Who Were the Real Imperialists the British or the Zulu?

A study in the Anglo-Zulu Wars

Scientific Essay, 2012
9 Pages


It was during a debate on the 25th of March 1879 that Lord Carnarvon’s claim that he hadn’t considered confederation in annexing the Transvaal was met with derision. Not only was Lord Carnarvon the architect of the Canadian confederation and despite his speech to the contrary pushed the Permissive Confederation Act, which sought to unify many South African states into a confederation, through parliament in 1877. To many within the upper chamber the annexation of the Transvaal represented a demonstrable act of British imperialism. Saul David, author of Zulu: the Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879 makes this explicit, claiming; ‘Sir Bartle Frere knew that both the Transvaal and the Cape were unlikely to agree to confederation until the threat from the Zulu Kingdom had been removed. He was determined to fight the Zulu for the good of the Empire, but was determined to make it look as though it was being fought for local or defensive reasons.’[1] Journalist A.N Wilson even goes so far as to brand the 19th century British as ‘jingoistic imperialists’[2].

There is, not however, agreement amongst academics about the meaning of Imperialism. Economist J.A Hobbs defined Imperialism, in Imperialism: A Study (1902), as;

'[A] social parasitic process by which a moneyed interest within the

state, usurping the reins of government, makes for imperial expansion in order to fasten economic suckers into foreign bodies so as to drain

them of their wealth in order to support domestic luxury[3] '

Yet sociologist Joseph A. Schumpter pithily defines imperialism as, 'the object-less disposition of a state to expansion by force without assigned limits.' According to both definitions one of the basic tenants of imperialism is a disregard for the sovereignty, ancient traditions and customs of a nation whilst attempting to promote an alternative set of political and moral principles in this hypothetical state. Britain performed the aforementioned traits with almost maniacal zeal. British expansion was justified by claiming it brought ‘good government’ to uncivilized, barbaric, people. This the British did. It would be both erroneous and spurious to claim the Indian natives did not benefit from the proscription of suttee in 1829[4] ¨.. Notwithstanding the benefit’s accrued to the indigenous Indians the abolition of the rites of suttee is unquestionably an imperialist act for the British had displayed impunity towards the ancient customs of the Hindus’ whilst ensuring subservience to their own set of moral principles.

Moreover, the desire to defend and, indeed, extend its empire was the primary goal of British foreign policy. Disraeli had, for instance, sought to defend the ‘Empire of England’ at the Berlin congress in 1878, defending Turkey not because he respected the sovereignty of Turkey but because it provided a necessary bulwark against Russian expansion, who threatened British imperial interests in India. It was men like Disraeli and Stafford Canning, a British emissary, who embodied the role of 19th century Britain in global governance. Through Stafford Canning, and numerous other ambassadors, Britain was able to assert its political power globally and influence the decisions of the rulers of sovereign nations. In the 1830’s Britain was able to ensure the Protestant Church was recognized in Jerusalem, the death penalty for apostasy was banned in Porte, the removal of the Pasha of Salonika and the enshrinement of basic inalienable rights for Armenian Christians[5]. Britain was thus exerting its own political influence in order to influence global affairs to better itself or further its own principles. Britain had, therefore, demonstrated what Schumpter brands as 'the object-less disposition of a state to expansion by force without assigned limits’ it had projected its own version of morality onto another nation, showing both disregard and impunity towards the sovereignty of Turkey. Lord Carnarvon himself attested to the desire to impose a new legal moral system claiming it was the ‘duty’ of the British to ‘give wise laws, good government and well-ordered finance.’[6] The British invasion of Afghanistan in 1878 simply because the Amir of Afghanistan received a Russian, but refused a British, mission[7]. Britain was thus clearly imperialist. The fact that it used international diplomacy merely as an opportunity to further its own agenda seems to vindicate the supposition that the Britain of 1879 was demonstrably imperialist.

Notwithstanding the use of British ambassadors abroad the British Empire was partially propagated through diplomacy but also through military conquest. The British Empire grew by such an extent in the 19th century that the century was dubbed, initially, by R. Hyman as the ‘imperial century’[8] in reference to its immense growth. Superficially, the British invasion of Zululand in January of 1879 is indicative of the same British imperialism that governed their response to the Eastern Question. To invade a nation and depose its head of state would appear a palpable act of imperialism, for it shows impunity toward the notion of national sovereignty installing an alternate political, military and economic system upon a group of peoples without consent. Britain had certainly expanded without ‘consigned limits.’ To many inhabitants, of the 'uncivilized world' the British flag would have stood out, lambent, like the swastika did to the untermensch. To argue to the contrary, is to overlook numerous salient points.

