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Shaka; sketch attributed to James King, from Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa, by Nathanial Isaacs (1836).

Shaka or Shaka Zulu (spelled variously as Chaka or Tshaka; from isiZulu: ishaka, "illegitimate child"[1]; 1787 - 1828), African military leader and king of the Zulu (1816-1828) over much of what is now present-day South Africa. Despised and ridiculed when young, vindictive, cruel, and in his later years insane, he would use innovative weapons and tactics and turn a small, insignificant tribe into one of history's most fearsome fighting machines.


Shaka was born the illegitimate son of Senzangakona, a prince of the Zulu, at that time a small, rather insignificant chiefdom; and Nandi of the eLengani. At the time of her pregnancy Senzangakona claimed that her condition was caused by a beetle called iShaka, a name also given to intestinal disorders, and used as an excuse of sorts for a pregnancy. The relationship between the two was unhappy; his refusal to marry her and his ostracism of his son would have future repercussions as Nandi was forced to endure the taunts while living at Senzangakona’s esiKlebeni homestead near present Babanango, with her and her son eventually being driven into exile.

Nandi and Shaka reached her people in the Mhlathuze Valley where, as a fatherless child, he would receive the humiliation of the other eLengani boys, which only became worse due to Shaka’s claims of royal descent. The Great Famine or Madlantule (1802) would play a part in sending Nandi and Shaka to sanctuary with the Mthethwa, where Shaka would grow up in the court of paramount chief Dingiswayo.

As a young adult, Shaka was an imposing figure; he was tall and powerfully built, yet on the inside he had a drive for personal power. At the age of twenty-three Dingiswayo placed him in the iziCwe regiment where, to his delight, he discovered a liking for military life. Courageous on the battlefield, Shaka soon became Dingiswayo’s foremost commander, earning the name “Nodumehlezi”, which roughly translates to “one who causes the earth to rumble when seated.” Shaka would become engrossed in the study of battlefield tactics as militarism became a way of life for the rest of his life, which a short time later would affect the lives of tens of thousands of others.

Senzangakona died about 1816, and some traditions state that on his deathbed he left the Zulu kingdom to Shaka. Zulu kingship passed instead to Shaka’s half-brother Sigujana, which was short-lived; soon after he was declared king, Shaka arrived with his regiment, assassinated his half-brother, and took control of the Zulu. Although still a vassal of Dingiswayo, Shaka engaged in expanding the size of his kingdom, taking over the Buthelezi and eLengani clans, and enacting a severe vengeance on those who treated him cruelly as a boy.

A major rival of Dingiswayo was the Ndwandwe, led by a fierce chief named Zwide. About 1818 the Mthethwa fought against them, and Dingiswayo was captured and later murdered by Zwide. Henry Francis Fynn, one of the first Europeans to have encountered Shaka, claimed in his diary that Dingiswayo's death was the result of Shaka's treachery. What is known is that Shaka did make an attempt to engage in the battle but did not arrive at the scene until after Dingiswayo's capture. Shaka would then take control of the Mthethwa, absorbing it into the Zulu and adding to his army.

Zwide, meanwhile, saw the threat Shaka posed and decided to attack and destroy the Zulu. His first expedition against Shaka met with defeat at Gqokoli Hill in early 1818, and in April he sent his entire army into Zulu territory; Shaka for his part feigned retreat, drawing and exhausting the Ndwandwe deep into territory which he knew, and on the Mhlathuze River he defeated them decisively, routing the survivors, and breaking up the Ndwandwe as a kingdom; Zwide’s successor, Sikhunyane, would make an attempt to destroy the Zulu in 1826; his army was annihilated and the survivors taken into the Zulu ranks.

No major rivals to Shaka were left during the ten years following his defeat of Ndwandwe. Smaller chiefdoms were absorbed into the Zulu; those which submitted to Shaka became vassals; those whom he had conquered were completely destroyed, their cattle taken, and any survivors driven off as refugees to settle far from their homes.


