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Articles Blog

The Zulu

Karyn Planett

Once Were Warriors

Zulu. The mere mention of this word conjures up a freeze of danger, a grip of terror, a worn-with-time photograph of muscled mighty warriors who could drop a man in his tracks with only his icy stare.

It begs the question, then, what makes Zulu such an attractive word for a whole host of things having little or nothing to do with its actual origins? Like “Zulu Time”, for example, which is the Department of the Navy’s designation for the precise time at the prime meridian. Or “Zulu Nation”, founded 40 years ago in the South Bronx, that subsequently became the birthplace of hip-hop. And what about that spiffy London restaurant named for the Zulu warrior king, “Shaka Zulu”?

So, for curiosity’s sake, let’s examine the origin of this exotic name… Zulu.


Originally, these people arrived in this part of the world as members of the centuries-long Bantu migration beginning in Sub-Equatorial Africa approximately 1000 BC. The Bantu were primarily farmers and herders. The populations they encountered during their inexorable move south were, on the other hand, hunter-gatherers and those tribes were pushed ahead of the migration ultimately into isolated areas considered unsuited for farming and grazing. Today, their descendants are the Pygmy and San people in places like Northern Namibia.

The Zulu clan eventually settled a small area in South Africa at the close of the 18th century. Their chief had a liaison with the daughter of a neighboring chief, and from that union came Shaka Zulu who was to become chief and one of the most feared warriors among the many tribes in South Africa.


Rejected as a bastard child, Shaka was predisposed toward aggressive behavior sharpened by a ruthless streak. He trained as a warrior in his mother’s clan and became adept at close combat, a rarity at that time. When his father died in 1816, Shaka became king of the Zulu clan, which had grown to 1500 people. His ascension was aided significantly by the death in combat of his half-brother.

The clan’s usual relationship with neighboring groups had amounted to skirmishes brought on by stealing each other’s livestock. These conflicts resulted mostly in taunting and spear hurling and rarely resulted in fatalities. But within ten years, Shaka had built a force of fifty thousand warriors by defeating, then incorporating smaller clans into his powerbase. He also developed the shorter assegai stabbing spear as well as a military formation called the “bull horn” that’s designed to surround then annihilate opponents. At its peak, Shaka’s Zulu tribe controlled most of the eastern coast of South Africa and his Zulu people had developed the warrior mindset that defines them to this day.

Shaka’s brutality led to his eventual demise at the hands of his other half-brothers in 1828. His prophetic dying words predicted white colonialists would eventually defeat the Zulu nation.

Blood River

And so it came to pass.

The Zulu’s first significant defeat came at the Battle of Blood River in 1838. The tribe had been harassing Dutch settlers, called Voortrekkers, for many years. These people had already been driven north from the Cape Colony by the British, into Zulu territory. After a particularly brutal series of raids that resulted in several small communities being overwhelmed and wiped out by Zulu armies, a group of Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius made a stand against 10,000 to 15,000 Zulu attackers at the Ncome River. Three thousand Zulu were killed. Only three Dutchmen were wounded. The Ncome River ran red and was then given the tragic name Blood River.

Anglo-Zulu War

By 1879, the Zulu Kingdom was being challenged by the expansion of the British presence in South Africa. Spurred on by the discovery of diamonds and other precious resources, the British were anxious to bring the tribes of South Africa under some degree of control. Identifying the Zulu as the most vexing opponent, the British sent a demand to the Zulu king that they knew he could not accept.

This rejection provided the pretext for war, so the British invaded with an inadequate force and were soundly defeated in the Battle of Isandlwana. Soon after, a smaller Zulu force attacked the British garrison at Rorke’s Drift but were driven off with heavy casualties. That battle is depicted in the 1964 film Zulu starring a handsome young Michael Caine.

The British retreated, reinforced their army, and reinvaded six months later. This time, the Zulu could not repel the attack and their independence was lost forever.


The Zulu Empire was divided into 13 smaller kingdoms each with its own king. Competition between kings kept the Zulu at each other’s throats for the next several decades. During apartheid the “KwaZulu” homeland was created as one of the Bantustans, created in the name of “consolidation. As a result all members of the Zulu tribe lost their South African citizenship. In 1994, KwaZulu was combined with the province of Natal and is known today as KwaZulu-Natal.

For the record, the Zulu tribe is still today the largest ethnic group in South Africa. Most of them live in what’s called the KwaZulu-Natal province, where Durban is located. They remain a people proud of their ancestry, their heritage, their history and will puff up when telling the Zulu tale.