Sir Bartle Frere was appointed high commissioner to South Africa in 1879 to realise the policy of confederation. Shepstone provided him with the arguments and motivation he required. The Zulu, Shepstone averred, had revived their military power under Cetshwayo. The kingdom was a threat to peace and prosperity in South Africa. Moreover, Cetshwayo’s leaders had personally insulted him. On 11 December 1878, under the flimsy pretext of a few minor border incursions into Natal by Cetshwayo’s followers, the Zulu were given an impossible ultimatum that they should disarm and Cetshwayo should forsake his sovereignty.
The inevitable invasion of Zululand began after the ultimatum had expired in January 1879. Instead of fragmenting the Zulu as Shepstone predicted, this made the Zulu rally to their king’s cause. Under the overall command of Lord Chelmsford, the Imperial forces – many of them colonials or members of the Natal Native Contingent – converged on Cetshwayo’s royal capital at oNdini. Chelmsford’s column split in two; one force, in a state of total unpreparedness, was repulsed by the Zulu at Isandlwana on 22 January (see The battle of Isandlwana).
A day later, a depot at Rorke’s Drift was attacked against the orders of Cetshwayo, who favoured a defensive strategy. The Zulu force suffered 500 casualties in this fruitless engagement. Chelmsford hurried back to Natal. The might of the British army had suffered a severe repulse and any thoughts of a quick British victory put to rest, but the Zulu themselves suffered terrible casualties, and worse was to follow.
After the defeat at Isandlwana British pride had to be restored, and reinforcements were sent for. Chelmsford’s army advanced again into Zululand, inflicting heavy defeats on the Zulu at Gingindlovu and Khambula in April. The Zulu were now on the back foot. In July Chelmsford moved in on oNdini, and in a final onslaught known as the battle of Ulundi, secured an overwhelming military success. More than 1 000 Zulu were killed, and Cetshwayo was forced to flee for safety. He was captured in the Ngome forest in August and exiled to the Cape. The Zulu were instructed to return to their homesteads and resume productive activities. The British were at pains to explain that the war was against the Zulu royal house.
The war itself had not destroyed the kingdom, but subsequent events served to divide the Zulu and undermine their economic and social cohesion. Taking a leaf out of Shepstone’s ‘native policy’, Sir Garnet Wolseley, the new British commander in Natal, divided the kingdom into thirteen territories under appointed chiefs. They were meant to represent the chiefly lineages of pre-Shakan times, a shaky argument, especially as one of them was John Dunn, who had joined the British when hostilities began. Others had either been outrightly opposed to Cetshwayo or had shown little loyalty to him during the war. Their allegiance was to those who had appointed them, and Britain effectively began to administer indirect rule over Zululand. Melmoth Osborn, who enthusiastically supported Shepstone’s views, was appointed as British Resident in Zululand.
Unsurprisingly Zululand suffered civil strife as a result of this arrangement. Those who continued to espouse the old Zulu order were known as the uSuthu, and were led by Ndabuko kaMpande, Cetshwayo’s brother. They were to come into conflict with the appointed chiefs and by 1887 had ‘fought themselves to a standstill’.
In addition, a hut tax was imposed, not only on each hut but on every wife regardless of whether she occupied a hut. Wolseley’s infamous settlement of Zululand had not destroyed the Zulu homestead, the basic productive unit in the kingdom’s economy, nor had the Zulu been deprived of their land. The hut tax, however, served to divert some of the surplus accruing to an individual homestead head to the British government. Over 70% of the annual cost of administering Zululand was derived from this tax.
As the civil war intensified, the British realised that the settlement was simply not workable. Cetshwayo, encouraged by Bishop Colenso and his daughter Harriette who both visited him in Cape Town, petitioned the British government and was granted permission to visit England to put forward his case for the restoration of the Zulu monarchy. In Zululand similar petitions were presented to the British Resident by the uSuthu.
Early in 1883 Cetshwayo was reinstalled as king, but his powers had been severely reduced. He was confined to a smaller area, surrounded by his enemies, and his every move was watched by a Resident. Those who wished to show their loyalty to Cetshwayo were obliged to move into his central district of the kingdom. Zibhebhu, an arch opponent of Cetshwayo, whose allegiance was more to the colonial order than the royal house, and who occupied a large tract of territory to Cetshwayo’s north, forced uSuthu loyalists resident in his portion to return to Cetshwayo’s area.
A pre-emptive strike by the uSuthu against Zibhebhu failed. Later Zibhebhu and Hamu, another of the appointed chiefs, invaded the uSuthu. Cetshwayo was soundly defeated at his newly built capital at oNdini in 1883. The level of bloodshed exceeded anything the Zulu had experienced during Cetshwayo’s reign. Matters worsened for the uSuthu when Cetshwayo died in late 1883. The balance of power in Zululand had now shifted decisively to the Imperial administration and its supporters in Zululand
In a last-ditch measure to regain power, Cetshwayo’s son, Dinuzulu, entered into a treaty with the Transvaal. In military terms, the alliance proved successful and Zibhebhu’s army was forced out of the loyalists’ territory. But it came at a huge cost. In return for their assistance, the Boers were promised vast tracts of territory on Zululand’s western margin, which they called The New Republic, with its ‘capital’ at Vryheid.
When the Transvaalers tried to claim even more land than what was agreed upon, the uSuthu refused. Sensing complete chaos in Zululand, the British intervened. Dinuzulu was allowed to retain control of his portion of central Zululand, but the Boers were also acknowledged as owners of the New Republic, and a Reserve area was set aside for those opposed to the loyalists. In Natal, pressure mounted for the annexation of Zululand, and almost inevitably it was annexed to the Crown in 1887. The promulgation of a Code of Laws placed Zululand under a similar ‘Native Policy’ to that existing in Natal.
Once more the uSuthu mounted resistance to the annexation. Again Zibhebhu’s services were called upon. The revolt was spectacularly successful for a short period. Making good use of the mountainous terrain, the uSuthu under Dinuzulu repulsed a police contingent sent to arrest their leaders, and Zibhebhu’s followers were attacked by Dinuzulu and forced to flee hastily from the Ndwandwe district. Finally reinforcements arrived, the uSuthu were driven from their hideouts, and Dinuzulu surrendered. In 1889, he and his leading adherents were tried for treason, found guilty and sentenced to prison terms on St Helena.
In 1894 Dinuzulu was pardoned and allowed to return to Zululand, but as a mere induna with no chiefly powers or privileges. To appease colonial interests, his return was coupled to the annexation of Zululand by Natal in 1897.
After eighteen years, settler interests had prevailed in the land of the Zulu, and the plans Shepstone initially envisaged for the kingdom could be put in place. White settlers and traders entered Zululand in increasing numbers. Zululand was thus ‘reconstructed’. The territory was divided among compliant chiefs who ruled with limited authority. The governor of Natal became the supreme chief over Zululand. The situation was worsened by the outbreak of a number of natural disasters between 1894 and 1897. Locusts, drought and the devastating rinderpest epidemic of 1897 led to a massive decline in homestead production.
Already under stress from the imposition of the hut tax, many more Zulu men were forced onto the Witwatersrand labour market to make ends meet and pay taxes. The gradual emergence of a permanent labouring class alongside a traditional economy based on homestead production and cattle-keeping led in time to new social divisions in Zulu society.