By the 1850s the British Empire had colonies in southern Africa bordering on various Boer settlements, native African kingdoms such as the Zulus, the Basotho and numerous indigenous tribal areas and states. Various interactions with these followed an expansionist policy. Cape Colony had been formed after the Anglo–Dutch Treaty of 1814 permanently ceded the Dutch colony of Cape Town to Britain, and its territory expanded very substantially through the 19th century. Natal in south-eastern Africa was proclaimed a British colony on 4 May 1843 after the British government had annexed the Boer Republic of Natalia. Matters were brought to a head when three sons and a brother of the Zulu chief Sirayo organized a raid into Natal and carried off two women who were under British protection.
The discovery of diamonds in 1867 near the Vaal River, some 550 miles (890 km) northeast of Cape Town, ended the isolation of the Boers in the interior and changed South African history. The discovery triggered a diamond rush that attracted people from all over the world, which turned Kimberley into a town of 50,000 within five years and drew the attention of British imperial interests. In the 1870s, the British annexed West Griqualand, site of the Kimberley diamond discoveries.
In 1874 Lord Carnarvon, Secretary of State for the Colonies, who had successfully brought about federation in Canada in 1867, thought that a similar scheme might work in South Africa. The South African plan called for a ruling white minority over a black majority, which would provide a large pool of cheap labour for the British sugar plantations and mines. Carnarvon, in an attempt to extend British influence in 1875, approached the Boer states of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic and tried to organize a federation of the British and Boer territories, but the Boer leaders turned him down.
In 1877, Sir Bartle Frere was made High Commissioner for Southern Africa by Lord Carnarvon. Carnarvon appointed Frere to the position on the understanding that he would work to enforce Carnarvon's confederation plan and, in return, Frere could then become the first British governor of a federated southern African dominion. Frere was sent to South Africa as High Commissioner to bring this plan about. One of the obstacles to such a scheme was the presence of the independent states of the South African Republic, informally known as the Transvaal Republic, and the Kingdom of Zululand. Bartle Frere wasted no time in putting the scheme forward and manufacturing a casus belli against the Zulu by exaggerating the significance of a number of recent incidents.
By 1877, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, the British Secretary for Native Affairs in Natal, annexed the Transvaal Republic for Britain using a special warrant. The Transvaal Boers objected but as long as the Zulu threat remained, found themselves between two threats; they feared that if they took up arms to resist the British annexation actively, King Cetshwayo and the Zulus would take the opportunity to attack. However, the successive British annexations, and in particular the annexation of West Griqualand, caused a climate of simmering unease for the Boer republics.
Shepstone, in his capacity as British governor of Natal, had expressed concerns about the Zulu army under King Cetshwayo and the potential threat to Natal — especially given the adoption by some of the Zulus of old muskets and other out-of-date firearms. In his new role of Administrator of the Transvaal, he was now responsible for protecting the Transvaal and had direct involvement in the Zulu border dispute from the side of the Transvaal. Persistent Boer representations and Paul Kruger's diplomatic manoeuvrings added to the pressure. There were incidents involving Zulu paramilitary actions on either side of the Transvaal/Natal border, and Shepstone increasingly began to regard King Cetshwayo, as having permitted such "outrages", and to be in a "defiant mood". King Cetshwayo now found no defender in Natal save the bishop of Natal, John Colenso.
Colenso advocated for native Africans in Natal and Zululand who had been unjustly treated by the colonial regime in Natal. In 1874 he took up the cause of Langalibalele and the Hlubi and Ngwe tribes in representations to the Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon. Langalibalele had been falsely accused of rebellion in 1873 and, following a charade of a trial, was found guilty and imprisoned on Robben Island. In taking the side of Langalibalele against the colonial regime in Natal and Theophilus Shepstone, the Secretary for Native Affairs, Colenso found himself even further estranged from colonial society in Natal.
Bishop Colenso's concern about the misleading information that was being provided to the Colonial Secretary in London by Shepstone and the Governor of Natal prompted him to champion the cause of the Zulus against Boer oppression and official encroachments. He was a prominent critic of Sir Bartle Frere's efforts to depict the Zulu kingdom as a threat to Natal. Colenso's campaigns revealed the racialist foundation underpinning the colonial regime in Natal and made him enemies among the colonists.
British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's Tory administration in London did not want a war with the Zulus. "The fact is," wrote Sir Michael Hicks Beach, who would replace Carnarvon as Secretary of State for the Colonies, in November 1878, "that matters in Eastern Europe and India ... wore so serious an aspect that we cannot have a Zulu war in addition to other greater and too possible troubles." However, Sir Bartle Frere had already been into the Cape Colony as governor and High Commissioner since 1877 with the brief of creating a Confederation of South Africa from the various British colonies, Boer Republics and native states and his plans were well advanced. He had concluded that the powerful Zulu kingdom stood in the way of this, and so was receptive to Shepstone's arguments that King Cetshwayo and his Zulu army posed a threat to the peace of the region. Preparations for a British invasion of the Zulu kingdom had been underway for months. In December 1878, notwithstanding the reluctance of the British government to start yet another colonial war, Frere presented Cetshwayo with an ultimatum that the Zulu army be disbanded and the Zulus accept a British resident. This was unacceptable to the Zulus as it effectively meant that Cetshwayo, had he agreed, would have lost his throne.
