The Zulu rise in the early 19th century was due to a paradigmatic shift in military tactics. The Nguni tribes were pastoralists who settled there disputes in small scale wars, mostly using skirmisher tactics.
The Zulus, mostly under the leadership of Shaka, transformed their military. The principle change was the adoption of shock tactics. Zulu infantry used the assegai stabbing spear instead of javelins.
The Nguni pastoral economy needed grazing land for the cattle. Tribes were semi-nomadic, but they stayed near “sweet” land. Wars were fought to protect sweet land from intrusions by other tribes. Grazing land could only be used by a single tribe at any time. The tribes that could not fight to take the sweet land were driven off to less suitable territory. They could not raise as many cattle and became poorer and smaller in size.
The Nguni fought as skirmishers. Men would assemble in a militia-fashion and use sharpened wood javelins. Metal was too scarce to use on the tips. The men carried cattle hide shields that were effective at stopping javelins. If a man killed an opponent, he withdrew from combat to spiritually purify himself according to their religious rituals. Combat was deadly, but it was limited in intensity.
By 1800, the Nguni population expanded. There was unprecedented competition over good grazing lands. Wars increased in number and deadliness. Losing tribes migrated hundreds of miles to find better lands.
The Zulu Tribe became the most powerful Nguni tribe by the 1820s. A early Zulu ruler created age regiments. This organized all the tribal men according to their age bracket. Each regiment reported to its leader. This created an organized military that was superior to other Nguni tribes. Men served as soldiers until they were 40 years old before they were allowed to marriage. This helped control population growth.
Shaka Zulu initiated a series of military reforms. His revolution started with a simple tool – the assegai spear. It was longer than a javelin and had an iron tip. Metal increased in use during this period, so the Zulus started to use iron.
The assegai spear required that the Zulu men rapidly close with their enemies and fight in close combat. The Zulus abandoned traditional sandals and ran barefoot to increase their speed. They used their hide shields to protect them from enemy javelins during the charge. Zulus would run directly at the enemy soldiers and stab them in the stomach to disembowel them. Zulus abandoned some of the purification rituals to accomodate this new style of shock tactics.
Their standard formation was the bull formation. It had a center line, with reserves directly behind, and two horns. This allowed double envelopment. The center collided with the enemy formation while the horns struck the flanks.
The Zulus invented a form of heavy infantry shock tactics that is strikingly similar to ancient Greek hoplites. This is an example of parallel evolution. These tactics were alien to the other Nguni tribes. Their wooden Javelins were ineffective and the sheer shock of a spearmen charge broke most tribes immediately.
Shaka’s rule ended in 1828, but the Zulus continued to grow and expand until 1878. The Zulu military created an empire at the expense of the rest of the Nguni. Some Nguni tribes were assimulated into the Zulu Empire. The rest were forced to migrate to less hospitable land. There was a mass exodus through the 19th century. The least fortunate ones headed to the jungles of the north or the mountains to the east.
The Zulus were the military hegemony throughout most of Southern Africa. Only European colonists along the coast could challenge the empire. The Dutch lacked the numbers to directly attack the Zulus, so the two reached a balance of power. The British Empire destroyed the Zulus at a later date. The Zulus stuck to the assegai spear to the bitter end and did not adopt widespread use of firearms.
The Southern Nguni Tribes became agriculturalists in the 19th century. Many were migrants from the intial exodus. They abandoned their pastoral economy and switched to agriculture along the coast. They began growing corn. Corn was a new crop from the Americas and was especially valuable as it grew in more adverse conditions than wheat and produced more calories per acre. This allowed an unprecedented population boom.
These Nguni tribes in the south were regimentized into the British Army. They were provided rifles, uniforms, and training. British officers led these units, with Indian NCOs, and Nguni conscripted riflemen, which more or less reflected the racial stratification in Africa under colonial rule.
The Nguni and British military defeated the Zulu Empire through superior firepower. It was not just the rifles though. The British used the same concept of heavy infantry and shock tactics as the Zulus, so they were not intimidated by this form of combat. While rifles were useful for ranged combat, the real advantage was the close order formations of the British combined with the steel bayonet. Rifles reduced the Zulu numbers and the British could stand their ground and win the ensuing melee.
The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Empire was partly a result of ecological and economic conditions. They adapted to become masters of the pastoral economy but were defeated by agriculturalists.
The problem was not overpopulation. The pastoral economy reached its ecological limit. Modern agriculture and medicine supported a much large population than the pastoral economy. Once the transition to agriculture was underway, it was realized that South Africa was underpopulated. The population boom encouraged urbanization and industrialization, making South Africa one of the most advanced African states.
Southern Nguni Tribes were the wave of the future, not the northern Zulu Tribe. The southerners adopted a modern economy and military that outperformed the Zulu Empire. In many respects, the agricultural tribes were South Africa’s foundation.
Due to 20th century nationalism, this is not always recognized. The southerners were ruled by British and Dutch colonists, while the Zulus were “authentically” native. Nationalists romantically praised the pastoral Zulus while shunning the agricultural tribes. But back in the 19th century, nationalism was not a widespread idea. The British and Dutch were looked upon as another ruling tribe. Most tribes would be under the rule of one foreign empire or another – Zulu or English. Oddly, many nationalists were part of the agricultural economy and descendants of tribes that were brutalized by the Zulus.
This does not morally excuse the imperialism of either the Zulus or the English, of course. I do not see morality as particularly relevant. The Zulus adapted to adverse ecological conditions and were highly successful. And the agricultural revolution in the south was even more successful.