The secret history of King Dinuzulu

Princess Dinuzulu (left) meets film maker and official Zulu royal family storyteller Khubu Zulu
Richard Gibbs

More than two decades earlier, in 1889, the young king – who had been crowned at the age of 16 by the Boers in their bid to gain an ally against the British – had been found guilty of high treason and exiled to the remote British island of St Helena, thousands of kilometres from South Africa in the mid-south Atlantic Ocean.

The island was also once the unwanted home for another famous enemy of the British, Napoleon Bonaparte, the emperor of France, who was exiled there after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

The death of a king

As he lay on his deathbed, the king made one last request to the British – to be buried with his ancestors on the hills overlooking the Mpembeni River in Zululand. He had lost his family and clan.

He had lost his great friend Harriette Colenso. Harriette, the eldest daughter of the Bishop of Natal, John “The Heretic” Colenso, was Dinuzulu’s champion and also, according to some, his rumoured lover. She was a woman determined to give expression to “the grand instinct of virtue”, a suffragette before the suffragettes came into existence.

Above all, Dinuzulu had lost his kingdom. His people had tried in vain to stop the advance of the British imperialist forces – and with the establishment of the Union of South Africa three years earlier, they were now outsiders in the land of their birth.

Dinuzulu had once written: “My sole crime is that I am a son of Cetshwayo ... It beset me when I was a child and my father was taken by the white people, and it is still besetting me. I could not bury Cetshwayo, my father; he died while I was being chased … I did not bury my mother, Okamsweli; she had died while I had been a prisoner … Nkosi, what is grievous is to be killed and yet alive.”

There are suspicions that, like his father, King Cetshwayo kaMpande, who had famously defeated the British at the Battle of Isandlwana, Dinuzulu had been poisoned. But the allegation remains unproven.

Dinuzulu’s deathbed request was granted and he was buried with only a few people in attendance about 300km northeast of Durban in the eMakhosini Valley, close to Nongoma. The sacred site, known as the Valley of the Kings, is one of the official gravesites of the Zulu royal family. It isn’t a place of tourism or pilgrimage, but a humble family graveyard you could easily miss on the road that runs past it.

A few months after Dinuzulu’s burial, the institution of the Natives Land Act of 1913 by the Union of South Africa saw the sanctioned dispossession of land from African people into the hands of white settlers and their British backers.

The official storyteller

Like so many other leading Africans, the remarkable story of Dinuzulu’s life remains worryingly lost to the history books. What little historical account does exist is written by the victors, apart from the works of the late Professor Jeff Guy and Professor Shula Marks.

But Khubu Zulu or, more officially, Her Royal Highness Nomkhubulwane ka Mandlenkosi ka Magengeni ka Dinuzulu, a Joburg film maker, has made it her mission to ensure that a more nuanced narrative of her great-grandfather’s life, and that of the Zulu kingdom, doesn’t disappear for future generations.

“The narratives that dominate at this point are largely from a colonial perspective,” she tells me as we sit at the kitchen table of her home in Bellevue, Johannesburg.

Zulu shows me a letter addressed to her, bearing the official insignia of the Zulu royal house and signed by King Goodwill Zwelithini. It grants her the powers to tell the stories of the Zulu royal family, making her one of the very few custodians of the monarchical legends that are passed down from one generation to the next – often only orally.

Zulu says she is grateful to the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund and the department of arts and culture for the support they have given the project to preserve histories “so we can understand the struggles that have shaped our present reality”.

Before her designation as official storyteller, Zulu had been working on research into the hidden details of the more famous Shaka Zulu story, until one day she stumbled across a story by the poet Stephen Gray, published in the Mail andamp; Guardian, who had travelled to St Helena and met an islander calling herself Princess Dinuzulu.

Zulu says Gray’s story was followed about two years later by another one about her, headlined “Meet the lost Zulu princess” in the Daily Sun by that newspaper’s late founder and publisher, Deon du Plessis.

Zulu felt compelled to ask her late father, Prince Mandlenkosi ka Magengeni ka Dinuzulu, what he knew of her great-grandfather’s life and this mysterious second cousin, Princess Dinuzulu, that she had never heard of.

“I visited my father in Nongoma and told him I wanted to do this story about my great-grandfather’s life and his time in exile ... I had my camera with me and I wanted to film him relating the story, but he didn’t want any of it. He said that this story is one I must write, but he started telling me the story of my great-grandfather – a lot of which is not in the history books,” she says.

‘Theft and plunder, plain and simple’

Zulu couldn’t believe some of the tales he was telling her.

“Of course my question was, ‘How do you know this?’ and he said they were from my grandmother, Dinuzulu’s wife. Well, one of his wives – she was the great wife.”

The great wife, Zulu explains, is not always necessarily the first wife. Any wife could be called “great” if she showed the greatest leadership qualities and was thus selected by the king and his council to lead the family and bear the heir to the throne.

