Warfare, Political Leadership, and State Formation: The Case of the Zulu Kingdom, 1808-1879

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a publication in Ethnology 38(4):371-391, Fall 1999.

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Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 1999. “Warfare, Political Leadership, and State Formation: The Case of the Zulu Kingdom, 1808-1879.” Ethnology 38(4):371-391.


The origin and evolution of the 19th-century Zulu Kingdom are used to examine two competing state formation theories: Robert Carneiro’s circumscription theory and Elman Service’s theory of institutionalized leadership. Both theories partly clarify Zulu political developments: Carneiro’s explains the origin and territorial expansion of the Zulu empire, while Service’s can account for the beginning differentiation of political roles in the Zulu state. Two alternative explanations of the causes of Zulu state formation are discussed to integrate the diverging theoretical perspectives of Carneiro and Service. First, the role of the Zulu King, Shaka, should be considered politically relevant only inasmuch as Shaka’s wars of conquest were instrumental for the unification of the Zulu Kingdom. Second, further developments in Zulu politics involved limited structural change from dispersed tribes to a unified military state. The analysis of political formations, including their origin and further transformation, should not be conducted in unilinear evolutionary terms, but from a multidimensional processual perspective. [1]

Key Words: State formation; Circumscription theory; Institutionalized leadership; Zulu Kingdom

The development of the Zulu Kingdom is one of the most remarkable and extensively documented case studies in the history of state formation. The rise of the Zulu empire over a relatively short period of time, its powerful expansion over a wide territory, the overwhelming violence and terror involved, and the brutal European overthrow of the regime have long attracted scholarly attention from historians, anthropologists, and sociologists of African political systems. In this article, two theories of state formation are applied to the development of the Zulu Kingdom: Robert Carneiro’s circumscription theory (Carneiro 1970) and Elman Service’s theory of institutionalized leadership (Service 1975). These theories represent two influential perspectives in the historical study of state formations, but they have not yet been carefully tested in light of the Zulu case. This is particularly remarkable given the widely acknowledged analytical merit of both theories as well as the historical significance of the evolution of the Zulu political structure. This paper therefore undertakes an examination that may prove valuable to assess the strengths and limitations of two theories of state formation in light of a significant episode in the history of African indigenous politics. I also seek to advance ideas that may aid in breaking through all too commonly held conceptions of state formation processes due to a nearly exclusive orientation on European political processes. My analysis rests on the assumption that political systems developed autonomously in precolonial times in Africa (and elsewhere) that were of sufficient complexity to be discussed in terms of state formations, yet that have to be explained by theoretical models that take into account specific conditions of time and place which put them apart from their European counterparts.

After outlining the main theses of Carneiro’s circumscription theory and Service’s theory of institutionalized leadership and deriving testable propositions from a comparison of both perspectives, I present a brief history of the Zulu Kingdom from its formation to the European destruction of the empire (1808-1879) and trace the factors that can account for the evolution of Zulu politics in terms of Carneiro’s and Service’s state theories, indicating the strengths and limitations of the theories. Two alternative explanations of Zulu political processes will also be considered: the role of the Zulu kings, particularly Shaka; and the nature of Zulu political developments from dispersed tribes to a unified political entity. These lead to a discussion of the applicability of Carneiro’s and Service’s state formation theories to the case of the Zulu Kingdom. I conclude by suggesting the need for a multidimensional processual framework of political developments that combines coercive and integrative mechanisms to explain the dynamic nature of political formations and transformations.


One of the crucial problems in the historical study of political systems, specifically in nonwestern contexts, is the transformation from egalitarian to state societies. This transformation is observed in the transition from bands to tribes and chiefdoms to states (Flannery 1972:401-404; Lewellen 1983:18-38; Walter 1969:56-86). Bands are the simplest forms of political organization: families are organized along kinship lines, while other integrative mechanisms of leadership are largely absent. Tribes are larger communities integrating different bands by principles of descent (lineages). Chiefdoms are the first social forms to differentiate political roles: lineages are ranked in a hierarchy that sets the descent group of the chief above others to indicate authoritative leadership. The power of the chief is centralized and relatively stable, and the economic order is to some extent structured by chiefly rule (through the organization of labor and the redistribution of wealth). In states, government is highly centralized in a professional ruling body separated from kinship bonds and organized into specialized offices that handle political, economic, and legal matters. The legitimized monopoly of the use or threat of force is one of the salient features of states. There is little disagreement over the transition from bands to states, but the state formation theories of Carneiro and Service represent two prominent and competing viewpoints in the debate over the conditions of this political transformation.

Warfare and Circumscription

The circumscription theory of Robert Carneiro explains the formation of states as the outcome of a regular and determinate cultural process (Carneiro 1970, 1981, 1992). Carneiro asserts that since different states arose independently at different historical times in various part of the world, their origin needs to be accounted for by a general theory. Warfare, Carneiro argues, plays the most decisive role in the creation of states, but three socio-ecological conditions also have to be met.

First, states arise in areas where the availability of agricultural land is restricted. This refers to the ecological condition of environmental circumscription. When agricultural land is readily available, warfare will lead to a dispersal of villages because the basic means for subsistence can easily be found elsewhere. As, on the other hand, the limits of arable land are reached, villages can no longer disperse into other areas. Then warfare arises out of a need to acquire agricultural resources, and some villages will be politically subjugated by other, more dominant groupings. Formerly autonomous villages thus become incorporated into larger political formations: chiefdoms are formed and come under the control of a paramount chief. Increased competition over land accelerates the process of warfare and political subjugation to create even greater political units (compound and consolidated chiefdoms). Eventually, when an area is sharply circumscribed and sufficiently large, highly centralized and internally differentiated states are formed. Individual war heroes then occupy newly formed political offices to decree and enforce laws, collect taxes, organize labor, and draft men for war.

