Following the 1879 defeat of her army in South Africa, Queen Victoria asked ‘Who are these Zulus?’ It was one question being asked across Britain that could not readily be answered and it is still difficult to answer today. Modern perception of the Zulus is of a warlike nation, as indeed they were for fifty years – a relatively short span of time. The complexity of the Zulu people, their culture and their many wars remain little understood by those outside the field of Zulu culture and history. Yet the history of these people is as remarkable as it is poignant.
From the very founding of the Zulu nation, its effect on British and colonial history could never have been imagined by those first white traders bravely venturing into unexplored Zululand in the 1820s. From then on, the history of the Zulu people is as short as it is tragic; their development was as savage as its warriors were brave in battle. Their history carries us from the 1820s, when they existed as disparate clans living together in relative peace, to the formation of a powerful and warmongering nation. Inevitably, its very success led it to confrontation with the British, who were busy developing their own commercial interests around the Cape.
Worldwide interest in the Zulus progressively developed following the appalling and mournful events of the crushing British invasion of Zululand in 1879. It was an unnecessary and brutal war, which resulted in the Zulus’ defeat and subsequent humiliation. They were then powerless to stop their country being divided into thirteen kingdoms by the victorious British administrators in South Africa; the Zulus thereafter lived their lives in abject despair. 1906 saw their despair turn to an overflowing anger when they unsuccessfully rebelled against British rule, their defeat resulting in their country being further weakened by partitioning.