The Anglo-Zulu War began in 1879, however is it argued between historians the reasoning behind why it started. After multiple weeks’ worth of research, it was deduced that there are multiple plausible theories as to why the war was begun, and what the British stood to gain upon invading Zululand. Renowned researcher on the topic of the Anglo-Zulu war, Ian Knight, firmly states “war was provoked by an unwarranted act of British aggression.” However, further research has suggest otherwise. Narrowing it down to the three most conceivable theories as to why the war started, each can simply summed up; safety, retaliation and resources. The first theory, safety, is because the Zulu were accused of being a threat to the Boer Transvaal Republic or British Natal, and British High Commissioner Sir Bartle Frere believed it would be within the British Empire’s best interests to rid of the Zulus. The second speculated reason is that the British were retaliating after the Zulu chief Sirayo entered British territory, carried off two woman, and forcibly put them to death. The third and last hypothesis behind the British invasion of Zululand that will be discussed, is that the British believed Zululand contained diamonds; similarly to elsewhere in South Africa.
The Zulu’s are often renowned first and foremost for their aggressive behaviour, and war tactics. It’s no surprise the British considered the Zulu a threat. Within the 1840s, the British colony of Natal was set up along the southern borders of Zululand. By the 16th century, the British had adopted a policy, which aimed to bring the various British colonies, Boer republics and independent African groups under common control, with a similar stance to implement a policy of economic development. However, the Zulu kingdom was robust and economically self-reliant, and had no need for the policy; causing Sir Henry Bertle Frere to view them as a threat. In 1877, the Boer Transvaal Republic, alongside the northern borders of Zululand, were persuaded to accept British annexation, thus handing over their independence. Sir Theophilus Shepstone, whom Zulu king Cetshwayo regarded as a friend, was given the role of administrator of the Transvaal, and saw border disputes between the Zulu and Boer from the other side. Shepstone claimed to have evidence supporting the Boer position but failed to provide any. He then attempted to placate the Zulu using paternal speeches, but the Zulu’s were unconvinced and felt betrayed by Shepstone. Henceforth, Shepstone’s reports to Lord Carnarvon, Secretary of State for the Colonies, paint the Zulu as an aggressive threat, whereas he’d previous presented Cetshwayo in a favourable light. This negative image Shepstone painted was later passed to Frere, who in turn sent Cetshwayo an impossible ultimatum, and ordered the Zulu king to disband his 30,000 soldier army. Cetshwayo refused and as such gave Frere reason to attack them, and reason for the British government to believe that the Zulu were truly a threat to the colonies surrounding it. While the Zulu is constantly painted as threatening, further research suggests this depiction was only created due to Frere’s selfish will to fight the Zulu. It’s discovered Frere initially brought forth the idea to the Colonial Office that if confederation was to succeed, Cetshwayo’s forces had to be eliminated and Zululand annexed. Lord Carnarvon supported the idea, but his later replacement, Sir Michael Hicks Beach, strongly wished to avoid any war in southern Africa. Frere, however, appeared to be quiet bloodthirsty, and used the delay in mail between Cape Town and London so he could send Cetshwayo an impossible ultimatum, which would lead to war, before Beach could oppose the action.
Initially, Frere had no basis to enforce the ultimatum upon the Zulu, and while he pondered his next move, the Zulu played into his hands. In the latter part of July, 1878, two wives of important Zulu chief Sihayo kaXonga, who lived along the border opposite Rorke’s Drift, fled to move in with lovers on the Natal bank. This was a large insult to the family honour to a man of high status within Zululand. However, Sihayo recognised the political sensitivity of the situation, and refused to act, instead traveling to Ulundi to attend the king. However, while he was on his journey, his sons took the matter into their own hand. Sihayo’s chief son, Mehlokazulu, led a party of Zulus across the border, and carried the two women back to Zululand. The women where then executed in accordance with Zulu law. At the time, it was not unknown for fugitives to be pursued across the border by either side. It was also observed that a young male with one of the wives had also commited a most heinous crime in the eyes of the Zulu, but they didn’t touch him as they’d observed the British surrendering female refugees as property, and thus believed woman were regarded as nothing more than cattle, and so the act was acceptable. Sir Henry Bulwer, the lieutenant-governor of Natal, took a point of view on the event; he clearly understood it was an individual fault, and not a political action to which Cetshwayo was responsible. Despite being a flimsy, personal matter, the drama was all that Frere needed to impose his ultimatum onto the Zulu. However, the ultimatum was impossible for the Zulu to accept. Which demands ranging from six hundred head of cattle; surrendering of Siyaho’s three sons and brother; surrender of the Swazi chief Umbilini; Zulu army to be disbanded and other military regulations adopted; and nine other items - all of which to be completed within thirty days. It is later revealed Frere did this as if the ultimatum was not completed by the Zulus, he would be able to command British force under Lord Chelmsford, who had instructed to defend Natal against Zulu invasion, to instead invade Zululand.
A possible reason behind Frere’s insistence on annexing the Zulus was due to the 1867 discovery of diamonds in the nearby Vaal River. The discovery triggered a “diamond rush”, around the Kimberley area; just north of Zululand. This forces the British to take a new look at independent African nations. As businessmen were consolidating mines to make them larger, people were still searching for more sights for diamonds. So close to Kimberly and diamond mine’s, it’s no doubt some people looked to Zululand for more resources. It is possible Frere intended on annexing Zululand so the land could be accessed. However, there isn’t a large amount of evidence to support this theory, and thus the previous two are more plausible.
In light of the evidence examined, Ian Knight’s accusation that the war was due to an unwarranted attack by the British would be the most plausible. This is due to the fact that, no matter what evidence you look at, it links back to Sir Bartle Frere selfishly wanting to fight the Zulu. He ignored the called for peace by Carnarvon as Secretary of State for the Colonies, Sir Michael Hicks Beach. Hicks Beach even confessed feeling helpless, in regards to Frere’s actions, in a note to the Prime Minister:
"I have impressed this [non-aggressive] view upon Sir B. Frere, both officially and privately, to the best of my power. But I cannot really control him without a telegraph (I don’t know that I could with one) I feel it is as likely as not that he is at war with the Zulus at the present moment."
No matter what details you look at as to why the war might’ve started, it all leads back to Frere controlling circumstance and situation to ignite a battle between the British and the Zulu. Further research would need to be implemented to precisely assume or discover why Frere was so determined to fighting the Zulu.