Resource concentration is a second condition for warfare to lead to state formation. Resource concentration refers to the fact that the availability of food in an area can be restricted so that exploitable areas become completely occupied. When this is the case, competition over cultivatable land increases. This leads to conflicts and warfare, which can become intensified to the extent that political communities are united and eventually, through a progression of processes of political subjugation, form a state.

Finally, Carneiro argues that population pressure and social circumscription can also explain how warfare leads to the creation of states. Population pressure refers to the density of population relative to available land. High population density in villages located near the center of a territory can lead to increased pressures to occupy agricultural land. Warfare arises, becomes more intense and is redirected to land acquisition. This brings about the crystallization of larger political unites and, ultimately, the formation of states. The territorial limits of the state are reached at the point where sufficiently consolidated groups meet other social formations of equal political complexity. The geographical spread of the state is halted because of social circumscription.

The Institutionalization of Centralized Leadership

Elman Service (1975) situates the origin of state government in a process of institutionalization of centralized leadership. Leadership refers to the exercise of power, defined as the relative ability of a person or group to command obedience and/or challenge resistance. For a community to become a state, its political organization has to evolve in such a way that the power of leadership is not only based on authority resting on a hierarchical relationship but also on a legal system to sanction the monopoly of force. Some initial form of leadership, based on a hereditary aristocracy, can evolve into a bureaucratic system that secures a redistributive and allocative economic system. The rise to statehood is essentially a process through which political power becomes formally established in a central bureaucracy.

In egalitarian societies (bands and tribes), reinforcement mechanisms operate through a system of rewards and punishments within the traditional kinship structure. There are no formal laws to regulate behavior since the community is small enough to deal with matters in an informal manner based on habits, custom, and domestic power. Leadership is not permanent but intermittent and accepted because of an individual’s charismatic qualities, his sensitivity to public opinion, and his good advice, rather than his power to intervene as an executive third party. Mediation in disputes is largely based on consensus in judgment. When a dispute cannot readily be resolved, a public duel can settle matters of conflict, or when different communities are involved, a rule-violator may be punished by his own kinsmen. Warfare between communities cannot always be avoided but inter-group marriages and trade between different communities offer important means of keeping peace.

In chiefdoms, the leader’s personal power is institutionalized to form a hierarchy of subsidiary offices. This hierarchy of authority serves to redistribute goods and services to the community, thus reducing the political significance of the kinship structure. The chief commands labor and decides how and to whom goods are allocated. Leadership in a chiefdom is more established and centralized, and the boundaries of the political organization are more distinct than in tribal societies. Chiefdoms are ideologically supported by the belief that the character of the leader is transmitted to his sons, especially the first-born (primogeniture), and by the supernatural status attributed to his authority. Disputes in chiefdoms are largely settled through informal sanctioned customs based on territorial group sentiments. Mediation is assigned to the hereditary chiefly aristocracy, so that the kinship based status of the elders is gradually devalued. The increased political centralization enables the chiefs to intervene in disputes and command in warfare, but trade and other means of keeping peace are equally important in the regulation of external affairs.

Service considers chiefdoms intermediate in the transition from egalitarian to state societies. The crucial characteristic of political states is that central authority becomes fully established and institutionalized in formally regulated offices. State controlled laws are formal, and judicial offices are assigned to act as third parties. Unlike chiefdoms, the political structure of states is fully differentiated, visible, and territorially bounded. States have a monopoly over the threat or use of physical force, both internally, through a formalized judicial and punitive system of repressive laws, as well as externally, by means of an organized and permanent army.

Circumscribed Warfare versus Institutionalized Leadership

Comparing the theories of Carneiro and Service highlights some of the contrasting characteristics of their perspectives and their reliance on two distinct intellectual traditions in modern state theories. Carneiro’s theory of state formation asserts that warfare directed at the conquest of arable land is the central mechanism of state formation under particular conditions of circumscription.[2] Since Carneiro assumes that people should not be expected to willingly give up their sovereignty, he rejects voluntaristic or integrative state theories based on social contract or co-operation. On the contrary, the principle of "competitive exclusion" demonstrated in wars of conquest is the pivotal force to explain the origin of states (Carneiro 1978). Warfare is considered the prime mover of state formation because it leads to the territorial unification of formerly autonomous villages through alliances between villages acting jointly in defense or offense in a struggle over productive land.

Carneiro’s circumscription theory reveals a clear indebtedness to the work of Herbert Spencer. In his evolutionist sociology, Spencer (1896) attributed the formation of the state to a process of political differentiation and integration. This evolution essentially had military origins in the gradually increasing organization of warfare that led to the incorporation of smaller societies into larger units: "military cooperation is that primary kind of cooperation which prepares the way for other kinds" (Spencer 1896:280). Successful warriors could become political leaders to establish a union between military and political supremacy. Spencer (1896:268-272) also argued that this transformation process is determined (or hampered) by material conditions in general and environmental constraints in particular. Carneiro’s circumscription theory shares with Spencer’s perspective an evolutionary outlook emphasizing external conflicts that under conditions of environmental constraint are directed at territorial conquest and the subjugation of formerly autonomous communities.

