Our Top 5 Central and Southern African Kingdoms

WRITTEN BY: MALIK BRADLEY

Wisdom and Royalty Top 5 Central and Southern African Kingdoms

Welcome back to Wisdom and Royalty’s assessment of the most notable African Kingdoms and civilizations on the African continent. These lists are by no means a full comprehension of all the cultures and civilizations to have ever existed on the continent as there are many. The kingdoms of Central and Southern Africa have been greatly neglected and all together ignored by most modern historians. Some may argue, the reason for this is the lack of writing out of these regions as oral traditions were generally more prevalent in these parts of Africa. Others will claim that the White man’s penetration into these lands happened much later than West and East Africa affecting the amount of historical documentation recorded on the history of these ancient kingdoms in which we have to use for reference today. 

That being said, this region of Africa is no less fascinating than the rest of the Continent. The enigma of Africa is truly realized in the mysterious and ancient structures found here, as well as the tales that we do have of the powerful and ancient trading kingdoms that existed in these areas. Modern finds of artifacts even from the Asian Continent here suggest that the importance and power of these kingdoms has been greatly underestimated due to a lack of knowledge and existing documentation. It has also been said that Southern Africans were the original settlers of places like Papua New Guinea, Australia, and the Solomon Islands as well as many others. 

As usual, we will be ranking the following kingdoms by their impact on the African continent as a whole, as well as their financial successes, military successes, their innovation and culture. In this article we will be figuring out the who, what, when, where, and why of how these kingdoms were successful and as always we will be ranking them based on their overall contribution to African culture and above all else the black peoples of the continent.

5. The Swahili Coast/ Sultanates

Wisdom and Royalty's Top 5 The Swahili Coast Sultanates

The Swahili Sultanates were more a conglomeration of trading sultanates spanning a large portion of Africa’s eastern coastline. Beginning from Southern Somalia all the way down to Mozambique. At around 1000 A.D to 1500 A.D, a number of city-states on the eastern coast of Africa along the Indian Ocean began to participate in an international trade network and eventually became cosmopolitan centers of trade and culture. Even though over time they were heavily influenced by Islamic culture, these city- states were considered both autonomous and symbiotic. They stretched over an area of approximately 1,500 sq miles.  The Swahili zone of influence is believed to have started around the modern Somalian city of Mogadishu and stretched all the way down the Eastern African coastline to the ancient city of Sofala in what is now modern day Mozambique. The Swahili coast included several ancient cities and centers such as Mombasa (modern day Kenya), Gedi, Pate, Lamu, Malindi, Zanzibar (modern day Tanzania), and Kilwa. The offshore islands lying in between modern day Madagascar and the coastline of eastern Africa were all considered a part of the Swahili culture. Each city developed from small traditional African agricultural villages and produced goods on a small scale. Over time, these villages increased their small-scale agriculture improving their economies to create enough surplus goods for trading. This change also shifted the structure of these societies as more wealth created an elite merchant class. The new prosperity elevated some of these agricultural societies into towns and cities, while others were made specifically to capitalize on trade opportunities sparked by the growing Indian Ocean trade. The Swahili do not have a long history of military dominance as they were most notably commercial traders and merchants. Goods from the African interior would be exported to such far-away places as Persia, India, China, and even Japan. The Swahili exports were heavily reliant upon the much stronger interior Kingdoms and Empires such as the Mwenemutapa Empire. Goods such as ivory, gold, frankincense, and myrrh were the most notable exports traded to these foreign kingdoms out of the interior. Modern archeology also proves a high volume of imports were received in this region as well from these foreign kingdoms, imports such as pottery from Persia and Arabia, and most extensively imports from China such as Qing Bai, Cizhou wares, kohl sticks, glass beads, bronze mirrors, and rock crystal.

