Shaka Zulu Biography And History

despite his difficult childhood, Shaka not only became a legendary leader of the Zulu people, but his ingenious military tactics and inventions in weaponry are credited in some ways with preserving Zulu heritage.

Ridiculed as a bastard child, few believed that the young Shaka Zulu would have much of a future. But despite his difficult childhood, Shaka not only became a legendary leader of the Zulu people, but his ingenious military tactics and inventions in weaponry are credited in some ways with preserving Zulu heritage.

Shaka's childhood can only be described as miserable. He was born to a high-ranking chieftain named Senzangakona, but his mother Nandi was an orphan from a nearby ethnic clan known as the Langeni. Unfortunately, Nandi gave birth to Shaka out of wedlock. The stigmatism of a bastard child might not have persisted if the relationship between Shaka's parents had not dissolved. Scorned by Senzangakona's clan, Nandi returned to her family home with young Shaka. The Langeni did not receive their wayward member warmly, and Nandi and Shaka were forced into exile.

While growing up, Shaka was continually the butt of cruel jokes and pranks due to his familial circumstances. This constant badgering over the course of several years had embittered Shaka. So, when Chief Dingiswayo of the Mthelthwa summoned him for military duty, Shaka soon found an outlet for his anger.

Shaka quickly proved himself to be a capable soldier. He excelled in all his military maneuvers and showed a talent for leading the troops. Shaka's talent was so distinguished that upon the death of Shaka's father, Chief Dingiswayo named Shaka to replace his father as chief of the Zulu. Shaka immediately tasked himself with reorganizing the Zulu fighting forces. Shaka instituted new tactical maneuvers that outsmarted an enemy accustomed to traditional tribal warfare. He also introduced a new short dagger called the assegai. Traditional warfare dictated that opposing clans would throw long spears at each other before running in the opposite direction. The clan with the most men still living declared victory. Shaka found such tactics to be acts of cowardice. His new assegai forced his men to approach the enemy face to face before stabbing him to his death.

To keep his military ranks at optimum levels, Shaka began to absorb and assimilate the enemy after victory. After conquering a village, all living adult males in good health were forced into military service. Shaka demanded absolute obedience of his men and would not tolerate any weakness or cowardice. Any disobedience was immediately punishable by death.

And Shaka never hesitated to kill. The first villages he attacked with his Zulu forces were those of the Langeni. In retaliation for the cruel treatment of him and his mother, Shaka killed every woman and child before burning the villages to the ground. For ten years, Shaka's Zulu fighters conquered village after village with the same intensity. Shaka's Zulu tribe became the most powerful kingdom in all of 19th century southern Africa.

But the more victories Shaka earned, the more deranged he became. Afraid any offspring would threaten his power, Shaka never took any wives. Given his obsession with his mother, Nandi, scholars believe he never had sexual relations with any woman. When Shaka's mother was dying, he was in such grief that he ordered several men to be executed. Such chaos ensued that several thousand men eventually died. Upon his mother's death, Shaka then ordered his Zulu clan into mourning. During this period, Shaka prohibited anyone from working in the fields, resulting in mass starvation among the Zulu.

Shaka's policies as leader of the Zulu have simultaneously caused both destruction and preservation. His thirst for blood and endless battles resulted in massive migrations of tribes as far north as modern-day Tanzania who sought to avoid confrontation with his Zulu. His post-victory assimilation techniques led to the destruction of the identity of many unique southern African ethnic groups. Consumed with a desire to conquer, Shaka never fostered stability. Upon his death, ethnic warfare ensued as his assimilated Zulus began to splinter.

But Shaka is also credited with protecting southern African heritage from the Europeans. In 1824 the first Europeans visited Shaka. During this meeting, Shaka was maliciously stabbed by one of his own Zulu. The Europeans treated Shaka and instantly earned his devoted respect. Although Shaka did sign over land to the Europeans, he reportedly was unaware that he had agreed to any permanent deal. Ironically, the Europeans agreed to help Shaka continue his wars of dominance, but Shaka's success only fueled the European's fear of him as a brutal warrior.

Today Shaka is revered as the leader who gave birth to the fighting spirit of the Zulu, allowing them to persevere amid European domination of their homeland. The memory of Shaka even lives on in countryside where he waged his battles. Jeff Guy, Head of the Department of History at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa, notes that many prominent rock outcroppings are associated with Shaka Zulu. The Great Cave Rock on the south side of Durban Bay is one example. According to Guy, a Nongoma magistrate heard a story that Shaka would march his troops down to the Bay and force them to fight against the crashing waves. Shaka would watch the rigorous exercise from his perch on the Great Cave Rock. Apparently Shaka perched on various rocks quite frequently to watch his troops train.

After his mother's death and the subsequent starvation, it was clear to the Zulu that Shaka had lost touch with reality. In 1828, Shaka's half-brothers stabbed him to death. Legend has it that they threw his body into a cooking pot and left him for the vultures.

Sources: Afro-American Almanac at, South Africa Online Travel Guide at,, "A Propensity for Sitting on Stones" by Jeff Guy at

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