The Rise Of Shaka And The Zulu Empire

CULTURE | January 5, 2020

A statue of Shaka Zulu. Source: (Getty Images)

In the southeast corner of Africa, the warrior-king Shaka Zulu built a powerful empire in the 19th century, but his descent into despotism and madness was his ultimate undoing.

Zulu warrior in full regimental regalia, carrying the large isihlangu war shield. c. 1860. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Senzangakhona kaJama, the chief of the small, insignificant Zulu clan and Nandi, an orphan daughter of a neighboring Langeni clan chief had an affair that resulted in the birth of Shaka Zulu in 1787. Due to his illicit origins, Shaka held low status in the clan and his father wanted nothing to do with him. He tried to deny his paternity. In fact, Shaka’s stems from Senzangakhona saying that Nandi was not pregnant but was ill from an intestinal malady transmitted by the iShaka beetle. Nandi was taken on as Senzangakhona’s third wife, but he soon exiled her and her son back to her own people.

With the Lageni, Shaka was tormented by members of the clan and relentlessly hazed because of his status. While Shaka endured it all in silence, he became a bitter, lonely, and angry young man. He only found comfort with his mother, and he hated the Lageni people.

During this time, Shaka grew to be tall and powerful. Shaka took up stick fighting and developed great skills. Others were fearful to fight Shaka since the young warrior found to wound or kill, rather than out of fun like his peers. Shaka seemed to derive peace and pleasure from battle. He also mastered the six-foot long assegai, a spear tipped with steel. 

An 1824 sketch of Shaka Zulu with an assegai. The only known image of him drawn during his life. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

 Eventually, drought forced a 23-year old Shaka and his mother to leave the Lageni and find shelter with the Mtetwa tribe headed by the chief Dingiswayo. Dingiswayo was forming an army and saw much promise in Shaka, so he recruited him into his forces. Fighting among the Zulu at that time was largely ceremonial where opponents would hurl insults at each other, throw a few spears, but not do any lasting damage. Dingiswayo used these methods to increase his own territory. Shaka, however, disagreed with these tactics and advocated the wholesale destruction of enemy clans.

Shaka proved to be an innovator. He ran bare-footed, finding that traditional sandals were more of a hindrance than a help. Also, he is credited with developing the iKlwa, a short thrusting spear to replace the cumbersome assegai. He never liked the longer throwing spear since to Shaka’s mind it made no sense to throw away your weapon. The iKlwa, was used to stab enemies at close range. Its name came from the sound the weapon made when it was pulled out of an opponent’s body. Shaka reportedly developed a tactic where a Zulu warrior could use a new, smaller shield to sweep away an opponent's shield and leave his side exposed to attack. He was promoted by Dingiswayo into a command position in 1816.

At that time, Shaka learned that his father Senzangakhona had died and that his half brother, Sigujana, had become chief. Shaka quickly orchestrated Sigujana’s assassination and usurped power for himself. Shaka was now chief but his army was only between 350-400 warriors. 

A Zulu warrior with the shorter stabbing spear, the Iklwa. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Shaka, however, was ambitious and frankly lusted for power. He relentlessly trained his men. His warriors ran at a trot, typically covering 30-40 miles per day and up to 50 at need. Complainers were executed. All his warriors had to be celibate unless they had been married before (wives and children were considered distractions). Because of this training, and because Shaka was utterly ruthless, he was able to quickly subdue and incorporate neighboring tribes into his rising Zulu empire. 

A Zulu warrior. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Another key to Shaka’s success was his strategy. He developed what became famously known as the “horns of the buffalo” or “horns of the bull” formation in which the Zulus would form a mass of warriors in the center. These would engage the enemy in the front while detachments of warriors forming “horns” flanked the enemy from the sides in a double envelopment. It was very effective, first against the hated Lageni to whom he showed little mercy and then the Buthelezi clan. Within a year after taking power, Shaka Zulu had 2,000 warriors at his command.

The Buffalo Horn formation. The numbers represent 1) the opposing army 2) the horns 3) the chest and 4) the loins. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Shaka made an alliance with Dingiswayo to conquer southeast Africa. However, Dingiswayo was killed by a rival. Wars among the clans including the Zulus continued, resulting in Shaka’s victory and unification of the tribes under his Zulu empire. His kingdom covered the southern coastal and hinterland sections of modern KwaZulu-Natal.

A statue representing Shaka Zulu in London, United Kingdom. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Shaka completely disrupted the region as tribes fled against the wrath of his warriors. Over the next decade of conquest, he brought some 250,000 people into the Zulu kingdom and had 50,000 warriors at his command. It was at the apogee of his power that he met for Europeans. The British Henry Francis Fynn of the Farwell Trading Company who had been exploring the area for potential colonization heard of Shaka Zulu’s power. Curious, Fynn went to him. Shaka apparently wished to learn more about the British, particularly their King George. During a dance ceremony, Shaka was stabbed, but Fynn’s surgical assistant treated him. In response, Shaka signed over the area of Port Natal to the British. Shaka Zulu undoubtedly did not know what the ramifications of this would be.

From the 1999 miniseries Shaka Zulu: The Citadel. Source: (Photo By Getty Images)

Shaka Zulu continued his wars of conquest until 1827 when he received word while on an elephant hunt that his beloved mother died of dysentery. Overwhelmed with grief, the already despotic Shaka fell into deeper tyranny. He ordered a year-long period of mourning. Crops were not to be planted, intercourse was not to be conducted (pregnant women and their husbands were to be executed) and milk from cattle and goats was to be poured on the ground. Death followed, leaving Shaka 7,000 subjects less by the time he called off the period of mourning after three months.

The Battle of Isandlwana. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

But it was too late. His people had reached their breaking point. In September 1828 he was killed by three assassins with spears at a council meeting. Shaka Zulu died at age 41 after a short reign of 12 years. Yet his deed in unifying and revolutionizing the Zulus would live in history forever. Perhaps the most notable part of his legacy is that the tactics he devised were used in the 1879 Battle of Isandlwana in which an army of Zulu warriors defeated an army of British soldiers. It was Britain’s worst defeat by an indigenous people. Shaka Zulu, aside from the bloody and horrific portions of his rule, is looked at as a symbol of African unity.

Tags: Shaka And The Zulu Empire

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