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June 7, 2023
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King Shaka Zulu: One of the greatest warriors of all time

“There have been many outstanding leaders and generals in the African continent, but none captures the imagination as Shaka of Senzangakhona. From a small volunteer army of approximately 200 and a territory that seemed, in comparison with other neighbouring states, no more than a small, local district, Shaka built in a period of ten years a formidable standing army of about 60,000 to 70,000 highly trained men. His rule extended for large part of Southern Africa… Shaka was a consummate leader. Not only was he a great military genius, but his varied gifts demonstrated qualities of organization and innovation that were unique. The military machinery he initiated brought about, fifty years later, one of the most dramatic defeats the British army suffered in all its colonial history.”

Shaka ZuluShaka was born in 1786. His father was Senzangakona, Zulu King, his mother was named Nandi. Shaka’s name is said to stem from Senzangakhona’s claim that Nandi was not pregnant but was suffering from an intestinal condition caused by the iShaka beetle. Despite his attempts to deny paternity, Senzangakhona eventually installed Nandi as his third wife. Shaka was wild, wayward and headstrong as a boy. He quarrelled with everyone save his mother. The children of the Langeni, his mother’s people, used to tease him about his crinkly ear and his short and stumpy phallus. Sometimes they poured hot porridge into his hand and force hot collops down his throat. Later they were to regret it very much for Shaka never forgot.

When Shaka was old enough to wear a loincloth he was put in his father’s charge, but before long the two were quarrelling. He was eventually expelled from the kingdom and sent back to his mother, who took him to his grandfather, and stayed too. In the course of more family strife, both were turned adrift. Ngendeyana, king of the Ndedwini, by whom Nandi also had a child, took them both in only to put them out in short order. At the request of Shaka’s father, a leader of the Mtetwas gave them a home. Their host, Ngomane was kind to them. Shaka never forgot this and when he became a mighty ruler, he showed his gratitude by appointing Ngomane second in command. It is said that the only persons Shaka ever loved were his mother and Ngomane.

Seven years after making his home with Ngomane Shaka was taken into the service of Dingiswayo, a famous Mtetwa ruler. Shaka grew up to be skilled warrior of great strength. His outstanding deeds of courage attracted the attention of his overlord and, rising rapidly in Dingiswayo’s army, he became one of his foremost commanders. At this time, Shaka was given the name Nodumehlezi (the one who when seated causes the earth to rumble). He was the tallest man in the army, standing well over six feet. He was broad shouldered, slim waisted, and his frame was svelte and elegantly knit. In strength and daring he had no equal. In combats of wrestling and other matches he was wont to take on two of the strongest rivals at a time and down them both. He was also the best and most graceful dancer. He became the idol of his people. One of Shaka’s most talked-about exploits at this time was a combat with a huge madman who was terrorizing the district. He had robbed and killed a number of people, and when several soldiers were sent to take him into custody, he beat them off. Shaka attacked him singlehandedly and in a terrific fight killed him.

Even his father who had once cast him off, became one of his greatest admirers. The latter on a visit to Dingiswayo, was honoured by a traditional dance, and seeing one of the warriors, whose fire and grace excelled all the others asked who he was. When told that it was his own son he was so delighted that he called him over and named him his heir despite the fact that he was not born of a union with one of his own wives.

Shaka was twenty-six when his father died. Another son, Sijuana, took his father’s place, but Dingiswayo gave Shaka the military support necessary to oust and assassinate his senior brother, and make himself ruler of the Zulu, although he remained a vassal of Dingiswayo. When another half-brother, Dingaan, came by, Shaka merely laughed at him and told him to go on his way. Later Dingaan was to become a powerful ruler and Shaka was to regret that he had only laughed.

When Shaka took over the rulership of the Zulu, they were an insignificant people owning less than 100 square miles of land.

