The Zande were formed by military conquest, beginning probably in the first half of the eighteenth century; they were led by two different dynasties that were similar in organization yet differed in origin and political strategy. The Vungara clan, starting out from near present-day Rafai, in the south of the Central African Republic, overran a large number of small preexisting peoples, whom they incorporated—politically, but also, in varying degrees, culturally and linguistically—into the main body of the Zande people. Their kingdoms—from Zemio eastward—remained both fissiparous and expansionist until the era of European colonization. Over the same period, a non-Zande dynasty, the Bandia, starting out from southwest of Bangassou in northern Zaire, expanded first east and then north; their territorial expansion seems to have ended around 1855, to be followed by in-depth consolidation. In contrast to the Vungara, the Bandia, although they remained a distinct "foreign" dynasty, adopted the Nzakara/Zande language and customs of their subjects. Both dynasties apparently owe their success to superior political and military organization; they seem to have possessed no determining technological superiority. Both still constitute a recognizable aristocracy in the areas of their former domination.
A number of important cultural features are said to have been derived from the Mangbetu, a similarly organized people living to the south of the Uele River who were never subdued by the Zande. Contact and sporadic conflict with Arabs seem to date from the second half of the eighteenth century but resulted in neither Arab domination nor any profound cultural influence—except for the acquisition of guns, which helped safeguard continued Zande autonomy and reinforced the existing political system.
The first European travelers arrived in the 1860s. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Zande came under three different colonial administrations—Belgian, French, and Anglo-Egyptian, the frontiers of which have been inherited by their respective successor states.
The main impact of colonial rule was, at first, the end of the wars that had up to then been both culturally and structurally endemic between the Vungara-led kingdoms. Colonial administrations also imposed changes in the settlement pattern (away from the traditional scattered homesteads along the banks of streams, toward settlement along newly built or widened roads). In addition, they introduced labor recruitment for government or concessionary-company projects, particularly road building and cotton growing. In other respects the Azande were—except near the towns—shielded by colonial officials from Arab and other outside influences. Since independence, British officials in Sudan have been replaced largely by northern, Islamic Sudanese; many Zande are said to have trickled across the border into Zaire.