Service’s theory of institutionalized leadership primarily focuses on the internal integrative process leading to state formation. According to Service, leadership in states in the first instance tries to protect its hegemony and must therefore become centralized and functionally differentiated into specialized political roles. Service acknowledges that in exceptional circumstances states can resort to force and warfare, but under normal conditions, mechanisms of peace-keeping through the allocation of scarce resources and the establishment of a system of law are more important. Political leadership can only meet this objective when different political roles are centrally institutionalized.

Service’s theory of institutionalized leadership, then, is closely akin the state theory of Max Weber. To be sure, warfare plays no small role in Weber’s (1919, 1922) theory of the state, which he defined in terms of the monopoly of force over a given territory. While Weber argued that the use or threat of physical force was a means specific to the state, he did not consider it a sufficient condition for the state’s further development. State powers also had to be legitimated by a formally enacted system of laws, and the means of state control had to be allocated to a functionally specialized bureaucratic apparatus. Thus, the state could fulfill its various functions of bureaucratic authority (internal and external coercion, legislation, justice, and administration) and bureaucratic management (to regulate the market-economy). Service’s theory, too, does not deny the initial relevance of coercive force in the formation of the state, yet, like Weber, Service sees coercion as a minimal condition which still has to be followed by a differentiation of political roles to sustain the military threat. In this process, Service (1975:40) assumes Weber’s distinction between charismatic, traditional, and legal political legitimacy to correspond to the nature of leadership in, respectively, egalitarian societies, chiefdoms, and states. In addition, Service conceives of the institutionalization of leadership as necessary to secure a fairly conceived management of economic goods (contrary to Marxist conceptions).

In sum, the theories of Carneiro and Service contrast on two issues: a) the role of circumscribed warfare in Carneiro’s coercive perspective versus the development of a sanctioning and redistributive system in Service’s integrative approach; and b) Carneiro’s emphasis on the territorial unification of dispersed villages to explain the origin of the state versus the significance Service attributes to the functional differentiation of political offices in a bureaucracy to elucidate a process of state formation. These issues serve, in the next sections, as the critical guide to assess the strengths and limitations of the two theories regarding the case of the Zulu Kingdom.


I distinguish three periods in the historical development of the Zulu political structure. Each period manifests distinct breaks in the nature of Zulu government and is characterized by a succession of remarkable events that led to the unification of the Zulu Kingdom in southern Africa. From its initial formation in 1808 to its fall in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879, five kings reigned over the Zulu Kingdom.

The Foundations of the Zulu Kingdom

The history of the Zulu Kingdom begins with the reign of Dingiswayo, Chief of the Mthethwa, an Nguni-speaking group of the Bantu population in southeastern Africa. During his reign from 1808 to 1818, Dingiswayo conquered several chiefdoms surrounding the Mthethwa territory. The main drive for Dingiswayo’s wars of conquest was his desire to end the internecine fighting between different communities and to bring them under a single government. Dingiswayo’s military expeditions were successful largely because he had restructured the former fighting units of different lineages into unified, age-graded regiments. This military reorganization had important sociopolitical implications since it weakened the influence of territorially based kinship relations. Dingiswayo also changed the political order by centralizing power over the conquered area. He increased control over the defeated chiefs when they accepted his dominion or when he considered them loyal favorites. Dingiswayo’s exercise of force was said to be relatively mild beyond the actual conquest, and the chiefdoms submitting to his power and offering tribute were largely left intact.

The Zulu, at that time a small lineage of some 2,000 members, were also conquered by the Mthethwa. Shaka, an illegitimate son of the Zulu chief, took refuge with the Mthethwa, joined their army, and became one of its bravest warriors. When the chief of the Zulu died, Shaka seized power and reorganized the Zulu community along Mthethwa military lines based on age rather than kinship. Dingiswayo died in 1818 during a confrontation with the Ndwandwe community. Thereafter Shaka killed the legitimate heir of Dingiswayo, appointed a favorite to be the new Mthethwa chief, but soon subsumed the Mthethwa regiments under Zulu control and proclaimed himself the new ruler of the Zulu Kingdom.

The Period of Terroristic Despotism

The reign of Shaka marks a crucial phase in the history of the Zulu Kingdom. After Shaka had seized power, he further developed the disciplined organization of the military. He introduced the assegai (a short thrusting spear) and trained the army to encircle the enemy in a shield-to-shield formation so that rival warriors could be stabbed at the heart. These military-technical innovations were to be of enormous political importance. The efficiency of the military apparatus allowed Shaka to gather a large number of chiefdoms into one entity and to incorporate the defeated troops into the Zulu military. Though some chiefdoms were able to disperse into other territories, Shaka’s wars resulted in the merging of some 300 formerly independent chiefdoms into the Zulu Kingdom.

The internal political structure of the kingdom changed dramatically during Shaka’s regime. He ordered his warriors to remain unmarried and made the organization of the age-grade regiments a matter of his personal decision, thus further weakening traditional kinship ties and the powers of the elders in favor of his central authority. Shaka also resorted to violence to neutralize the powers of the Zulu sorcerers so that he alone would have a monopoly of magical practices. In addition, cowards in battle, kinsmen treating Shaka’s mother badly, and anybody arbitrarily chosen by Shaka could be seized and killed. But the authoritarian rule of Shaka still relied on a delicate system of delegated chiefly powers. Shaka was assisted by a staff of chiefs who surrounded him in the royal kraal (a territorial dwelling unit with the house of the King located at the center). While Shaka needed the chiefs to execute his will, he was careful to limit their effective powers and stir rivalry among them so they would check one another but never dispute his will.