“I found out from my father that Dinuzulu and his great wife, uMthshekula wa ka Sibiya, had three children – two girls and a boy, my grandfather Magengeni ka Dinuzulu. I found out that my grandfather had been born on St Helena, which came as a surprise because I had always assumed he was born in South Africa.”

There is a story she holds back from telling for the time being about her grandfather’s brother, Solomon, who succeeded the Zulu throne after Dinuzulu’s death – a story she refers to as “influenced by kingmakers and palace politics”.

I joke that it’s like an African Game of Thrones. “It is that,” she laughs, “Especially in terms of the women.”

“My great-grandmother was highly considered by Dinuzulu because she stood by him when everyone turned on him, including Bambatha’s wife.”

Zulu goes on to tell the story behind the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906, which ultimately led to Dinuzulu being jailed in Greytown Prison after he was found guilty of high treason for harbouring Chief Bambatha’s family when Bambatha was being hunted down by the British army.

“When he harboured Bambatha and his people, Dinuzulu said: ‘You come and live in my house,’ and Bambatha’s wife and children came to live with him. Yet, even Bambatha’s wife ultimately betrayed him.”

“The annexation of Zululand by the British colony of Natal was really about the British settlers, who wanted, even without the consent of Her Majesty’s government, to build the colony of Natal. The only way they could do it was to have Zululand, and to have Zululand they needed to have the Anglo-Zulu war with Dinuzulu’s father, Cetshwayo, in 1879,” Zulu says. “It was theft and plunder, plain and simple.

The British considered the Zulus to be a bunch of uncivilised savages whose land could simply be taken away from them ... It was theft, basically ... You must understand. Zululand at this stage had a thriving, self-sufficient economy. But the Natal colony needed a workforce and the only way they could achieve this was to turn to Zululand and its abundant labour force, as they saw it. This is the reason this war was waged in the first place.”


Dinuzulu was sent to St Helena after being found guilty of high treason and sedition for leading, at the age of 16, his Usuthu regiments and a small Boer commando of 300 men in victory against the forces of Chief Zibhebhu ka Maphitha and the British.

Zibhebhu was an important ally of the British in their divide-and- rule strategy as they pushed for the annexation of Zululand into 13 smaller territories, to be ruled by compliant indunas. The move would dismantle the power of the Zulu royal house.

Dinuzulu arrived on the island with an entourage of 20, which included two of his wives; two uncles including Shingana; Harriette Colenso’s sister, Frances; a doctor, translator and advisers. They were forbidden from wearing their traditional Zulu dress and adopted the linens and pantaloons of the British.

Dinuzulu took to the structures enforced on him with what enthusiasm he could muster and, in the face of them, quickly learnt to write in perfect script with quill and ink, and play and compose on the piano and organ.

He describes it in a letter: “I play the piano, the ship’s upright; I play the Mariner’s Jog and the Hornpipe, and play Für Elise. I shall play the organ down at St James Cathedral when I am confirmed. Then I will have only one wife. Naturally the green hill is in Eshowe, which we miss somewhat.”

On any given day he could be found, whip in hand, wandering over St Helena’s rocky outcrops in velvet slippers, silk ties and tall top hats, sometimes leading his entourage of loyal attendants.

He was also, it seems, quite the ladies’ man. In the 10 years he was exiled on the island, he fathered seven children, including the now 80-year-old Maglan Noden – “Princess Dinuzulu”, the one Zulu had read about in Gray’s and Du Plessis’ articles.

A royal homecoming

Zulu has been working solidly for the past eight years on her plans to tell Dinuzulu’s story to the world. The vision is, to put it lightly, expansive. There are plans for an epic costume-drama biopic, an opera and a museum.

First will be a documentary feature where Zulu boards the ship to St Helena to tell the story of Dinuzulu’s exile on the island and to meet her second cousin, Princess Dinuzulu (Noden).

Noden’s mother was a local St Helena woman who was an attendant to the king during his exile.

“She told me she wanted to meet her family and to visit her grandfather’s grave. I guess she was marking her place in history and saying: ‘I’m the granddaughter of the king who was exiled to St Helena. Everyone talks about Napoleon, but he didn’t father any children on the island. So there’s a bigger heritage here that most people don’t know about.’”

Noden, a retired opera singer, has lived between England and St Helena all her life.

“So that bit is still left to do, to close off the documentary feature aspect – to go back to St Helena and bring Princess Dinuzulu to the Royal House in KwaZulu-Natal and create some closure for her story.

“She knows she doesn’t have much time left because her health has not been too good lately. So that’s where the urgency is right now, to make this homecoming happen.”

Zulu knows this project is likely to consume a few more years of her life, but she knows it has to be done.

As I’m about to leave, she tells me: “It’s a story about power, greed and, most of all, where we come from. That’s our history and that’s what we need to rewrite so there is a plurality of voices. And when we talk about things, it’s not just this one perspective that dominates. The recent events that are happening in South Africa reflect a past of conquest and death, which need to be revisited and reanalysed.”