Cetshwayo (ca. 1826-1884) was the last independent Zulu king, whose reign ended in war against the British and in the collapse of Zulu unity.
Cetshwayo was a nephew of the first two Zulu kings, Shaka and Dingane. When his father, Mpande, displaced Dingane in 1840, Cetshwayo was brought into the line of immediate royal succession. But his prospects remained uncertain, for although the eldest son of Mpande's first wife, he was closely matched in age by a half brother, Mbulazi, the eldest son of Mpande's more favored second wife.
Mpande evaded choosing between the youths, but factions formed, and in 1856 they resorted to arms. Cetshwayo's Usutu faction won an overwhelming victory that was as much a triumph over Mpande as it was over Mbulazi. Thereafter, Cetshwayo was an independent power in the land although Mpande lived on until 1872 without being deposed.
A man of intelligence and considerable force of character, Cetshwayo infused a new vigor into the administration of the Zulu state and its military organization. The besetting problems of his reign arose in connection with his white neighbors. Faced by a border dispute with the Transvaal, he cultivated good relations with the British colony of Natal. In 1878 he agreed to an inquiry into the dispute by a commission of Natal officials. Though the inquiry favored Cetshwayo's claims, the British high commissioner seems to have feared that an award against the Transvaal might antagonize white opinion and so jeopardize the cause of a southern African federation, which he had been appointed to promote. He therefore withheld a decision until he had furthered preparations for war and then accompanied the boundary award with an ultimatum that Cetshwayo could not possibly accept.
Hostilities began in January 1879. Cetshwayo had no hope of success against an enemy that was better armed and could campaign without regard for plowing and harvesting seasons. In August he was defeated and exiled and Zululand was divided into 13 petty kingdoms under appointed rulers.
In 1882, when it was clear that this settlement was unworkable, Cetshwayo went to London for discussions, and in 1883 he was restored to the central portion of Zululand. By then deep divisions had opened within Zulu society. In the north he faced a dangerous rival, his cousin Zibebu, and Cetshwayo's own Usutu supporters seem to have been unwilling to accept the truncated kingdom assigned him. Within months there was bitter fighting that ended when Cetshwayo fled to the British reserve in the south of the Zulu country.
There Cetshwayo died in February 1884. The officially assigned cause was heart disease, but it is possible that he was poisoned. He was a spent force by the end, and his death cleared the way for new leadership.
C. T. Binns, The Last Zulu King: The Life and Death of Cetshwayo (1963), is an interesting and sympathetic, but somewhat inadequately researched, biography. It should be supplemented by Donald R. Morris, The Washing of the Spears (1965). Also useful are Edgar Harry Brookes and Colin de B. Webb, A History of Natal (1965), and Colin de B. Webb's "Great Britain and the Zulu People" in African Societies in Southern Africa, edited by Leonard Thompson (1969).