The only known drawing of Shaka—standing with the long throwing assegai and the heavy shield in 1824, four years before his death
KwaZulu-Natal, near Melmoth
|Died||22 September, 1828 (aged 41)
|Cause of death||assassination|
|Resting place||Stanger, South Africa|
Shaka (sometimes spelled Tshaka, Tchaka or Chaka; sometimes referred to as Shaka Zulu; c. 1787 – c. 22 September, 1828) was the most influential leader of the Zulu Kingdom.
He is widely credited with uniting many of the Northern Nguni people, specifically the Mtetwa Paramountcy and the Ndwandwe into the Zulu kingdom, the beginnings of a nation that held sway over the large portion of southern Africa between the Phongolo and Mzimkhulu rivers, and his statesmanship and vigour marked him as one of the greatest Zulu chieftains. He has been called a military genius for his reforms and innovations, and condemned for the brutality of his reign. Other historians note debate about Shaka's role as a uniter versus a usurper of traditional Zulu ruling prerogatives, and the notion of the Zulu state as a unique construction, divorced from the localised culture and the previous systems built by his predecessor Dingiswayo. Research continues into the character, methods and influence of the Zulu king, who continues to cast a long shadow over the history of southern Africa.
At the time of his death, Shaka ruled over 250,000 people and could muster more than 50,000 warriors. His 10-year-long kingship resulted in a massive number of deaths, mostly due to the disruptions the Zulu caused in neighbouring tribes, although the exact death toll is a matter of scholarly dispute. Further unquantifiable deaths occurred during mass tribal migrations to escape his armies.
Shaka was the first son of the chieftain Senzangakhona and Nandi, a daughter of Bhebhe, 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 (Tabile Raziya) and chased into exile. Others maintain that his parents married normally. Shaka almost certainly spent his childhood in his mother's settlements. He is recorded as having been initiated there and inducted into an ibutho lempi (fighting unit). 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 Izichwe 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' or 'troop'; 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 ibutho lempi (fighting unit) dramatically changed warfare at times, it largely remained an instrument for seasonal raiding and political persuasion 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 on rare occasions. Henry Francis Fynn provided medical treatment to the king after an assassination attempt from a rival tribe member hidden in a crowd. (see account of Nathaniel Isaacs). 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 observed several demonstrations of European technology and knowledge, but held that the Zulu way was superior to that of the foreigners.
On the death of Senzangakona, Dingiswayo aided Shaka to defeat his brother and assume leadership ca. 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 mostly defensive rather than 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 Ntombazi, a Sangoma (Zulu seer or shaman) was killed by Shaka. Shaka chose a particularly gruesome revenge on her, 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.
In the initial years, Shaka had neither the influence nor reputation 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 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). Historian Donald Morris states thatShaka'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 elephants 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 the royal kraal of Zwide, ruler of the Ndwandwe, 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 soon afterward). Shaka's general Soshangane (of the Shangaan) moved north towards what is now Mozambique to inflict further damage on less resistant foes and take advantage of slaving opportunities, obliging Portuguese traders to give tribute.Shaka later had to contend again with Zwide's son Sikhunyane in 1826.
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 Donald Morris 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 was to 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—they being 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. Shaka's corpse was dumped into an empty grain pit by his assassins and filled with stones and mud but the exact site is unknown, though a monument was built at one alleged site. 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.
Some have doubted the military and social innovations customarily attributed to Shaka, denying them outright, or attributing them variously to European influences. Others argue that such 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.
The story that sandals were discarded to toughen the feet of Zulu warriors has been noted in various military accounts such as The Washing of the Spears, Like Lions They Fought and 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, 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.
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 ibutho lempi on a mission invariably traveled 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 these relatively short-term operations, and was easily adaptable to large or small expeditions.
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 organised 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.
Most historians credit Shaka with initial development of the famous "buffalo horns" formation. It was composed of three elements:
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.
The host were generally partitioned into three 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.
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 acknowledged their utility as missile weapons after seeing muzzle-loaders demonstrated, but 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.
A number of historians argue that Shaka 'changed the nature of warfare in Southern Africa from 'a ritualised exchange of taunts with minimal loss of life into a true method of subjugation by wholesale slaughter'. Others dispute this characterization (see Scholarship section below). A number of writers focus on Shaka's military innovations such as the ilkwa - the Zulu thrusting spear, and the "buffalo horns" formation. This combination has been likened to the standardization implemented by the reorganised Roman legions. While other ancient powers maintained a patchwork of force types, the standardised Roman approach enabled more disciplined formations and efficient execution of tactics over time against a variety of enemies.
Much controversy still surrounds the character, methods and activities of the Zulu king. From a military standpoint historian John Keegan notes exaggerations and myths that surround Shaka, but nevertheless observes:
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 accounts may be balanced by the rich resource of oral histories collected around 1900 by 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 gives 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 Isaac's accounts of Shaka's reign. A standard general reference work in the field is Donald Morris's "The Washing of The Spears" that notes the sources, as a whole, for this 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.
A 1998 study by historian C. Hamilton summarizes much of the scholarship on Shaka towrds the dawn of the 21st century in areas ranging from ideology, politics and culture, to the use of his name and image in a popular South African theme park, Shakaland. It argues that in many ways, the image of Shaka has been "invented" in the modern era according to whatever agenda persons hold. This "imagining of Shaka" it is held, should be balanced by a sober view of the historical record, and allow greater scope for the contributions of indigenous African discourse.
