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Only known drawing of Shaka standing with the long throwing assegai and the heavy shield in 1824 - four years before his death
Only known drawing of Shaka standing with the long throwing assegai and the heavy shield in 1824 - four years before his death

Shaka (sometimes spelled Tshaka, Tchaka or Chaka; ca. 1787 – ca. 22 September 1828) is widely credited with transforming the Zulu tribe from a small clan into the beginnings of a nation that held sway over that portion of Southern Africa between the Phongolo and Mzimkhulu rivers. His military prowess and destructiveness have been widely credited. One Encyclopaedia Britannica article (Macropaedia Article "Shaka" 1974 ed) asserts that he was something of a military genius for his reforms and innovations. Other writers take a more limited view. Nevertheless, his statesmanship and vigour in assimilating some neighbours and ruling by proxy through others marks him as one of the greatest Zulu chieftains.

Early years

Shaka was probably the first son of the chieftain Senzangakhona and Nandi, a daughter of the past chief of the Langeni tribe, born near present-day Melmoth, KwaZulu-Natal Province. He was conceived out of wedlock somewhere between 1781 and 1787. Some accounts state that he was disowned by his father and chased into exile. Others maintain that his parents married normally. When his mother became pregnant with him, she claimed that her growing belly was because of a "shaka" or intestinal beetle, hence his name. Shaka almost certainly spent his childhood in his father's settlements, is recorded as having been initiated there and inducted into an ibutho or 'age-group regiment'. In his early days, Shaka served as a warrior under the sway of local chieftain Dingiswayo and the Mthethwa, to whom the Zulu were then paying tribute.

Dingiswayo called up the emDlatsheni iNtanga (age-group), of which Shaka was part, and incorporated it in the iziCwe regiment. Shaka served as a Mthethwa warrior for perhaps as long as ten years, and distinguished himself with his courage, though he did not, as legend has it, rise to great position. Dingiswayo, having himself been exiled after a failed attempt to oust his father, had, along with a number of other groups in the region (including Mabhudu, Dlamini, Mkhize, Qwabe, and Ndwandwe, many probably responding to slaving pressures from southern Mozambique) helped develop new ideas of military and social organisation, in particular the ibutho, sometimes translated as 'regiment'; it was rather an age-based labour gang which included some better-refined military activities, but by no means exclusively. Most battles before this time were to settle disputes, and while the appearance of the impi (fighting unit) dramatically changed warfare at times, it largely remained a matter of seasonal raiding, political pressures rather than outright slaughter. Of particular importance here is the relationship which Shaka and Dingiswayo had.

On the death of Senzangakona, Dingiswayo aided Shaka to defeat his brother and assume leadership in around 1812. Shaka began to refine the ibutho system further, used by Dingiswayo and others, and with Mthethwa's support over the next several years forged alliances with his smaller neighbours, mostly to counter the growing threat from Ndwandwe raiding from the north. The initial Zulu manoeuvres were defensive and offensive, and mostly Shaka preferred to intervene or pressure diplomatically, aided by just a few judicious assassinations. His changes to local society built on existing structures, and were as much social and propagandistic as they were military; there were a number of battles, as the Zulu sources make clear.

Later Dingiswayo was murdered by Zwide, a powerful chief of the Ndwandwe (Nxumalo) clan. Shaka took it upon himself to avenge Dingiswayo's blood. At some point Zwide barely escaped Shaka, though the exact details are not known. In that encounter Zwide's mother, a Sangoma (Zulu word for a seer, more than it is a traditional doctor. This person can consult the spirits of the dead, cast spells, bewitch, heal and many others) was killed by Shaka. Shaka chose a particularly gruesome revenge on Zwide's mother, locking her in a house and placing jackals or hyenas inside. They devoured her and, in the morning, Shaka burned the house to the ground. Despite carrying out this revenge, Shaka was still eager to kill Zwide. It was not until around 1825 that the two great military men would meet, near Phongola, in what would be their final meeting. Phongola is near the present day border of KwaZulu-Natal, a province in South Africa. The victory went to Shaka, however he sustained heavy casualties and lost his head military commander - Umgobhozi Ovela Entabeni.

