Zulu Expansion

In one of the most significant indigenous revolutions in African history, Shaka transformed the petty Zulu chiefdom into the most powerful African state in Southern Africa and launched expansionist wars that changed the map of the subcontinent.

Summary of Event

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Zulu were a small, clan-centered group of Northern Nguni-speaking people who had settled in what later became known as Zululand, on the northeast coast of South Africa. Since arriving there several hundred years earlier, the Zulu had established a thriving pastoral and agricultural society that was surrounded by other Northern Nguni clans, including the increasingly aggressive and expansionist Mthethwa and Ndwandwe Ndwandwe states. Zulu;expansion of
South Africa;Zulu expansion
Natal, South Africa;Zulu
[kw]Zulu Expansion (c. 1817-1828)
[kw]Expansion, Zulu (c. 1817-1828)
Zulu;expansion of
South Africa;Zulu expansion
Natal, South Africa;Zulu
[g]South Africa;c. 1817-1828: Zulu Expansion[0910]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;c. 1817-1828: Zulu Expansion[0910]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;c. 1817-1828: Zulu Expansion[0910]

Burgeoning populations, ever-greater pressures on territorial resources. and opportunities to trade with European merchants on the coast sparked higher levels of competition and conflict. Traditional southeast warfare in the region had been relatively bloodless, consistently mainly of intimidating rituals that emphasized taunting and athleticism and ended with the seizure of cattle Cattle;in South Africa[South Africa] and human hostages. The chieftains Zwide Zwide of the Ndwandwe and Dingiswayo Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa fought against each other and reduced the surrounding peoples to client or tributary status.

Idealized portrait of Zulu founder-king Shaka from Nathaniel Isaacs’s 1836 book, Travels and Adventures in East Africa.

(Arkent Archive)

The Zulu fell under the sway of the Mthethwa, and Dingiswayo took under his wing Shaka, the young son of the Zulu chief Senzangakona. Senzangakona He raised Shaka to become one of his principal military commanders. After Senzangakona died, Dingiswayo helped install Shaka as Zulu chief around 1817, and bonds between the Mthethwa and Zulu were strengthened. However, when Zwide’s Zwide
Ndwandwe Ndwandwe invaded the Mthethwa, the Zulu mobilized but refrained from fighting. The Ndwandwe defeated the Mthethwa, killing Dingiswayo. Dingiswayo Shaka and his friendless Zulu were next. The Zulu army fought in its traditional way and held its own against the Ndwandwe, but saw the invaders ravage its homeland in the Mfolozi Valley.

Shaka responded to this setback by drastically reorganizing the Zulu military. He extended the period of service, replaced javelins with long-bladed stabbing spears for close-quarter combat, and integrated allies and defeated warriors directly into his units. Many of his neighbors joined him in the face of the Ndwandwe Ndwandwe threat. Others who remained aloof, such as Phathakwayo kaKhondolo Phathakwayo kaKhondolo of the Qwabe, were killed and their people forcibly absorbed into the new kingdom. Still others, such as Mzilikazi’s Mzilikazi Khumalo, migrated across the Drakensberg Drakensberg Mountains Mountains to escape Shaka’s new order.

Zulu Expansion and the Mfecane

Shaka’s personal ruthlessness and success established his power and authority but gained him powerful enemies as well. In 1818, the Ndwandwe attacked the Zulu again, and the still inferior Zulu fought them off and repaired the extensive damage to their territory. Meanwhile, Shaka’s army grew stronger. When Zwide Zwide invaded again in 1819, Shaka’s army not only repulsed the Ndwandwe but aggressively pursued them into their own lands. The Zulu sacked Zwide’s capital and pushed his armies north beyond the Phongolo River. Zulu power—and that of Shaka—was at an unprecedented height for the region. Ndwandwe tributaries became Zulu tributaries, and Shaka built military compounds along his northern frontier to protect it from further aggression.

Shaka next considered war against the Mabhudu and Thembe peoples. The Mabhudu people had organized the region’s first powerful and centralized kingdom during the 1790’s, and with the Thembe they controlled the trading network that filled Portuguese ships at Delagoa Bay to the north of Zululand. However, Shaka held his hand, knowing that the Mabhudu were powerful and that a war on his northern frontier would probably draw Zwide’s Ndwandwe Ndwandwe against him. Shaka instead attacked the Ngwane (later known as Swazi) Swazi and Chunu to his west and south, in the Mzimkulu River basin and the shadow of the Drakensberg Drakensberg Mountains Mountains.

Farther south, the Thembu and Mpondo, who were themselves regional aggressors, also drew Zulu attention. Shaka sensed that Zulu success depended upon continuous expansion and military victory, which enriched his warriors, his reputation, and his personal war chest. However, Zulu success could also come in the form of new and powerful European allies. In 1795, the British had replaced the Dutch as rulers of the Cape Colony Cape Colony;and Zulu[Zulu] and were now slowly sending out feelers along the Indian Ocean coast. Naval lieutenant Francis Farewell Farewell, Francis and the trader Henry Francis Fynn Fynn, Henry Francis established the first British colony in Port Natal (Durban) in 1824, duly recognizing—if not always understanding—the role they would play as clients of the Zulu.