Shaka Zulu, the first Zulu king, had, through war and conquest, built the small Zulu tribe into the Zulu Kingdom which by 1825 encompassed an area of around 11,500 square miles (30,000 km2). In 1828 he was assassinated at Dukuza by one of his inDunas and two of his half-brothers, one of whom, Dingane kaSenzangakhona, succeeded him as king. By the 1830s migrating Boers came into conflict with the Zulu Kingdom, then ruled by Dingane. Dingane suffered a crushing defeat on 16 December 1838, when he attacked a group of 470 Voortrekker settlers led by Pretorius at the Battle of Blood River. Dingane's half brother, Mpande kaSenzangakhona, then defected with some 17,000 followers and allied with the Boers against Dingane. Dingane was assassinated and Mpande became king of the Zulu empire.
In 1839, the Boer Voortrekkers, under Pretorius, formed the Boer Republic of Natalia, south of the Tugela, and west of the British settlement of Port Natal (now Durban). Mpande and Pretorius maintained peaceful relations. However, in 1842, war broke out between the British and the Boers, resulting in the British annexation of Natalia. Mpande shifted his allegiance to the British, and remained on good terms with them.
In 1843, Mpande ordered a purge of perceived dissidents within his kingdom. This resulted in numerous deaths, and the fleeing of thousands of refugees into neighbouring areas, including the British-controlled Natal. Many of these refugees fled with cattle, the main measure of the Zulu wealth. Mpande began raiding the surrounding areas, culminating in the invasion of Swaziland in 1852. However, the British pressured him into withdrawing, which he did shortly. At this time, a battle for the succession broke out between two of Mpande's sons, Cetshwayo and Mbuyazi. This culminated in 1856 with the Battle of Ndondakusuka, which left Mbuyazi dead. Cetshwayo then set about usurping his father's authority. When Mpande died of old age in 1872, Cetshwayo took over as ruler.
In 1861, Umtonga, a brother of Cetshwayo, and another son of Zulu king Mpande, fled to the Utrecht district, and Cetshwayo assembled an army on that frontier. According to claims later brought forward by the Boers, Cetshwayo offered the farmers a strip of land along the border if they would surrender his brother. The Boers complied on the condition that Umtonga's life was spared, and in 1861 Mpande signed a deed transferring this land to the Boers. The south boundary of the land added to Utrecht ran from Rorke's Drift on the Buffalo to a point on the Pongola River.
The boundary was beaconed in 1864, but when in 1865 Umtonga fled from Zululand to Natal, Cetshwayo, seeing that he had lost his part of the bargain (for he feared that Umtonga might be used to supplant him, as Mpande had been used to supplant Dingane), caused the beacon to be removed, and also claimed the land ceded by the Swazis to Lydenburg. The Zulus asserted that the Swazis were their vassals and therefore had no right to part with this territory. During the year a Boer commando under Paul Kruger and an army under Cetshwayo were posted to defend the newly acquired Utrecht border. The Zulu forces took back their land north of the Pongola. Questions were also raised as to the validity of the documents signed by the Zulus concerning the Utrecht strip; in 1869 the services of the lieutenant-governor of Natal, then Robert William Keate, were accepted by both parties as arbitrator, but the attempt then made to settle disagreements proved unsuccessful.
Cetshwayo permitted European missionaries in Zululand. However, the activities of the missionaries were unwelcome to Cetshwayo. Though he did not harm or persecute the missionaries themselves, several converts were killed. The missionaries, for their part, were a source of hostile reports. While numerous Zulus of rival factions fled into Natal and some of the surrounding areas, Cetshwayo continued and maintained the peaceful relations with the Natal colonists that had prevailed for decades. Such was the political background when Cetshwayo became absolute ruler of the Zulus upon his father's death in 1873.
As ruler, Cetshwayo set about reviving the military methods of his uncle Shaka as far as possible. He formed new age-set regiments and even succeeded in equipping his regiments with a few antiquated muskets and other outdated firearms. Most Zulu warriors were armed with an iklwa (the Zulu refinement of the assegai thrusting spear) and a shield made of cowhide.[f] The Zulu army drilled in the personal and tactical use and coordination of this weapons system. While some Zulus also had firearms, their marksmanship training was poor and the quality and supply of powder and shot dreadful. The Zulu attitude towards firearms was that: "The generality of Zulu warriors, however, would not have firearms – the arms of a coward, as they said, for they enable the poltroon to kill the brave without awaiting his attack."