From Empire to Colony

Many European countries sent missionaries to follow in the wakes of famous 16th and 17th century explorers. Norway was the first such country to establish a permanent presence among the Zulu people of southern Africa in 1844. Previous attempts to establish mission stations in Zululand had failed, but the Norwegians found themselves welcome after healing the king’s rheumatism. Missionaries and other settlers created a secondary economy and subculture in southern Africa. The missionaries sought to eliminate obstacles to conversion, promoted European cultural values over Zulu, and facilitated the loss of Zulu political autonomy.

The Zulu People

The Zulu people lived on the grasslands of southern Africa’s interior, maintaining a life centered on herding cattle. Zulu people lived with their extended families in semi-sedentary villages called kraals, which featured numerous huts organized around a central cattle pen. Before colonization, Zulu political organization featured several chiefs holding roughly equal authority. Families expressed allegiance to chiefs by moving their kraals near the chief they supported.

In the mid-1700s, European merchants introduced new forms of economic trade to African tribes. The struggle to control trade with the Europeans created tensions and led to many wars between tribes including the Zulu. By 1816, Shaka, a Zulu chief, had emerged as a regional power, coercing other chiefs to submit to him. The Zulu Empire continued to be a regional power until the British annexed Zululand in 1884.

Luther College’s Zulu Connection

Norwegian missionaries in Zululand established mission stations, permanent compounds including churches, schools, and housing for the missionaries and Zulu employees. The first Norwegian missionary, Hans Schreuder, was alone; other pastors and their families joined him over the years. His successor in 1883 was Nils Astrup, joined by his brother Hans in 1884.

Hans and Nils Astrup had a unique relationship with Luther College; their brother-in-law, Laur Larsen, was the college’s first president. Nils hosted two of President Larsen’s daughters, Marie and Hanna, while they served as schoolteachers at the Schreuder Mission. After Marie’s death in 1897, Hanna returned to Decorah. She later published a book and donated her collection of Zulu objects to the college.

Zululand’s Economy

Prior to and during initial contact with Europeans, Zulu life was centered on cattle. Cattle were not only a source of food and clothing but also a measure of wealth and status within Zulu society. Cattle, by exchanges such as lobola and sisa, tied people together. Lobola, or bride price, was the number of cattle given to a woman’s father by her fiancé. Sisa was a loan of cattle to a poor family in exchange for their allegiance. A man’s herd size, wives, and sisa loans determined his wealth and status.

Zulu Clothing

Zulu clothes were different than European clothes. Children regularly wore nothing, and women wore only a black leather skirt. Men wore a belt from which hung a snuff bag and had aprons in front and rear. While in the military, men wore large collars of cattle tails, with two more tails tied at their knees as shin guards, loincloths, and headdresses of ostrich feathers. Zulu clothing or lack thereof shocked most European newcomers to Zululand.

Mission stations required Zulus to wear the approved European-style clothing. By 1897, many women bought cotton for clothing, marking a success for the missionaries. In addition, colonial employers hired Africans only if they wore Western clothing, thus signaling their missionary education. However, Zulus masquerading as mission-educated took advantage of their employers. These men would find salaried work and work that job for some time, only to quit and return to Zululand. After their return, they would use the money they had earned to purchase cattle, entering the traditional cattle economy.

The British Colonial Expansion

In 1873, the British colonial governor officially presided over the coronation of the new Zulu king, Cetshwayo, in exchange for his signature on a constitution calling for checks on his power. Cetshwayo ignored the constitution and violated his promises. After failed attempts at diplomacy, the British colonial army attacked, starting the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. In less than eight months, Great Britain defeated the Zulu and formally annexed Zululand as a colony in 1884.

The Missionaries’ Role

Missionaries worked to make Christianity acceptable to Zulus, a process necessitating that obstacles to conversion be removed. After thirty years of little success, the missionaries began seeing the king’s authority as the last obstacle to mass conversion. The Norwegian Bishop of Missions mediated between the new Zulu king and the colonial government to arrange the former’s coronation. The coronation began a series of events that culminated in Zululand’s annexation by Great Britain. Ironically, these events had little effect on Zulu acceptance of Christianity; Zulus did not convert en masse as hoped.

This display was exhibited in Koren in 2012, converted for web exhibit 2013 by Jess Landgraf ('14).