Mighty Zulus

Amal Chatterjee
11 min readNov 25, 2018

Source : Google photo of Shaka, the king of Zulus

Synopsis : When we think of Africa, we think of war and famine, poverty and inter-tribal rivalry that lead to many conflicts and deaths. This has not changed since the time of Shaka so many countries like Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Congo and many others suffer but most of their sufferings are man-made and not natural. The new factor is religious zealotry that one group tries to impose on others that have caused deaths like in Somalia. I compare the rural mostly agrarian societies where the spirit of Africa thrives and resolve their difference through peaceful means with the countries in conflict where violence prevail. As Africa as a continent develops itself, there is hope that someday it will regain its place as the richest continent in the world where everyone will live in peace.

Recently I was watching some videos of the African tribes of Morsi in Ethiopia and noticed that they were carrying fire arms that they obtained from the government there to protect their cattle from the raiding tribes in their neighborhood.

This made me think of the Zulus especially when Shaka was their ruler long ago who were also the cattle herders and became a mighty empire under Shaka that covered the vast territory of what later became South Africa. The Zulus found it easier to raid their neighboring tribes who were also cattle herders and kill them to steal their cattle wholesale and augment their numbers quickly.

There was a time when the Zulus could say that their cattle numbered in millions that multiplied even more naturally but were mostly acquired through constant warfare against their neighbors like the Matabeles and other tribes. This is the start of the tribal warfare that raged on for a very long period of time in the African history because the Zulus became a warrior tribe and were prepared to shed blood of others in order to prosper. Shaka became known as the warrior king who had come to power through abject brutality himself and did not hesitate to order killings of others to expand his kingdom.

Here I post a video of Zulu war chants before they attack the English soldiers

Source : Google photo of Zulu warriors

I think the nature of their existence on mostly their wealth in cattle that they protected against all odds was the primary reason for their aggression and constant warfare because they did not like to be settled agrarians like in other parts of Africa. The settled farmers who cultivated their farms to sustain them also had some cattle, goats and sheep but the primary source of their food came from what they grew and stored.

So historically we see the cattle herders in Africa like the Zulus, the Masai and the Matabele among many others were war like because they had to protect their wealth in cattle all the time not only from lions and other predatory animals but mostly from neighboring tribes so they carried spears , bows and arrows. The Masai were initiated into lion hunting early in their life and considered it a badge of honor to show off the lion skins they wore or the leopard skins they wrapped around their shoulders.The bragging rights thus earned got them the attention of Masai belles. ( Read the book The Covenant by James Michener to learn more about South Africa history)

I have recently posted a blog called the Spirit of Africa where I extolled the virtues of peaceful agrarian farmers in West Africa and in other parts who are very unlike the aggressive Masais and Zulus of the past but today I also want to write about those Africans who were not peaceful and constantly waged wars against their neighbors due to their greed for more cattle and their dislike for agricultural work that required hard labor. This job was mostly relegated to their women who grew their mealies near their villages and raised chickens and goats as well.

The warfare against the neighbors gave rise to intense animosity between them that resulted in bloodshed and the feeling of vendetta that lasted generations so often one tribal chief helped the slave traders to capture the rival tribes by giving them information about their defense weaknesses. ( Read my blog called The ancient scourge called slavery).

Shaka was an invention of his time because he fulfilled the need of leadership among the Zulus who needed a strong leader like him to mould them into the fighting force that they became . Under Shaka ,their influence and hold over other tribes grew steadily as they acquired more and more cattle and territories to rule over which only came to an end when the Voortrekkers arrived.

Source : Google photo of conflict between the Zulus and Europeans

At first the Voortrekkers just wanted to settle down somewhere in the vast empire of Shaka so that they could start farming and raising cattle and other animals because basically they were Dutch farmers who saw immense opportunity in the velds of South Africa that they could turn into lush farmlands.

Note : The complete story of Shaka is given below in 10 episodes video links

Shaka gave them some land to settle down at first where they prospered through hard work but soon they wanted more land to expand their farms that brought them into direct conflict with Shaka who took a stern stand against their expansionism. It resulted in some massacres of the Voortrekkers in the hands of Shaka warriors who had never liked the new comers to start with and gleefully killed them and walked away with the herds of cattle and other farm animals.

Thus the Voortrekkers started arming themselves with the latest weapons they imported from Europe to protect themselves and their farms and families from the raiding Zulus and other tribes thus paving the way for the armed conflict and the eventual demise of the Zulu empire . The bows and spears of Zulus were no match for the guns of the Trekkers so there were huge massacres of the native tribes in the hands of the Europeans who changed the course of the history in that part of Africa.

I will not repeat the history of South Africa here because that is not the purpose of this blog. The Voortrekkers eventually came to power and created the Apartheid regime that took many sacrifices and struggles of heroes like Mandela , Sisulu and Biko to win but that is also history that does not need repeating here.

I will therefore write about the cause of this inter-tribal rivalry over cattle and territories that did not exist in more agrarian societies of Africa where people cultivated land peacefully and where their existence did not depend on meat and milk of cows. This does not mean that there were no cattle raiders as we still see in some parts of Ethiopia and Guinea today but the mass massacres of the past during Shaka’s time do not happen now (except in Burundi, Rwanda and Congo) because there are established governments in most parts that intervene and prevent such hostilities before they get out of hand like in Ethiopia.

The native cattle breed and other animals of Africa were resistant to tse tse flies so they thrived and multiplied while the imported cattle and horses of European origin were not so resistant so the Dutch settlers cross bred their imported animals with the tse tse resistant breeds to develop new breeds of cattle that thrived and improved the milk and meat production. They also became prosperous but it took them a long period of struggle and bloodshed to achieve it so they in their turn became the ruthless oppressors giving rise to the Apartheid.