His first step was to segregate all married men between the ages of thirty and forty. He built a separate kraal for them which he called “Belebele,” meaning Everlasting Plague. Shaka hated married men. Next he segregated the youths between seventeen and twenty, informing them that they were to remain bachelors. He subjected them to fierce discipline. Leading by example, Shaka once sat down on a hornet’s nest, scooped out the angry insects and beat them off without raising. He wanted strong men only. He trained his warriors well and toughened them to jog over hills for up to 50 miles in a day without shoes. On the march young boys would carry gear for the warriors with one of these porters for every three warriors.

An English traveller who knew Shaka well, said of these warriors, “Their figures are the noblest that my eye has ever gazed upon; their movements the most graceful; and their attitude the proudest—standing like forms of monumental bronze.” They hailed Shaka by stating: “You mountain, you lion, you elephant, you that are Black.”


Shaka revolutionized military tactics. At the time it was the custom for an African warrior in battle to throw the assegai — a long pole weapon made of wood with pointed iron at the end and thrown like a javelin — and immediately advance or retreat according to the action of the enemy. Shaka considered this fighting method ineffective, and cowardly. Tired of the assegai, Shaka introduced the ikwla, a weapon with a shorter sphere and a longer spearhead; and convinced his unit of the effectiveness of close-combat rather than spear throwing. This weapon gave Shaka’s warriors a huge advantage over opponents when they came up close for hand-to-hand combat. Two heroes took immediately to his ideas, Mgobhozi of the Msane and Nqoboka of the Sokhulu. They were to be his lifelong comrades.

Shaka supposedly introduced cowhide shields, which were much stronger than the iron or wood shields used previously. He also changed the attack formation, modelling it after the shape of a bull’s horns. This was a three-part attack system in which seasoned warriors form the “chest” of the horn at the front, pinning the enemy into a position where it can be easily attacked. Younger warriors would form the “horns” and encircle the enemy, attacking from the sides, and additional warriors formed the “loins,” standing behind the “chest” with their back to the battle, protecting against any additional attackers. He also had warriors carry different colored or patterned shields, depending on their rank. In a troop of hundreds, this made it much easier for the warriors to know exactly where to go when forming the bull horn.


Shaka was concerned not only with the efficiency of military techniques but also with the consolidation of political authority. He saw the creation of a strong and efficient army as a means of establishing order and eliminating the rampant banditry of states and individual groups. He also took several precautions to consolidate his power by eliminating many of his relatives that could try to usurp his position, before setting out to settle old scores with the Langeni, who had been cruel to him when he was a boy. Invading their lands, he called the whole people together, and picking out those against whom he bore a grudge, had them all impaled on sharp stakes, set the stakes on fire, and left them to die in slow agony.

His next objective was Panagashe, ruler of the Butelizi. When the two forces met, the Butelizi, confident in their old way of victory, threw their spears. But to their amazement, Shaka’s warriors caught the weapons on their shields, flung the spears back, and charged down on them with blood curdling yells. Soon the Butelizi were in headlong flight. Shaka took all their cattles, and gave the young captive warriors the option of joining his army or death. His men then slaughtered the rest, except the young wives and virgins. As to Pangashe, he left him to die a slow death sitting upright on a sharp stake.

After wiping out several other smaller nations, Shaka set out against Matwane, chief of the Ngwanemi, who was held to be invincible. To stimulate his courage, this ferocious king had the habit of drinking the gall from the livers of the rulers he had slain. When Matwane learned of Shaka’s plan, he marched off to ally himself with Zwide, King of the Ndwande.

After Dingiswayo, Zwide was the most powerful king in South Africa, and he too thirsted for supreme power. He welcomed Matwane and the two hatched a plan to eliminate Dingiswayo. Instead of attacking him openly, they enticed him into a hut and chopped off his head. Taking out his heart, liver, and other vital organs, Zwide boiled them and drained off the fat for a charm.

Shaka was beside himself over Dingiswayo’s death, and annexed the whole nation after killing the ruler who had succeeded Dingiswayo.

