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BY Mildred Europa Taylor, 12:01pm March 10, 2021,

The heroics of the last independent Zulu king who fought off the British and was ‘poisoned’ to death

Photograph of Cetshwayo by Alexander Bassano in Old Bond Street, London

It has been documented that one of the major shocks to British prestige in the 19th century is the infamous Battle of Isandlwana, the first large encounter between the Zulu and British in 1879. The Zulu, numbering about 20,000 and armed with their traditional assegai iron spears, cow-hide shields, muskets and old rifles, pulled up an unexpected attack on British troops numbering about 1,800.

Though the British had far more sophisticated weapons, they just could not overpower the Zulu warriors. Over 1,300 British troops were killed and the Zulu lost a thousand men after the battle. The Zulu were led by their famous king, Cetshwayo kaMpande, who had become a threat to British colonial interests.

The last great ruler of an independent Zulu state, Cetshwayo assumed power of a state that had nearly declined during the reign of his father, Mpande. But his strong military skills and leadership, alongside his disciplined army of 40,000 to 60,000 men, helped bring back the prestige of the Zulu state. These and many other factors, including his defiance of British rule in southern Africa, would lead to the Zulu War of 1879.

Years before the war, Britain had in 1843 succeeded the Boers as the rulers of Natal, which controlled Zululand, the neighboring kingdom of the Zulu people, according to History. The Zulu were a migrant people from the north who had come to southern Africa during the 17th century. At the time the British took over Natal and Zululand in 1843, Cetshwayo’s father, Mpande, had displaced Dingane in 1840, becoming a vassal of the new Boer republic of Natal. With his father as king, Cetshwayo was closer to the throne but he had to kill to make it. In 1856, he fought and killed his brother, Mbulazi, the eldest son of Mpande’s second wife. Cetshwayo’s other brother, Umtonga, fled Zululand five years after Mbulazi’s death.

Cetshwayo was subsequently seen by all as the de facto heir to Mpande. He formally ascended the throne when his father died in 1872. It was during this period that the British sought to create a South Africa federation in the region, and it could only do so by collapsing autonomous African states. In 1878, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, British high commissioner for South Africa, tried to force Cetshwayo to disband his powerful army of 40,000 to 60,000 men and give up land. The result was Britain’s invasion of Zululand in 1879. The Zulu would hand the British a resounding defeat at Isandlwana. But the British in the end emerged victorious over the Zulu at the Battle of Kambula (Khambula) on March 29.

The British captured Cetshwayo in August and exiled him to London. He was brought back in 1883 to rule over part of his former territory. But soon he had to fight a dangerous rival — his cousin Zibebu — in a civil war that eventually forced Cetshwayo out of Zululand. Cetshwayo fled to the British Zulu Native Reserve and died on February 8, 1884, at the British administrative centre of Eshowe. The official cause of his death was given as a heart attack, but the Zulu believed he had been poisoned.

The doctor who examined him to determine the cause of death suspected that he was poisoned as he seemed in good health that very morning; he was seen taking his usual early morning walk. He was prevented from conducting a post mortem inquiry into the King’s cause of death by the relatives of the King when he told them that the procedure of this inquiry would involve dissecting his body. As a result, the doctor certified the cause of death as “syncope, the result of disease of the heart” (Binns, 1963).

And that was the end of the last independent Zulu king. Three years after his death, the British formally annexed Zululand. In 1897, it became a part of Natal, which joined the Union of South Africa in 1910.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: March 10, 2021


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