Now if you go to South Africa, you will find no trace of Shaka and his once thriving empire and his story has moved into the realm of folklore that still brings some nostalgia among the Zulus who remember their glorious although hard fought past when they were the rulers of thousands of square kilometers of the land.

Later the same proud Zulus and Matabeles were reduced to abject poverty so they worked in the diamond mines discovered in various parts creating wealth for others and nothing for themselves , living in places like Sharpeville like slums where the Apartheid police often raided and killed them with impunity.

I remember a story I read in the book of Michener where he wrote about the Matabele king who loved to paste raw diamonds onto his skin sitting on his lion skin covered chair surrounded by his extremely fat wives. He ordered his people who worked in the diamond mines to steal the diamonds and give them to him as a tribute. One day a miner found a huge piece of diamond while digging deep in the tunnels and somehow was able to smuggle it out of the mine under the watchful eyes of the guards.

He kept it a secret and waited for an opportunity to find his way to his village where his king wanted it but could not get away so he smashed the huge diamond into thousands of pieces in frustration. When the owner of the mine heard about it through the grapevine, he almost lost his sanity over such a loss.

Now to prevent the theft of diamonds, the owners have put in place the most severe restrictions on the miners the world has ever seen. Every miner is searched, x rayed and patted thoroughly every day.

I do not condone the violence of Shaka and his Zulus on anyone but that is a part of their history and that is how they lived and I certainly do not condone the violence of the Voortrekkers and later the British on the natives but out of this prolonged warfare and bloodshed came the end of Shaka who was after all a tyrant. It also led to the establishment of farm lands everywhere to feed the nation, an improvement in the animal husbandry through the cross breeding of imported and native cattle, horses and hogs and many such things so South Africa is a much altered country from those days.

They gained their freedom from the Apartheid regime after a hard struggle and are trying to make the new South Africa a country for every one and not just for one race dominating over others.

The inter-tribal conflict in Burundi and Rwanda

Source : Google photo of mass exodus of Hutus due to conflict in Burundi and Rwanda

When I lived in Burundi, I noticed the intense inter-tribal animosity that still exists between the Hutus and the Tutsis that has caused massacres on a large scale in both Burundi and Rwanda but the seed of this animosity was sown by the Belgians who were the colonial master there. Under the guise of ethnological studies of two different people who had co-existed in the past without trouble, the Belgians declared that the Tutsis were descendants of some Ethiopian tribes with superior features like tall heights, thin lips, straight nose etc. Then they compared them with the Hutus and said they were inferior to the Tutsis in their physical features and intelligence.

This sort of comparison emboldened the Tutsis who saw themselves as masters over the crude and illiterate Hutus who were mostly farmers so they mistreated them, put them down socially and exploited them because most of the farm land was owned by the Tutsis who got the best of everything including education, jobs and positions in the army. The result was the start of animosity between the two groups that led to massive Hutu massacres just before I arrived in Bujumbura in 1988.

The tragedy of violence in Rwanda later did not come as a surprise where the Hutus took revenge for what had happened in Burundi and slaughtered the minority Tutsis there wholesale. I was able to foresee such violence when I visited Rwanda then and saw the writings on the wall so to speak and warned a Spanish Missionary sister I had known in Mali to leave Butare as soon as possible which to my great relief she did.

So the violence between the tribes during Shaka’s time was due to their greed for cattle and territories while the later violence between the Hutus and Tutsis were caused by the Europeans . The same story repeats itself in Congo where the Belgians spread mayhem between the tribes in Katanga and exploited them to mine the copper and diamonds . This trouble still continues today although Patrice Lumumba and Kasavubu died long ago when I was still in college and never realized their dream of a democratic and peaceful Congo.

Both South Africa, Zimbabwe as well as Congo are immensely rich in their natural resources but the native people still remain poor living in appalling conditions. I was shocked to see the shanty town just outside Nairobi and their poverty where I spent a few days while the shiny cars of Europeans sped by on the highway on the way to Kampala . Kenya is also rich in natural resources.

Africans by and large resolve their differences through peaceful means in agrarian societies through their village councils where the elected village chief has the power to persuade the people to come to terms without resorting to violence .

I saw this system in Haiti where the conflicts between two parties were often resolved through their system of social justice administered through their Houngan or Voodoo priests which is a remnant of their African tribal heritage.

Africa still suffers many ills like social injustice, poverty, lack of job opportunities, famine that are man-made like in Somalia or Ethiopia, illiteracy, lack of decent housing, health care and sanitation in many parts, poor or non-existent infrastructure like in Mali where I worked, exploitation of their natural resources like diamond, copper and other precious minerals by the foreigners etc. The list is long and grows instead of getting short.

Those Africans who still have the spirit I wrote about in my previous blog are therefore an inspiration to those who need it to overcome their day to day challenges that are many. Remember Wangari Mathaai who singlehandedly spearheaded the plantation of millions of trees in Kenya and received Nobel Prize for her dedication to uplift the lives of so many in the process.?

There are many Wangaris waiting for an opportunity to shine in Africa so I am hopeful that in the long run, Africa will regain its old glory again when all countries elect their own governments democratically by setting aside their tribal differences and think of their country first. It may not happen during my lifetime but there are reasons to believe that it will happen someday.

Rwanda, South Africa and Ethiopia are now peaceful and on their way to development. Zimbabwe now has a new democratic government and Uganda has overcome years of conflict due to the fanatic zealots but Africa still faces numerous challenges elsewhere that hopefully they will overcome in time.

At least I hope so because there is no future without hope.

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