict. Eventually, his son Cetshwayo peacefully took power over the Zulus around the same time that the Europeans discovered diamonds in South Africa. The government of Great Britain took an even greater interest in South Africa, stepping in to try to bribe or force the relucant natives to work the diamond mines established by European mining firms. Secretary of State Lord Carnarvon, who was responsible for the unification of colonies in Canada, made it his mission to unify the South African colonies and appointed Henry Bartle Frere as his governor and representative. Bartle Frere removed the local Capetown government, who had been largely sympathetic to the native peoples and opposed his harsh unification policies, then issued harsh and intentionally impossible demands against the Zulu. Cetshwayo refused to accept these demands, and thus began the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.