Prior to Shaka's arrival at Dingiswayo's court, warfare between tribes were largely ceremonial and relatively bloodless, and were often used to settle disputes. If actual combat took place, it was a mass attack with little to no room for maneuver. Shaka - no doubt fueled by the treatment he had received as a child - would change that. Men were organized into regiments, where they were ordered to discard their sandals; having the men run, train, and fight barefoot toughened them up as well as making them more agile.

Then came a change in weapons. Principle weapon at the time was the assegai, a light throwing spear that Shaka saw as useless in close combat and ineffective when thrown. Replacing this was a weapon he developed, the iklwa, essentially a large, heavy spear blade mounted on a short, thick handle. Paired with a large ox-hide shield, Shaka trained his men to use the shield to hook onto the enemy's shield, force it away from the body, then thrust the iklwa into the exposed chest for the kill.

Shaka also trained his men how to maneuver, and the tactical innovation he came up with was known as the "horns of the buffalo". Already a tactical maneuver known as a crescent, the "buffalo" had additions to it which Shaka saw as an advantage: his force would encounter an enemy formation; the "chest" (main mass of warriors) would assault the front, while from either side the "horns" (the original crescent) would strike out at the flanks and surround the formation, eventually closing in where both horns and chest would finish them off, while in reserve was the "loins", reinforcements facing away from the battle so as not to get excited and jump in the fray too early. Foot messengers were employed, relaying orders from Shaka as he directed the battle from higher ground.

Young males were taken from immediate families when they had reached a certain age, and placed within an amabutho, which was an age-appropriate regiment. An amabutho was attached to any one of the military kraals; they had their own herds of cattle from which they drew meat and hides for shields. The amabuthos also provided an early warning against incursions at the borders.

Females had their own amabuthos, also within the many kraals. Shaka, however, refused to allow marriages unless the men within a regiment earned the right to wear the headring (isicoco); once permission was granted both male and female amabuthos were dissolved. Transgressions, whether between unmarried individuals or warriors who were less-than-dedicated on the battlefield, were punishable by death.

White traders

The excursions of Shaka’s forces began to be felt by the white settlers in Cape Town; by 1822 there were credible threats to the settlement’s existence, to the point where the British governor (Lord Somerset) asked for several thousand reinforcements. Instead, it was deemed that a goodwill mission based on trade would be accomplished first, with Fynn and Francis George Farewell, an ex-officer in the Royal Navy, making a landing at Port Natal in 1824 and make contact with Shaka. Treatment of wounds he had received during that time (possibly from an attempted assassination) caused Shaka to treat them favorably, and he granted them the land around Port Natal to build a settlement. Moreover, in 1826 Shaka moved into a new military kraal at Dukuza, some 50 miles south of his residence at Bulawayo, in order to be closer to the white settlers. It was possibly curiosity and acquisition – specifically to warfare and related technology – that led to the favored relations, rather than genuine friendship. Yet during the remainder of his lifetime he attempted no acts of war between the white colonists and the Zulus.

Last years

Fynn found him to be intelligent and amiable; he was sometimes generous as well. Fynn had also seen first-hand that he would order the death of anyone on a whim; impalement was the method, and the bodies were displayed on tall stakes within the kraal. His rule was undisputed, and he acted the part of a tyrant. His warriors were sent far afield, adding to his realm newly-conquered territories; in fact, his constant wars between 1818-1828 and the cruelty he inflicted caused the forced migrations of many tribes and chiefdoms from southern Africa into territories further north; some of them would in turn attack weaker tribes as they took their land, such was the chaos Shaka had inflicted. Any tribe who was caught by Shaka and did not assimilate into the Zulu was exterminated, and their herds and crops destroyed.

In October, 1827 Nandi died. Tens of thousands were put to death, which included a large number of women, ostensibly so that their children would know what is was like to lose a mother.

During the following year his armies were further and further away, and his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana, along with a bodyguard named Mbopha realized Shaka was lacking protection. On September 22, 1828 in the kraal at Dukuza, they stabbed Shaka to death, and buried his body in a gravel pit[2]. Dingane in turn would kill any potential rivals to his own taking of power.