Shaka (sometimes spelled Tshaka, Tchaka or Chaka; ca. 1787 – ca. 22 September 1828) was the most influential leader of the Zulu Empire. He is widely credited with uniting the Zulu sub-tribes into the beginnings of a nation that held sway over the large portion of Southern Africa between the Phongolo and Mzimkhulu Rivers. His military prowess and destructiveness have been widely credited. He has been called a military genius for his reforms and innovations, though other writers take a more limited view of his achievements. Nevertheless, his statesmanship and vigour in assimilating some neighbours and ruling by proxy marks him as one of the greatest Zulu chieftains.
1 History and legacy
2 Death and succession
3 Shaka’s social and military revolution
4 Weapons changes
5 Greater mobility via sandal-less feet, constant drill and forced marches
6 Well-organised logistic support by youth formations
7 The age-grade regimental system
8 The famous “buffalo horns” formation
9 Organization and leadership of the Zulu forces
10 Shakan methods versus European technology
11 Shaka as the creator of a revolutionary warfare style
12 Shaka in Zulu culture
14 Scholarship in recent years
16 External links
History and legacy
At the time of his death, Shaka ruled over 250,000 and could muster more than 50,000 warriors. His 10-year-long kingship resulted in more than 2 million deaths, mostly due to the disruptions the Zulu caused in neighbouring tribes. However, solid figures will never be in on the number of deaths during mass tribal migrations to escape his armies.
Shaka was probably the first son of the chieftain Senzangakhona and Nandi, a daughter of Bhebhe, the past chief of the Elangeni 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 (Tabile Raziya) and chased into exile. Others maintain that his parents married normally. Shaka almost certainly spent his childhood in his father’s settlements. He is recorded as having been initiated there and inducted into an ibutho (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.
European entrance into the Zulu nation was granted by Shaka under a rare occasion. H.F. Fynn, noted earlier for his report on Shaka Zulu, provided medical treatment to the king after a battle. To show his gratitude, Shaka permitted European settlers to enter and operate in the Zulu kingdom. This would open the door for future British incursions into the Zulu kingdom that were not so peaceful. Shaka did clearly make an attempt at understanding the European way of life. The Europeans, however, made little early efforts to understand Shaka. The Zulu king maintained a mysterious but powerful presence both in the Zulu Kingdom and in the European colonies throughout his rule. This allowed the Zulu Revolution, unlike European revolutions, to be based not on notions of individualism or freedom of the citizen, but on ideals that were wholeheartedly African and not readily comprehensible to the European mind.
On the death of Senzangakona, Dingiswayo aided Shaka to defeat his brother and assume leadership in around 1816. Shaka began to further refine the ibutho system 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 Shaka mostly preferred to intervene or apply pressure diplomatically, aided by occasional judicious assassinations. His changes to local society built on existing structures and were as much social and propagandistic as they were military; though 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 seer or shaman) 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 who, however, sustained heavy casualties and lost his head military commander, Umgobhozi Ovela Entabeni.
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 to help his own choice, Nqetho, into power; Nqetho then ruled as a proxy chieftain for Shaka.
As Shaka became more respected by his people, he was able to spread his ideas with greater ease. Because of his background as a soldier, Shaka taught the Zulus that the most effective way of becoming powerful quickly was by conquering and controlling other tribes. His teachings greatly influenced the social outlook of the Zulu people. The Zulu tribe soon developed a “warrior” mindframe, which made it easier for Shaka to build up his armies.
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.
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 had betrayed Dingiswayo. Indeed, the core Zulu had to retreat before several Ndwandwe incursions; the Ndwandwe was 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 with relative ease. 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 behavior 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 colourful and impressive burial ceremonies. In reality, Shaka’s corpse was dumped into an empty grain pit by his assassins and filled with stones and mud. 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. Others argue that both explanations fall short, and 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.
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, sword-like spearhead. It is said to have been named after the sounds made by its penetration into and withdrawal from 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 before close contact with the enemy, when the shorter stabbing spear was used in hand to hand combat.
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 “Like Lions They Fought” 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 remaining personnel. Shaka drilled his troops frequently, implementing forced marches sometimes 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.
Well-organised logistic support by youth formations
Young boys aged six and over 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 invariably travelled light, driving cattle as provisions on the hoof, and were not weighed down with heavy weapons and supply packs. The herdboy logistic structure was deployed in support of such activities and was easily adaptable to large or small expeditions.
The age-grade regimental system
Age-grade groupings of various sorts were common in the Bantu 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:
- the “horns” or flanking right- and left-wing elements to encircle and pin the enemy. Generally the “horns” were made up of younger, less experienced but quicker-moving troops.
