In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Zulu Wars

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Recorded Zulu Oral Testimony
  • Journals
  • Zulu Military System

Military History Zulu Wars
John Laband
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0071


The term “Zulu Wars” is an imprecise one, because there is no single, generally accepted understanding of what it encompasses. Most often it is applied to the Anglo–Zulu War of 1879, but this approach ignores the other wars the Zulu fought in the course of the 19th century against the aggressively advancing forces of European imperialism. Consequently, in this article the term is applied to the determined resistance the highly organized armies of the Zulu kingdom mounted, first in 1838 against the migrating Dutch-speaking Voortrekkers (Boers) from the Cape Colony who were intent on settling in Zululand, and then again in 1879 against invading British imperial and colonial forces bent on eliminating what they perceived as the Zulu military threat to neighboring British possessions. The crushing British victory in 1879 and the consequent fall of the Zulu monarchy triggered civil war in the fragmented kingdom between 1883 and 1884 and led to a fresh round of British and Boer military interventions, which culminated in their dividing Zululand between them in 1886–1887. In 1888 the uSuthu (the adherents of the deposed royal Zulu house) rebelled against the new British colonial administration. British forces vigorously suppressed the revolt and extinguished the last embers of an independent Zululand. Much primary material relating to the Zulu Wars as defined here is available in printed collections and in reissued contemporary books and articles. The secondary literature on the Zulu Wars is considerable, although by far the greater part of it is devoted to the Anglo–Zulu War of 1879.

General Overviews

The first published history of the 19th-century Zulu kingdom, Gibson 1911, is by a colonial official stationed in Zululand who was well placed to interview many survivors of the Zulu Wars. The book reflects his sympathetic engagement with the Zulu people. In 1922 a general history (Fuze 1979) appeared in Zulu. It was heavily based on oral tradition and introduced a Zulu (as opposed to a colonial) centrical take on the Zulu past. However, because the work had a very small run and was not translated into English until nearly sixty years later, its effect was minimal. The book that in 1966 made Zulu history up to the end of the Anglo–Zulu War vividly accessible to a popular audience around the world was Morris 1998, written like a great adventure yarn. A truly scholarly treatment of Zululand in the 1870s and 1880s did not appear until 1979 with Guy 1998. Following this monograph, other forms of general overviews began to appear more regularly. Ballard 1988 presents soundly researched biographies of all the Zulu monarchs and was meant to appeal in the dying days of South African apartheid to a nationalistic Zulu readership. Building on the growing body of published Zulu scholarship, especially in academic journals, Taylor 1994 constructs a popular history of the Zulu up to the 1990s that was intended to supplant Morris 1998 (first published in 1966) and its outdated assumptions. This was followed by Laband 1997 (first published in 1995), a sweeping study of the 19th-century Zulu kingdom based on primary research. Subsequent general histories by non-Zulu writers have targeted what has become a popular readership and have covered much of the same ground. However, Zulu-speaking historians are beginning to emerge. Shamase 1996 is a good example of a work infused with Zulu tradition, very much in the pioneering tradition of Fuze 1979. Greaves and Mkhize 2014 is a recent collaboration between a British military historian and a Zulu battlefield guide. Currently, there is a growing academic interest in the history of warfare in Africa. Stapleton 2010 is a pioneering overview of South African military history that places the Zulu Wars in their sub-continental context.

  • Ballard, Charles. The House of Shaka: The Zulu Monarchy Illustrated. Durban, South Africa: Emoyeni, 1988.

    Succinct but reliable biographies of all eight of the Zulu kings from Shaka to Goodwill Zwelithini by an expert in the field with access to the Zulu royal house. A useful introductory text. Map and illustrations.

  • Fuze, Magema M. The Black People and Whence They Came: A Zulu View. Translated by Harry C. Lugg and edited by A. Trevor Cope. Translation Series, Killie Campbell Africana Library 1. Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Natal Press, 1979.

    The first book ever written in Zulu and originally published privately in 1922, it draws on oral tradition to provide invaluable ethnographical material and a Zulu view of Zulu history from distant origins to the early 20th century.

  • Gibson, James Young. The Story of the Zulus. London: Longmans, Green, 1911.

    Covering Zulu history from the earliest times to 1888, this is the first general history of the Zulu ever published. It maintains its value as an overview because it was written by a 19th-century Zululand official with first-hand knowledge of the country and acquaintance with many of its leaders. Rare book. Illustrations.

  • Greaves, Adrian, and Xolani Mkhize. The Zulus at War. The History, Rise, and Fall of the Tribe That Washed Its Spears. New York: Skyhorse, 2014.

    A broad, popular account of the Zulu from the time of Shaka to the Zulu Rebellion of 1906 that incorporates the Zulu perspective.

  • Guy, Jeff. The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom: The Civil War in Zululand, 1879–1884. Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Natal Press, 1998.

    Based on a doctoral dissertation and originally published in 1979. The first truly scholarly analysis of the loss of Zulu independence between 1879 and 1884. An essentially materialist approach that explains events in terms of the demands of advancing capitalism in southern Africa. Has proved an influential monograph. Maps, diagrams, and illustrations.

  • Laband, John. The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation. London: Arms and Armour, 1997.

    A comprehensive account, first published in 1995, of the emergence of the Zulu kingdom in the 19th century and its dramatic collapse under the impact of Boer and British colonialism. Social and political organization, diplomacy, and military events are emphasized. Maps, diagrams, and illustrations.

  • Morris, Donald R. 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. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 1998.

    Although overtaken by subsequent research, especially with regard to the rise of the Zulu kingdom, this work, first published in 1966 and reprinted many times, has proved the most enduring popular history of the Zulu kingdom up to 1879 because of the stirring panache with which it is written. Maps, diagrams, and illustrations.

  • Shamase, M. Z. Zulu Potentates from the Earliest to Zwelithini KaBhekuzulu. Durban, South Africa: S. M. Publications, 1996.

    A modern Zulu perspective on Zulu history up to the 1990s arranged by the reigns of the Zulu monarchs. Based on oral evidence (particularly praise poems) and secondary sources. A useful corrective to the dominant body of Zulu histories written by non-Zulus. Diagrams and illustrations.

  • Stapleton, Timothy J. A Military History of South Africa from the Dutch-Khoi Wars to the End of Apartheid. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010.

    A comprehensive military history of South Africa from the 1650s to the present drawn mainly from secondary sources. The Zulu Wars are placed in their wider sub-continental framework in the two chapters on the period from 1830 to 1885. Maps.

  • Taylor, Stephen. Shaka’s Children: A History of the Zulu People. London: HarperCollins, 1994.

    A readable overview of Zulu history from earliest times to the end of apartheid in 1994. Based on authoritative published sources and a good introduction for a popular readership. Maps and illustrations.

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