At around 1350 A.D most of the Swahili coast had converted to Islamic culture. It is believed that this is partly due to commercial advantages as well as the belief that it would protect them from outright domination from more powerful military states such as Persia at the time. Nonetheless, African slavery was also a huge part of the exports that the Swahili used as a means of trade. This was an extremely bad decision in the long-run because although it was not necessarily based on the chattel slavery that would later be experienced from the Europeans, this served as a pretext to the future of Africa and its people. This period was well known as the Arab slave trade seeing as the Arabs were the biggest beneficiaries of this kind of trade. Most slaves coming from this part of Africa were often used as slave soldiers ironically. Places such as India and China did also use black Africans as well in this manner.  The Swahili coast and its various city-states continued to operate in this manner into the 16th century, when Portuguese and Dutch explorers finally circled the Southern Portion of the African continent by around 1500 A.D. This effectively brought an end to an era of African trade with the east as the Europeans muscled their way into the eastern trade routes. The militarily dominant European colonists had every intention of aggressively taking control of the trade routes already established between the interior African kingdoms such as Congo and Mwenemutapa, as well as India and China. This caused the decline of Swahili city-states with certain cities like Sofala and Kilwa instead becoming outposts of European control due to their lack of cohesion and integrated politics. As well as not having a standing army prepared to deal with an aggressively militaristic state such as the Portuguese who were at their height during this time. Due to these reasons, the Swahili fall just short of being one of the most powerful African societies on the continent at the time. Although the international influence of the Swahili was undoubtedly remarkable, their lack of a cohesive military or political structure as well as their willing participation in the trade of Africans for profit ultimately led to their downfall. 

4. The Mwene Mutapa Empire

wisdom and royalty's top 5 central and south african mwene mutapa empire

The Mwene Mutapa emerged as an empire in the 14th century. The title “Mwene Mutapa” was a title referring to the line of Shona kings believed to originally be from the Southeastern region of Africa located between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers in what is now modern day Zimbabwe and Mozambique. At the kingdom’s height in the 16th century it is believed to have encompassed almost the entirety of Southern Africa leading to its title being changed to Empire. The title “Mwene Mutapa” was first carried by a king named Nyatsimba Mutota, although oral traditions ascribe the original founding to his great-great grandfather who was a semi-mythical character only known as Mbire

At around the 15th century CE, the kingdom of Great Zimbabwe (est. c. 1100 CE) was in a heavy decline and their links with the trade of the Swahili Coast had ceased. It is debated why this happened, some historians believe that it was due to an exhaustion of the gold deposits in the region while others claim it was due to deforestation and overworking of the land. The biggest and most obvious culprit besides these natural problems was most definitely the Portuguese which had already established themselves firmly in the coastal regions by the 15th century and were using the Swahili Coast as a staging point for further encroachment into the interior; threatening the kingdoms within. 

In the latter half of the 15th century CE, the Bantu-speaking Shona peoples had migrated a few hundred kilometers northwards from Great Zimbabwe to a land where they displaced (sometimes by force) the indigenous Pygmies and smaller tribes who in response fled into the forests and desert in neighboring regions. The relationship between Great Zimbabwe and Mutapa can be assumed to have come from the same peoples due to what archeology has shown. Both kingdoms had very similar pottery, weapons, tools, and luxury manufactured goods like jewelry. Monarchy in the Empire was often a tumultuous affair. Monarchs ruled over a population of warriors who also served as farmers and cattle-herders, which would be called to action should the kingdom enter war with other rival tribes and chiefdoms.  In theory this system worked well but as the kingdom progressed into an empire it became increasingly difficult to manage due to the lack of overall unity amongst many of the societies under the empire’s rule. 

This would cause the overall strength and unity of the empire to depend on each rulers individual personality and talents above all else, for example, if you had a strong-man as a leader your empire would be sure to run the empire successfully but if you were a weak leader then that could lead your empire quickly into a state of civil war. Most monarchs would fall into the practice of  appointing their own family members as regional governors and not creating any institutions of local government, whenever a chief died so too did the centralized state apparatus. His successor then had the difficult task of balancing the appeasement of his own loyal followers and the powerful males of his predecessor’s regime. The result was frequent civil wars between the reigning kings and governors who did not want to give up their power. Around 1490 CE the southern part of the kingdom split off to become the Kingdom of Changamire, which would prosper into the 18th century CE.

The Mwene Mutapa Empire had some of the most fascinating structural building methods out of almost any society in Africa. Most evidently at sites like Great Zimbabwe, and Mapangupwe, designs not typically seen throughout the rest of Africa can be seen throughout Southern Africa; particularly in Zimbabwe and modern day Botswana. Fort-like structures built with extremely tight brickwork form high walls in a series of circular enclosures. This was typical of most Mutapa settlements as is being revealed today by modern archaeology. Previously white archaeologists wrote off these structures as being built by white men due to racist and prejudiced bias against African civilization and the denial of achievement by Africans through a history of plunder and erasure of evidence by their predecessors. 

