Cetshwayo’s place of birth was his father’s (Mpande) kraal of Mlambongwenya, near Eshowe. He was born in 1826, a very troubled period in the history of the Zulu kingdom. At time of his birth, Shaka Zulu was wielding a very powerful command of the Zulu nation. Cetshwayo’s father, Mpande, was Shaka Zulu’s half brother.
Shaka Zulu was in conflict with Shoshangane, a leader of a breakaway faction that had fled the Zulu kingdom and had established their kingdom near Delagoa Bay. Mpande was sent to demand tribute and annex the newly established kingdom into the Zulu Kingdom. Mpande’s forces were defeated by Shoshangane’s force and he was forced to retreat. On his retreat he learned about the assassination of the King Shaka by Dingaan, also half brother to Shaka. Fearing that the same fate might befall him, he moved to Engakavini where Cetshwayo grew up.
Mpande became King of the Zulus following his defeat of King Dingaan’s army in 1840. Mpande had announced Cetshwayo as his heir shortly before becoming king, this was at an unusually early stage – Mpande even took the step of introducing Cetshwayo to the Boer Volksraad at Pietermaritzburg in 1839. The rule of succession is that the heir is born of the women whom the King makes his chief wife. Cetshwayo was declared heir because he was born of a wife given to Mpande by Dingane.
During his reign Mpande was faced with both British and Afrikaner settlers on his borders, and he continuously tried not to alienate either party, ceding some of the Zulu Kingdom’s land. Mpande was often viewed as a weak man in comparison to his contemporaries as a result and Cetshwayo began gaining influence over the Zulu people. Mpande became worried that Cetshwayo was gaining too much influence and began to favour Mbuyazi, son of his most beloved wife. Cetshwayo and Mbuyazi became rivals.
Drought and famine hit the Zulu nation in the summer of 1852–3 and various factions looked towards civil war as an opportunity to gain cattle. As the situation worsened, Mpande made more of his support for his son Mbuyazi. In November 1856 Mpande granted Mbuyazi a large tract of land in south-east Zululand; at the same time he refused to meet with Cetshwayo to discuss the succession question. Conflict became inevitable when Mbuyazi and his supporters, the iziGqoza, moved to their lands just north of the Thukela River, clearing the area of Cetshwayo's supporters. In the ensuing battle of Ndondakusuka, Mpande backed Mbuyazi, who was also supported by John Dunn. But Cetshwayo dramatically defeated his brother on the banks of the Tugela River in 1856.
Mpande tried to prevent Cetshwayo from threatening his power, and he again appealed to both the British and the Afrikaners for support. The British Secretary for Native Affairs in Natal, Theophilus Shepstone, encouraged Cetshwayo to proclaim his loyalty to his father, and in 1865 Mpande and Cetshwayo were reconciled and in 1857 Cetshwayo and Mpanda came to terms: Cetshwayo would have effective control of the nation whilst Mpande would retain 'ultimate' authority and the title of king. However, for the next 15 years Cetshwayo seemed to control the Zulu nation, he reenergized the amabutho system and tried to stem the diffusion of power away from the crown and out to the izikhulu (territorial chiefs).
Mpande had a third son, Umtonga (older than Cetshwayo). Cetshwayo also began to see him as a threat and chased him into Utrecht (land that Mpande had ceded in 1854) in 1861. Cetshwayo’s army camped on the border of the Boer Republic and promised the Boers a strip of land on the border if they handed his brother over. The Boers were prepared to meet his request if he spared Umtonga’s life and Mpande signed a deed giving the Boers the additional land. The extra territory extended from Rorke’s Drift on the Buffalo River to a point on the Pongola River. Utrecht expanded and this new border was officially marked in 1864.
Umtonga fled from Zululand to the Colony of Natal in 1865 and Cetshwayo felt that part of the agreement he made with the Boers had not been upheld. He tried to reclaim the land nearly causing a war as a Zulu army under Cetshwayo and a Boer commando under Paul Kruger positioned themselves along the border between Utrecht and Zululand. In 1869 the Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Natal, Sir Anthony Musgrave, was called in to solve the argument between the two groups, but he failed to do so.
Although it is clear that by this stage Cetshwayo’s influence was greater than that of Mpande’s, Mpande remained king until his death on 19 November 1872, although he withdrew increasingly from public life. He died in his Kraal, Nodwengu in Zululand. After his death Cetshwayo came to the throne and an official coronation ceremony took place the following year.
In 1875 Boers flooded across into Zululand, claiming land south of the Phongola River as well as attempting to tax Zulu homesteads in the north-west. Several thousand warriors were sent to the border and the Boers eventually retreated. The situation was finally alleviated when the British annexed the South African Republic in April 1877.
The arrival in March 1877 of Sir Bartle Frere, British High Commissioner for South Africa and Commander-in-Chief of all British forces, brought a new threat to Zulu independence. Although Cetshwayo was initially supported by the likes of Shepstone and the British the Zulu King soon became a threat to the British confederation of South Africa as the Zulu nation grew in military power under his rule. Sir Frere orchestrated a campaign to annex the Zulu kingdom even though British policy at the time was to avoid war with the Zulus.
Without the full backing of the British parliament, Frere went ahead with his war plans. On 11 December 1878, under the flimsy pretext of a few minor border incursions into Natal by Cetshwayo's followers, the Zulu were given an impossible ultimatum that they should disarm and Cetshwayo should forsake his sovereignty. King Cetshwayo rejected the ultimatum and war broke out between the two nations.
The Zulus won the Battle of Isandlwana, but they lost the crucial Battle of Ulundi (oNdini). Although Cetshwayo escaped from oNdini, he was soon captured in the Ngome Forest by British dragoons. He was imprisoned and sent into exile in the Cape. Later he was allowed to travel to London and met Queen Victoria, who permitted him to return to South Africa to rule a portion of the former Zulu kingdom in 1883.
He was met at Port Durnford in January by Shepstone who arranged the details of his restoration, but he was not permitted an army to defend his somewhat reduced 'nation' – part of the arrangement was that the north of Zululand was to be put under the control of Zibhebhu kaMaphitha.
By March 1883 Zibhebhu was moving against Cetshwayo's supporters in his assigned northern territory and Cetshwayo's uSuthu marched against him. The uSuthu were defeated and driven into Transvaal and back south to oNdini. The civil war between Cetshwayo and Zibhebhu ranged across the Mahlabathini plain and the uSuthu was once again defeated. Whilst Cetshwayo and his 15-year old heir, Dinizulu, were able to escape the capital of oNdini and hide out in the Nkandla forest, the uSuthu leadership was decimated. Cetshwayo was escorted to Eshowe by Henry Francis Fynn jr, the British Resident in Zululand, on the 15 October 1883.
On the afternoon of 8 February 1884 Cetshwayo died. The doctor who examined him to determine the cause of death suspected that he was poisoned as he seemed in good health that very morning; he was seen taking his usual early morning walk. He was prevented from conducting a post mortem inquiry into the King’s cause of death by the relatives of the King when he told them that the procedure of this inquiry would involve dissecting his body. As a result, the doctor certified the cause of death as “syncope, the result of disease of the heart” (Binns, 1963).
Cetshwayo's body was returned to the Nkandla Forest for burial, and the war between his uSuthu and Zibhebhu continued. Cetshwayo's son Dinizulu, as heir to the throne, was proclaimed king on 20 May 1884.