Recently I began watching a great historical drama series on Netflix. Like any historical media that I enjoy I like to dig deeper into the history and see how accurate the retelling actually is. So far, with the exception of a prophecy and a creepy witch doctor, this series seems to remain pretty accurate to history as we know it. Who is this mysterious warrior king of South Africa? It’s none other than Shaka Zulu.
Most of Shaka’s early life was only told in oral tradition and not written down until towards the end of his life. Due to this, there are varying accounts of the details of his birth and childhood. For narrative sake, I’ve stuck to one of the more believable and well-known versions of the story. There are definitely more fantastical versions of this story, and if you find any of this interesting I’d suggest you look into some of them.
Shaka Zulu was born in 1789 in what is now modern South Africa. His father, Senzangakhona, was the son of a Zulu chief and his mother, Nandi, was the daughter of a Langeni chief. Shaka’s parents had not married and likely lived apart at the time of his birth. This cultural taboo would haunt young Shaka for the first half of his life.
Initially, Senzangakhona outright denied being the father of young Shaka. This act greatly dishonored Nandi and left her in a very tough position. Shortly after becoming the chief of the Zulu Senzangakhona acknowledged Shaka as his son and agreed to marry Nandi, making her his third wife. Everyone did not live happily ever after, and after several years it appears that Nandi had a falling out with Senzangakhona which resulted in herself and Shaka being expelled from the Zulu.
They fled to the land of Nandi’s original tribe, the Langeni, and live as refugees. While living among the Langeni as a boy they both experienced hardship as no man would accept Nandi into their home due to her dishonor. Meanwhile, young Shaka also faced constant ridicule and abuse from the local children for not having a father. A few years later the two ended up leaving the Langeni as well, this is believed to have occurred in 1802 during the Great Famine.
Shaka and Nandi next found shelter with the Mthethwa tribe where Nandi’s aunt resided. The chief of the Mthethwa, Dingiswayo, welcomed them into the tribe. Though welcomed by the chief, Shaka was still mistreated by Mthethwa children who resented his claim to royal descent. Regardless of this, Shaka would spend the rest of his childhood and the beginning of adulthood living among the Mthethwa.
Shaka eventually grew into a very strong and tall young man. In his early 20’s he decided to join the local Mthethwa military. Shaka excelled at army life and soon rose through the ranks, even gaining the favor of chief Dingiswayo. Being the chief’s favorite officer has its perks as he discovered in 1816 when his father died and left Shaka’s half brother Sigujana on the throne.
Being the benevolent benefactor that he was, Chief Dingiswayo lent Shaka several soldiers to seize the throne from his brother. Shaka did so in short order and was accepted as chief of the Zulu later that same year, 1816. He ruled as a vassal chief of chief Dingiswayo who treated him very well, even allowing him to expand his borders and conquer some neighboring tribes. One of these early tribes conquered and assimilated into Shaka’s Zulu kingdom was the Langeni. I like to think he made those guys regret picking on him as a kid.
In 1818 Chief Dingiswayo was captured and later killed by a rival chief of the Ndwandwe tribe named Zwide. This left the Mthethwa without a dominant ruler to unite their tribes. Chaka was quick to absorb his Mthethwa allies into his Zulu kingdom. This act made the Zulu one of the largest tribes in the region and the greatest threat to the larger and more hostile Ndwandwe tribe. Having implemented many innovative and effective new policies in his army Shaka was able to wipe out the Ndwandwe in just 2 battles. Most tribes unfortunate enough to do battle with the Zulu after this point would share a similar fate.
What set Shaka’s Zulu army apart from other tribes in South Africa was his willingness to break from the norm. He saw the ineffectiveness of the current standards in battle and sought to exploit them by trying several different things. The standard outfit for battle of the day was a leather shield about half the size of a person and a long throwing spear. Armies would take turns hurling spears at one another from a distance and avoid any hand to hand combat if possible. These battles rarely resulted in many casualties or getting much accomplished.
