In the early 19th cent. the area was inhabited primarily by Bantu-speaking Zulu people (see Zululand). In the 1820s and 30s the British acquired much of Natal from the Zulu chiefs Shaka and Dingane. Afrikaner farmers (Boers) arrived (see Trek, Great) in 1837 and, after battles with the Zulu (notably the Boer victory over Dingane at Blood River in 1838), established (1838–39) a republic. In 1843, Britain annexed Natal to Cape Colony, and a Boer exodus followed. In 1856, Natal became a separate colony. Sugarcane cultivation began c.1860, and many Indians (mostly indentured laborers) came to work in the sugar industry. Many Indians remained in Natal after their indenture expired; by 1900 they outnumbered whites. In 1893, Natal was given internal self-government; in 1910 it became a founding province of the Union (now Republic) of South Africa.

In 1970 South Africa's apartheid government established a Zulu homeland, or bantustan, from a number of isolated enclaves within Natal. It was initially known as Zululand but soon called KwaZulu, and was given nominal self-government in 1977; Ulundi was the capital from 1980. During apartheid, a large percentage of the province's black population was forced to live in KwaZulu, which had a subsistence economy based on cattle raising and corn growing. In the 1980s and 90s, the black townships of Natal were wracked by conflict between the African National Congress and the Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party, under the leadership of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, which dominated the KwaZulu government; fighting diminished in the late 1990s. Under the post-apartheid constitution, KwaZulu was joined with the rest of Natal to form KwaZulu-Natal.

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