Military historians of the Zulu War must also be considered for their description of Zulu fighting methods and tactics, including authors like Ian Knight and Robert Edgerton. 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.
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 (annihilation). 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. The settling of Mzilikazi's people, the AmaNdebele or Matabele, in the south of Zimbabwe with the concomitant driving of the AmaShona into the north caused a tribal conflict which still resonates today. 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 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, some scholars hold, as it generally neglects several other factors such as the impact of white encroachment, slave trading and expansion in that area of Southern Africa around the same time. The development of the view that Shaka was the monster responsible for the devastation is based on the need of apartheid era historians to justify the apartheid regime's racist policies.. Other scholars acknowledge distortion of the historical record by apartheid supporters and shady white traders seeking to cover their tracks, but dispute the revisionist approach, noting that stories of cannibalism, raiding, burning of villages, or mass slaughter were not developed out of thin air but based on the clearly documented accounts of hundreds of black victims, and refugees. Confirmation of such accounts can also be seen in modern archaeology of the village of Lepalong, an entire settlement built underground to shelter remmnants of the Kwena people from 1827-36 against the tide of disruption that engulfed the region during Shakan times.
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. Certain aspects of traditional Zulu culture still reveres the dead monarch, as the typical praise song below 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.
Other Zulu sources are sometimes critical of Shaka, and numerous negative images abound in Zulu oral history. When Shaka's mother Nandi died for example, the monarch ordered a massive outpouring of grief including mass executions, forbidding the planting of crops or the use of milk, and the killing of all pregnant women and their husbands. Oral sources record that in this period of devastation, a singular Zulu, a man named Gala, eventually stood up to Shaka and objected to these measures, pointing out that Nandi was not the first person to die in Zululand. Taken aback by such candid talk, the Zulu king is supposed to have called off the destructive edicts, rewarding the blunt teller-of-truths with a gift of cattle.
The figure of Shaka thus remains an ambiguous one in African oral tradition, defying simplistic depictions of the Zulu king as a heroic, protean nation builder on one hand, or a depraved monster on the other. This ambiguity continues to lend the image of Shaka its continued power and influence, almost two centuries after his death.
|King of the Zulu Nation|
[[File:|thumb|The only known drawing of Shaka.]] Shaka (sometimes spelled Tshaka, Tchaka or Chaka; ca. 1787 – ca. 22 September 1828) was the most important leader of the Zulu Empire. He joined the Zulu tribal groups together into the beginnings of a nation. This Zulu nation ruled over a large area of southern Africa, between the Phongolo and Mzimkhulu rivers. His leadership and his energy make him one of the greatest Zulu chieftains. He has been called a military genius for his changes and new ideas. He has also been called a bad leader because of the brutal and cruel things that happened when he was in charge.
Historians argue about Shaka's place in Zulu history. Was he a good leader for joining the groups together or was he a bad leader who took over and destroyed the traditional Zulu ruling systems? Was he a good leader for building a single Zulu nation, or was he a bad leader who destroyed the local cultures and the previous systems built by earlier leaders like Dingiswayo? Research still goes on into the character, methods and influence of this Zulu king, whose actions are still important in southern Africa today.
Shaka Zulu was born in about 1787. His father was a minor Zulu chief. He lived with his mother in the court of the Zulu leader of the day. He grew up to become a great military leader. When the Zulu leader was murdered by a rival clan, Shaka took over the throne.
During this time Shaka reorganized the Zulu into a military clan. He soon made them into a force unchallenged in Southern African kingdoms. He introduced the shorter 'stabbing' spear, the 'iklwa', that replaced the traditional long and awkward 'throwing' spear. On the battlefield, he developed the now-famous "horns of the bull" formation (a two-pronged attack). Conquering tribe after tribe, he joined all his conquests together into one Zulu nation, making it grow with people and power. This also caused the displacement of thousands of people. His actions were partly responsible for spreading the Southern African tribes as far away as Mozambique.
This event was named the "Mfecane" - 'the crushing of people' by the "Nguni" people. The Sotho and Tswana called it the "Difaqane" - 'the scattering of tribes'. The Afrikaners and the British called it "the Wars of Calamity". By 1825, two and half million starving, homeless people wandered about southern Africa looking for food and shelter.
There were other things that led to the Mfecane. Corn (maize), brought in from America, grew easily in the mild seasons of southern Africa. Because the farmers were not careful, the corn used all the nutrients in the soil. As the local population increased, they needed more land to grow corn and to graze livestock. Starting in 1800, a long drought then made southern Africa unlivable. People moved in search of food, and fought for what little food could be found. The Mfengu called the drought, "madlatule" - 'eat what you can and say nothing'.
Shaka maintained a good relationship with the Europeans in Africa, including the Colonial authorities. He was disliked by other Africans, including his own people, who suffered under his long, cruel and debilitating rule of constant war.
Ten years of continual warfare placed incredible strains on the Zulu nation. Shaka, always mentally unstable and obsessively worried about being replaced by an heir, finally snapped into madness after the death of his mother in 1828. He imposed a year of celibacy (no sex) on his people. He executed anyone who did not show enough sadness at the death of his mother. He was murdered within the year by his half-brother, Dingane, who succeeded him as ruler.
Even though he created brutal conditions for his subjects, he created the powerful Zulu Kingdom and consolidated a nation and its pride.