The Mutapa Empire was one of the main trading suppliers to the Swahili Coast and its sultanates of goods from the African interior. Among other things previously mentioned in “Swahili Coast/Sultanates” the resources they were most rich in were Gold, Ivory, and Copper; as well as animal hides and last but not least once again slaves. By around 1498 following Portuguese colonizer Vasco de Gama’s voyage around the “Cape of Good Hope” marking their encirclement around the southern tip of the African continent, the Portuguese immediately began an aggressive campaign of plunder on the Swahili Coast.    

This action by the Portuguese caused a sharp decline in trade which quickly caused the Empire to start capitulating due to their heavy reliance on trade with the Swahili Coast and its Sultanates. The Portuguese acted as a destructive wild card that would have a very apparent effect on the kingdom in the following years. The Portuguese began applying pressure to the interior by virtually extorting Mwenemutapa into trading with them. The Portuguese took over most of the Swahili Coast as their own protectorate so now they were a new and unwanted trading partner.  It was already known that these new invaders possessed weapons and armaments never before seen in this region of Africa, and they were extremely belligerent as well. Some may say their presence alone began the decline of the Mwenemutapa Empire. 

Soon enough, the trade with the Portuguese rather than outright war was seen as weakness by local strong-men leaders who fell under the influence of Mwenemutapa and many civil wars began to break out. The Mwenemutapa Kingdom began to splinter and crumble under the weight of its size and competing warrior sublets. By the mid 18th century (1760 C.E) the great empire is said to have completely dissolved and some parts of it were almost completely abandoned. With its massive effect on the Central and Southern regions of the African continent this empire’s importance was one that had been often overlooked due to the intensive suppression of evidence of any and all traces of such an empire even existing by white foreign invaders. It was not until the advent of modern archeology and technologies that we are able to piece together the lost history of such a magnificent African kingdom’s existence. 

3. The Kingdom of Kongo

wisdom and royalty's top 5 central and south african kingdom of kongo

The Kingdom of Kongo was originally located in the regions south of the Congo River in what is now present day Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the accounts of traditional griots the Kingdom was founded by a chief figure named Lukeni Lua Nimi around 1390 C.E. As is common for pre-colonial African kingdoms, it is believed that the Kingdom of Kongo started as a loose federation of local governments and statehoods who as the kingdom expanded, conquered territories were integrated into royal patrimony forming a cohesive kingdom. Soyo and Mbata were the two most powerful provinces of the original federation. Other well known provinces were Nsundi, Mpangu, Mbabmba, and Mpemba which formed the original Kingdom of Kongo. The capital was Mbanza Kongo which was located centrally within the kingdom and was a densely settled region. This allowed the Manikongo (King of Kongo) to wield impressive power and management capabilities of the manpower and supplies necessary to run a centralized state. 

The Kingdom of Kongo was known for many great accomplishments. Kongo culture was extremely unique as it was mostly centered on ancestor and spiritual worship alongside political organization. Unlike many other African kingdoms, The Kingdom of Kongo has an extremely well documented history, partially due to extensive European interaction with The Kongo Kingdom. The highest concentration of the population was around the city of Mbanza Kongo with its outskirts playing an important role in the centralization of Kongo. The capital was a densely settled area in a region otherwise sparsely populated where most settlements had no more than five people. Some of the first Portuguese travelers to the area described Mbanza Kongo as a large city, the size of the Portuguese town of Evora as it was in 1491, showing that this city had detailed architecture comparable to a European city with none of the European influence. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, The Kingdom of Kongo’s population was close to half a million people in its core region of 130,000 square kilometers. By the seventeenth century the kingdom’s hinterland had a population of around 3,000,000 subjects. This concentration allowed resources, soldiers and surplus foods to be readily available at the request of the king. This made the king overwhelmingly powerful.

wisdom and royalty's top 5 central and south african kingdom of kongo capital detailed
Depiction of the capital of the Kingdom of Kongo, Mbanza Kongo as it was upon the European arrival by the early 1500s. 

