Shaka Zulu (1787-1828)

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Shaka came from a humble and harsh childhood to become the founder of the Zulu nation. Much like Genghis Khan he won his place and power through his own prowess and ability rather than any birth right. At the end of the 18th century the Zulus were a small tribe of no more than 1,500 ruled by a king called Senzangakona who met and got pregnant a woman from another clan. When she became pregnant he refused to take responsibility and said that she must have a iShaka a parasite that affects the menstrual cycle.

When she gave birth the her tribe demanded that he collect her and her iShaka and hence Shaka (which is the Anglicised version) received his name in the shame of his child birth a name which he would make famous and bring great honour to. Although the Zulu chief did marry Shaka's mother it did not last and he and his mother wandered between tribes exiled until in 1803 they found haven with the Mtetwa tribe who were expanding rapidly under a skilled king. This king noticed that the young Shaka who had grown up to be skilled warrior of great strength had natural ability and he was groomed to be the future chief of the Zulus who were by now part of the Mtetwa tribe's hegemony.

Shaka was given his own regiment the iziCwe Shaka reformed his regiment discarding the light thrown spear for a short broad bladed stabbing spear (assagai) and a larger cow hide shield which gave his troops the fighting style of a Roman legion. He trained his troops well and toughened them to jog over hills for up to 50 miles in a day without shoes. On the march young boys would carry gear for the warriors with one of these porters for every three warriors. He developed the classic 'Buffalo' formation which the Zulus would make their trade mark and use many years later against the British during the Zulu War.

Shaka took the Zulu throne in 1816 when his father died and raised many more regiments according to age group and ability and made them live in celibacy (although he was unable to father children and possibly a homosexual). Discipline was rigid and often brutal, even lethal. Due to his childhood Shaka had tremendous aggression and bordered on being a psychopath, even after he had killed all those who had tormented him as a child. By 1817 he had 2,000 men and struck out with tremendous ruthlessness, rival tribes submitted or were massacred. When his king died Shaka was going to his aid and rallied the demoralised Mtetwa tribe at the battle of Gqokli Hill with a brilliant defensive battle. As the Mtetwa Empire crumbled Shaka stepped into the vacuum. Shaka continued his campaign of conquest now on a larger scale but with his trade mark brutality.

By 1824 Shaka had an Army of 20,000 and had destroyed an area of land 100 miles wide south of Tugela. By the time of his death in 1828 he ruled 250,000 people and could put 40,000 warriors into the field having killed an estimated 2,000,000 people during his reign. He had such wealth that he bred cattle herds of the same colour and his cruelty and mass executions keep him in power until he started to overstrain his army and the unrest caused by the enforced celibacy became too much. On 23rd September 1828 his half brothers assassinated him and he died screaming for mercy. His body was quickly buried but the location is unknown but is believed to be somewhere under the Natal village of Stanger. A tremendous war leader haunted by the demons of his childhood Shaka remains one of great villains of military history although often overlooked by Eurocentric Historians.

Knight, ZuluZulu (Warrior S.), Ian Knight., A nice book up to the normal osprey standard looking at the training, organisation and skills of the Zulu warriors. Often regarded as primative savages by the uninformed this book helps give a realistic picture of what was a highly organised army. cover cover cover
How to cite this article:Dugdale-Pointon, T. (4 March 2001), Shaka Zulu (1787-1828), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_shaka_zulu.html

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