The best books on Shaka, founder of the Zulu nation

Who am I?

I studied the history of sub-Saharan Africa at the University of Cambridge. Study revealed to me how complicated was the region and how contested the history of a place and people could be. I'm a white man with a love for southern African history. There are white Africans. The history of the continent is their history too. But the preponderance of records were created by white writers, until relatively recently, and this always threatened to obscure the Black experience, Black actions, Black history. In Shaka Zulu, I found a character who wasn't reacting, on the whole, to external actions, but forging a Black empire, a Zulu empire, as the result of internal forces and experiences. 


I wrote...

Serving Shaka

By Gareth Williams,

Book cover of Serving Shaka

What is my book about?

Serving Shaka is a dramatic evocation of Zulu nation-building. It is the sequel to Book 1 in the Richard Davey Chronicles–Needing Napoleon.

Having masterminded Napoleon Bonaparte’s escape from St Helena with his friend Emile Béraud in Needing Napoleon, history teacher Richard Davey now finds himself stranded on the African coast. Richard and Emile encounter Shaka Zulu, a leader even more ruthless and ambitious than the former French emperor. Richard’s secret, that he is from the future, is revealed; Bonaparte seeks to outmanoeuvre Shaka; and Emile joins the nascent Zulu army. Buffeted by the birth pangs of nation-building, Richard tries to exert his influence and retain his sense of self, relying on no more than half-remembered lectures from two hundred years in the future.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Shaka Zulu: The Rise of the Zulu Empire

Gareth Williams Why did I love this book?

This was the first book I read on Shaka Zulu. The cover of the paperback version was enough to entice a curious twelve-year-old! More than that, it was my father’s book and had clearly meant something to him. But most of all, it tells the incredible story of an outcast who built an empire only to be assassinated by his own brother! Ritter recounts the myths and facts that surround Shaka, never shying away from the limitations of his evidence but painting a compelling biography.

I recommend this book as a happy medium between two extremes. It is unlike those works vilifying Shaka as a monstrous tyrant directly and indirectly responsible for a trail of death across almost a third of Africa. But it is equally different from those that sanctify Shaka as the leonine warrior-king who forged a nation that wields power to this day. There will always be an element of controversy where race and historical interpretations mix. Ritter was writing in the mid-1950s. Given the politics of South Africa and the attitudes of the time, he manages to produce a far from myopic view of this Black African leader and military genius. It taught me the value of a balanced account. 

Book cover of The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation

Gareth Williams Why did I love this book?

This is a big book, thoroughly researched but accessibly written. Morris has a military background and sees things from a strategic perspective. He wrote this book at almost the same time as Ritter’s biography of Shaka but his focus was subtly different. He seeks to evaluate not just Shaka’s nation-building but what followed, most especially the Anglo-Zulu war that culminated in the destruction of the Zulu military at Isandhlwana. As such, this book serves as a perfect companion piece to Ritter’s work. I enjoyed the immersive nature of Morris’s account as it spanned most of the nineteenth century. It gives telling insights into the British Empire’s strengths and weaknesses and does the same for the Zulu state that built on Shaka’s innovations. This book helped me set Shaka’s story in a wider context and for that alone it deserves a place on this list.

By Donald R. Morris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Washing of the Spears as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Filled with colourful characters, dramatic battles like Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift, and an inexorable narrative momentum, this unsurpassed history details the sixty-year existence of the world's mightiest African empire,from its brutal formation and zenith under the military genius Shaka (1787-1828), through its inevitable collision with white expansionism, to its dissolution under Cetshwayo in the Zulu War of 1879.


Book cover of The Diary of Henry Francis Fynn

Gareth Williams Why did I love this book?

I discovered Fynn’s edited diary when I was researching my own novel, as Fynn was a character I wished to include in my historical novel. He was one of the very first white settlers of the Natal region of what became South Africa. Remarkably, he became a confidant and adviser to Shaka and kept a diary that covers 1824 to 1836. It proves a useful record of the physical and political state of the region and its customs. Most tellingly, it is an eye-witness account of Shaka at a time when he is extending his hegemony over the region. I love the fact that the man writing these words actually spoke with Shaka, a man known to us by a single-line drawing. While Fynn is, quite clearly, imbued with the attitudes of his time, his diary proved to me how valuable first-hand accounts can be in piecing together and recreating the past.