The Kingdom of Kongo was the strongest and most centralized of its kind in the regions of West Central Africa at the time. The country had many natural resources like Ivory, as well as was already  manufacturing and trading copperware, ferrous metals, raffia cloth, and pottery. One of the earliest African cultures to practice metallurgy, Kongo blacksmiths were near mythical figures revered in their work. Weapons were crafted with both effectiveness as well as artistic significance in mind. The Kongo people spoke in the Kikongo language, by the time of the first recorded contact with the Europeans, the Kingdom of Kongo was a highly developed state at the center of an extensive trading network. With a stroke of misfortune this kingdom would not have long to remain completely autonomous and without foreign influence. At around 1480 C.E, nearly 100 years after the founding of the Kingdom; the Portuguese began to pursue their exploration of ‘Sub-Saharan’ Africa. With the invention of sail boats strong enough to withstand deep water sailing, and the Portuguese harquebus (the first firearms), the Europeans were ready to start ravaging Africa in the name of Catholicism. 

All of these attributes made this kingdom highly attractive to Portuguese colonizers. Unlike the kingdoms of Upper West Africa such as in Sierra Leone, they were met with almost no hostilities initially from the Kongo Kingdom. The Portuguese had already made a name for themselves at this point while traveling further and further down Africa’s Atlantic coastline, for being untrustworthy and dangerous. At best they were extremely well armed pirates; regardless of all this, the Kingdom of Kongo welcomed the Portuguese ‘traders’ into their lands giving Portugal its first foothold in Sub-Saharan Africa. Before the arrival of the Europeans the Kongo Kingdom had acquired most of its territory through various protective agreements being a highly diplomatic society. When the foreigners arrived they were seen more as a new trading partner in which they were eager to learn from rather than a possible threat. The first meeting of Portuguese explorers with King Nzinga a Nkuwu was in 1482, after they had spent about two years roaming the coasts outlying the kingdom. The explorers could see a golden opportunity with introducing Catholicism to this region of Africa based on how welcoming the Kongo people were of the new arrivals.

Eight years after the initial meeting with the Portuguese visitors, for unknown reasons the King Nzinga a Nkuwu asked the Portuguese to be baptized into Catholicism. In the process his name was changed to Joao I, with this action the irreversible Christianization of the Kingdom would take place influencing many nobles to change their names to Portuguese variations. It is said that King Joao I , and his son, Afonso I were more devout Catholic than even the Portuguese colonizers. It is not well known how much dissent came from the decision to abandon the traditional beliefs and culture of the kingdom for Christianity, but it is known that later on in his life King Joao I renounced his belief in Christianity probably due to the realization that the Portuguese were not there out of benevolence.  

King Nzinga a Nkuwu (Joao I) died in 1506 C.E to which his son became the new Manikongo (King of the Kongo). At this time things were changing in terms of the amount of influence the Portuguese had on the kingdom. After the death of his father, King Afonso I instead of heeding the warnings his father left him about the Portuguese went on to form even stronger bonds with Portugal allowing a number of Portuguese settlers to take up permanent residence within the Kongo Kingdom.

Quickly problems arose when King Afonso began noticing that his population was being enslaved and sent overseas illegally right under his nose in his own kingdom! The Kongolese king had a system that would protect their freeborn subjects in which he called ‘Gent’ from slavery. To this the Portuguese paid no regard and the problem became so prevalent that King Afonso would later write a letter to the Portuguese King Joao III in 1526. In the letter it sounds more like the Kongolese king is confused that the Portuguese would do such things to his people if they are supposed to be ‘brothers in Christ’, the letter reveals that not only have the Portuguese been capturing his subjects into slavery, but that nobles have been kidnapped as well! He even goes so far as to say that his country had been almost completely depopulated! I can only imagine the smiles on the Portuguese faces when they were reading this. They continued on to be completely belligerent and had no real respect for the land or its people which was finally beginning to be realized. As a result, in 1526 Afonso organized the Administration of the Slave Trade in an attempt to ensure that his people were not illegally being enslaved and exported, although a significant amount of damage was done to the population and the legitimacy of the Kingdom already, due to his inability to protect his people.

Upon King Afonso’s I death in 1542, major struggles over the succession of the Monarchy began and took place quite often further weakening the kingdom. The Portuguese were never truly put under control when illegally siphoning the population into slavery and there were also several civil wars going on through the kingdom. In 1568, due to the weakened state of the Kingdom, a neighboring rival group of warriors known as ‘Jagas’ to the east of Kongo seized the opportunity to completely overrun the Kingdom. This conflict was so serious it sent the entire kingdom’s economy into an economic crisis which would result in families sending their own children into slavery (fathers selling sons, and brothers selling brothers) to the Portuguese in order to ‘survive’. In this terrible downward spiral an unprecedented amount of freeborn Kongolese were sold into slavery overseas in the Americas including princes and nobles. After hearing of this, however, King Alvaro I became angered and managed to ransom most of the slaves brought over to the Americas during the Jaga conflict back to Africa. Nimi a Lukeni (Álvaro I) who reigned from 1568–1587, was able to restore Kongo only with assistance once again from the Portuguese. In exchange, he allowed them to settle in Luanda (a territory of Kongo) and create the Portuguese colony that would become Angola. Relations with Angola did not last though, and soon went from bad to worse when Angola’s Portuguese governor briefly invaded southern Kongo in 1622. 

