Southern Africa, 1800–1900 A.D.

  • View of Antsahatsiroa, Madagascar
  • Figure: Female
  • Club
  • Headrest
  • Headrest
  • Headrest


1800 A.D.

1825 A.D.

Establishment of British Cape Colony, 1814
Rule of Shaka, 1816–28

1825 A.D.

1850 A.D.

Rule of Shaka, 1816–28
Boer Great Trek into Transvaal, 1836–38

1850 A.D.

1875 A.D.

Diamonds discovered in Cape Colony, 1867
Tsonga carvers create sculpture for Europeans, 1870–1900

1875 A.D.

1900 A.D.

Tsonga carvers create sculpture for Europeans, 1870–1900
Continued European colonization of Southern Africa, 1884–1974
Anglo-Boer War, 1899–1902


The Cape of southern Africa, already populated by Dutch (Boer) immigrants, comes under the control of Britain. This serves as the point of expansion for further European settlement of the interior as they seek grazing lands and sources of gold and diamonds throughout the nineteenth century. Unhappy with British colonial policies, Boer farmers found republics on the Transvaal beyond the scope of British domination. Among indigenous communities, the development of large, centralized chiefdoms by Nguni and Zulu peoples results in the overall militarization of society and the implementation of far-flung systems of tribute that concentrate and redistribute forms of wealth such as cattle, beads, and metals. This political concentration results in the adoption of foreign traditions, such as figurative sculpture originating from northern, Tsonga-speaking communities, into Zulu and Nguni material culture. Similar processes of consolidation occur in Madagascar, where a succession of Merina kings places much of the island under Merina control. By the late nineteenth century, however, both Madagascar and the southern African mainland are incorporated into the French and British colonial empires, respectively.

Key Events

  • 1800

    Among Zulu-speaking peoples, male warriors adopt the practice of wearing head rings to indicate their status as mature adults eligible for marriage. As the Zulu become a dominant military and political force within southeastern Africa over the course of the nineteenth century, head ring use spreads as far north as present-day southern Mozambique.

  • ca. 1800–1810

    Andrianampoinimerina (“The Lord at the Heart of Imerina”), also known as Nampoina (“The Deserved One”), unifies and expands the Merina kingdom in the central highlands of Madagascar. He introduces regulatory policies and structures of accountability by establishing a judicial code, banning alcohol, tobacco, and hemp, and devising a system of weights and measures. Public works projects are accomplished through a system of tributary labor.

  • 1806

    British forces occupy the Dutch Batavian Republic on the Cape of southern Africa.

  • early 19th century

    A power struggle emerges among rapidly expanding Nguni chiefdoms to the south of Delagoa Bay (present-day southern Mozambique and northeastern South Africa). Nguni social institutions such as male initiation are directly tied to military service as rulers vying for regional dominance organize standing armies. A decisive battle in 1817 leaves chief Zwide the undisputed Nguni ruler while his defeated adversaries and their followers are forced out of the region, initiating a northward Nguni migration that ultimately reaches parts of present-day northern Zimbabwe and Mozambique as well as southern Tanzania, where they become known as “Ngoni.”

  • 1810–28

    Radama I ascends to the throne of Merina upon the death of his father Nampoina. He arranges for the establishment of British mission schools throughout the kingdom and encourages the creation of a Malagasy written language based on the Latin alphabet. Literacy spreads rapidly, and by 1827 about 4,000 Malagasy men and women can read and write. The Merina kingdom’s diplomatic ties to the United Kingdom also help Radama realize his imperial ambitions, and by the time of his death in 1828 he has conquered most of Madagascar.

  • 1814

    The former Dutch Batavian Republic becomes a British colony.

  • 1816–28

    Shaka ascends to the throne of a minor Zulu chiefdom controlled by Nguni ruler Dingiswayo (died 1817). Over the following decade, he reorganizes his military into permanent regiments and imposes innovations in arms and tactics that enable him to challenge and overcome his Nguni overlords. Chief among these developments are the use of short-handled stabbing spears rather than the traditional throwing javelins and the arrangement of soldiers into formations that more effectively surround and overcome opposing troops on the field of battle. As the kingdom expands to encompass conquered or protected peoples, Shaka initiates a tributary system based on cattle, furs, feathers, and carved wooden items administered by appointed officials. The circulation of valuable copper and brass is tightly regulated, and prestige items such as brass neck rings and armbands, as well as wire used to embellish wooden clubs and scepters given in tribute, are created in workshops based at the royal compound and distributed through the court. Large quantities of figurative wooden sculpture enters the region in the form of duties paid by Tsonga-speaking peoples to the north, ultimately creating the false impression among late nineteenth-century ethnographic collectors that the Zulu peoples are themselves accomplished carvers of wood. Shaka is assassinated in 1828.

  • 1820s

    Britain initiates a campaign to populate the Cape Colony with British settlers to offset the Dutch (Boer) majority. The high level of unemployment in the United Kingdom encourages British emigration to the region.

  • 1821

    An offshoot of the Zulu kingdom migrates to the Transvaal region of southern Africa and forms the Ndebele chiefdom.

  • 1833

    Zulu regiments overrun the Portuguese fort at Lourenço Marques (modern Maputo), Mozambique. The Portuguese position in southern Mozambique had been repeatedly tested by chronic warfare with Nguni chiefdoms.

  • 1838

    Known to Westerners as early as the 1790s, the rock paintings and engravings found throughout southern Africa become the subject of academic inquiry when Sir James Alexander publishes An Expedition of Discovery into the Interior of Africa: Through the Hitherto Undescribed Countries of the Great Namaquas, Boschmans, and Hill Damaras, Performed under the Auspices of Her Majesty’s Government and the Royal Geographic Society (1838), in which he interprets figurative works as documentary images recording aspects of the life and culture of the indigenous San peoples.