The precarious balance of Shaka’s authoritative rule, marked by a continued reliance on a plurality of chiefs and exhausted by terror and violence both at home and abroad, could in the end not be maintained. The system of terror went completely out of control after Shaka’s mother died. Subjects not showing sufficient grief were slaughtered, and Shaka proclaimed that sexual intercourse among his subjects was prohibited, no cows were to be milked, and no crops were to be planted for a period of one year. The regime of destruction and sacrifice finally affected the people’s loyalty for Shaka and evoked mutiny among his people. In 1828, three conspirators, two of which were brothers of Shaka, stabbed him to death. Dingane, one of the assassins and a brother of Shaka, then murdered his fellow conspirators and became the new King of the Zulu.

Dingane’s rule clearly shows the extent to which the regime of Shaka had profoundly affected and changed the Zulu political order. While Dingane initially promised to restore peace and happiness in the country, the system of terror was quickly restored. The death of Shaka had brought about a weakening of central political order, so that different tribes unified under his rule now sought to remove themselves from Zulu authority. To keep the kingdom united, Dingane saw no other way but to resort to the methods of violence instituted during Shaka’s reign. The renewed terror made the relations with the neighboring Europeans increasingly turbulent. During Shaka’s regime, the British and Boer settlers in the area had not interfered with Zulu rule, largely because they could not stand up to the military might of Shaka’s army. But as the European presence grew stronger and the economic advantages of trade with the Zulu decreased, the autonomy of Zulu political developments were affected. Dingane’s brother Mpande joined the Europeans, and, united in military force, they rebelled against the Zulu king. Dingane retreated into Swaziland, but in 1840 he was killed by conspirators led by Mpande, who took over the Zulu throne.

The Contradictions and Fall of The Zulu Kingdom

While some features of the despotic nature of the Zulu political order remained alive and well during Mpande’s rule, the extent of terror generally decreased. The reign of Mpande was peaceful in comparison with his predecessors’ regimes. Instead of engaging in bloody expeditions of conquest, Mpande integrated the military regiments into a system of economic distribution. The political system thereby became more consolidated and functionally differentiated into an economically legitimated regime. At the same time, however, the chiefs, who were officially still considered the King’s loyal agents, started assuming more autonomous power for themselves. The political antagonisms and the weakening of the centralized system mark the first indications of the transitory state of the Zulu political order. When Mpande died a natural death in 1872, after a reign of more than 30 years, his son Cetshwayo became the new King of the Zulu.

Cetshwayo’s reign was short-lived. The Zulu chiefs began to pose limits to the King’s authority, and Cetshwayo could not make decisions of nation-wide importance without their consent. The European pressures on the Zulu state also became stronger. In 1873, Theophilus Shepstone, Natal Secretary for Native Affairs, crowned Cetshwayo King of the Zulu, not, as Cetshwayo thought, to confirm his independent royal authority, but, on the contrary, because the sovereignty of the Zulu King was seen inconsistent with British colonial rule. The coronation of Cetshwayo symbolized that the Zulu Kingdom existed only by virtue of the mercy of the British empire. In 1878, Bartle Frere, the British High Commissioner of South Africa, presented an ultimatum for Cetshwayo to disband the Zulu army, stop the many executions, as Shepstone had already advised during Cetshwayo’s coronation, give missionaries the freedom to teach, and grant young Zulu men the freedom to marry. When the Zulu king did not conform to these demands, a succession of bloody confrontations between the Zulu and the British ultimately led to the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879, after which the Zulu Kingdom was brought under British colonial rule. Cetshwayo then went to England and appealed to the Queen to restore his royal status. This was granted under the condition of several restraints, and Cetshwayo was again crowned King of the Zulu. A military confrontation between the Zulu and the Zibhebhu tribe finally procured the final blow to the once mighty Zulu. Cetshwayo fled from the fighting with the Zibhebhu, and in 1884 he was found dead. Three years later, Zulu territory was declared a British protectorate, and in 1897 it became part of Natal.


Circumscription and Institutionalized Leadership in the Zulu Kingdom

Analyzing the evolution of the Zulu Kingdom on the basis of the suggested theories indicates that the Zulu political structure fits well with Carneiro’s theory on the role of warfare. The data in this regard are overwhelming and leave no doubt on the significance of warfare aggregating formerly dispersed tribes into one nation. The wars of conquest initiated under Dingiswayo’s rule and vigorously intensified by Shaka were certainly the main driving force for the enormous territorial expansion of the Zulu Kingdom, bringing many previously independent chiefdoms under unified political rule.

There is also support for the conditions under which Carneiro considers warfare a cause for the formation of states. First, with regard to environmental circumscription, the Zulu Kingdom, once it had expanded over a wide territory, was indeed confined by environmental borders. The unification of tribes extended from the Indian Ocean in the east to the Buffalo River in the west, and from the Phongolo and Mhkuze rivers in the north to the Thukela River in the south (Guy 1979:3-5; Walter 1969:127,206). Second, resource concentration also played a role in the formation of the kingdom. The coastal region was largely covered with tracts of bush unfit for people or cattle. Further inland, however, areas of sweet grasses were well suited for cattle-herding and harbored the majority of the Zulu people (Gump 1989; Guy 1979:5-9, 1980). The concentration of agricultural resources is also related to the element of population pressure. The availability of food necessary for stock-keeping in the center of Zululand brought about a higher population density there, and this in turn lead to migrations into other areas. But when neighboring areas were already occupied or were ecologically not suited to sustain livelihood, there were limits to increasing production in any region, given the relatively high number of inhabitants. The imbalance between population density and the availability of exploitable areas produced eruptions of violence and intensified struggle over access to vital resources (Guy 1979:9-10, 1980; Stevenson 1968:40-52). The wars of conquest initiated by the Zulu kings found an important impetus in these socio-ecological conditions to neutralize internal conflicts and seek arable land in other regions. In addition, it is important to note that the earlier mentioned significance of environmental circumscription should be considered in conjunction with the element of social circumscription. While the Zulu kingdom was constrained by physical boundaries, these limits at the same time designated divisions between distinct socio-political formations. The opportunities for free movement of the Zulu were limited by the presence of the Swazi and Tembe Thonga to the north, the Boers and Basuto to the west, and the British to the south (Gluckman 1940:27; Walter 1969:247-248). These constraints refer to more than just physical borders: politically significant activities are made possible or impossible by the demarcations set by natural frontiers when and because they also separate relatively well-established social units.

