Zulu War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The expansion of the British Empire into the interior of South Africa led the British into direct conflict with the strongest native African power, the Zulu Kingdom. After the British suffered a catastrophic defeat, they conquered the Zulu and thereby ended major resistance to white domination and ensured the ascendance of British imperial might in South Africa.

Summary of Event

After Great Britain took control of the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch in 1814, it was slow to develop a serious interest in expanding its authority far inland. All that began to change during the 1870’s with the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley and with the later discovery of gold on the Transvaal’s Witwatersrand. During the 1870’s, British colonial officials began initiating steps toward their long-term objective to unite all the diverse polities of South Africa within a federation under British rule. By doing so, the British could ensure the safety of the precious minerals that had already begun to draw large amounts of British investment. Sir Theophilus Shepstone, the top British administrator in the Natal colony, was ordered by the British government to persuade the Afrikaners Afrikaners;republics in the Transvaal’s South African Republic South African Republic to accept British rule. If that proved impossible, he was simply to annex the Transvaal. Transvaal;British annexation of The Afrikaners were reluctant to accept British hegemony, so Shepstone announced the annexation of the Transvaal in 1877. All the Afrikaners could do at that time was protest. From that moment, only the Zulu stood in the way of British domination of South Africa. Zulu War (1879) Cetshwayo British Empire;and South Africa[South Africa] South Africa;and British Empire[British Empire] South Africa;Zulu War Frere, Bartle Shepstone, Sir Theophilus [kw]Zulu War (Jan. 22-Aug., 1879) [kw]War, Zulu (Jan. 22-Aug., 1879) Zulu War (1879) Cetshwayo British Empire;and South Africa[South Africa] South Africa;and British Empire[British Empire] South Africa;Zulu War Frere, Bartle Shepstone, Sir Theophilus [g]Africa;Jan. 22-Aug., 1879: Zulu War[5055] [g]British Empire;Jan. 22-Aug., 1879: Zulu War[5055] [g]South Africa;Jan. 22-Aug., 1879: Zulu War[5055] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 22-Aug., 1879: Zulu War[5055] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Jan. 22-Aug., 1879: Zulu War[5055] [c]Colonization;Jan. 22-Aug., 1879: Zulu War[5055] Mpande Chelmsford, Second Baron Wolseley, Sir Garnet Joseph [p]Wolseley, Sir Garnet Joseph[Wolseley, Garnet Joseph];in South Africa[South Africa]

Since an Afrikaner Afrikaners;and Zulu[Zulu] Zulu;and Afrikaners[Afrikaners] force had defeated the Zulu at the Battle of Blood River Blood River, Battle of (1838) in 1838, the Zulu had slowly recovered from their defeat under the peaceful rule of Mpande. Mpande When Mpande died in 1872, he left no clear heir. His position was soon filled by his eldest son, Cetshwayo, who strove to continue maintaining peaceful relations with the British. In 1873, Shepstone “crowned” Cetshwayo—an unprecedented action that bestowed on Cetshwayo formal British recognition but which Shepstone also intended to symbolize British authority over the Zulu. With its annexation of the Transvaal four years later, Britain inherited unresolved land disputes between the Afrikaners and Zulu and sought to use these disputes to further its own imperial objectives. In the eyes of British schemers, subduing the Zulu nation would ease the way to a South African confederation by eliminating the primary African threat to Natal and the Transvaal. Furthermore, the British believed that such an action would increase Afrikaner acceptance of British rule and help provide African labor for the mines. In 1878, the British decided to act on these ideas.

Bartle Frere, the British governor of the Cape Colony, began looking for a pretext to wage war on the Zulu. The dispute between the Afrikaners and Zulu over land near Blood River appeared to offer an opportunity. The Afrikaners claimed that Mpande had ceded land to them, but Cetshwayo denied that claim. Frere and Shepstone supported the Afrikaner claim. However, when the conflict was arbitrated, a court ruled in favor of Cetshwayo and actually awarded more land to the Zulu than Cetshwayo had claimed.

Frustrated, Frere searched for another excuse for war. When a Zulu chief Natal, South Africa;Zulu crossed into British Natal with an armed party to retrieve two women fleeing from punishment for marital infidelity, Frere used the incident as an opportunity to instigate a conflict. Citing border violations and inhumane acts, the colonial government pressed the issue. In an attempt to avoid conflict, Cetshwayo offered to make a payment for his perceived offense, but the British wanted war. With Frere’s consent, Shepstone issued Cetshwayo an ultimatum that required him to turn over the men responsible for the border violation and provide compensation. Additionally, and more important, he was to dismantle the Zulu army and accept British missionaries Missionaries;in South Africa[South Africa] and officials into his land. Still eager for a peaceful solution, Cetshwayo agreed to meet the British demands that did not infringe upon the sovereignty of the Zulu nation. However, that response did not satisfy the British, who at last found a justification for war.