Book cover of The Anatomy of the Zulu Army: From Shaka to Cetshwayo, 1818-1879

Gareth Williams Why did I love this book?

This is a serious piece of research recounted in an easily readable form. Ian Knight chronicles the historical context within which the Zulu military complex evolved. He outlines the effects it had on Zulu society. He examines the customs, the development of weapons, and concomitant tactics that allowed a small clan to grow into the dominant power across a vast swathe of southern Africa. Knight details military life and lists all known regiments and commanders. While this book satisfies a purist’s hunger for detail, it never fails to be informative and interesting for the more casual reader. I enjoyed it for the details that proved so useful to the writing of my own novel but I also admired it as an example of how to write a scholarly work without excluding the layman.

By Ian Kinght,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Anatomy of the Zulu Army as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Forces of the independent Zulu kingdom inflicted a crushing defeat on British imperial forces at Isandlwana in January 1879. The Zulu Army was not, however, a professional force, unlike its British counterpart, but was the mobilized manpower of the Zulu state. Ian Knight details how the Zulu army functioned and ties its role firmly to the broader context of Zulu society and culture. The Zulu army had its roots in the early groups of young men who took part in combats between tribes, but such warfare was limited to disputes over cattle ownership, grazing rights, or avenging insults. In the…


Book cover of The Zulu Aftermath: A Nineteenth-Century Revolution in Bantu Africa

Gareth Williams Why did I love this book?

This was a controversial book when I was studying southern African history at university. What became known as Africanist historians were challenging the ability of white researchers to write objectively about Africa. Not least, they claimed the dominant narrative was almost entirely written from a white perspective in which Black actors were portrayed as little more than pawns. Omer-Cooper took as his subject those Black Africans, most especially those occupying what we know as South Africa. But he sparked another academic controversy. He described the Mfecane, the displacement of peoples sparked by the emergence of the Zulu state. His critics, most notably Julian Cobbing rejected this view. They pointed to the growing demand for slaves, largely driven by white traders and assisted by British military forces, as the true cause of the upheavals of the period. I was thrilled to follow the exchanges between these two historians in the journal articles of the time. It showed me how alive and passionate the study of the past could be. It made me into a historian! None of that would have happened without Omer-Cooper’s book!

By J.D. Omer-Cooper,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Zulu Aftermath as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A detailed history of the 19th-century Zulu expansion in southern Africa, and the ongoing impact of that movement on the region, with chapters on the Swazi, Ngoni, Basuto, Ndebele, and more.


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By Christina Ward,

Book cover of Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

Christina Ward Author Of Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

New book alert!

Who am I?

For me, history is always about individuals; what they think and believe and how those ideas motivate their actions. By relegating our past to official histories or staid academic tellings we deprive ourselves of the humanity of our shared experiences. As a “popular historian” I use food to tell all the many ways we attempt to “be” American. History is for everyone, and my self-appointed mission is to bring more stories to readers! These recommendations are a few stand-out titles from the hundreds of books that inform my current work on how food and religion converge in America. You’ll have to wait for Holy Food to find out what I’ve discovered.

Christina's book list on the hidden history of America

What is my book about?

Does God have a recipe? Independent food historian Christina Ward’s highly anticipated Holy Food explores the influence of mainstream to fringe religious beliefs on modern American food culture.

Author Christina Ward unravels how religious beliefs intersect with politics, economics, and, of course, food to tell a different story of America. It's the story of true believers and charlatans, of idealists and visionaries, and of the everyday people who followed them—often at their peril.

Holy Food explains how faith pioneers used societal woes and cultural trends to create new pathways of belief and reveals the interconnectivity between sects and their leaders.

Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

By Christina Ward,

What is this book about?

Does God have a recipe?

"Holy Food is a titanic feat of research and a fascinating exploration of American faith and culinary rites. Christina Ward is the perfect guide – generous, wise, and ecumenical." — Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams

"Holy Food doesn't just trace the influence that preachers, gurus, and cult leaders have had on American cuisine. It offers a unique look at the ways spirituality—whether in the form of fringe cults or major religions—has shaped our culture. Christina Ward has gone spelunking into some very odd corners of American history to unearth this fascinating collection of stories…


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