Shaka was the son of Senzangakona, a Zulu chief, and Nandi, daughter of a chief of the nearby Langeni. Conceived as a result of his parents' loss of control during uku-hoblonga, Shaka's entire life was probably shaped by this event. Not only did they violate the rules of uku-hoblonga, they transgressed the strict rule of exogamy, as Nguni kinship rules disallowed marriage or sexual relations between kindred.
Rejected by his father's clan when Nandi's pregnancy was discovered, he was pejoratively referred to as I-Shaka, "the parasite". Nandi and Shaka were deposited at Senzangakona's kraal, until they were tossed out when Shaka, at age six and becoming a herdboy, allowed a dog to kill his father's pet sheep.
In his early years, Shaka endured a series of humiliations. His father neglected him and his mother. He was scrawny and constantly ridiculed by the other boys.
Nandi took her son and a younger daughter back to her people, the Langeni, where she was less welcome than with the Zulu. Subsequently displaced because of a famine in Langeni land, Nandi moved to her aunt's kraal. Here, they were relatively happy and Shaka developed into a powerful young man. He was muscular, over six feet tall and had a commanding presence. He displayed exceptional military prowess and leadership abilities.
At age 23, he was conscripted into the Izi-cwe regiment of the army of Dingiswayo, the Mtetwa king. It was during this period that Shaka developed the fighting techniques, which made his warriors terrorize southeastern Africa.
Shaka revolutionized the ancient techniques of warfare. First, he observed that hurling the light throwing assegai at a distant enemy was mostly ineffective and was equivalent to throwing the weapon away. Shaka developed the short, stout assegai, especially designed for close combat. He converted the shield into an offensive weapon. He lengthened the shield and used it to hook that of his opponent, thus providing an opening to use his stabbing assegai. He prohibited the use of sandals, thus acquiring more mobility.
Shaka's major innovation was the battle formation known as the "cow horns". The chest was the main army comprised of the strongest warriors, which engaged the opponent immediately. The two outspread horns encircled the enemy until their points converged. The formation was further refined by the addition of the loins, comprised of the reserves who remained seated with their backs to the battle until they were mobilized. This became the distinctive Zulu battle position, which was executed as a synchronized mass movement, carried out at top speed and over rough terrain. Shaka developed and maintained a standing army with disciplined and well-trained warriors, who executed their maneuvers flawlessly and in perfect alignment. Also, he organized his regiments on the basis of the social institution of age-grades.
Dingiswayo recognized Shaka's ability as a leader, and envisioned him as a chieftain rather than a soldier. Shaka succeeded Dingiswayo, who was killed in 1818. Shaka expanded the kingdom and the army, with 50,000 well-trained warriors, was the core of the state. Where Dingiswayo resorted to war after palaver failed, Shaka was preoccupied with total annihilation of the enemy. In addition, Dingiswayo allowed the conquered chiefs to rule their people. Shaka preferred to incorporate those chiefs who submitted into the Zulu kingdom, frequently replacing them with members of his family, and killed those who did not.
Shaka's kraal was located at Bulawayo. He was the absolute monarch, the source of all power and decision-making, and every citizen swore allegiance to him. With his marauding army extending the boundaries of Zululand, Shaka was building a unified nation, with a single Zulu language. However, an element of fear pervaded this unification, which led to the dislocation of neighboring states accompanying the rise of the Zulu nation.
The mfecane, which means "crushing" in Bantu languages, began with the migrations of the northern Nguni, but was commonly associated with the military and socio-political activities of Shaka. These migrations ultimately spread through southern, central and east Africa.
These migrations sent refugees in all directions, but it accentuated the military tactics and political skills of African political leaders, giving rise to states such as Lesotho and Swazi, which are still in existence today. Military states of the mfecane, such as the Zulu and Ndebele, fell victim to European hegemony.
Additionally, the mfecane depopulated an extensive portion of southern Africa, providing the Boers with an ideal opportunity to occupy African lands. Subsequently, they entrenched themselves in these areas, annexing the best lands for themselves and enslaving the Africans.
In 1828, Shaka was assassinated by his half-brothers, including his successor, Dingane, and unceremoniously buried in a pit.
Shaka has been described as a despot and tyrant because of the many atrocities he committed against his enemies and his people. Nevertheless, through his military genius and leadership abilities, he expanded his sphere of influence from a petty chiefdom of 100 square miles to the Zulu empire, which extended over 200,000 square miles.
I-Shaka: An intestinal beetle held to be a common cause of the suppression of the menses.
mfecane: Forced migration.
uku-hoblonga: External intercourse; not full, which still could result in pregnancy. This was allowed among unmarried couples.
The Anatomy of the Zulu Army: From Shaka to Cetshwayo 1818-1879, Ian Knight. Stackpole Books, 1995.
General History of Africa, Vol. VI: Africa in the Nineteenth Century Until the 1880s. UNESCO, 1999.
Great Zulu Battles 1838-1906, Ian Knight. Arms & Armour, 1998.
Southern Africa: Monomotapa, Zulu, Basuto, Kenny Mann. Dillon Press, 1996.
The Rise & Fall of the Zulu Nation, John Laband. Arms & Armour, 1997.
Shaka Zulu: The Rise of the Zulu Empire, E. A. Ritter. Stackpole Books, 1990.
The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation Under Shaka and Its Fall in the Zulu War of 1879, Donald R. Morris. Da Capo Press, 1998.
The Zulus and the Matabele: Warrior Nations, Glen Lyndon Dodds. Arms & Armour, 1998.
Videos & DVDs
Shaka Zulu (1983). VHS.
Shaka Zulu: The Complete Miniseries (1983). DVD, 500 minutes.
Zulu Wars: Shaka-King of the Zulu/Blood River/Red Coat Black Blood (2000). DVD.
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