Arts & Culture History

The Last King Of Zululand

  • March 7, 2022
  • 3 min read
The Last King Of Zululand

by Sophie Pretorius

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King Cetshwayo ka Mpande (c1832-1884), half nephew of Shaka Zulu, and last king of the Zulus, took up residence for three weeks at 18 Melbury Road in Kensington in August 1882.

The press in London could not get enough of him. He had just served three years in exile from his native Zululand, after initially defeating and then being defeated by the English at the Battle of Isandlwana which led on to the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. He had come on a charm offensive, to beseech Her Majesty, monarch to monarch, to reinstate his crown. His arrival and his activities while in the city were reported on with great interest, and the house on Melbury road became a focus of media hubbub. A newly photographic newspaper culture revelled in his remarkable physical size, endearing good looks, and, to them, astonishing intelligence in translation. This, and his gentle nature, fascinated a Gladstonian British public, newly open to the idea of a softer Empire.

Every decision and proclamation the King made was commented upon by the press. He had the beds in 18 Melbury road, lowered to floor level, he called Sir Bartle Frere a ‘little grey-headed man’, he was caricatured in Vanity Fair by Leslie Ward, and photographed in western dress, with Zulu inkatha, by Alexander Bassano (pictured).

Cetshwayo told the press and Queen Victoria that he believed that the Anglo- Zulu war was ‘a calamity’, and that he only wanted to rule his kingdom in an equal position to that which Sir Bartle Frere had held when he had started the Anglo Zulu war. Frere had been High Commissioner for Southern Africa between 1877-1880. He was in the middle of, and continued, a spectacularly abysmal colonial career, ending in official censure. 

When Cetshwayo left England, he was no longer an ex-king. His mission had been a qualified success. He was restored as King of some of his former territory, but his reign did not then last long, he was wounded in a war of contested succession by rival chiefs, led by Zubhebhu (Usibepu), fled, and officially he died from a heart attack in 1884. Poison was suspected. 

His son, Dinuzulu succeeded him. However, in enlisting help to defeat Zubhebhu (which required ceding land to the Boers, incurring problems with the British), ended up captured and exiled. He, too, was reinstalled by Queen Victoria, but as the British Government’s InDuna (a sort of ambassadorial role, borrowing the name given to the Zulu King’s traditional advisors). Dinizulu never ruled the complete Zululand which his father had fought to protect, and though the lineage of the Zulu royal family continues, Cetshwayo was the last king of the full empire, built on impressive and bloody expansion. If any of our readers are former (or current!) boy scout leaders, Dinizulu’s name might ring a little wooden bell somewhere in the back of your mind.


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Sophie Pretorius

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