Warfare, Political, Leadership, and State Formation: The Case of the Zulu Kingdom, 1808-1879(1)

By Deflem, Mathieu | Ethnology, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Warfare, Political, Leadership, and State Formation: The Case of the Zulu Kingdom, 1808-1879(1)


Deflem, Mathieu, Ethnology


The origin and evolution of the nineteenth-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. (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 formation, 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 essay 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 set 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, 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 formation 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. …

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