Patterns of Shaka's hegemony

In the initial years, Shaka had neither the clout nor the kudos to compel any but the smallest of groups to join him, and he operated under Dingiswayo's aegis until the latter's death at the hands of Zwide's Ndwandwe. At this point Shaka moved southwards across the Thukela River, establishing his capital Bulawayo in Qwabe territory. He never did personally move back into the traditional Zulu heartland. In Qwabe, Shaka may have intervened in an existing succession dispute, and help his own choice, Nqetho, into power; Nqetho then ruled as a proxy chieftain for Shaka.

Shaka's hegemony was primarily based on military might, smashing rivals and incorporating scattered remnants into his own army. He supplemented this with a mixture of diplomacy and patronage, incorporating friendly chieftains, including Zihlandlo of the Mkhize, Jobe of the Sithole, and Mathubane of the Thuli. These peoples were never defeated in battle by the Zulu; they did not have to be. Shaka won them over by subtler tactics of patronage and reward. The ruling Qwabe, for example, began re-inventing their genealogies to give the impression that Qwabe and Zulu were closely related in the past -a handy fiction. In this way a greater sense of cohesion was created, though it never became complete, as subsequent civil wars attest.

The major conflicts

In 1816, after the death of his father, Shaka had seized power over the then-insignificant Zulu clan. Though he was boosted in by the Mthethwa, and his brother Sigujana was killed, the coup was relatively bloodless and accepted by the Zulu. Shaka still recognised Dingiswayo and his larger Mthethwa clan as overlord after he returned to the Zulu, but some years later Dingiswayo was ambushed by Zwide's amaNdwandwe and killed. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that Shaka betrayed Dingiswayo. Indeed, the core Zulu had to retreat before several Ndwandwe incursions; the Ndwandwe were clearly the most aggressive grouping in the sub-region.

Shaka was able to form an alliance with the leaderless Mthethwa clan, and was able to establish himself amongst the Qwabe, after Phakathwayo was overthrown without much of a fight, if any. With Qwabe, Hlubi and Mkhize support, Shaka was finally able to summon a force capable of resisting the Ndwandwe (of the Nxumalo clan). Historians like Donald Morris (Washing of the Spears) state that Shaka's first major battle against Zwide of the Ndwandwe was the Battle of Gqokli Hill, on the Mfolozi river. Shaka's troops maintained a strong position on the crest of the hill. A frontal assault by their opponents failed to dislodge them, and Shaka sealed the victory by sending elements in a sweep around the hill to attack the enemy's rear. Losses were high overall, but the efficacy of the new Shakan innovations was proved. It is probable that over time, the Zulu were able to hone and improve their encirclement tactics.

Another decisive fight eventually took place on the Mhlatuze river, at the confluence with the Mvuzane stream. In a two-day running battle, the Zulu inflicted a resounding defeat on their opponents. Shaka then led a fresh reserve some seventy miles to Ndwandwe ruler Zwide's royal kraal, and destroyed it. Zwide himself escaped with a handful of followers, before falling foul of a chieftainess named Mjanji, ruler of the baPedi clan. He died in mysterious circumstances shortly after. Shaka's general Soshangane (of the Shangaan) moved off north towards what is now Mozambique, to inflict further damage on less resistant foes and take advantage of slaving opportunities, causing Portuguese traders to give tribute. Shaka later had to contend again with Zwide's son, Sikhunyane, in 1826.

Death and succession

Dingane and Mhlangana, Shaka's half-brothers, appear to have made at least two attempts to assassinate Shaka before they succeeded, with perhaps support from Mpondo elements, and some disaffected iziYendane people. While the British colonialists considered his regime to be a future threat, allegations that white traders wished his death are problematic given that Shaka had granted concessions to whites prior to his death, including the right to settle at Port Natal (now Durban). Shaka had made enough enemies among his own people to hasten his demise. It came relatively quickly after the devastation caused by Shaka's erratic behaviour after the death of his mother Nandi. According to "The Washing of the Spears" by Donald R. Morris and Mangosuthu Chief Buthelezi, in this mourning period, Shaka ordered that no crops should be planted during the following year, no milk (the basis of the Zulu diet at the time) was to be used, and any woman who became pregnant would be killed along with her husband. Massacres were carried out of those deemed insufficiently grief-stricken (though it wasn't restricted to them) and cows were slaughtered so that their calves would know what losing a mother felt like.