Shaka decided to double the size of the shields and use a shorter spear with a wide, long blade at the end for close quarters combat. He taught his troops to advance in a tight formation with their shields that would block most spears being thrown at them, then when they got within striking distance of the enemy most of them had already thrown their weapons and were easy pickings for the Zulu. They fought in a U shaped formation intended to surround and confuse the enemy. He also required the army to train and operate barefoot to help harden the men and increase mobility. All of these things helped make the Zulu the most powerful military power in the region.
Though his military might was great, Shaka would often tend to use diplomacy on new tribes at first. If a tribe would willingly join Shaka then he would allow their chiefs to remain vassals to him, paying him tribute and supplying him with more soldiers. If the tribes resisted then Shaka would crush them with his army, they would either destroy the tribe or scatter them to the wind in exile. At the height of his power, Shaka Zulu had united over 100 tribes and ruled over 250,000 people including up to 50,000 soldiers.
His vast and rapidly expanding South African empire had started getting a little too close for comfort for the other major power in the region, the British Empire. Having the majority of its military forces occupied in other area’s of the world at the time the British decided their best option was to try its hand at diplomacy. They began sending ambassadors to the great king of the Zulu in the year 1824. These were supposedly the first white men to interact with Shaka. If the show is any indicator, the first meeting must have been more than a little tense for the Europeans.
Luckily Shaka took a liking to the Europeans and treated them kindly, going so far as to even allow them to settle in his land. Shaka was fascinated with the white men and eager to learn about their military prowess, culture, technology, and establish trading with them. They introduced him to reading and writing, to which Shaka claimed no need for because if his messengers misrepresented him in any way they were executed. He also admitted that their guns were useful, but the time it took to reload them largely rendered them useless in battle as the gunman could easily be over ran by charging enemy soldiers. The Zulu never engaged in battle with the British while Shaka was alive due to his wish not to soil trade relations with a profitable ally.
Things took a turn for the worst in late 1827 when his mother, Nandi, passed away. Saying he took her passing pretty badly is quite an understatement. The great king of the Zulu became extremely grief stricken and began exhibiting increasingly erratic and irrational behavior at an alarming rate. I was honestly shocked when Shaka turned out to be the world’s biggest mama’s boy from hell.
Shaka ordered that no crops be grown for the next year and banned the use of milk as well. As if effectively causing famine wasn’t grandiose enough he then proceeded to slaughter and livestock that had young so that they too may know the pain of losing a mother. He wasn’t done yet though, oh no, he executed any woman who became pregnant as well as her lover. He even executed anyone that he felt wasn’t grieving the loss of his mother as much as he thought they should be.
Unsurprisingly for everyone involved and following along, Shaka was assassinated by one of his body guards and two of his remaining half brothers in September of 1828. Killing thousands of your own subjects for not grieving your mother’s death enough tends to end this way for most people I’d have to imagine. Regardless of Shaka’s rather unflattering and untimely midlife crisis around the age of 40, he has left a lasting impact of greatness on South Africa and is still celebrated to this day.
***A CLOSING DISCLAIMER***
The story of Shaka Zulu has been both revered and ridiculed by scholars over the years. There are generally 2 schools of thought here, either he was a great innovator or he was a great integrator. Some scholars believe that he was a great military genius for organizing his warriors into something that wouldn’t seem that out of place on the battlefield 1000 years in the past alongside the Roman Legions without ever being exposed to any European military histories. Others claim that he could have drawn inspiration from several other African tribes throughout the region doing different things and melded it into his own tactics.
He may not have been the absolute greatest African military general of all time, but there is absolutely no denying the staggering amount of success he was able to achieve in his short 10 year rule. The reason he tends to get more spotlight than other African leaders of the era is because of his proximity to the British colony in the region and his direct threat to its safety. I’m not here to advocate either side, I just think it’s a fantastic and interesting story worth taking a look at.
A good friend of mine has recently started his own blog talking about historical and mythological figures throughout history. We’ve been bouncing topics off of one another and Shaka Zulu was one that I wrote at his request, an edited version of this article will appear on his site. Check out: http://godandmen.andodigital.com/ for more great stories.