It was refreshing to read Barry Conway’s article on the Zulu victory at Isandlwana in South Africa (January SR).
It can’t be overemphasized that the British were defeated because of racist arrogance. Lord Chelmsford, leading the British invasion, couldn’t conceive of the Zulus as a serious enemy. So he didn’t follow standard procedure and set up a defensive perimeter around his camp, and then he fell for a clever trap set by the militarily experienced Zulus, drawing away most of his best troops.
Another point is that the Zulus did not have a long history as a militarised people. They had been a clan of the Nguni people, who lived largely by herding cattle. Through the 18th century an increase in population led to greater Nguni kingdoms absorbing smaller ones, and a shift to settled farming that could support the increased numbers.
Societies reorganised on a more militarist basis as traditional male age-band initiation rituals became the basis for formalised military organisation.
It was during a devastating period of drought and wars known as the mfecane (“crushing”) in the 1810s that the Zulus, under their leader Shaka, emerged as the major beneficiaries of this new organisational method. These societies were creating more centralised states and a more defined ruling class. They shifted under a mixture of pressures: internal from population growth and external from expanding colonial settlement.
And far from being age-old and unchanging many of South Africa’s modern “tribes” were created during the mfecane.