Service’s theory also has its merits in accounting for Zulu state formation. Considering the differentiation of political roles, the function of chieftainship is seen to already have expanded during the reign of Dingiswayo. The settlement of disputes, for instance, was politically adjudicated to the Zulu King and his loyal chiefs. Further developments enhanced the institutionalization of leadership and the differentiation between, to some extent specialized, political roles (Romm 1986:615-641; Service 1975:104-116). During the regime of Shaka, kinship ties were already weakened through the formation of age-grade regiments. The military system became more prominent (without fully developed political roles), and the dominant values of Zulu politics were primarily related to warfare (Gluckman 1940:31; Guy 1980:31; Uzoigwe 1977:31). Shaka’s rule was centralized and authoritarian, but the local chiefs did retain some autonomous power. Dingane brought the chiefs to the capital and further strengthened his sovereign authority. Governmental functions became even more institutionalized under Mpande’s rule. Mpande put his sons in important administrative and economic positions, so that a hereditary based political system became more likely. Now a formal code of legality regulated some disputes (the king alone, for instance, could order executions).

Service’s theory also points to the economic role of leadership: to protect itself, leadership has to secure a redistribution of resources which is equitable (or which can be legitimated as equitable). Indeed, the goods seized in Zulu warfare were used to provide the royal kraal but also to maintain the standing army and control a system of honor and rewards among the Zulu population at large. Shaka already distributed the booty he captured among his warriors, but especially during the reign of Dingane and Mpande the king’s allocation of rewards and supply of food was an important balance against the system of internally directed terror. The economically functional institutionalization of political leadership was further expanded during the reign of Mpande and Cetshwayo when the military regiments, now no longer engaged in warfare, looked after the cattle and secured the allocation of food (Gluckman 1940:133; Walter 1969:192-195). The Zulu Kingdom then had the beginnings of a central, politically controlled system of economy and law.

Strengths and Limitations of the Theories

On the basis of this analysis, the theories of Carneiro and Service both find confirmation by the data on Zulu state formation. However, the sharp contrasts between the theories cannot warrant a simple acceptance of both positions. Some further thoughts on the Zulu political transformation and general criticisms of the theories may lead to a more balanced evaluation in this respect.

First, with regard to Carneiro’s theory, the primordial role he ascribes to warfare in state formation finds tremendous support in the Zulu case. The aggregative wars were undoubtedly crucial for the formation and territorial expansion of the Zulu state. However, Carneiro’s theory seems to neglect an important element of war and terror in the Zulu empire. Walter (1969) has convincingly shown that Zulu political violence came in many forms. The terroristic Zulu regime (especially under Shaka) managed to maintain order not only by expansion but also by further consolidation of evolving political authority. Carneiro (1988:503-507) acknowledges that warfare is only a first, although necessary step for the formation of states and distinguishes between dispersive and aggregative warfare (Carneiro 1990, 1992). Yet he seems to neglect the possibility that war can also play an integrative role in the internal political order. The continued existence of violence and terror in the Zulu state cannot only be accounted for by the role Carneiro assigns to war in externally oriented conquest (competitive exclusion), but should also be explained as an internal mechanism of "coerced inclusion" to sustain political hegemony. The Zulu’s aggregative warfare, as a process of unification by external coercion, was accompanied by an integrative mechanism of internal coercion. Moreover, warfare should not be regarded only a cause but also a result of state formation (Cohen 1984). Carneiro (1992:96) defines war as "an activity of independent, sovereign political units, using force to pursue national policy" and at the same time he characterizes the state as "an autonomous political unit, encompassing many communities within its territory and having a centralized government with the power to collect taxes, draft men for work or war, and decree and enforce laws" (Carneiro 1970:733). The dual role of warfare in the formation and continued existence of political system is not surprising. Weber (1922:342), for instance, had indicated the twofold importance of war for political communities. But it seems necessary to draw more precise distinctions between different types of warfare (for instance warfare to build nations and warfare as a result of state power) in order to indicate its different politically relevant repercussions.[4]

Next, the role of resource concentration in Zulu state formation is less clear in relation to population density. An interesting debate in this regard has focused on the thesis suggested by Fortes and Evans-Pritchard (1940:7-8) that only population size matters in the formation of states, while population density would be related only to ecological conditions and modes of livelihood. Gluckman (1960:166-168) supported this thesis and argues that Zulu population density was relatively low at 3.5 per square mile. Stevenson (1968:40-52), on the other hand, argued that while Gluckman gave an accurate estimate of Zulu population, the area to which this number should be compared was actually smaller so that Zulu population density was higher than Gluckman’s estimate (some 10 per square mile in pre-Shakan times, and 20 around 1850). I can here of course not resolve the issue of Zulu population density, but it should be remembered that Carneiro does not view population density but population density relative to available resources (population pressure) as a condition for warfare to generate state formations. Some cross-cultural evidence supports this thesis. Keeley (1988), for instance, has shown that population pressure is positively correlated to the socioeconomic complexity of hunter-gatherers, identifying two types of hunter-gatherers with rapid transition from one to the other. Research also suggests that population pressure is a prior condition to increasing social complexity, at least in societies with high agricultural development (Harner 1970; Vengroff 1976). While the data on the Zulu are not conclusive in this regard, in light of cross-cultural findings Carneiro’s circumscription theory can definitely not be rejected.

