Shaka Zulu: History, Military Tactics & Facts

Shaka Zulu

Shaka was the famous king of the Zulu Empire (i.e. Zululand) in southeastern Africa. His reign, which lasted from 1816 to around 1828, witnessed unprecedented growth and expansion of the Zulu people.

Such was Shaka’s military innovation and technical abilities that he was able to bring several tens of tribes in the region under his rule. Towards the latter part of his reign, this brilliant military strategist and vicious conqueror had grown very paranoid and illogical in his decisions, forcing his two half-brothers to topple him by means of assassination.

In the article below, World History delves into the history, military tactics, and major facts about Shaka, the founder of the Zulu Empire.

Birth and childhood

Shaka, the military leader responsible for making Zululand one of the most lethal fighting forces in the history of Africa, was born in 1787 in the Zulu clan, a small and unremarkable group of people in Southeastern Africa.

Shaka’s father was the chief of the Zulu clan. His mother, known as Nandi from a neighboring clan, was a minor wife of his father.  Growing up, Shaka and his mother were somewhat shunned by other members of the royal family as many considered his mother’s marriage to the clan chief taboo. He was seen as an illegitimate son and therefore not given any title by his father. As a matter of fact, his name “Shaka” translates to a Zulu word used to describe an intestinal beetle. It’s likely that his mother used that illness to mask her untimely pregnancy.

Matters were even made worse for Shaka and his mother, when his father banished both of them from his village. The mother and son were taken in by a chief of a neighboring village. Shaka spent his formative years enduring loads of ridicule and abuse from the children in this village.

Military training and adulthood

Not the kind to let bullying get into him, Shaka always pushed himself and ultimately grew up into a strong and powerful adult. He was taken under the wings of a very powerful chief and warlord in the area, known as Dingiswayo.

It was from Dingiswayo that Shaka learnt most of his military tactics. He trained day in day out, mastering skills in weapon handling, hunting and close combat.  He also came out with a number of his own fighting techniques that would prove extremely useful in his later years. For example, Shaka noticed how agile and quick he became when he fought without wearing sandals. So he permanently discarded his sandals and walked barefooted in order to make the soles of his feet stronger.

He also held several productive conversations with the clan’s blacksmith about how to perfect a spear that was not only good for close hand-to-hand battle but also one that could be thrown to strike an enemy from distance.

Steadily Shaka made his way up the ranks of Dingiswayo’s army. His strength and bravery was perhaps unmatched by any other soldier in the clan, making Dingiswayo take a strong liking to him. He was even appointed commander of the clan’s army.

How Shaka became chief of the Zulu people

Following the death of Shaka’s father, his brother inherited the throne. However, Shaka, who had always harbored the dreams of one day leading the Zulu people, collaborated with his mentor Dingiswayo and had his brother killed. Together with Dingiswayo, Shaka began transforming the Zulu tribe both militarily and economically. Due to their improved military tactics and weapons the two men had successful military campaigns in neighboring tribes.

Upon the death of Dingiswayo, who was most likely killed by rival tribe in the region, Shaka united the Zulu people with Dingiswayo’s tribe. He thus began the process of building a formidable empire that would go on to control large parts of southeastern Africa. Feared by many warriors, Shaka was undoubtedly the most powerful chief in the area.

The name of his capital Bulawayo, which means “the city where people come to be killed”, captures just how much Shaka was feared.

Shaka Zulu’s military conquests

Hoping to settle scores with the Zwide, the tribe he believed killed Dingiwayo, Shaka waged a great war against the Zwide people in 1818. By the end of the battle, which was fought at Gqokli Hill, Shaka had successfully annihilated his enemy’s forces. This all occurred even though his forces were immensely outnumbered. The Zulu leader had spent considerable amount of time and resources training his men, drilling them into a mighty fighting body.

He also used and perfected a great deal of the techniques he learnt from Dingiswayo. For example, one of the reasons why Shaka’s army was so good on the battlefield was because of a battle formation known as the “horns of the buffalo” or the “horns of the beat”. This battle formation allowed Shaka to divide his army into four sections: two flanks, the base and then a reserve force.

In addition to the above, Shaka was known for drilling his soldiers and arming them with improved battle gear. Most famous of those equipment was the assegais, a modified spear that was made in such a way that it allowed the holder to engage in close battle. The long blade of the spear proved to be a real game changer for the Zulu warriors.

King Shaka transformed the Zulu tribe, which was one of the smallest at the time that he became chief, to the most powerful kingdom in southeastern Africa. His army could boast of close to 50,000 soldiers, from a meager 1500 when he became chief.

Did you know: Shaka Zulu banned all young men from marrying until they had distinguished themselves well enough on the field of battle?

A brutal king

Shaka’s name makes huge wave in annals of history primarily because of his military innovation and tactics on the battlefield. He was perhaps one of the greatest in African history. However, what often gets left out in the recount of his story are the atrocities that he and his mighty Zulu warriors perpetrated for years. His numerous conquests often involved huge massacres, sometimes entire villages got razed down to the ground. There was hardly any chiefdom that could go toe to toe with his Zulu Kingdom.

Historians often hold him responsible for beginning the Mfecane (i.e. the crushing), a term used to describe the humanitarian disaster that followed in the aftermath of Shaka’s conquests. Several thousands of people in southeastern Africa were displaced, many of them scattering into places as far as modern-day Tanzania and Zambia. Many of those people died on those journeys. To make matters worse, Shaka Zulu’s conquests coincided with a severe drought that tore through the region in the first few decades of the 19th century. Starvation was so rife that those lucky enough not to die during the Zulu raids had to resort to cannibalism.

According to some accounts, Shaka’s latter years on the throne saw him act in an absolutely mad manner as he was reeling from the death of his mother in 1827. He is believed to have banned the planting of new crops and all forms of merrymaking. Those that flouted this ban were quickly executed. The grief-struck despotic ruler also forbade his people from drinking milk. Getting pregnant in household was also punishable by death.

How did Shaka Zulu die?

Shaka Zulu’s days on the throne increasingly became numbered as he was directly responsible for slaughtering more than 5,000 people. There rumors floating around that the mighty warrior king was losing his mind. Therefore it came as no surprise that he was assassinated by his two half-brothers – Dingane and Mhalngana – in 1828. The coup plotters reasoned that his death was the only way to prevent the Zulu Empire from imploding.

After Shaka’s death, Dingane, one of the coup plotters, was crowned king of the Zulu people. The body of the murdered king was believed to have been placed in an unmarked grave. It was a sign of how much the usurpers had come to despise the reign of king who literally founded one the greatest empires in modern Africa.

More Shaka facts

Shaka, the military tactician and founder of the Zulu Empire

Shaka was a master military tactician who knew the essence of dividing his army into components, sometimes on the basis of age and fighting strength. For example, he tasked young boys, perhaps in their early teens, with transporting military supplies. This allowed his fighting machine to move very quickly during raids or conquests.

As at the time that Shaka first rose to the throne, the Zulu population was less than 2,000, making them one of the not so remarkable tribes in the region. By the time he was deposed by his brothers, the population was in the region of 250,000 people. That is quite impressive, considering the fact that he was king for about twelve years.

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