Zulu Empire

Zulu Empire was a South African Empire founded by Shaka (1787 – 1828) and extended from the Tugela River to the Pongola River in eastern South Africa.


Shaka was the founder of the Zulu Empire. Initially, the Zulu was a small clan of the larger Nguni ethnic. Shaka would rise to power among the ranks in the Mthethwa Empire, under the rule of Dingiswayo. At the death of Dingiswayo, in battle, at the hands of Zwide, king of the Ndwandwe, Shaka became head of the Mthethwa Empire, in 1818. At this point Shaka instituted a policy of conquest via military innovation. In 1820 at the Battle of Mlhatuze River, Shaka defeated Zwide, and defeated the Ndwandwe Kingdom, which caused the scattering of its people, initiating the mfecane/difaqane, causing much disruption in southern Africa all the way to Tanzania. By 1825, Shaka had forged an empire that run along the Drakensburg Mountain between the Tugela River and the Pongola River. Clans that did not view themselves as Zulu all now claimed Zulu nationhood.

Shaka, founder of the Zulu Empire

Dingane to Cetswayo

Shaka in his latter years became deranged. He was obsessed with being deposed. In 1828, his half brothers Dingane and Mhlangano assassinated him. Dingane later assassinated Mhlangano and assumed the throne. Dingane purged all opposition, including Shaka supporters, all half brothers except Mpande, who was not viewed as a threat. Lacking the leadership and military skills of Shaka, Dingane lost territories to Voortrekkers in the Battle of Blood Rivers. He later burnt his capital. 

Mpande later, formed an alliance with the Voortrekkers and declared war against Dingane. Dingane was assassinated in 1840, in modern day Swaziland. Mpande assumed reign of the Zulu Kingdom. He died of old age in 1872. 

After much battle between his long dead brother Mbuyazi, Cetswayo assumed the Zulu throne, with no rival. At this time, the British set its sights on complete domination of South Africa. In 1878, they gave an ultimatum to the Zulu nation to give up complete sovereignty to the British Empire, unacceptable to the Zulu nation. On January 22, 1879, at the Battle of Isandlwana, British forces were defeated, but on July 4, 1879 at the Battle of Ulundi the British were able to defeat the Zulu nation. Cetswayo was sent abroad. The kingdom was divided into 13 polities.

Zulu Military 

Zulu military organization was devastating to their enemies. Few could withstand Zulu assaults. Shaka is reported to have introduce new military tactics. He replaced the long spear with the broad stabbing blade called the assagai and replace the narrow shield with a broader cow hide shield. He also introduced the buffalo military formation, which was shaped like the horn of a buffalo. The tip or ends of the horns were occupied by fast young soldiers. The center area was occupied by experienced hardy soldiers.The ends of the horns would encircle the enemy and the central area of hardy soldiers would move forward, into the fight. Indunas who were outside the formation directed the fighting, via hand signals or via runners.

Zulu Architecture

Zulu architecture was constructed with perishable materials. Initially, Zulus built Dome shaped huts, but later built dome over cylinder walls. Zulu capitals were elliptical in shape. The exterior was lined with durable wood palisade. Domed huts in rows of 6 through 8 lined the elliptical interior. In the center of the capital city was the kraal, used by the king to examine his soldiers and cattle, or to hold ceremonies. It was an empty circular area at the center of the capital, lined with less durable palisades. The entrance of the city was opposite to the highly fortified Royal Enclosure called Isigodlo.  This was the general makeup of Zulu capitals. This was the general makeup of Mgungundlovu(King Dingane's capital) and Ulundi(King Cetshwayo's capital).

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony and Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.(1999). Africana: the Encyclopedia of African and African American Experience. Basic Civitas Books, pp. 143-144. ISBN 0-465-00071-1.

Shillington, Kevin (2005). History of Africa. Revised 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 256-272, ISBN 0-333-59957-8

Zijlstra, Gerrit(2005). Under the Nazi Heel.Serendipity, p. 31. ISBN 1843941309, 9781843941309

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