The theory of Service pays more attention to the evolutions taking place in political formations once they have been established territorially. Service argues that the institutionalization of leadership accounts for the increasing complexities in political state formations. In the case of the Zulu Kingdom, such factors include the formation of age-grade regiments, the reorganization of the king’s relationships with the local chiefs, the emerging centralization for settling disputes, the gradual establishment of a redistributive economic system, and the beginning differentiation of political roles. However, in light of the Zulu data, two criticisms can be made of Service’s theory. First, Service may have offered too optimistic a picture of the redistributive mechanisms of economic systems in states. Fried (1978), for instance, argues that the state should be viewed as a stratified order in which different members of society enjoy differentiated rights of access to the basic productive necessities of life. States may stabilize unequal access to strategic resources rather than provide a fair allocation of goods. Second, the literature on the Zulu clearly shows that central systems of legality and economy were undeveloped in the Zulu Kingdom. The beginnings of such systems were present, but they were not fully institutionalized in a permanent bureaucracy. In addition, the wars of conquest in the formation of the Zulu state, as well as the role of internal terror once the kingdom was formed, cannot adequately be accounted for in Service’s theory. While Service rightly draws attention to the necessary monitoring of activities once political communities are territorially formed, he cannot account for the fact that warfare initially leads to the territorial unification of a large population. Externally oriented violence and force were definitely crucial to unite the various tribes into one Zulu Kingdom, and the impression left by the internal system of terror on the Zulu people helped to legitimize the political order (Walter 1969:250-254). Regardless of whether the politically steered economic system was more or less redistributive (Service 1975 ) or helped to sustain inequalities (Fried 1978), the patterns of violence always operated jointly with changing Zulu economic and legal arrangements.


In the literature on the Zulu Kingdom two additional elements are often discussed to explain the formation and expansion of the Zulu state: first, the role of Shaka and the system of terror extended under his rule; and, second, the precise nature of Zulu political developments from dispersed tribes and chiefdoms to one unified state. A brief discussion of these matters will prove valuable to further assess the theories of Carneiro and Service.

The Individual in History: The Role of Shaka

Shaka’s role in the formation of the Zulu state cannot be ignored for, as Sahlins (1983:518-522) argues, history can be a history of kings or "heroic history." This occurs when the cultural order "multiplies" the king’s actions in the social system and myth becomes history. The historical evidence shows that the Zulu kings indeed enjoyed such a powerful sociopolitical role. Zulu ideology maintained that the nation ought to be the body of the king and that all conduct in the country should emanate from his single will. The Zulu people perceived themselves as abantu be nkosi (the people of the king) and the king was referred to as wena Baba (the father of the nation) (Chanaiwa 1980:16; Walter 1969:256-258). With this kind of despotic constitutionalism the terroristic regime of Shaka could survive for a long time and influence later kings who originally sought to reign peacefully.

Shaka’s personality has often been used to explain the terror in the Zulu Kingdom (e.g., Lewy 1979).[5] Even the anthropologist Max Gluckman, who described the formation of the Zulu state in sociostructural terms, could not resist referring to Shaka as "a latent homosexual and possibly psychotic" (Gluckman 1960:158,168). A recent commentator identified Shaka as "a man of extraordinary qualities and courage, a true genius" (Kunene 1987:254,251). In light of the events that took place after the death of Shaka’s mother (including the killing of some 6,000 people), Gluckman (1974:140) concludes Shaka was a near psychotic with a disturbed psychosexuality, while Kunene (1987:275) writes that the incident must have "in some ways disoriented him."

The psychological debate on Shaka’s personality is evidently of great ideological significance, especially in the context of nationalism and ethnic identity today (Golan 1994; Hamilton 1998), but not relevant in the present context beyond the actual implications it may have had for Zulu state formation. Brought down to its proper proportions for the analysis offered here, the social and political impact of Shaka’s military exploits and reign of terror did mark a crucial turning-point in Zulu political developments. In line with Carneiro’s theory, Shaka’s wars were indeed prime movers in the expansion of the Zulu state, and his despotic regime revealed political policy; if not in intent, then definitely with regard to its politically significant effects (Walter 1969:244-263). The wars of conquest, the organization of age-grade regiments, the restructuring of chiefly authority, the weakening of kinship ties and magical powers, and the impression left by the system of internal violence on the Zulu people, did have far-reaching implications for the political order. Regardless of what analyses of Shaka’s character may bring, the political implications of Shaka’s wars of conquest and his role within the Zulu Kingdom are what matter from the perspective of state formation theories.

