ON THIS DAY: 28 AUGUST 1879: Zulu king captured by British

Photo: Cetshwayo, painted during his time in England by Karl Rudolph Sohn, 1882

Cetshwayo kaMpande, the last king of the Zulus, was captured by British Imperial forces on this day, August 28th, 1879. His defeat and capture marked the end of the Zulus, who were annexed and integrated into the British Empire eight years later, in 1887.

Cetshwayo was the son of King Mpande, but was not supposed to succeed his father. In 1856 he defeated and killed in battle his younger brother Mbuyazi, Mpande’s favourite, at the Battle of Ndondakusuka. Almost all Mbuyazi’s followers were massacred in the aftermath of the battle, including five of Cetshwayo’s own brothers. Following this he became the effective ruler of the Zulu people. He did not ascend to the throne, however, as his father was still alive.

Mpande died in 1872, and Cetshwayo became King. Six years later, in 1878, the British decided that the Zulus should be conquered. Many attempts were made to provoke the Zulus, with demands for tribute, and insults, with the objective being to provoke Cetshwayo into a war. He refused to take the bait for some time, until the British finally sent him an ultimatum demanding that he disband his army, or face a war. He chose war.

Cetshwayo won a series of stunning victories over the British, most notably at The Battle of Isandlwana in January 1879. Over 1,300 British soldiers were killed by a massive Zulu army.

However, the war took a turn for the worse at the battle of Rorke’s drift, which has been immortalised in the 1964 film “Zulu”. Failure to capture the British fortress, and the loss of thousands of men, condemned the Zulu, who were lightly armed compared to the British, to defeat.

On August 28th, the British finally captured the Zulu capital, Ulundi. The war had lasted over a year, and been costly for the British. But it marked the end of the Zulu nation. Cetshwayo was exiled to London, where he became something of a curiosity.

Stories from that time regarding his huge size vary, saying he stood at least between 6 ft 6 in (198 cm) and 6 ft 8 in (203 cm) in height and weighed close to 25 stone (350 lb; 160 kg).

In London, he was noted for his gentle and kind nature, in contrast to the fearsome barbarian warrior that had been depicted in the British press, and he won several friends and admirers. Ultimately, though, it did not matter, because the Zulus never had an independent country again. He died of a heart attack in 1884.

Cetshwayo, last King of the Zulus, made prisoner of the British Empire, on this day, August 28th 1879



“Photographed by Alex. Bassano, 25, Old Bond Street” – Frances Ellen Colenso (1885). The Ruin of Zululand. Volume 2. London: William Ridgway.

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