Shaka ka Senzangakhona
the first king of the Zulus,
transformed the amaZulu from
a small clan into a nation that held sway over
southern Africa between the Phongolo and Mzimkhulu
rivers. His statesmanship and vigour in assimilating
neighbouring clans, and ruling by proxy through
others, marks him as one of the greatest Zulu
Shaka was born out of wedlock to Nandi and chief Senzangakhona. Nandi was the daughter of a
past chief of a lesser clan, the Langeni.
When his mother became pregnant, she
claimed that her growing belly was because of a "shaka"
or intestinal beetle parasite. Shaka was
born between 1781 and 1787 near present-day Melmoth
Shaka spent much of his childhood in his
father's settlements and was initiated there. In
his early days, Shaka served as a Mthethwa warrior
under the leadership of a local
Dingiswayo, having been exiled after a failed
attempt to oust his father, had helped develop new
ideas of military and social organisation, in
particular the ibutho, or age-based regiments.
When Shaka's father, Senzangakona died (around
1812 to 1816), Dingiswayo aided Shaka to defeat his
brother and assume leadership of the
Zulu clan. Shaka
immediately began improving the army and taking
revenge on those who he felt had treated him and his
mother badly during his childhood.
With Dingiswayo's help, Shaka began to refine
the ibutho system further, and
over the next few years forged alliances with
neighbouring clans, mostly to counter the growing
threat from Ndwandwe (Nxumalo) raids from the north.
New fighting techniques
Shaka is best known for the new fighting and
battle techniques he introduced.
He replaced light throwing javelins (assegais)
with heavy bladed thrusting spears known as iklwas.
He also introduced larger, heavier shields made of
cowhide and taught each warrior how to use the
shield's left side to hook the enemy's shield to the
right, exposing his ribs for a fatal spear stab.
To toughen his men he discarded their leather
sandals and made them train in bare feet. Shaka's
troops practiced by covering more than fifty miles
in a fast trot in a single day over hot, rocky terrain so that they could surprise the enemy.
Finally, he introduced a new battle manoeuvre
called the "buffalo" formation. Four sections - two
"horns," the "chest," and the "loins" - formed the
buffalo. During an attack, the chest assaulted the
enemy from the front, while the horns struck the flanks to
encircle them. The loins were kept in
reserve, usually waiting behind a hill so that they
could not see the fight, become excited, and
reinforce too soon. Shaka directed his buffalo
formation from nearby high ground and controlled the
four sections by means of foot messengers.
early battles against smaller clans yielded him easy victories. He then
offered the survivors the choice of either
death or joining him. Those who chose to
join also became
began with only 350 warriors, but by the end
of his first year of leadership the Zulu
ranks numbered 2,000.
Death of Dingiswayo
In 1818 Dingiswayo
was murdered by Zwide, a powerful chief of
the Ndwandwe clan.
Shaka took it upon himself to avenge
Dingiswayo's death. He captured Zwide's
mother, a Sangoma (a traditional healer and
spiritualist) and killed her by locking her
in a house with hyenas. They devoured her
and in the morning Shaka burned the house to
In 1824 an
Englishman, H.F. Fynn, provided medical
treatment to the wounded King. In
appreciation, Shaka allowed English traders
to begin operations in his kingdom and even
made an attempt to exchange royal
ambassadors with King George.
ten years Shaka continued to raid, destroy,
and absorb clans and tribes throughout
southern Africa. The
Zulu nation grew to a population of
250,000, with an army of more than 40,000 warriors occupying territory of
about 2 million square miles. An estimated 2 million of Shaka's
enemies died during his decade of power.
The increased military efficiency led to
more and more clans being incorporated into
Shaka's Zulu empire, while other tribes
moved away to be out of range of Shaka's
The ripple effect of these mass
migrations, combined with the impact of
white encroachment and expansion in that
area of Southern Africa, has become known as
the Mfecane, in which dispossessed tribe
after tribe turned on their neighbours in a
deadly cycle of flight and conquest.
Shaka's death and legacy
Shaka's erratic behaviour worsened with
the death of his mother in 1827. His armies
grew unhappy with the constant operations,
which ranged further and further afield, as
Shaka sought new lands to conquer.
On 23 September 1828, Shaka's half
brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana,
assassinated him. He was buried in an
unmarked grave near the Zulu settlement of
Stanger (now KwaDukuza in
The death of Shaka did not mean the end
of Zulu power. Dingane soon killed his
brother and became the single chieftain of
the Zulus. New leadership, combined with
the legacy of Shaka's organisation and tactics, provided
A half century after his death, the
Zulu nation still
employed the buffalo formation to defeat
their enemies and to repel invaders,
reinforcing Shaka's reputation as southern Africa's
most influential military leader.