For the next two centuries the situation in the Kingdom of Kongo had entered a state of perpetual conflict and insecurity. Initially, before 1641, the Kingdom of Kongo had been successful in fighting off most of the aggressive Portuguese incursions into their territory. Open conflict and overall dissent truly began however, in the year 1593 when the Sonyo province which was one of the richest provinces in the whole kingdom decided to declare its own independence. The Counts of Soyo decided to make their ruler a man named Count Danial da Silva, King Garcia II the Manikongo of the time declared war on the rebellion and had most of them sold into slavery if not executed. In this same year a real vendetta began when a Kongolese force working with new Europeans in town; the Dutch worked together to expel the Portuguese out of Luanda. 

Almost thirty years later in 1665, the spitefully opportunistic Portuguese colonists invaded the Kingdom of Kongo and had a real battle with the Kingdom of Kongo in the Battle of Mbwila. In an extremely unfortunate turn of events the battle turned out to be a disaster for the Kongolese forces. Not only was the battle lost but some Portuguese soldiers personally killed the Kongolese King (King Antonio I) in combat. The Portuguese also seized the island of Luanda capturing it. The island of Luanda was extremely important to the local economy as it was the largest source of the then Kongolese currency ‘Nzimbu Shells’; with the loss of a major battle, the death of the sitting king, and the nation’s currency source sitting in foreign hands. Undoubtedly the kingdom’s future was uncertain. This battle directly resulted in the final deathblow to the Kingdom of Kongo as it was before European incursion. This resulted in the civil war between the two most prominent royal factions in the kingdom, the Kimpanzu and the Kinlaza. 

wisdom and royalty's top 5 central and south african kimpanzu vs kinlaza

This final explosion of war between the period between 1641-1718 led to the complete decentralization of the Kingdom. The running dispute of succession especially between the Counts of Soyo and the Kings of Kongo continued on for the next almost two centuries as well as insecurity from slavery only increasing. Ultimately by the year 1914 the kingdom was finally completely dissolved as a few small chiefdoms which used to be part of one of the greatest and most well noted Kingdoms in Central and southern Africa were folded into Angola which was now by this point a well established colony under Portuguese control.  It is said that at least 50% of the slaves brought to the ‘New World’ came from this region. Therefore a significant amount of people who are of African descent especially those in South America are actually descended from this region. 

Wisdom and Royalty's Top 5 central and south african a depiction of the battle of mbwila
Depiction of the Battle of Mbwila

2. The Rozvi Empire

wisdom and royalty's top 5 central and south african zulu empire

The Rozvi Kingdom (a.k.a The Kingdom of Changamire) is a special kingdom and it can almost be thought of as the surviving continuation of the Mwenemutapa Empire. As stated earlier on in this article the Mwenemutapa Empire went through a period where several chiefdoms left the kingdom after internal war and started their own Kingdoms. The Rozvi Kingdom was one of these kingdoms, and did this in a quite spectacular fashion. The reason why this kingdom places so high upon this list is not because of its amazing artwork, or stylized architecture, or even its strong economy. The reason why this kingdom places up to almost the top of our list is due to its extremely effective warrior culture. It is one of the few and very recent (due to suppression by historical accounts of its significance) of an African kingdom and leader who repeatedly beat the Portuguese. With one of the only cases in African colonial history where a colonial power absolutely gave up their aggressions in this region. Led by a warrior named Changamire Dombo in 1490 C.E. The chieftaincy of the Changamire had freshly broken off of the Mwenemutapa Empire and had  a power base located in Butua. The Rozvi were formed from the several Shona states that dominated the plateau of present-day Zimbabwe at the time. The Rozvi were very direct in their purpose, unlike other kingdoms which spent an unhealthy amount of time as to whether or not to engage in war with foreign invaders the Rozvi left the Mwenemutapa Empire for almost this exact reason. There was no hesitation from combat as most of the Changamire were warriors and Changamire Dombo embarked on a campaign of total war against the Portuguese. It has been said that the Rozvi were the first to use military tactics later used by the Zulu such as the ‘chest and loins’ formation. As well as engaging in psychological warfare such as using gruesome warnings, killing settler camps at night, slitting Portuguese throats in their sleep, as well as even digging up Portuguese graves. They not only wanted to frighten the Portuguese settlers but completely demoralize any war effort against them as well.

