I love the English. I am the child of Queen Victoria. But I am also king in my own country. I shall not take dictation. I shall perish first.
—King Cetshwayo, 1877
In 1873, Cetshwayo succeeded his father Mpande and the Zulu nation resurfaced as a powerful force in Southern Africa. Like his predecessors, he wanted to avoid conflict with the white settlers but he was obstructing the imperial endeavor.
Cetshwayo struck an effective alliance with the British in Natal in order to keep his longstanding enemies, the Transvaal Boers, in check. In 1877, this alliance collapsed as the British annexed Transvaal and supported false Boer land claims in the ongoing border dispute with Zululand.
With this turn of events, the Zulu nation was considered an imminent threat to European hegemony. It was argued that in the first instance, the existence of the Zulu nation presented an ongoing threat to the safety and economic development of Natal. Secondly, destroying the Zulus would impress British resolve on the minds of the Boers.
The British were provided with the opportunity for invasion when Cetshwayo refused to turn over one of Sirayo's sons to the authorities in Natal. The British magnified the incident, which ultimately escalated to Cetshwayo being given thirty days to disband the army and dispense with the military system. This "ultimatum" was in essence a declaration of war. Cetshwayo was not expected to acquiesce to these demands; the Zulu nation had never lost a war or accepted British rule.
On January 11, 1879 the British invaded Zululand with an army of 18,000 men—only to be met with the greatest impi in Zulu history, of 20,000-25,000 men.
On January 22, armed with spears against British guns, the Zulu army won a decisive victory at the battle of Isandhlwana. The Zulu army had defeated the mighty British imperial army in one of the greatest acts of African resistance. Sadly, this was to be the last victory of the Zulu nation. The British were humiliated and it was inevitable that they would have to redeem themselves with an overwhelming victory.
On July 4, the British returned and overran the Zulu Army at Ulundi. Cetshwayo was banished, thereby ending the Zulu kingdom. Subsequently, the kingdom was divided into thirteen separate chiefdoms, each assigned to British puppets. Cetshwayo was reinstated as ruler in 1883, but the fragmentation of the Zulu nation was beyond repair and he found himself engaged in a civil war. Dinizulu, Cetshwayo's son, was placed on the throne to rule a fraction of the former kingdom.
On February 8, 1884, Cetshwayo died, presumably from a heart attack.
Cetshwayo was bound by tradition and his resistance to the British should be viewed from this perspective. Cetshwayo worshipped the Zulu past, upheld the principles and values of his ancestors, and hoped to restore the nation to the glory days of the Shakan Era.
Cetshwayo's army was based on Shaka's model—a swift, marauding infantry. Realizing that this technique was outmoded, Cetshwayo made some vain attempts to resort to guerilla tactics, but his army failed to adapt to this new style of war. Twenty years later, the Boers, taking heed of the Anglo-Zulu war, waged a series of successful guerilla campaigns against the British.
Enmeshed in a web of deceit perpetrated by British politicians, colonial administrators, and missionaries, the Zulu nation became a prime example of the "divide and conquer" policy.
Notwithstanding, the Zulu nation still survives, its strength of character and fierce pride intact, with Goodwill Zwelithini—a descendant of Cetshwayo and Mpande—as their king.
The Anatomy of the Zulu Army: From Shaka to Cetshwayo 1818-1879, Ian Knight. Stackpole Books, 1995.
General History of Africa, Vol. VI: Africa in the Nineteenth Century Until the 1880s. UNESCO, 1999.
Great Zulu Battles 1838-1906, Ian Knight. Arms & Armour, 1998.
Southern Africa: Monomotapa, Zulu, Basuto, Kenny Mann. Dillon Press, 1996.
The Ploughshare of War: The Origins of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, Richard Cope. The University of Natal Press, 1999.
The Rise & Fall of the Zulu Nation, John Laband. Arms & Armour, 1997.
Shaka's Children: A History of the Zulu People, Stephen Taylor. HarperCollins, 1994.
The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation Under Shaka and Its Fall in the Zulu War of 1879, Donald R. Morris. Da Capo Press, 1998.
The Zulus and the Matabele: Warrior Nations, Glen Lyndon Dodds. Arms & Armour, 1998.
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