After Zwide Zwide died in 1826, the Ndwandwe Ndwandwe were led by his son, Sikhuyana. This new chieftain was known to support Shaka’s many internal enemies—disgruntled family members, minority tribal leaders, and Zulu who had grown tired of constant war. Shaka, in turn, supported Sikhuyana’s brother and rival, Somaphunga. In September of 1826, the Zulu and Ndwandwe fought a decisive battle at the izinDolowane Hills. In that battle Shaka first employed his new British clients and their firearms.

The Zulu shattered Ndwandwe power by using their new tactical formation known as the horns of the bull, in which the army extended its flanks around enemy forces and then closed in and crushed them. After three Zulu charges, the Ndwandwe warriors fled, and the remaining women and children, as well as the wounded, were killed. Somaphunga then replaced his brother, and the Ndwandwe Ndwandwe were reduced to Zulu tributaries.

Shaka utilized his British clients and their weapons again in early 1827 in his attack on the Bheje people of Khumalo in the rough mountain terrain of his new northwestern frontier. In late 1827 the Zulu capital was moved south to kwaDukuza in the Port Natal area as Shaka had decided to treat with the British regarding Zulu expansion southward toward the Cape Colony and into the European sphere of influence. James King led the mission, which failed not least because Shaka decided to attack the Mpongo across the boundary Mzimkhulu River. Although it was merely a raid for cattle Cattle;in South Africa[South Africa] and other prizes to placate bored warriors, the attack soured Zulu relations with the colonial authorities. In August, 1828, the Zulu struck out against the refugee Ngwane peoples, scattering—and enraging—them. Shortly afterward, Shaka abruptly shifted his axis of campaign again and ordered the army northward in a raid on the Gaza Gaza people near Delagoa Bay, while he stayed at home. Shaka’s brothers Mhlangana and Dingane Dingane found the army’s absence an opportunity to murder the increasingly unstable Shaka on September 24, 1828.


The last campaign left Dingane in control and the Zulu army shrunken, demoralized, disease-ridden, and unvictorious. Shaka’s system of total warfare devastated the Natal region and left its peoples in a state of utter confusion and often dire poverty. Cattle Cattle;in South Africa[South Africa] , which were central to Nguni life, were depleted, and agriculture all but ceased in many parts of Natal. The Zulu wars displaced entire tribal groups, and while some found new homes on the high veld, others were left little more than refugees, helpless at the hands of more powerful tribes. Other displaced peoples, such as the Tlokwa, became piratic hordes that lived off plunder. Some of the surviving tribal groups adopted Zulu tactics and aggression and established themselves as local bully states. The social, political, and economic disruption rippled out from the Zulu homeland in a vast chain of disturbances that became known as the Mfecane.

Zulu victories did, however, help create a modern Zulu consciousness and identity that has survived into the twenty-first century. It also served to crystallize the kingdoms of the Swazi, Swazi the Sotho, Sotho and the Gaza, Gaza changing the political landscape of the region. Under the increasingly despotic Dingane Dingane the Zulu kingdom survived, despite serious challenges from other African states and Europeans. The Zulu Kingdom remained the strongest independent African state in South Africa until it was finally conquered by the British in 1879.

Further Reading

  • Beck, Roger. The History of South Africa. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. General history of South Africa that contains a good chapter on the Mfecane era and the rise of the Zulu Kingdom.
  • Hamilton, Carolyn, ed. The Mfecane Aftermath: Reconstructive Debates in Southern African History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. Collection of essays on a revisionist theory of the Mfecane disturbances advanced by the historian Julian Cobbing.
  • Knight, Eric, and Angus McBride. Zulu, 1816-1906. Oxford, England: Osprey, 1995. Short but well-illustrated discussion of the Zulu way of war and its influence on the kingdom’s expansion.
  • Laband, John. The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1997. The first several chapters cover the period of Shaka and his immediate successors, while the rest chronicle the fate of this kingdom. Contains a full discussion of Zulu culture and the changing role of warfare within it.
  • Omer-Cooper, J. D. The Zulu Aftermath: A Nineteenth-Century Revolution in Bantu Africa. London: Longmans, 1966. Standard history of the rise of the Zulu Kingdom that traces its impact on surrounding societies.
  • Ritter, E. A. Shaka Zulu. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. Reprint of a classic biography of Shaka that presents a clear, if sometimes exaggerated, picture of Zulu culture. Relies heavily on the myths and traditions surrounding Shaka.
  • Sutherland, Jonathan, and Diane Canwell. The Zulu Kings and Their Armies. Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword Military, 2005. Essentially a military history of the nineteenth century Zulu people, with special attention to the reorganization of the Zulu army under Shaka.
  • Westley, David. The Mfecane: An Annotated Bibliography. Madison: African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1999. Brief bibliographical guide to the Mfecane and the early Zulu Kingdom.

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