Zwide, now ready, marched to meet Shaka. Fearing that the powerful Ngwanes might join Zwides forces, Shaka attacked them, massacring some 30,000 of them. While in the vicinity, he annihilated the Tembas for good measure. Zwide on the march, induced other rulers to join him but this did not help. The two finally met on the banks of the Mhlatuze River and a battle fought until the river ran red with blood and corpses piled deep. It was Zwide who withdrew. Zwide, with strengthened army, headed once again for Zululand. On the march to meet him, Shaka laid waste all the land over which Zwide would pass, and then withdrew. Zwide, who had left his base with only a day’s ration in the expectation that he could forage cattle and food on the way, found himself without food. After four days, when Zwide’s men were worn out from hunger, Shaka sent out his young blood to attack them and there was great slaughter and another victory.

The last obstacle in the way of his goal of achieving supremacy in South Africa was the still unsubjected territory of Zwide’s people, Ndwande. With an army of 30,000, Shaka set out for Ndwandeland. As he approach, Zwide’s people, some 40,000 men, women and children, sought refuge in the mountains. With Shaka hot in pursuit, they made a stand on the plateau of a snow-covered mountain. The Zulus, coming within a few feet of Nwadnes halted. A dramatic silence ensured while each warrior steeled himself for the coming conflict. Then Shaka, gave the signal and the carnage commenced. When it was over every single Ndwande had been tossed from the cliffs.

After this massacre, Shaka’s nearest enemy was at least 600 miles away. Some nations, fearing him had fled further. By 1820, four years after he started out on his first campaign and at the age of thirty-four, Shaka had conquered a territory larger than France. A ring of desert land and devastated area protected it from invasion. His people had become immensely wealthy. His warriors saluted him, “Bayede!” the equivalent of “Hail Caesar!” Then to clashing swords they would chant:

“Thou has scattered all the nations
What remains now for thy forces to fight?
Oh, what remains now for thy forces to fight?”

Shaka now had a magnificent army, restless for battle, but with no one to fight. To get rid of the surplus, he would incite one regiment to attack another. With no outside enemies on which to fix their hate, his people began fighting among themselves. To preserve order he kept executioners by his side, and had people impaled or their hands chopped off for no reason but to create fear.

Defiance increased, however.

Once when he was dancing, someone struck at his heart with a dagger but he succeeded only in wounding his arm. Thousands were put to death in retaliation. His mother sought in vain to stem the slaughter, and when she died, some 7000 people were put to death. Shaka wept, and all whose eyes were dry, or who did not come to the royal city to mourn, were executed. It is said that pregnant women and their husbands from his people were murdered, and crop planting and milk production was banned. However, one Zulu member stood up to Shaka and reminded him that his mother was not the first person to ever die in their community and that some of his mourning methods were too harsh. Shaka listened, called off his mourning measures, and rewarded the tribe member for bravery in speaking up.

Nine years of this unbridled tyranny filled people with desperation and they longed for his death. Dingaan his half-brother resolved to kill him at all costs. Plotting together with one of Shaka’s domestics name Satam, Dingaan and his brother crept into Shaka’s hut and stabbed him as he sat before the fire. They plunged the dagger into him again and again. Before, he died, Shaka said: “What have I done to you! Oh, children of my father.”

Shaka’s body was flung into a corn pit where it was left to the vultures.

Controversial as he was, Shaka had left a powerful legacy. By sheer strength of character and visionary ideas, Shaka organized his people, making them into a fighting force. He made it difficult for whyte men to seize their lands. His disciplined training gave the Zulu the finest physique in the world. Years later when the English wanted to conquer the Zulus, they demanded that Zulu youths be permitted to marry.

Shaka Zulu is the inspiration for a song used throughout Africa when a revered authoritative figure is celebrated. The opening lines are, “He is Shaka the unshakeable, Thunderer-while-sitting, son of Menzi. He is the bird that preys on other birds.”

Photo credit:
2nd image in the post – Shaka Zulu by tariq12

World’s Great Men of Color: Vol 1 by J.A. Rogers
Emperor Shaka the Great (epic poem) by Mazisi Kunene

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