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The Zulu National Character

August 10th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · Feature:Nations, History

What this is about, including full list.

In the opening chapter of Making Empire: Colonial Encounters and the Creation of Imperial Rule in Nineteenth-Century Africa, Richard Price notes that even though the Xhosa are the most politically powerful tribe in South Africa and that British African policy in the 19th century was largely in response to dealing with the Xhosa, it is the Zulus who have always had a greater hold on the British imagination, even when the British had little to do with them. The Zulus were led in the early 19th century by a powerful soldier-king, Shaka. They were a warlike people that epitomized the idea of the fierce native warrior. They fought like Europeans in ordered formations with regular battle plans. And, of course, they overran a British force at Isandlwana; an African enemy obviously worthy of respect.

The Zulu expansion under Shaka so disrupted the sociopolitical structure of his region that it was given a name – the Mfecane. Shaka’s wars were fast and brutal and caused a spiraling wave of forced migration and ongoing warfare through the first half of the 19th century. As a king he was a military reformer, a political revolutionary and finally assassinated after a few tries. His nephew, Cetshwayo, would finally lose the kingdom to the British in 1879, but would be briefly reinstalled as a puppet later.

It’s honestly hard to justify the Zulu as the greatest of the African civilizations. Their migration and warfare did not lead to any great empire; a tiny corner of South Africa along the Indian Ocean. Give Shaka credit for survivability and military insight, but he wasn’t the Napoleon of the Cape. There is no Code of Shaka, after all.

The Zulu were, however, the most obvious of the African. Like the Babylonians, Meier probably used them in the game because, first, he needed an Africa civ that wasn’t Mediterranean Egypt, and second, people knew who the Zulu were. Recognition was the important thing here. The default name for the first Zulu city in Civ 1 and 2 was Zimbabwe – which is not even a Zulu city.

It is, however, the center of a great Bantu kingdom of the middle ages and if you see the Zulu as the most prominent of the Bantu people, then I guess you can squeeze it in. The Bantu migration through southern Africa marks that language group as one of the most widespread in the world; Rise of Nations in fact uses the Bantu as a faction with the special power of Migration. So you get to build one city over your cap and cities are much, much cheaper to begin with. If you want a quick landgrab, the Bantu are the proper faction in Rise of Nations.

I get the sense that Civ‘s designers realized that the Zulu weren’t necessarily the best choice in an African civ. Civ 4, after all, ditched Shaka until the Warlords expansion. Instead the Mali were the African option, a great West African kingdom that dominated the region as a traditional empire would, and with a legendarily rich and devout Mansa Musa as a ruler. (These two were joined by Ethiopia in the second expansion.)

Civilization 5 has so far had only the Songhai – another West African empire – with no reports of new African civs around the corner. Rise of Nations included the Merchant focused Nubians, another Nile civilization.

And that’s it. That’s Africa in games about history and expansion unless you include the Paradox grand strategy games where Africa is a picked bone slowly gnawed by imperial Europe. And these few nations, except the Zulu, never repeat or cross streams. There are no Africans at all in Age of Empires, Empire Earth, Empires: Dawn of the Modern World. (Can we get some new words please, while we’re at it?)

This is the Gun, Germs and Steel effect in game design. As Jared Diamond pointed out in his Pulitzer winning book, the earth did not give every nation an even playing field. Access to an climate, crops, domesticated animals and other natural factors almost inevitably lifted Eurasia to the top of the historical pyramid, while Africa lagged behind. Civ-like games are about building empires from the engines of war and technology, and if the earth’s axis means crops can’t spread as well north to south as they can east to west and that you get zebras and elephants instead of horses and sheep, then you have a history of small empires and no really obvious candidates for glory.

Africa is of course the home of medieval Great Zimbabwe, a walled city that dominated its landscape. And the Great Library of the Mali and a king so rich that his donations while on pilgrimage crashed the gold markets of Egypt for a decade. And pyramids outside those of the Pharaohs, built down the Nile valley by a southern kingdom that the son of the sun god had to constantly guard against. And a valiant Christian dominion on the horn that resisted European influence until finally conquered on the eve of World War 2 – turning Ethiopia into a watchword for the failure of collective action and her emperor into a god. The great African empires are Western Islamic states or, or Orthodox Abyssinia. A “home grown” empire like the Zulus or one you would find in India or East Asia has to fight against a game design that is about “progress”.

But, oddly, the Americas are seen as full of choices for historical game developers. Rise of Nations has *five* American factions. The Mayans had writing, at least. And the Inca an elaborate road system. And the Aztecs great cities. You can point to the Iroquois Confederacy as a sign of political sophistication and the Sioux nomadic society that resisted American movement west. And I guarantee that few of these stories seem especially alien or foreign to gamers.

Of course, neither are the Zulu alien or foreign. They fit the stories we tell just fine – they’re dark, savage warriors with assegai charging into the rifles of British redcoats. They even made a good movie about it. The Zulu are Africa, because they are still the Africa so many of us just accept as a fact of life on that poor, exploited continent. The idea that the ruinous Congo War has political causes as deep and personal as the outbreak of World War I is unknown, because all we see reported is that thousands more Africans are being raped and slaughtered and starved every day, sometimes by their own governments.

The fact there is so little consensus on who should be the major African civilization doesn’t mean that there aren’t any. It means that maybe we have a poor understanding for what made a major civilization in Africa outside of the powers of the Islamic empires in the west. Maybe I am too quick to dismiss Shaka as a minor chieftain based solely on the postage stamp kingdom he bought with the blood of many Africans – for his era, he was the dominant regional figure, feared by everyone around him.

And we already know who he is. I look forward to kicking his ass again soon.

Next time, a short round up of big factions left out of the first Civ, but that have made their presence known since.


8 Comments so far ↓

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  • Andrew Doull

    Brilliant article….

  • Austin

    The board (war) game Victoria Cross is a great way to get in some Zulu battling as well: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/29199/victoria-cross-ii

  • Fast Eddie

    “But, oddly, the Americas are seen as full of choices for historical game developers. Rise of Nations has *five* American factions”

    The American civilisations were lucky enough (from the perspective of posterity, not so lucky in any other regards) to meet Europeans when the latter were still emerging from the Middle Ages. These were cities and cultures that still had the capacity to awe the European interloper, even as they set about pillaging and conquering.

    In contrast, Europeans only really came into sustained contact with the sub-Saharan African kingdoms in the 19th C. By this stage the former were so ahead of the game that it would have taken a lot to impress them. Large walled cities inspire less awe when they can be blown apart with high explosives. Almost certainly the Zulus are so well remembered in the West today because they did the one thing that was certain to impress the White Man – score a military victory over him.

    All of which is a reminder that computer games both have unimaginative titles and are almost entirely designed by Westerners and reflect a European world view.

    Anyways, any chance of an inclusion of the Celts in the final round-up?

  • Ginger Yellow

    “That’s Africa in games about history and expansion unless you include the Paradox grand strategy games where Africa is a picked bone slowly gnawed by imperial Europe.”

    Sub-Saharan Africa, maybe, but not Africa. Egypt in countless strategy games? The Almohad faction in Mediaeval: Total War?


    wow new information i’ve learn in the history… maybe i will gonna search about that topic so that i can understand well thanks anyways.

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  • zipdrive

    A sterling conclusion for a brilliant series, and an eye-opening one, to boot!
    Thanks, Troy.