This discussion raises the question whether Shaka’s wars and the resulting modifications in Zulu political structure originated from developments in the traditional chiefdoms or, conversely, were caused by events taking place outside Zululand. Some authors question the pristineness of the Zulu nation (Lewellen 1983:41-45; Wright 1977:386-393) and defend the position that trade with European visitors and neighboring inhabitants was a deciding factor for Zulu state formation, much like trade has elsewhere also been observed to influence political developments (e.g., Kipp and Shortman 1989; Pastore 1997). This argument contends that Zulu political expansion was initiated to manipulate and monopolize the ivory trade with European settlers (Gluckman 1960:158-160; Gump 1988:525-527; Walter 1969:115). Contacts with the European communities could also have been responsible for Zulu military reorganizations. Dingiswayo, for instance, is reported to have worked for a white traveler from whom he could have learned about extending political rule, regimental organization, and disciplined warfare (Walter 1969:117). While some evidence, then, suggests that Zulu state formation did not occur in perfect isolation, external influences can surely not explain the entire range of changes that took place. Most research indeed indicates that the military-political reorganizations initiated by the Zulu kings on the basis of indigenous systems hunting practices were decisive for the further expansion and consolidation of the Kingdom (Chanaiwa 1980:6-12; Stevenson 1968:33). Shaka, for instance, firmly established the age-graded military regiments, unified hundreds of tribes (in no more than ten years), weakened the power of elders and sorcerers, and controlled a standing army with the aid of loyal chiefs. The subsequent kings maintained and intensified these strategies. These internal processes far outweighed any external influences that at best functioned as catalysts to speed up already ongoing developments.

The Nature of Zulu Political Transformations

Another matter that has not been adequately resolved is whether the political changes in the Zulu territory entailed a radical break from traditional power structures. Even if the political reformations of Zulu society are consistent with internal developments evolving out of the traditional structure of chiefdoms, it is unclear whether the Zulu Kingdom transformed into a political entity radically different from traditional chiefdoms. In this respect, the political anthropologist Southall (1974:155-156) has argued that the definition of modern Western states cannot be applied to precolonial Africa. The political developments taking place in the African context should not too readily be described in terms of a dichotomous division between traditional and modern politics. This would exclude many of the African states that are not transitional to, or aberrant from, modern states but are essentially characterized by a complementary opposition between different elements of both chiefdoms and states. From this perspective, Lewellen (1983:35-36) suggests that the Zulu Kingdom should not be seen simply in terms of Western states since, next to features of European modern states (e.g., the unification of formerly autonomous groups, and the claim to a monopoly of force), it still bore the mark of traditional chiefdoms (e.g., the lack of fully developed occupational specialization, and the continuing importance of relatively independent clans).

Different times and different places call for different analyses, guided by similar goals (to determine the nature and evolution of government), yet aimed at locating those causes and conditions that were specific to the African region in the precolonial era (an insight which applies equally to postcolonial Africa, see Stark 1986). When states are characterized as "historically specific" (Denis 1989:347), it should follow that they are analyzed in terms of their own history. To further assess this matter in light of the Zulu case, Gluckman (1974) has in one of his later works on the Zulu offered an interesting interpretation that provides support for this position (see MacMillan 1995). Rejecting some of his earlier assertions on the radical transformation of Zulu politics (e.g., Gluckman 1958, 1960), Gluckman (1974) indicates some pertinent ambiguities in Zulu political evolution and argues that developments from egalitarian to more complex, differentiated societies must be conceived as a long-term process. With the Zulu this implies fully taking into account the ambivalence between the increasing complexity of political reformations and the persisting resistance from traditional structures. On the one hand, the reorganizations of the Zulu army, particularly under Shaka’s reign, were decisive in weakening kinship-based political alliances. Within the geographical confines of the Zulu Kingdom, military arrangements crossed territorial divisions in favor of age-based regiments that come close to a differentiation of political roles in modern states. On the other hand, however, Gluckman (1974) also indicates that Zulu political transformations remained limited precisely because they were only military in nature, and that further political developments towards a centralized and bureaucratically differentiated state were hampered by the limiting effects of the Zulu Kingdom’s material basis. This is demonstrated by Shaka’s "inability to use the cattle the armies seized, save by distributing them among his people and killing them to provide great public feasts" (Gluckman 1974:143). Gluckman asserts that the transformations in the Zulu political system were substantial but not radical: substantial because of the military reorganization and the unification of different chiefdoms through aggregative warfare; but not radical because of the limitations in technology and economy prohibiting further political developments. He concludes that the formation of the Zulu Kingdom involved limited structural change, with radical change coming only with the Anglo-Zulu War and the destruction of the state.

Gluckman’s position clarifies how the partial applicability of the theories of Carneiro and Service actually reflects ambiguities and tensions within the Zulu political structure. On the one hand, the territorial expansion and unification brought about by Zulu warfare and the installation of war heroes into quasi-political offices conform with Carneiro’s theory. On the other hand, in line with Service’s theory, if these positions of military-based authority do not develop into genuine political offices, a true consolidation of political hegemony cannot come about. Primarily integrated by military force and reorganized along military lines, with traditional and diversifying principles of political organization still persisting, the Zulu Kingdom was essentially a political formation in transition, well underway to become crystallized into a fully consolidated state, yet still lacking the differentiation and specialization of complex political states which was characteristic for the British settlers who were therefore in a position to subsume it under their control. The discussion on whether the changes that account for the political nature of the Zulu Kingdom resulted from influences from outside the boundaries of the Zulu Kingdom therefore proves to be of limited relevance. Such rigid distinctions seem to rest on the fiction that sociopolitical developments can take place in a vacuum. It appears better to acknowledge that political communities always constitute, vis-a-vis their neighboring regimes, relatively autonomous entities. In the case of the Zulu Kingdom, for instance, some outside influences were present, but their role can only have existed in facilitating processes already started within the Zulu territory. It was the tragic fate of the incompleteness of this process, the fact that tensions persisted between the remnants of the traditional chiefdom system and the newly formed political state structure, that facilitated the European overthrow of the regime.


