The best books about the Zulu people

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

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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.

Terrific Majesty

By Carolyn Hamilton,

Book cover of Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention

Hamilton offers a thought-provoking monograph on the persistence of Shaka as a metaphor in South African history and politics and the changing representations of the famous Zulu king over time. Hamilton argues that the image of Shaka, contrary to most post-modernist interpretations, was not simply a colonial invention. Instead, she argues that Shaka’s image gained its durability and complexity from a mix of indigenous narratives as well as colonial ones.


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.

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 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 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.

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.

The Boiling Cauldron

By Huw M. Jones,

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

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.  


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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