Zulu Empire and Shaka

SHAKA ZULU

1787 – 1828
South Africa

Of all the thousands of African tribes existing in Central and Southern Africa from time immemorial, the Zulu Nation is likely the most recognized and infamous tribe that ever ruled sub Saharan Africa.

How did this tribe gain such notoriety and how did it come to dominate not only all fellow African tribes in Southern Africa but also challenge first the ruthless Afrikaners/Boers and then the mighty British Empire?

Shaka’s Early Life

African tribes throughout South Africa during the late 18th century and early 19th century were small and fairly isolated. Many forces, including over grazing, drought and the need for protection, resulted in the amalgamation of these tribes into larger tribal communities and small states.

The Zulus were a member of an obscure and small tribe called the Nguni, located in Southern Africa during the mid to late 1700s. The Nguni consisted of about 1,500 people and were ruled by their chief Senzangakhona. Nandi, an attractive woman of the eLangeni tribe, met Senzangakhona and they quickly began courting each other in earnest.

Because of disputes about why Nandi became pregnant during the early courtship period, Senzangakhona claimed that her pregnancy was false and her condition was due to an intestinal parasite, nicknamed iShaka. After the birth of their new son; Nandi and Senzangakhona were ordered by eLangeni tribal leaders to leave the tribe and take their new illegitimate son with them. Derisively named for a deadly parasite, baby Shaka began his new life.

At an early age, Shaka and his mother Nandi were banished by Senzangakhona from his care. Shaka and his mother wandered the land until they found a home with another Zulu tribe, the Mthethwa. Shaka and his mother quickly became a part of their new family. Shaka grew up to be a strong, fearless young man. It was said that he killed a leopard single handedly.

Shaka’s Military Genius

Recognizing Shaka’s drive, intelligence and ruthlessness; Mthethwa King Dingiswayo assigned Shaka to one of Dingiswayo’s amabutho, a military regiment formed for young men. Over time, Shaka was recognized as the tribe’s most impressive new leader. Joining the Izi-cwe regiment, Shaka was armed with a standard ox skin oval shield and three throwing spears called assegais. Zulu uniforms included a kilt of fur strips, ox hide sandals, skin cape with black widow bird feather plumes and white ox tails affixed to the ankles and wrists.

Showing his military genius at an early age, Shaka realized that the light throwing spears, standard among most tribes, was very ineffective. More often than not, the thrown spear had minimal distance and penetration power and allowed the opportunity for the enemy to pick up the spear and throw it back.

Shaka began to fight enemies in his own style, that of attacking the enemy quickly and moving toward him very closely. He then used his shield to fend off spear thrusts from his opponent. He would then quickly find an opening and stab his assegai into his enemy. This close quarters combat style of fighting was somewhat revolutionary for African warfare. However, Shaka’s constant victories facing enemy tribes proved to himself and to his own tribe the value of this new combat style.

Shaka designed a more potent weapon by taking his assegai and transforming it into a heavy bladed spear point with a short handle designed for thrusting instead of throwing. Shaka named this new weapon an iklwa. This curious named was chosen as it mimicked the sound it made when the iklwa was thrust into the enemy’s body. This new weapon became the standard weapon used by the growing Zulu armies.

As the Zulus confronted other tribes in combat, Shaka proved repeatedly that he was an outstanding warrior and unique leader. His continued success in combat resulted in his promotion by King Dingiswayo first to company commander, then to regimental commander and finally to commander in chief, reporting directly to King Dingiswayo himself.

Shaka used his outstanding leadership and creative powers to further revolutionize battle tactics. During the many battles the Zulus engaged in, Shaka observed that the enemy tribes tended to all attack in a simple, straight forward manner.  

In order to counter the forward driving, mass attack of his enemies, Shaka formed his warrior companies into three separate units. The center unit was the largest of the three. The remaining two units of warriors formed on the flank of the center.  

During battle, the two flanking bodies supported the center but also moved to out flank and encircle the enemy line. This formation resembled the head and horns of a bull. Later, with the Zulu army growing ever larger, reserve forces assembled behind the center unit, resembling the “body” of the bull. This formation evolved into the very successful and virtually unbeatable Zulu “buffalo” battle formation.

Beginning of the Zulu Empire

Over time, Shaka and the Zulu armies expanded their growing tribe and kingdom. Enemy warriors were quickly dispatched and often, the former enemy tribe was absorbed into the Zulu kingdom.

Shaka eventually became the new Zulu chieftain. He worked hard and quickly to grow and discipline his growing army. He worked daily, inspecting his regiments and disciplining any warriors who were not working hard enough in their training. His visits, combining both rewards and praise and heavy discipline, helped his generals to infuse a deep sense of pride in becoming a unique and successful Zulu warrior.

Shaka, confident in his growing army, engaged in wars of revenge against those tribes who treated him or his mother poorly in the past. He surrounded the eLangeni tribe and utterly defeated its warriors. Demonstrating his growing brutality; Shaka subjected his enemies to terrible torture such as impaling them alive, twisting their heads until their necks broke and clubbing them to death.

The Butelezi tribe was next on Shaka’s list of attack. Deploying the buffalo battle formation on a large scale against the Butelezis, the battle resulted in a complete rout of the Butelezis. Shaka then ordered his warriors to slay not only all of the enemy warriors but also their servants, slaves, wives and children and to burn their villages. Such brutal behavior, total destruction of the enemy tribe, was unique to South African warfare and caused all tribes to fear the mighty Zulus.

Further warfare and battle field success enabled the Zulus to grow their kingdom into a large empire, spread throughout southern Africa. Shaka’s armies’ ferocity and brutality grew with Shaka’s encouragement. His armies left thousands of luckless people dead, their corpses burning and their villages utterly destroyed.

Shaka’s Rule

Shaka became an absolute ruler whose appetite for power increased his ruthlessness and brutality. He tortured and killed his advisors, warriors and even family members for the slightest perceived insult or simple mistake. He had thousands of his tribe members killed so that their families would join him in his sorrow and mourning when his own mother died.

Shaka’s brutality increased as he descended into insanity. After mass executions, brutal torture and constant devastation, Shaka’s half-brother Dingawe killed Shaka and any Zulu allied with Shaka. Dingawe feared that Shaka and his minions were not only about to kill him but greatly expand their campaign of fear and murder among the Zulu kingdom. Shaka’s body was secretly buried and his grave was never found.

Shaka’s Legacy

Shaka’s empire at his death was comprised of over a quarter of a million people spread throughout hundreds of miles of South Africa. Shaka had over fifty thousand battle hardened warriors at his command. Shaka’s constant warfare is believed to have caused the deaths of almost two million people. His brutality against his own people caused the death of thousands. Notwithstanding his evil, Shaka was one of history’s greatest military commanders and was responsible for the most successful and famous sub Saharan African empire.