In many ways the Anglo-Zulu war was engendered in much the same vein. It was the same voracious imperialism that led Lord Carnarvon to annex the Transvaal in 1876. In this instance it was the desire to establish a confederation of the South African states, akin to the successful confederation in Canada, formed in 1867. The impunity which the British showed the independent states of South Africa, like the Transvaal under Thomas Burgher and Zululand under Cetshwayo, whilst trying to achieve its own political aims – confederation – is indeed the act of an imperialistic nation.

Yet there is, as stated before, significant evidence to the contrary, with regards to Britain in South Africa. Under the administration of William Ewart Gladstone the British troop presence in South Africa had been vastly diminished. A reduction in in the size of an occupying force is hardly commensurate with a nation striving for more empire. It would be totally purblind for any nation, especially a putative imperialist nation, who harbored expansionist desires to decrease the size of their fighting force. It would be equally moronic for any nation who anticipated an armed conflict to disband great swathes of their army in the contested region. And yet this is what the British did in the cape region. In 1867, prior to Gladstone’s reduction in the size of the British troop in the Cape region, the British had five battalions stationed in South Africa. By 1872, however, this number had been reduced to a mere two and a half[9]. Withal, the Cape Mounted Rifles were also disbanded by the prudent Gladstone, due to the financial cost of their existence, in 1870[10]. It is unlikely that British had been planning an invasion of Zululand; if they had it would have been totally insensate to vastly deplete their own troops. Furthermore, even the commander of the British forces in the Natal, General Thesiger, the 2nd Baron of Chelmsford, believed war was not inexorable and could be avoided through diplomacy;

“It is possible that the anticipated disturbance may yet be brought to a peaceful end”.[11]

The British had clearly departed from the imperialistic mindset which had resulted in palpable acts of ruthless imperialism in the name of the crown. The reduction in troop numbers and the diplomatic and peaceful views of the Thesiger could not serve as a greater contrast to the Britain which was responsible for the slaughter of mutinous Sepoys, after the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the Armitsar massacre of 1919. Whilst Britain were expeditiously reducing troop numbers in the Cape region they were exponentially increasing the size of their fighting force in the Indian and Afghan region, primarily out of fear of Russian expansion. Expansion in the Cape was not, in 1879, the aim of the British, the focal point of their militarism being Afghanistan. Lord Beaconsfield, the first Lord of the treasury in 1878 acquiesced to Frere and Chelmsford’s appeals for greater troops but with the strict injunction that they only be used for defensive purposes[12]. In fact Disraeli seemed to have entirely devolved the issue to Chelmsford and Frere having stated ‘in all these affairs I must trust to you, and you are a person in whom I have much trust. Do what you think is wisest.’[13] The British were thus not acting in the imperialist vein they are often accredited with. In terms of economic benefits, an invasion of Zululand would have yielded little. The total cape imports were valued, in 1880, at £7.5 million – total Lilliputian compared to the British balance of trade, where exports alone were valued at £286 million[14]. There was, therefore, no tangible economic reasoning behind the British invasion of Zululand in 1879. Economic grievance being the main impetus behind imperialism according to J. A Hobbs. By definition, therefore, the British could not have been in any way imperialist in their actions in South Africa. Moreover, there was little strategic advantage in possessing the area known as Zululand. Historically the reason behind the British interest in the Cape region was because it was the most reliable route to India. Yet in 1869 the Suez Canal was opened and thus relieved the Cape of its strategic importance. There was no strategic advantage to controlling Zululand from 1869 onwards, and it was for this reason that Gladstone, and others, diverted their attention away from the Cape and toward Afghanistan and the Russian frontier. The invasion of the Zululand in 1879 wasn’t, therefore, as a result of a preconceived plan on the part of the British government and the foreign office but rather an inevitable conflict born out of tension arising from the proximity of a warlike kingdom (the Zulu) to a peace loving, civilized state.