  • 1830s–40s

    Southern Zulu-speaking peoples who are politically and economically independent from the authoritarian Zulu kingdom develop their own cultural traditions. In striking contrast to the Zulu kingdom, where glass beads are tightly regulated royal commodities, the southern Zulu region witnesses an explosion of beaded goods, including clothing and jewelry, worn by members of age grade societies and other individuals of achievement. Wooden headrests characterized by multiple vertical or horizontal struts also appear.

  • 1830s–40s

    Rulers of the Mutapa, Rozvi, and Ndebele states adopt the practice of consulting royal spirit mediums from the neighboring Shona peoples. A similar tradition appearing during the late eighteenth century at Maroserana courts in Madagascar may have similar origins.

  • 1836–38

    As British control over Cape Colony solidifies, disaffected Boer settlers emigrate northward in a series of migrations known as the Great Trek. Crossing the Orange River into the Transvaal, they subdue native populations such as the Ndebele and Zulu and organize the republics of Natal and the Orange Free State to the northeast of Cape Colony. The Ndebele are displaced northward into present-day Zimbabwe.

  • late 1840s

    British artist George Angas visits Natal and records scenes from indigenous life, later published in the book The Kafirs Illustrated (1849). Included are portrayals of Zulu chief Mpende with courtly objects such as two intricately carved wooden thrones created by royal artist Mtomboti kaMangcengeza.

  • 1867

    Scholars Adam Render and Carl Mauch publish the first European study of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. They advance the theory that the site’s ruins are the remains of ancient Ophir, the biblical Phoenician city whose great mines supplied the gold brought to King Solomon by the Queen of Sheba. The authors are convinced that contemporary rites performed at the site by local African populations reflect the cult practices of the ancient Israelites. This scenario captures the imagination of author H. Rider Haggard, who publishes King Solomon’s Mines and She in 1885 and 1887. It is only in 1906 that this view is repudiated and scholars recognize the African origins of the site.

  • 1867

    The discovery of diamonds in Cape Colony accelerates the rate of settlement and industrial development in southern Africa as the region becomes a magnet for prospectors and foreign investors. Attention is focused on the interior north of Cape Colony as other mineral-rich territories are sought. Britain, concerned about German, Portuguese, and Boer designs on the region, gives tacit support to the rapid expansion of Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. By the 1890s, the company controls territories as far north as present-day Zambia and Malawi.

  • 1869

    The Malagasy court, led by Merina nobles, adopts Christianity as the state religion and destroys royal sacred relics known as sampy.

  • 1870–1900

    Displaced Tsonga-speaking carvers from present-day southern Mozambique resettle in Natal Colony (modern northeastern South Africa) and, along with Zulu-speaking artists who emulate them, produce wooden figurative sculptures such as walking sticks for European settlers. The carvings appear to be modeled upon didactic figures made for use in male initiation ceremonies, and represent a broad range of subjects illustrating social changes resulting from white domination. Portrayals of rural African workers dressed in Western clothes reflect colonial regulations that forbid traditionally dressed Africans from entering Natal’s towns. Depictions of European men in kilts are inspired by the presence of Scottish regiments garrisoned at Fort Napier.

  • 1870s–late 19th century

    Wesleyan, Church of Scotland, and American Board missionaries begin to ordain African ministers. The placement of native Africans in positions of religious authority within Christian society results in the development of an African Christian intelligentsia and spurs the rapid growth, by the 1890s, of independent churches led by mission-educated African preachers.

  • 1873

    Intrigued by enigmatic rock paintings and engravings found within the district of Natal, colonial magistrate Joseph Orpin hires Qing, a native San man, to interpret them. Orpin’s sketches, accompanied by Qing’s commentaries, are sent to Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, linguists conducting research among the local San peoples in Cape Colony. Over the course of the next decade, Bleek (who dies in 1875) and Lloyd compile sketches of rock paintings and record interviews with San individuals about San art and culture, ultimately compiled and published by Lloyd as Specimens of Bushman Folklore in 1911. Because of colonial-era policies of extermination that decimate San populations throughout southern Africa, these early testimonies comprise a singular body of ethnographic data whose significance for the later interpretation of San rock art cannot be overestimated.

  • 1879

    British troops commanded by Lord Chelmsford wage a six-month war to crush the Zulu kingdom and remove ruler Cetshwayo from power.

  • 1884

    Germany claims the territory between Portuguese Central Africa (Angola) and the Cape Colony as German South Africa (present-day Namibia).

  • 1890s

    A series of natural disasters including rinderpest, locusts, drought, and smallpox decimates crops and cattle herds throughout southern Africa, forcing impoverished indigenous populations to seek employment from white settlers. These developments effectively lock African labor into the colonial cash economy.

  • 1893

    The British conquest of the Ndebele opens up areas of the Transvaal to agriculture and mineral prospecting. A fierce uprising waged by the Ndebele and neighboring Shona peoples in 1895 forces the colony to renegotiate the terms of occupancy.

  • 1896

    Battling Merina soldiers wearing traditional costume associated with ancestral warriors, France conquers Madagascar. Over the next year, the French military administration stamps out Merina power by completely suppressing indigenous political practices. The royal remains are moved from the Merina capital of Ambohimanga to Tananarive, a French stronghold, and the annual festival of the royal bath is replaced by Bastille Day.

  • 1899–1902

    The United Kingdom clashes with the Boer settlers in a final effort to subdue the independent Boer republics and unite them with its own South African colonies. They are aided by the Tswana and other native populations. Boer women and children are contained in prison camps with poor sanitation and health care; between 1900 and 1901 approximately 28,000 out of 117,000 inmates die of disease.


“Southern Africa, 1800–1900 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)