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Discovering Zulu History

The proud amaZulu have fascinated Westerners ever since the first party of British settlers gained permission to trade from the great Zulu king Shaka, known as "Africa's Napoleon" for his military genius. As king, he was to unite the amaZulu into the mightiest army in the Southern Hemisphere and develop new and lethal fighting implements and tactics, including the highly successful "horns of the bull" maneuver to outflank the enemy. In 1828, Shaka was murdered by his half-brothers Mhlangana and Dingaan, and Dingaan was crowned king.

Distrustful of the large number of "white wizards" settling in the region, Dingaan ordered the massacre of the Trekker party, led by Piet Retief, whom he had invited -- unarmed -- to a celebratory banquet at his royal kraal uMgungundlovu. (A kraal is a series of thatched beehive-shaped huts encircling a central, smaller kraal, or cattle enclosure.) Dingaan paid heavily for this treachery at the Battle of Blood River, in which the Zulu nation suffered such heavy casualties that it was to split the state for a generation. In 1840, Dingaan was killed by his brother Mpande, who succeeded him as king.

The amaZulu were reunited again under Mpande's eldest, Cetshwayo, who became king in 1873 after murdering a number of his siblings, and built a new royal kraal at Ulundi. Though by all accounts a reasonable man, Cetshwayo could not negotiate with the uncompromising English, who now wanted total control of southern Africa, with no pesky savages to destroy their imperialist advance on the goldfields. In 1878, the British ordered Cetshwayo to disband his army within 30 days, give up Zululand's independence, and place himself under the supervision of an English commissioner. This totally unreasonable ultimatum, designed to ignite a war, resulted in the Battle of Islandwana and England's most crushing defeat. Nine months later, on July 4, 1879, 5,000 British redcoats under a vengeful Lord Chelmsford advanced on Ulundi and razed it to the ground. A captured King Cetshwayo was exiled to Cape Town and later England; he was reinstated as a puppet in 1883. This was to be the last Anglo-Zulu battle; the might of the Zulu empire had finally been broken.

The area known today as Emakhosini, "Valley of the Kings," has applied for status as a World Heritage Site, an indication of its value and general interest, even to travelers who aren't South African history buffs; you can visit Dingaan's homestead at uMgungundlovu (or "Secret Place of the Great Elephant"), part of which has been reconstructed and features 200-year-old artifacts; there is also a memorial to Piet Retief and his 100-strong delegation (tel. 035/450-2254; daily 9am-4pm). You can also visit a reconstruction of the royal kraal at Ondini, near Ulundi. To get here, take the R68 off the N2 to Eshowe, stopping to visit the Zulu Historical Museum and the Vukani Collection first, or to meet Graham Chennells at the George Hotel for his highly recommended tours of the region. To reach uMgungundlovu, take the R34 to Vryheid and look for the turnoff on your left.

While Westerners head for the many cultural villages dotted throughout Zululand, many urban Zulu parents bring their children to the Vukani Collection, housed at the Fort Nongqayi Heritage Village (tel. 035/474-5274; www.eshowemuseums.org.za; R30; daily 9am-4pm), in eShowe, to gain insight into the rituals, codes, and crafts of the past. This is the finest collection of Zulu traditional arts and crafts anywhere, and a visit here is essential for anyone interested in collecting or understanding Zulu art, particularly traditional basketware (not least to browse the handpicked selection of art and basketware in the museum shop). Another highlight of the collection are the pots made by master potter Nesta Nala (her work is sold in international galleries throughout the world; since her recent death, her pots have sold for increasingly vast sums). Nesta walked for miles to find just the right clay before grinding and mixing, then sunbaking her paper-thin shapes and firing them in a hole in the ground. Pots are finally rubbed with fat and ashes, applied with a river stone. Keep an eye out for another award-winner, Allina Ndebele, whose tapestries are inspired by Zulu myths and legends as told to her by her grandmother.

Besides the collection, there is the Zulu History Museum housed in the 1883 Fort Nongqayi, where the Natal "Native" Police were garrisoned. This museum traces the history of the fort and the virtual enslavement of the Zulu as a result of a poll tax; it also houses a good beadwork collection, dating back to the 1920s, and a collection of John Dunn's furniture. The son of settlers, Dunn became King Cetshwayo's political advisor and was the only white man to become a true Zulu chief, embracing Zulu polygamy by taking 49 wives. (Note: Book ahead so that a guide can be arranged.)

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.