wisdom and royalty's top 5 central and south african changomire dumbo
A depiction of Changamire Dombo, the leader of the Rozvi Empire.

The Rozvi were warriors as stated earlier and were no easy fight in combat either. Defeating the Portuguese quickly and decisively at several engagements and skirmishes.

The Portuguese defeats were so bad that you would be hard-pressed to find any recorded documentation of the actual battles mostly because the Rozvi were known not to leave a single survivor as well as the Europeans tendency only to document European success in military engagements in Africa. We know that this is the case however because by 1683 after a Portuguese incursion and attempt to seize the gold mines of the Rozvi, they responded by defeating the Portuguese so decisively they completely drove the Portuguese off the Zimbabwe plateau. After this the Europeans only maintained a nominal presence on the outskirts of this specific region. With this great victory the whole of present-day Zimbabwe came under the control of Changamire and became known as the Rozvi Empire.  The Rozvi brought about a revival of the traditions of the Mwenemutapa Empire. They did this by learning from their ancestors and building in stone and constructing impressive cities and towns throughout the Southwestern region of modern day Zimbabwe. The economy was stable as well with an already strong cattle wealth, and also access to gold mining as well in which they used to trade for luxury imports. Although all these great things were happening the Rozvi Empire would soon be under threat for some wildcard misfortunes. In an irony, by the 1790s despite the Rozvi having no enemies after their decisive victories over the Portuguese a weather anomaly began to take place throughout the entirety of Southern Africa. The region began to be affected by an intensive and prolonged series of droughts. This helped to weaken the Rozvi Empire, which also allowed the Empire to be vulnerable to local rivals attempting to seize power. Trade routes began to stifle and even their gold could not be transferred nearly as often beginning an economic downfall in the area. This was also the beginning of a well known era called the Mfecane which will be mentioned again later. What’s important about this is that due to a very similar warrior kingdom named the Zulu who resided to the south and the military victories of their King Shaka Zulu this caused a massive displacement of the defeated tribes and chiefdoms. In an odd turn of events one of these chiefdoms was the Ndwandwe of the Nguni. The Ndwandwe were a mass of armed bands of warriors who were defeated by Shaka. They migrated northward until they reached the Rozvi Empire to which they immediately overwhelmed and invaded the Rozvi Empire. The resulting chaos devastated the Empire and the Ndwandwe armies proved to be too much for the now comfortable Rozvi. The last of their kings was killed by the year 1830 in his capital of Khami, promptly ending an almost 400 year old Empire.  

1. The Zulu Empire

wisdom and royalty's top 5 central and south african zulu empire standoff

Our number one kingdom on this list is the Zulu Empire, one of the most storied Kingdoms of the Southern Regions of the continent of Africa. This list was different for a few good reasons. The interior south of Africa took the Europeans centuries to finally penetrate, and most of what the white man deemed uncivilized tribes were actually the remnants of once massive and great kingdoms which predated their entire concept of the world. This was the region where life began on Earth. As the encroachment slowly crept in and surrounded once great African chiefdoms and kingdoms, an intense struggle began in an almost desperate push to survive. 