The Zulu monarch was killed by three assassins sometime in 1828, (September is the most often cited date) when almost all available Zulu manpower had been sent on yet another mass sweep to the north. This left the royal kraal critically short of security. It was all the conspirators needed- Shaka's half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana, and an inDuna called Mbopa. A diversion was created by Mbopa, and Dingane and Mhlangana struck the fatal blows. Film and book portrayals of dramatic pre-death speeches by Shaka warning of future European imperialism lack credibility, as do stories of colorful and impressive burial ceremonies. In reality, Shaka's corpse was dumped into an empty grain pit by his assassins and filled with stones. The exact site is unknown. Historian Donald Morris holds that it is somewhere on Couper Street in the village of Stanger, South Africa.

Shaka's half-brother Dingane assumed power, and embarked on an extensive purge of pro-Shaka elements and chieftains, running over several years, in order to secure his position. A virtual civil war broke out. Dingane ruled for some twelve years, during which time he fought, disastrously, against the Voortrekkers, and against another half-brother Mpande, who with Boer and British support, took over the Zulu leadership in 1840, and ruled for some 30 years. Later in the 19th century the Zulus would be one of the few African peoples who managed to defeat the British Army (at the Battle of Isandlwana).

Shaka's social and military revolution

Some revisionists have doubted the military and social innovations customarily attributed to Shaka, denying them outright, or attributing them variously to European influences. But both explanations fall short. In fact the Zulu culture which included other tribes and clans contained a number of practices that Shaka could have drawn on to fulfill his objectives- whether in raiding, conquest or hegemony. Some of these practices are shown below.

Weapons changes

Shaka is often said to have been dissatisfied with the long throwing assegai, and credited with introducing a new variant of the weapon—the Iklwa, a short stabbing spear, with a long, swordlike spearhead. It was named, allegedly, for the sound made as it went in, then out, of the body. Shaka is also supposed to have introduced a larger, heavier shield made of cowhide and to have taught each warrior how to use the shield's left side to hook the enemy's shield to the right, exposing his ribs for a fatal spear stab. The throwing spear was not discarded, but used as an initial missile weapon, until the impis closed with the enemy, hand to hand.

Introduction of a shorter stabbing spear area makes practical sense if an attack is to be pressed home, versus ritualized stand-off encounters involving throwing spears, as is the use of a larger shield in such close quarters combat. Implementation of a more reliable hand-held weapon would have been a must for aggressive raiding operations implemented under the Shakan regime.

Greater mobility via sandal-less feet, constant drill and forced marches

The story that sandals were discarded to toughen the feet of his men may or may not be accurate but the bare feet of many Zulu warriors has been noted in various military accounts. (See Donald Morris "The Washing of the Spears" or Edgerton's "They Fought Like Lions" or Ian Knight's "Anatomy of the Zulu Army"). Implementation was typically blunt. Those who objected to going without sandals were simply killed, a practice that quickly concentrated the minds of available personnel. Shaka drilled his troops frequently, implementing forced marches covering more than fifty miles a day in a fast trot over hot, rocky terrain. He also drilled the troops to carry out encirclement tactics (see below).

Well-organised logistic support by youth formations

Young boys from the age of six up joined Shaka's force as apprentice warriors (udibi) and served as carriers of rations, supplies like cooking pots and sleeping mats, and extra weapons until they joined the main ranks. It is sometimes held that such support was used more for very light forces designed to extract tribute in cattle, women or young men from neighbouring groups. Nevertheless, the concept of "light" forces is questionable. The fast-moving Zulu raiding party or impi on a mission did travel "light", driving cattle as provisions on the hoof and were not weighed down with heavy weapon and supply packs. The herdboy logistic structure was deployed in support of such activities, and was easily adaptable, whether the force was numerous ("heavy") or not.

