Dingane (ca. 1795-1840) was a Zulu king whose reign was blighted by domestic and external difficulties which culminated in fierce conflict with his white neighbors.

Dingane was a younger son of the Zulu chieftain Senzangakona. Little is known of Dingane's career until 1828, when he successfully conspired to assassinate his half brother Shaka who, after Senzangakona's death, had expanded the petty Zulu chieftainship into a powerful warrior kingdom at the expense of neighboring chiefs.

Although many welcomed Dingane's accession for the relief it offered from the fierce militarism of Shaka's reign, it is doubtful whether Dingane ever felt secure on the throne he had seized. His position was that of a usurper who owed his rise from obscurity to the achievements of the brother he had murdered. His kingdom, not yet 12 years old, was a forced creation in which national spirit had still not effectively submerged older political loyalties. And, among his subjects, assassination and social fission were established techniques for dealing with political difficulties. In 1829 the Qwabe subchief, Nqetho, led his followers south in a major secessionist movement, and defections continued during the years that followed.

Dingane lacked the qualities of the warrior leader. Indolent and inconstant, jealous and untrusting, he failed to arouse loyalty and affection in his subjects. To preserve his hold over his kingdom, he resorted to the methods of terrorism and extermination that Shaka had used; but he was unable to inject into his warriors the fierce fighting spirit that had once made them the terror of southeastern Africa, and his campaigns were either inconclusive or ended in humiliating defeat.

Probably because he valued trade and feared that injury to the interests of British subjects might bring retribution from the Cape, Dingane tolerated the small settlement of English traders and hunters that Shaka had permitted at the port of Natal, but he did so with diminishing enthusiasm. The traders possessed firearms that gave them a power disproportionate to their numbers. They defied his commands yet lacked law-enforcing authorities of their own. And their settlement became a place of refuge for thousands of deserters from Zululand.

In 1830 Dingane had sent an embassy to the Cape, but the expedition was tactlessly managed and relations with the whites deteriorated. For a while after 1835 Dingane seems to have hoped that the missionary Capt. A. F. Gardiner would serve as a "subchief" and control the Natal settlement, but again he was disappointed for Gardiner was unable to establish his authority.

Dingane's most serious difficulties began toward the end of 1837, when he was confronted by the leader of a large party of Trekkers (Afrikaner emigrants) from the Cape, seeking to establish a republic on his southern borderlands. These were rebels against British rule, injury to whose interests was unlikely to bring retaliation from the Cape. But Dingane seems to have feared that an outright refusal of their request might precipitate a conflict in which Zulu armies with a record of failure would be forced into open conflict with men whose firearms had already dispersed the great Ndebele kingdom of Mzilikazi. He therefore appeared to assent to their demands, but in February 1838 he trapped and massacred a large deputation headed by Piet Retief and then sent out his armies to fall upon the unsuspecting Trekker camps under cover of night.

This attempt to rid himself of the intruders by treachery and surprise failed in its purpose. The Trekkers rallied and in December at Blood River inflicted on the Zulu armies the heavy slaughter that Dingane seems to have anticipated from open conflict. Fission followed within the Zulu body politic. Dingane's half brother Mpande defected south with thousands of followers, entered into a client relationship with the Trekkers, and in February 1840 routed Dingane's troops at the battle of Magongo. Dingane, a refugee from his own people, sought his escape northward but was murdered in the Ubombo Mountains later in the year.

His efforts to preserve his throne and insulate his kingdom from the disturbing presence of white neighbors profoundly influenced the attitudes of the emergent Afrikaner people, amongst whom the conflict was commemorated as one between "civilization" and "barbarism."


Further Reading on Dingane

Peter Becker, Rule of Fear (1964), is a popular account of the life and times of Dingane based on oral tradition and documentary sources. It should be read with Alfred T. Bryant, Olden Times in Zululand and Natal (1929); Donald R. Morris, The Washing of the Spears (1965); and John D. Omer-Cooper, The Zulu Aftermath (1966). Also helpful is Monica Wilson and Leonard Thompson, eds., The Oxford History of South Africa (1969).