The region known today as Zululand which is located in KwaZulu-Natal province in present day South Africa, is the home of the Zulu people. The Zulu were an Nguni people, who were initially a small chieftaincy located near the White Umfolozi River. Their location provided the center to what would become the combination and assimilation into a centralized Kingdom by the 1810s. Before the rise of Shaka the Zulu Kingdom was a mostly peaceful kingdom which had several nearby neighbors whom they would occasionally get into minor skirmishes with. The nearby Mthethwa Confederacy was the actual vessel in which Shaka achieved true power. The Mthethwa King Dingiswayo maintained close relations with the Zulu and is said to have cared for Shaka as his own son until his death in 1816. Shaka was named his successor and he went on to immediately rewrite the way war was carried out in this region of Southern Africa. He was the first to operate his armies with intensive training at all times. Shaka made a system of fortified settlements known as amakhanda and established the new way of building Zulu settlements. Young men were automatically drafted into amabutho (regiments determined by age sets). This was a military tactic Shaka learned while serving under Dingiswayo) to defend against raiders and provide protection for refugees. Shaka also introduced the use of the iconic Ikwa. The Ikwa was a shortspear with a long leaf styled blade and a thick shaft, which would be extremely effective in the Zulu conquests. It was employed as the main weapon of all Zulu Warriors replacing the Asagai throwing spear which was the traditional (ineffective) combat method in the region. This one move revolutionized the way not only the Zulus but the rest of the neighboring tribes in Southern Africa would fight in the era to come. 

The next two decades after Shaka Zulu came into power were filled with bloodshed and incessant war, this period is well known as the Mfecane. Although this period actually proved to be fiercely detrimental to the overall welfare of the Southern African region, Shaka managed to expand Zulu territory greatly by literally conquering everyone around him including the white settlers. Shaka followed the ‘join or die’ way of doing things when it came to other Africans, and a refusal of joining the Zulu Empire would often lead to your entire village being scorched from the earth. It actually prepared the Zulu for a much more persistent and threatening enemy to come, an enemy in whom Shaka would never actually be able to meet due to his assassination by his half brothers in 1828. It was believed that Shaka Zulu went mad with war and had many storied incidents of him executing his own subjects for minor infractions, to some degree the passing of his mother was one of the causes of his downward spiral, as his mother was the only person he ever trusted.

Upon becoming the Zulu king, Shaka’s half brother Dingane quickly met a new and terrible threat when the British along with the Boers (Dutch Settlers in Southern Africa) began to make incursions into his kingdom. 

These white settlers had always been encroaching on the borders of his realm, and were already allied to his brother Mpande who was his rival. Dingane was deposed by his brother Mpande in 1840 and killed shortly after. Under Mpande who ruled the Zulu Kingdom from 1840-1872, a large portion of the original territory Shaka built was taken over by Boers and British (big surprise there). They took up residency in the neighboring province in 1838, with the undoubted intention of taking over the whole territory. The Boers were another group of white settlers with the express intent of stealing and killing their way through the entirety of southern Africa. The Boers seized the bulk of Zulu territory to the south of the Black Umfolozi River but were told to return it once the British annexed the territory in 1843. Mpande was succeeded by his son Cetshwayo after his passing in 1872. Cetshwayo was the Zulu king who would forever be known as the African who defeated the British with a traditional African army against the most modern army in the world at the time. Cetshwayo refused to submit to the growing British hegemony over South Africa and by 1879 the British invaded the Zulu kingdom. This began the conflict known as the Anglo-Zulu War; the British grossly underestimated the Zulu believing that this must have been the last kingdom willing to fight them in the whole continent. They sent a small contingent of about 1800 men to search for and destroy the last of the Zulu. When the British arrived at Isandlwana they decided to set up camp. Unbeknownst to them was a massive Zulu army who had been tracking them for miles. The resulting battle was known as The Battle of Isandlwana and was one of the only well documented accounts of an African army absolutely wiping out a European army in the history of colonial Africa at the time. Although this was an absolute victory the following battle was a terrible defeat for the Zulu entitled The Battle of Rorke’s Drift.

wisdom and royalty's top 5 central and south african battle of isandiwana
The Battle of Isandlwana

The Zulu were defeated at Rorke’s Drift due to a hasty attack carried out by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande a Zulu commander after receiving strict orders not to attack the fortification at Rorke’s Drift. The commander in charge was inspired by the spectacular win at Isandlwana and led  devastating charge after charge on the fortification protected by only 150 British some of which were wounded. All to no avail as they lost 350 men and had another 500 wounded in an ultimately disastrous battle, only 17 British were killed in the fighting. In the end by July the British captured the Zulu capital Ulundi and in doing so also captured Cetshwayo, although Cetshwayo was returned to Zululand after a few years of staying in Britain. This brought the Zulu Empire to an end due to its assimilation from this point into the British Zululand colony.


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Author: Man-Sa

Singer/Songwriter/Musician - Self-Proclaimed Historian - Voice-Over Actor - Aspiring Video Game Developer - Video Game Enthusiast- Fitness Enthusiast - Blogger - Producer - Innovator

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