Whilst British foreign policy, as stated before, is tainted by clear acts of imperialism, the annexation of the Natal in 1843 under Henry Croete being yet another example, the Zulu history was equally pockmarked by similar acts of aggression and militarism. The entire Zulu nation was born out of violence and expansionism. Upon Senzangakona ascension to the Zulu throne in 1762 the Zulu clan numbered only 1,500[15]. Yet this small, insignificant tribe grew not through diplomacy, but due to expansionism and conquest. The Zulu king iShaka¨, who succeeded Senzangakona, was responsible for the majority of the Zulu growth. It was Shaka’s aim to expand the Zulu nation and so, one morning the eLangeni tribe awoke to find the Zulu impi surrounding their kraal. While the eLangeni allowed themselves, without any protest, to be subsumed into Zululand, although the fact that the eLangeni were totally surrounded may have precipitated their capitulation. Shaka turned his attention to the neighboring Butelezi tribe, led by the pugnacious Pungashe, who refused to be subjugated and faced Shaka in battle, which Shaka emerged from as the victor[16]. So successful was Shaka’s brand of ruthless militarism and Zulu nationalism that the Zulu empire, in 1817, was near its zenith in terms of landmass, having quadrupled in size and having an army which now numbered some 2,000 warriors[17]. Unlike the British invasion of the Zululand the Zulu expansionism was carefully controlled from the centre. Unlike Disraeli, Shaka did not devolve power to his commanders; the Zulu imperialism was a preconceived plan to unite the various clans in the cape region into one large amorphous tribe accruing unto itself huge economic rewards. Yet, like the British there was no popular consent behind the Zulu expansion. Compared to Britain, with the exception of the centralized control of the Zulu, there is little difference between the two nations. Britain had used ruthless force in India to suppress the Sepoys, Shaka had used extreme violence to suppress members of different clans, notably non-conforming members of the eLangeni who were impaled on sharpened stakes and left to die. The British, in the name of the crow, imposed new political structures upon conquered nations in order to prevent any insubordination. The Zulu did exactly the same, with conquered tribes yielding their cattle and their males to Shaka and adhering to the new political system which emphasized the importance of the army, ensuring loyalty to the new political system by forcing every male to serve in the army. There was no diplomacy behind Shaka's expansionism. The Methethwa and the Qwabe kingdom were both defeated by military force and their menfolk incorporated into Shaka's army[18]. It is indubitable that Shaka's expansionism was a demonstrable example of imperialism. Zululand had expanded, in the words of Schumpter, ‘without limits’. Moreover, the incorporation of cattle into Zululand highlights the economic aspect of Shaka’s expansionism, which renders the Zulu imperialist by Hobbs' economic definition of imperialism. Shaka showed total impunity to the idea of sovereignty. Enforcing his own military based reforms on many of the black tribes in the Cape region. This is a total contrast to the British expansion in Africa, which was met with little opposition and, in some cases, supported by both Boers and native Africans. The Transvaal Boers, for instance, according to a contemporary source 'did not view the reasons for annexation, of Shepstone, as spurious at all.'[19] Whilst 8,000 African Swazi and numerous Transvaal blacks were integral in Sir Garnet Wolsey’s victory over the Pedi in 1879, with the Swazi forming the majority of the British belligerents at the decisive Battle of the Hill in 1879[20]. The readiness of the natives to unite under the British banner seems to vindicate the claim that the British were welcome in the Cape region as an alternative to the maladroit governments’ they had replaced. Thomas Burgher, premier of the Transvaal, had decimated the country’s finances, rendering the British as a preferable alternative to Burgher.


[1] Zulu: the Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879 (2004 – Penguin) – Saul David - p.50

[2] The Victorians (2003 – Arrow Books) – A.N Wilson – p. 401

[3] Imperialism: A Study (1902 – Cosimo Classics ) - John A Hobson – p.367

[4] Victoria’s Wars – p.79

¨ Suttee is the self-immolation of Hindu windows on their husbands’ funeral pyres.

[5] The Crimean War (2004 – Robinson London) - Alexis Troubetzkoy – p.70

[6] Carnarvon’s address on Imperial administration to the Philosophical Institution, Edinburgh, 5th November 1878

[7] ‘Pax Britannica’? British Foreign Policy 1789-1914 (1989 - Longman 1st edition) – Muriel E Chamberlin - p.136

[8] Britain's Imperial Century, 1815–1914: A Study of Empire and Expansion (2002 – Palgrave MacMillan) - R. Hyman – p.1

[9] History of South Africa Vol. III (1964 – Cape Town) – G.M Theal -p.148

[10] Ibid p. 149

[11] Zulu: the Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879 (2005 – Penguin Books) –Saul David

[12] ‘Pax Britannica’? British Foreign Policy 1789-1914 (1989 – Longman 1st edition) – Muriel E. Chamberlin – p.136

[13] Disraeli and the Rise of a New Imperialism (1996 – University of Wales Press) – C.C Eldridge - p.44

[14] The Causes of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 (2009 – Natal Society Foundation Natalia) – Damian O’Connor – p.28

[15] The Washing of Spears: the Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation (1994 – Pimlico) – Donald R. Morris – p.48

[16] Ibid. p.53

[17] Ibid p.54

¨ Interestingly iShaka translates as ‘intestinal beetle’, a common Zulu illness/complaint. The minor irritant from which Shaka’s name is derived mirrors the minor irritant that the Zulu were to become to the British.

[18] The Social System of the Zulus (1950 – Shuter & Shooter) – Eileen Jensen Krige – p.11

[19] Fueling the Empire : South Africa's Gold and the Road to War (2003 – John Wiley and Sons) – John S. Stephens – p.118

[20] Ibid. p.124

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Who Were the Real Imperialists the British or the Zulu?
A study in the Anglo-Zulu Wars
The Portsmouth Grammar School
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were, real, imperialists, british, zulu, anglo-zulu, wars
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Max Jewell (Author), 2012, Who Were the Real Imperialists the British or the Zulu?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/187843


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