The best books on Zulus and the Zulu War

Ian F.W. Beckett Author Of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift
By Ian F.W. Beckett

Who am I?

I am Honorary Professor of Military History at the University of Kent, having retired from teaching there in 2015. I have held professorial chairs in both the UK and the US. Most of my books have been on the history of the British Army, including on the First World War and, especially, the late Victorian Army between 1872 and 1902. Like others of my generation, I was greatly influenced by the 1964 film Zulu with Stanley Baker and Michael Caine. The Zulu War has always fascinated me so here is my selection of the best books on Zulus and the war.   


I wrote...

Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift

By Ian F.W. Beckett,

Book cover of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift

What is my book about?

I wanted to show the continuing cultural impact and legacy of the Anglo-Zulu War not just in Britain but also in South Africa. At the time, the shock of the British defeat at Isandlwana in January 1879 was mitigated for the British by the successful defence of Rorke’s Drift. There was an instant outpouring of poetry, music, art, literature, and war-based entertainment. Attention soon waned but Zulu in 1964 marked an extraordinary revival of popular interest in Britain including in the once neglected Zulu perspective. That perspective has also formed part of a contested cultural and political reawakening in South Africa. The Zulu War continues to have multiple meanings.

The books I picked & why

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The Rise & Fall of the Zulu Nation

By John Laband,

Book cover of The Rise & Fall of the Zulu Nation

Why this book?

Originally published as Rope of Sand in South Africa in 1995, this is a brilliant overview of the story of the Zulu from the days of their rise under Shaka to the tragedy of the Bhambatha Rebellion in 1906. No one knows the Zulu sources better than John Laband, who has written extensively on the war. He weaves Zulu oral tradition and contemporary European accounts into a vivid narrative of Zulu history. Full coverage is given to the Anglo-Zulu War but what I particularly value is the wider context of the contest between Briton, Boer, and Zulu that shaped the course of South African history.     


Zulu Rising: The Epic Story of iSandlwana and Rorke's Drift

By Ian Knight,

Book cover of Zulu Rising: The Epic Story of iSandlwana and Rorke's Drift

Why this book?

Many popular accounts of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift have been published since the 1960s but, if I had to choose just one, then it has to be Ian Knight’s account. A frequent visitor (and guide) to the war’s battlefields, all of Knight’s accumulated knowledge of the events at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift was poured into this fine study. He writes well, particularly illuminating the characters of the main British and Zulu protagonists and the experiences of men in battle, as well as examining the continuing controversies surrounding the British defeat at Isandlwana.   


The Boiling Cauldron: Utrecht District and the Anglo-Zulu War, 1879

By Huw M. Jones,

Book cover of The Boiling Cauldron: Utrecht District and the Anglo-Zulu War, 1879

Why this book?

Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift have overshadowed the other battles of the war. By way of contrast, Huw Jones provides a detailed study of the British No. 4 Column commanded by Sir Evelyn Wood and its actions at Hlobane and Kambula in March 1879. Like Isandlwana, Hlobane was a disaster, which was mitigated the next day by the repulse of the main Zulu army at Kambula. The Utrecht District, from which Wood operated, was also a key area in which British, Boer, and Zulu interests clashed. Jones’s book deserves to be much better known as a fine study of the political complexities of the region in question before and during the war, as well as providing expert analysis of the military operations there.  


Black Soldiers of the Queen: The Natal Native Contingent in the Anglo-Zulu War

By P. S. Thompson,

Book cover of Black Soldiers of the Queen: The Natal Native Contingent in the Anglo-Zulu War

Why this book?

Together with John Laband, the late Paul Thompson did an enormous amount to bring to light African perspectives on the war. Originally published in a limited edition in South Africa, this is a study of the Natal Native Contingent raised by the British as auxiliaries from African tribes and groups hostile to the Zulu. Poorly armed, they were blamed unjustly by contemporaries for the British defeat at Isandlwana and roundly blamed thereafter for atrocities associated with the aftermath of subsequent British victories. Thompson’s work is a valuable reminder of the often forgotten part played by Africans in the defeat of their fellow Africans by imperial forces.   


Zulu With Some Guts Behind It: The Making of the Epic Movie

By Sheldon Hall,

Book cover of Zulu With Some Guts Behind It: The Making of the Epic Movie

Why this book?

Who could resist a full account of the making of Stanley Baker’s 1964 epic? From the genesis of the idea through the evolution of the script, production in South Africa and Britain, the premier, and the reaction to the movie, this is a must-have book for all fans of the film. Hall mined film archives and interviews with the actors and filmmakers to reconstruct the story of the film. It is copiously illustrated in colour as well as black and white with location photographs, posters, and cartoons. A particular highlight is the exploration of ‘myths, gaffes, and spoofs’.   


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