Sir Bartle Frere, the British High Commissioner in South Africa 1877–80, depicted Cetshwayo ka Mpande, the Zulu king 1872–9, as a bloodthirsty monster. This article discusses the accuracy and justice of this depiction, and the nature of Zulu kingship. It shows that both Frere and the missionaries on whom he relied for evidence wished to bring the Zulu kingdom under British rule and thus had a strong motive for discrediting Cetshwayo. The fact that missionary testimony against Cetshwayo was particularly hostile and abundant at times when there seemed a real possibility of British annexation casts particular doubt on the value of this testimony. Missionaries misinterpreted and exaggerated much of the evidence, which, more dispassionately examined, appears to show that, while executions were common in the Zulu kingdom, Frere's account of the nature of Cetshwayo's reign was grossly overdrawn. The territorial chiefs of the country were responsible for many of the executions, and there is evidence that Cetshwayo attempted to ameliorate conditions. Nevertheless the tendency to attribute to him the methods of nineteenth-century British constitutionalism is unhistorical and culture-bound. Cetshwayo was a Zulu king in the tradition of his uncle Shaka, and ruled by fear and arbitrariness as well as by the law.