- the “chest” or central main force which charged into the enemy centre and delivered the coup de grace. The prime fighters made up the composition of the main force.
- the “loins” or reserves used to exploit success or reinforce where needed. Often these were older veterans.
Coordination was supplied by regimental izinduna (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.
Organisation 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 European hegemony in the decades after Shaka’s death. In fact, European travellers 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 muzzle-loaders demonstrated, he argued that in the time a gunman took to reload, he would be swamped by charging spear-wielding warriors.
The first major clash after Shaka’s death took place under his successor Dingane, against expanding European 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, ability to screen their forces and to close quickly when their opponents were unfavourably 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 gullies while the British were on the move.
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 European expansion at the Cape, slaving in Mozambique, and the usual assortment of agricultural pressures common to that region. Still, on 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 in sharpness,
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…
– Traditional Zulu praise song, English translation by Ezekiel Mphahlele
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 lionise 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 dead monarch, as the typical praise song above attests. It should be noted that the praise song is one of the most widely used poetic forms in Africa, applying not only to gods but to men, animals, plants and even towns.
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 Soshangane, who expanded from the Zulu area into what is now Mozambique. Shaka was clearly a tough, able leader, the most able of his time who, 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 neighbours in a deadly cycle of fight 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 I of France with a “master-plan”. To the contrary, the record shows him to have been a shrewd, if harsh, manipulator of circumstances, customs and events to cobble together the Zulu nation under difficult circumstances with, at times, patchy success.
Scholarship in recent years
Scholarship in recent years has revised views of the sources on Shaka’s reign. The earliest are two eyewitness accounts written by white adventurer-traders who met Shaka during the last four years of his reign. Nathaniel Isaacs published his Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa in 1836, creating a picture of Shaka as a degenerate and pathological monster which survives in modified forms to this day. Isaacs was aided in this by Henry Francis Fynn, whose diary (actually a rewritten collage of various papers) was edited by James Stuart only in 1950.
Their now discredited accounts may be balanced by the rich resource of oral histories collected around 1900 by (ironically) the same James Stuart, now published in 6 volumes as The James Stuart Archive. Stuart’s early 20th century work was continued by D. McK. Malcolm in 1950. These and other sources such as A.T. Bryant give us a more Zulu-centred picture. Most popular accounts are based on E. A. Ritter’s novel Shaka Zulu (1955), a potboiling romance which was re-edited into something more closely resembling a history. The work of John Wright (history professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg), Julian Cobbing and Dan Wylie (Rhodes University, Grahamstown) have been among a number of writers that have modified these stories.
Various modern historians writing on Shaka and the Zulu point to the uncertain nature of Fynn and Issac’s accounts of Shaka’s reign. A standard general reference work in the field is Donald Morris’ “The Washing of The Spears” (1965) which notes that sources as a whole for the historical era are not the best. Morris nevertheless references a large number of sources, including Stuart, and A.T. Bryant’s extensive but uneven “Olden Times in Zululand and Natal” which is based on four decades of exhaustive interviews of tribal sources. After sifting through these sources and noting their strengths and weaknesses, Morris generally credits Shaka with a large number of military and social innovations, and this is the general consensus in the field (Morris 617-620).
Military historians of the Zulu War must also be considered for their description of Zulu fighting methods and tactics, including authors like Ian Knight (“Anatomy of the Zulu Army”) and Robert Edgerton (“Like Lions They Fought”). General histories of Southern Africa are also valuable including Noel Mostert’s “Frontiers” and a detailed account of the results from the Zulu expansion, J. D Omer-Cooper’s “The Zulu Aftermath”, which advances the traditional Mfecane theory.
E.A. Ritter ‘Shaka Zulu’ – “HE THREW OFF A BRAND OF SHAME TO BECOME THE FEARSOME WARRIOR CALLED – SHAKA, KING OF THE ZULU”
Donald Morris, The Washing of The Spears.
Ian Knight, Anatomy of the Zulu Army.
Robert Edgerton, Like Lions They Fought.
Noel Mostert, Frontiers.
J.D. Omer-Cooper, The Zulu Aftermath.
Dan Wylie, Myth of Iron: Shaka in History.
Rory Carroll in Johannesburg, Shaka Zulu’s brutality was exaggerated, says new book, Monday May 22, 2006, The Guardian.
“Shaka Zulu,” Carpe Noctem
David Shingirai Chanaiwa, “The Zulu Revolution: State Formation in a Pastoralist Society,” African Studies Review 23(3) (Dec. 1980): 1-20.
The South African Military History Society – The Zulu Military Organization and the Challenge of 1879
Shaka: Zulu chieftan
The History of Shaka