In January, 1879, the British general Chelmsford, Second Baron Chelmsford led seventeen thousand troops of mixed British regulars and colonial troops in an assault on Zululand. At Ulundi, the Zulu army mobilized to meet the aggressors. Confident that a quick victory would follow, the British then made several tactical errors in their advance. Chelmsford split his troops into two groups. One group chased a small Zulu party while the others remained at Isandlwana. Isandlwana, Battle of (1879) Zulu War (1879);battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift On January 22, 1879, at least twenty thousand Zulu soldiers attacked an ill-prepared and thinly spread British line. Despite the superior firepower of the British, the Zulu army enveloped the British troops and overwhelmed them. Meanwhile, another Zulu force attacked a small British unit building a bridge near a Norwegian mission station at Rorke’s Drift Rorke’s Drift, Battle of (1879) but was repelled in a heroic defense. Instead of pressing the Zulu advantage, Cetshwayo remained defensive in the hope that the British would withdraw and seek peace.

The British defeat at the hands of the Zulu at Isandlwana shocked the world, especially imperial policy makers in London. Some imperialists began to reevaluate the goal of a South African confederation. Frere received the most blame and was severely castigated. He remained governor of the Cape Colony, but a new position was created to deal with Natal and the newly annexed Transvaal. This office, High Commissioner of Southeast Africa, was extended to Sir Garnet Wolseley, Wolseley, Sir Garnet Joseph [p]Wolseley, Sir Garnet Joseph[Wolseley, Garnet Joseph];in South Africa[South Africa] effectively negating Frere’s influence in Zululand.

Despite the setback, the British government believed that the only way to absolve its army’s tarnished reputation was to continue the war and secure victory. As British reinforcements bolstered the ranks and marched onward, Cetshwayo repeatedly sued for peace—much as the Ndebele Ndebele;compared to Zulu king Lobengula Lobengula later would in what is now Zimbabwe. Zulu troops managed to win a small victory at Hlobane, but the British advance could not be stopped. The Gatling machine Zulu War (1879);machine guns in Machine guns;in Zulu War[Zulu War] gun Gatling gun took its toll, and at Ulundi the Zulu finally fell to the British in August, 1879. In an effort to avoid further Zulu resistance, Wolseley then divided the kingdom among thirteen chieftaincies. Cetshwayo was captured and sent into exile. He was later reinstated briefly but died in 1884. The Zulu never recovered from their defeat in their war with the British and fell into disarray and civil war. In 1887, Great Britain annexed Zululand, destroying forever the independent Zulu nation.


Great Britain’s crushing of the Zulu Kingdom signified a turning point in South African history. The Zulu had been the dominant African power in the region since the early nineteenth century. The Zulu were the most obvious rallying point for African resistance to white expansion, so their defeat was a major blow to African self-determination. White dominance in South Africa was assured from that point. The ensuing civil war among the Zulu people only exacerbated the situation, forcing many Zulu into the hands of white employers. Therefore, the Zulu followed the path of many Africans before them, becoming a labor pool for the diamond and gold mines.

The British war of expansion against the Zulu must be placed within the context of the mineral revolution and the British desire to control the wealth issuing from it. The destruction of the Zulu Kingdom was crucial for any plans to consolidate South Africa, but the British victory did not ensure consolidation. In 1881, the Transvaal’s Afrikaners rebelled against British rule in what became known as the First Boer War, and the British abandoned the Transvaal until the outbreak of the South African War in 1899. The war against the Zulu serves as a fine example of the new imperial Britain—one motivated by mineral riches and expansion in the name of national pride.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cope, Richard. Ploughshare of War: The Origins of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 1999. This study focuses on the British policies in South Africa that led to the war but offers little on the prosecution of the war itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guy, Jeff. The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom: The Civil War in Zululand, 1879-1884. London: Longman, 1979. Provides a detailed analysis of the consequences of the Zulu War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knight, Ian. Great Zulu Battles: 1838-1906. London: Orion, 1998. Analyses of a selection of diverse and significant battles throughout nineteenth century Zulu history, including battles during the Zulu War of 1879 and the internal Zulu conflicts that followed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Zulu War: 1879. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2003. Informative volume in the Osprey Essential History series. Written by a specialist in Zulu military history, this book is richly illustrated and gives a concise account of the Zulu War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laband, John. Kingdom in Crisis: The Zulu Response to the British Invasion of 1879. New York: Manchester University Press, 1992. Focused study of the war primarily from the Zulu perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1997. Comprehensive study of the Zulu nation that provides an account of the events leading up to and after the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laband, John, and Paul Thompson, eds.. Kingdom and Colony at War: Sixteen Studies on the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 1990. Collection of individual essays covering specific aspects and circumstances of the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitford, Bertram. Through the Zulu Country: Its Battlefields and People. 1883. Reprint. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1992. Facsimile reprint of a firsthand account of a journey through Zulu War sites made three years after the war. A novelist who wrote extensively about the Zulu, Mitford interviewed many participants in the war and recorded vivid descriptions of both events and battle sites. This edition has a modern introduction by Ian Knight and many photographs not in the original edition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Donald. The Washing of Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965. Frequently reprinted popular account of the rise of the Zulu nation under Shaka and its fall under Cetshwayo in the Zulu War of 1879.

Zulu Expansion

South Africa’s Great Trek Begins

Basuto War

Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift

First Boer War

Maxim Patents His Machine Gun

Gold Is Discovered in the Transvaal

Rhodes Amalgamates Kimberley Diamondfields

British Subdue African Resistance in Rhodesia

Jameson Raid

South African War

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