The best books about the Zulu Kingdom

3 authors have picked their favorite books about the Zulu Kingdom and why they recommend each book.

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Shaka Zulu

By E.A. Ritter,

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

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…


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.

The Zulu Aftermath

By J.D. Omer-Cooper,

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

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…


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.

The Washing of the Spears

By Donald R. Morris,

Book cover of The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation under Shaka and its fall in the Zulu War of 1879

Morris’s history of the rise and fall of the Zulu kingdom remains a classic. Trained as a journalist, Morris presents a vivid, lively, and compelling narrative, tracing the rise of Shaka’s Zulu kingdom, the outbreak of war in 1879, and the tragic aftermath of civil war and national disintegration. Although more recent scholarship casts doubt on some of Morris’s assertions, his book remains the starting point for understanding the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.


Who am I?

I am a professor emeritus of history at the University of San Diego, and taught courses in African and South African history for over three decades. I have also written a number articles placing African topics in comparative perspective, including “A Spirit of Resistance:  Xhosa, Maori, and Sioux Responses to Western Dominance, 1840-1920” and “Unveiling the Third Force: Toward Transitional Justice in the USA and South Africa, 1973-1994,” as well as three books: The Formation of the Zulu Kingdom in South Africa and two editions of The Dust Rose Like Smoke: The Subjugation of the Zulu and the Sioux


I wrote...

The Dust Rose Like Smoke: The Subjugation of the Zulu and the Sioux

By James Oliver Gump,

Book cover of The Dust Rose Like Smoke: The Subjugation of the Zulu and the Sioux

What is my book about?

In 1876 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors annihilated Custer’s Seventh Cavalry on the Little Bighorn. Three years later and half a world away, a British force was wiped out by Zulu warriors at Isandhlwana in South Africa. In both cases, the total defeat of regular army troops by forces regarded as undisciplined barbarian tribesmen stunned an imperial nation.

The similarities between the two frontier encounters have long been noted, but James O. Gump is the first to scrutinize them in a comparative context. “This study issues a challenge to American exceptionalism,” he writes. Viewing both episodes as part of a global pattern of intensified conflict in the latter 1800s resulting from Western domination over a vast portion of the globe, he persuasively traces the comparisons in their origins and aftermath.

Zulu Rising

By Ian Knight,

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

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.   


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.

A History of South Africa

By Leonard Thompson,

Book cover of A History of South Africa

Okay, he was my dissertation advisor. Sorry! But Thompson’s is a concise, perceptive, and readable one-volume history of the great country, a splendid introduction. Born and raised in South Africa, the late Thompson was a Rhodes Scholar before seeing extensive service in World War II. Like so many talented South Africans from many fields, he went into exile around 1960 when the apartheid regime moved toward a no-holds-barred stranglehold on all opposition. This was his last book, and in it he distills a lifetime of research, teaching and experience. The fourth edition has an update and new preface by Lynn Berat.


Who am I?

For fifty years I have studied and taught the history of Africa, which  makes me about the luckiest guy around.  My focus has been on Southern Africa, and especially Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.  Aside from the fantastic physical beauty, the region attracts because of the comparability of its history and experience with that of the United States at many points:  for instance, a colonial past, systems of slavery, and fraught [to say the least] racial dynamics.  I have enjoyed 23 journeys or lengthier sojourns in Southern Africa, and have taught at five universities, including North Carolina State, Duke, and the University of Zimbabwe as a Fulbright Lecturer.


I wrote...

The African Experience: From "Lucy" to Mandela

By Kenneth P. Vickery,

Book cover of The African Experience: From "Lucy" to Mandela

What is my book about?

The story of Africa is the oldest and most event-filled chronicle of human activity on the planet. And in these 36 lectures, you'll explore this great historical drama, tracing the story of the Sub-Saharan region of the continent from the earliest evidence of human habitation to the latest challenges facing African nations in the 21st century.

By learning with these lectures, you'll finally be able to bust myths and correct potential misunderstandings about Africa. For example, in Africa, the word 'tribe' is often used in a neutral way to connote ethnic identity, and not as a veiled comment on some bogus level of 'civilization,' as it often is in the West. Another example: Sub-Saharan Africa was not as isolated as is often suggested by references to the "lost" continent; in fact, an ancient Greek sailing guide from 2,000 years ago clearly shows that the East African coast was already connected commercially with areas to the north.

The Washing of the Spears

By Donald R. Morris,

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

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.


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.

The Rise & Fall of the Zulu Nation

By John Laband,

Book cover of The Rise & Fall of the Zulu Nation

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.     


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 Diary of Henry Francis Fynn

By James Stuart (editor), D. McK. Malcolm (editor),

Book cover of The Diary of Henry Francis Fynn

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…


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.

The Anatomy of the Zulu Army

By Ian Kinght,

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

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.


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.

Zulu With Some Guts Behind It

By Sheldon Hall,

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

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’.   


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.

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