The age-grade regimental system

Age-grade groupings of various sorts were common in the Bantu tribal culture of the day, and indeed are still important in much of Africa. Age grades were responsible for a variety of activities, from guarding the camp, to cattle herding, to certain rituals and ceremonies. Shaka organized various grades into regiments, and quartered them in special military kraals, with each regiment having its own distinctive names and insignia. The regimental system clearly built on existing tribal cultural elements that could be adapted and shaped to fit an expansionist agenda. There was no need to look for European inspiration hundreds of miles away.

The famous "buffalo horns" formation

Most historians (Morris, Knight et al.) credit Shaka with initial development of the famous "buffalo horns" formation. It was composed of three elements:

  1. the "horns" or flanking right and left wing elements to encircle and pin the enemy. Generally the "horns" were made up of younger, greener, but quicker moving troops.
  2. the "chest" or central main force which delivered the coup de grace. The prime fighters made up the composition of the main force.
  3. the "loins" or reserves used to exploit success or reinforce elsewhere. Often these were older veterans.

Coordination was supplied by regimental inDunas (chiefs or leaders) who used hand signals and messengers. The scheme was elegant in its simplicity, and well understood by the warriors assigned to each echelon.

Some controversy has arisen over whether the Zulu chieftain could have developed such a system. However, the use of separate maneuver elements to support a stronger central group is well known in pre-mechanized tribal warfare, as is the use of reserve elements farther back. Indeed some Xhosa groups of Southern Africa used separate elements including an advance guard. See Noel Mostert's history of Southern Africa "Frontiers" and McMillian's "Boer, Bantu and Briton". Morris notes on page 38 that attempts to surround an enemy were not unknown even in the ritualized battles.

Organization and leadership of the Zulu forces

The host were generally partitioned into 3 levels: regiments, corps of several regiments, and "armies" or bigger formations, although the Zulu did not use these terms in the modern sense. Any grouping of men on a mission could collectively be called an impi, whether a raiding party of 100 or horde of 10,000. Numbers were not uniform, but dependent on a variety of factors including assignments by the king or the manpower mustered by various clan chiefs or localities. A regiment might be 400 or 4000 men. These were grouped into corps that took their name from the military kraals where they were mustered, or sometimes the dominant regiment of that locality.

Shakan methods versus European technology

The expanding Zulu power inevitably clashed with white hegemony in the decades after Shaka' death. Indeed, white travelers to Shaka's kingdom demonstrated advanced technology such as firearms and writing, but the Zulu monarch was less than convinced. There was no need to record messages he held, since his messengers stood under penalty of death should they bear inaccurate tidings. As for firearms, Shaka was impressed, but after seeing muzzleloaders demonstrated, he argued that in the time the gunmen took to reload, the gunmen would be swamped by charging spear-wielding warriors. Ironically, this latter boast was to be put to the test against European opponents where the Zulu were defeated.

The first major clash after Shaka's death took place under his successor Dingane, against expanding white Voortrekkers from the Cape. Initial Zulu success rested on fast moving surprise attacks and ambushes, but the Voortrekkers recovered and dealt the Zulu a severe defeat from their fortified wagon laager at the Battle of Blood River. The second major clash was against the British during 1879. Once again, most Zulu successes rested on their mobility, and ability to screen their forces and close quickly when their opponents were unfavorably deployed. Their major victory at the Battle of Isandlwana is well known, but they also forced back a British column at the Battle of Hlobane mountain, deploying fast moving regiments over a wide area in the rugged ravines and gulleys while the British were on the move.

Nevertheless, the Zulu failed to learn from their earlier defeats and persisted in "human wave" attacks against well defended, static European positions where massed firepower decimated their ranks. It is questionable whether Shaka might have done things differently. Certainly his operations during his rise to power showed both imagination and flexibility. His successors could argue that they had faithfully followed his classical template which had advanced the Zulu from a small, obscure tribe to a strong regional power, but it is also clear that those following Shaka lacked his tactical vision and acumen.

