Central Zululand – the Zulu heartland – radiates out from the unlovely modern town of Ulundi, some 30km west of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. At the height of its influence in the 1820s and 1830s, under King Shaka, the core of the Zulu state lay between the Black Imfolozi River in the north and the Tugela River in the south, which discharges into the Indian Ocean roughly 100km north of Durban.

Contained in a relatively small area to the west of the heartland is a series of nineteenth-century battlefield sites, where Zulus and Boers, then Zulus and the British, and finally Boers and Brits came to blows. Don’t attempt to visit this area on your own: all you’ll see is empty veld with a few memorials. Far better is to join a tour with one of the several excellent guides who make it their business to bring the region’s dramatic history alive (see Battlefield guides).

Don’t expect to see “tribal” people who conform to the Zulu myth outside theme parks like Shakaland, near Eshowe. Traditional dress and the traditional lifestyle are largely a nineteenth-century phenomenon, deliberately smashed by the British a century ago when they imposed a poll tax that had to be paid in cash – thus ending Zulu self-sufficiency, generating urbanization and forcing the Africans into the modern industrial economy, where they were needed as workers.

You will find beautiful Zulu crafts in this part of the country, the best examples being in museums such as the little-known but outstanding Vukani Zulu Cultural Museum in Eshowe. Also worth checking out is the reconstructed royal enclosure of Cetshwayo, the last king of the independent Zulu, at Ondini, near Ulundi.

Brief history

The truth behind the Zulus is difficult to separate from the mythology, which was fed by the Zulus themselves as well as white settlers. Accounts of the Zulu kingdom in the 1820s rely heavily on the diaries of the two adventurers, Henry Fynn and Nathaniel Isaacs, who portrayed King Shaka as a mercurial and bloodthirsty tyrant who killed his subjects willy-nilly for a bit of fun. In a letter from Isaacs to Fynn, uncovered in the 1940s, Isaacs encourages his friend to depict the Zulu kings as “bloodthirsty as you can, and describe frivolous crimes people lose their lives for. It all tends to swell up the work and make it interesting.”

A current debate divides historians about the real extent of the Zulu empire during the nineteenth century. What we do know is that in the 1820s Shaka consolidated a state that was one of the most powerful political forces on the subcontinent, and that internal dissent to his rule culminated in his assassination by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana in 1828.

In the 1830s, pressure from whites exacerbated internal tensions in the Zulu state, and reached a climax when a relatively small party of Boers defeated Dingane’s army at Blood River. This led to a split in the Zulu state, with one half following King Mpande, and collapse threatened when Mpande’s sons Mbuyazi and Cetshwayo led opposing forces in a pitched battle for the succession. Cetshwayo emerged victorious and successfully set about rebuilding the state, but too late. Seeing a powerful Zulu state as a threat to a confederated South Africa under British control, the British high commissioner, Sir Bartle Frere, delivered a Hobson’s choice of an ultimatum on the banks of the Tugela River, demanding that Cetshwayo should dismantle his polity or face invasion.

In January 1879, the British army crossed the Tugela and suffered a humiliating disaster at Isandlwana – the British army’s worst defeat ever at the hands of native armies – only for the tide to turn that same evening when just over a hundred British soldiers repulsed a force of between three- and four thousand Zulus at Rorke’s Drift. By the end of July, Zulu independence had been snuffed, when the British lured the reluctant (and effectively already broken) Zulus, who were now eager for peace, into battle at Ulundi. The British set alight Cetshwayo’s capital at Ondini – a fire that blazed for four days – and the king was taken prisoner and held in the Castle in Cape Town.

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