Based on this analysis, Carneiro’s theory can adequately explain the initial creation of the Zulu kingdom over a wide, yet circumscribed territory. The data reveal the significance of aggregative warfare in the evolution of the Zulu kingdom and, though there is disagreement over the element of population density, Carneiro’s auxiliary hypotheses on the socio-ecological conditions of state formation generally find support in the Zulu case. The theory of Service, on the other hand, can account for some of the further internal developments in the Zulu political order. Regardless of Shaka’s personal role, a matter which is important only with regard to its political consequences, the territorial expansion initiated under Dingiswayo and intensified with Shaka did lead to political and economic reorganizations. These changes did not develop into an institutionalized bureaucratic system but rather represented its rudimentary beginnings. Moreover, the limited role Service ascribes to coercive and repressive mechanisms of internal control neglects the effect of terror and violence in the Zulu Kingdom. The terroristic nature of government continued to endure during the reign of Mpande and Cetshwayo when political roles were more, yet not fully, differentiated. In Carneiro’s theory, this element of coercion can more easily be accounted for as the antivoluntaristic component of state formation "turned inward:" warfare can be aggregative or dispersive but also internally functional for the consolidation of political authority. However, both theoretical viewpoints seem to neglect the ambivalent state of Zulu political transformations and their gradual evolution into more complex formations (Lewellen 1983:1-12). In line with Gluckman’s perspective of the limited structural changes in the Case of Zulu political developments, I contend that the kingdom was transforming into an indigenous African state, yet lacked the complexity and functional differentiation that would have been necessary to have opposed the European overthrow.

Both coercive and integrative evolutionary models of political development, trying to capture transformations in unilinear terms, cannot account for the ambiguous state of political formations. Such a more dynamic and complex perspective harmonizes with some of the most recently advanced theories in the political anthropology of state formation. Cohen (1993), for instance, has argued for a "lenticular" state theory to suggest a process of formation, transformation, and (possible) de-formation of political states. Likewise, Roscoe (1988, 1992, 1993) has proposed a processual perspective of state formation that takes into account topographical as well as other conditions of military expansions, suggesting how nonmaterial, specifically symbolic factors in cultural practice, must also be considered. The development of the Zulu state in this respect confirms the criticisms that have long been raised against such progressively oriented evolutionist perspectives. To account for the tensions that remained present in the Zulu Kingdom, even when it covered an area of unprecedented, a multidimensional processual model of state formation seems called for. Any political community, whether more or less egalitarian or differentiated, should at any particular point in time be described in terms of degree: political formations always entail a process of historical change, and, as current events in Eastern Europe unfortunately show, process does surely not always mean progress. Therefore, the Zulu case demonstrates the need for a dynamic perspective of state formation and transformation —not one based on a pre-determined evolutionist scheme but one allowing for influences from various forces— to explain the changing nature of political structures. The Zulu Kingdom, then, can be characterized as an essentially military state which was politically not fully developed. Precisely because of the ambiguities resulting out of conflicting principles of organization, the kingdom was vulnerable to outside attack. However paradoxically, the history of the Zulu state thus becomes as much a question of its destruction as of its formation.


[1]  I am grateful to Paul Shankman for his help in the preparation of this paper. I also thank Robert L. Carneiro, Eve Darian-Smith, Paul Roscoe, and the late Elman R. Service for their helpful comments on a previous draft. An earlier version won the graduate student paper competition of the Northeastern Anthropological Association.

[2]  For general discussions of state formation theories, specifically as they apply to nonwestern societies, see Cohen (1978), Haas (1982), Lewellen (1983:45-54), and Service (1978). The contrasts between the theories of Carneiro and Service are addressed in Carneiro (1970:733-734, 1987:760-762, 1988), Graber and Roscoe (1988), Haas (1982:71-85, 133-136, Schacht (1988), Service (1975:xi-20), and Roscoe (1988).

[3]  This presentation of the evolution of the Zulu state is largely based on Walter (1969:109-243), Gluckman (1960, 1974), Gump (1994), Ritter (1955), and Romm (1986). Additional material was taken from Becker (1964), Guy (1979:3-40), Laband (1992), Morris (1965), and Thompson (1969:336-364).

[4]  It may be not warfare as such but warfare under particular ecological conditions that leads to increasing political complexity (Shankman 1991; Knauft 1992), and that ecological constraints become sociopolitically relevant in light of a specific cultural heritage (Peoples 1993). In the case of the Zulu Kingdom, the element of warfare must be evaluated in terms of its organizational structures and the authoritative command over decisions in warfare rather than the sheer capacity to make war (Otterbein 1967; Peires 1981:9-10; Ferguson 1990:47-51). Similarly, its is argued that the hierarchical settlement of warfare by the establishment of state authority often leads to new, internal conflicts over political power and economic resources (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1993:869-870) and that pristine states were from the start marked by further expansion drives (Algaze 1993).

[5]  Beyond Shaka’s personality, the mfecane (the great crushing) has been a matter of continued controversy in this regard. The mfecane refers to the Zulu terror and warfare which disrupted large parts of southern Africa during the 1820s and which may have led to the depopulation of a large area in Southern Africa (Gump 1988:534; Wright 1991). The evidence on the violence of Zulu warfare, however, does not permit conclusions that go beyond the unification of the Zulu state, and, as Cobbing (1988) argues, an analysis of these events in terms of black-on-black destruction, ending with the European restoration of peace and security, mainly serve ideological purposes. However, this is not to deny the existence of internal dynamics in the shape of aggregative warfare within Zulu territory (See Eldredge 1992; Hamilton 1992; Omer-Cooper 1993, and Peires 1993).


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