Shaka as the creator of a revolutionary warfare style

Sweeping claims that Shaka 'changed the nature of warfare in Africa' from 'a ritualised exchange of taunts with minimal loss of life into a true method of subjugation by wholesale slaughter', are open to question. Certainly his military campaigns created widespread destruction and local distress where his impis were active. When the bigger picture of the entire region is considered, several other factors come into play, including white expansion at the Cape, slaving in Mozambique, and the usual assortment of agricultural pressures common to that region. Still on the balance, it seems clear that Shaka's military expansion caused much disruption and turmoil of the Mfecane, and played a major role in shaping the area where he resided and beyond.

Like every other aspiring hegemon, Shaka faced dissent and opposition, but the mere presence of these did not negate his activities or plans. And while sweeping broad brush claims of Shaka's revolutionary impact must be treated with caution, so too must more limited revisionist assertions, which in turn fail to achieve a balanced view of the Shakan tenure, and fail to see that the tribal structures and culture itself, provided enough precedent and raw material for Shaka to embark on his plans of hegemony or expansion, and many of the innovations he is traditionally credited with.

Shaka in Zulu culture

He is Shaka the unshakeable,

Thunderer-while-sitting, son of Menzi
He is the bird that preys on other birds,
The battle-axe that excels over other battle axes,
He is the long-strided pursuer, son of Ndaba,
Who pursued the sun and the moon.
He is the great hubbub like the rocks of Nkandla
Where elephants take shelter
When the heavens frown...


The figure of Shaka still sparks interest among not only the contemporary Zulu but many worldwide who have encountered the tribe and its history. The current tendency appears to be to lionize him; popular film and other media have certainly contributed to his appeal. Against this must be balanced the devastation and destruction that he wrought. And yet traditional Zulu culture still reveres the dread monarch, as the typical Praise Song above attests. It should be noted that praise names are among the most widely used poetic forms in Africa, applying not only to gods but to men, animals, plants and even towns.

Mfecane - The Aftermath of Shaka

The increased military efficiency led to more and more clans being incorporated into Shaka's Zulu empire, while other tribes moved away to be out of range of Shaka's impis. The ripple effect caused by these mass migrations would become known (though only in the twentieth century) as the Mfecane. Some groups which moved off (like the Hlubi and Ngwane to the north of the Zulus) could have been impelled by the Ndwandwe, not the Zulu. Some moved south (like the Chunu and the Thembe), but never suffered much in the way of attack; it was precautionary, and they left many people behind in their traditional homelands.

Among the many fascinating cases of the Mfecane is that of Mzilikazi of the Khumalo who was a 'general' of Shaka's, who fled Shaka's employ, and in turn conquered an empire in Zimbabwe, after clashing with European groups like the Boers. Other notable figures to arise from the Mfecane include Shoshangane, who expanded from the Zulu area into what is now Mozambique. Shaka was clearly a tough, able leader, the most able of his time, and during the last four years of his reign indulged in several long-distance raids.

The theory of the Mfecane holds that the aggressive expansion of Shaka's armies caused a brutal chain reaction across the southern areas of the continent, as dispossessed tribe after tribe turned on their neighbors in a deadly cycle of flight and conquest. This theory must be treated with caution, as it generally neglects several other factors such as the impact of white encroachment and expansion in that area of Southern Africa around the same time. Revised histories have cast doubt on the concept of the Mfecane and its attribution of wholesale migration and destruction to the Zulu. A more balanced approach sees Zulu expansionism as one of a number of factors (albeit an important one) that disrupted traditional patterns of the local area. One outstanding example of the traditional view of the Mfecane is J.D. Omer-Cooper's "The Zulu Aftermath".

It is safe to say that Shaka was not like an African version of Napoleon or Bernard Montgomery with a "master-plan". To the contrary the record shows a shrewd, if harsh manipulator of circumstances, customs and events to cobble together the Zulu nation under difficult circumstances and with patchy success at times.

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