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|Reign||1816 – 1828|
KwaZulu-Natal, near Melmoth
|Died||22 September 1828 (aged about 40-years)|
|Issue||None known or recognised|
|Cause of death||Assassination|
|Resting place||KwaDukuza, South Africa|
He was born in the lunar month of uNtulikazi[a] (July) in the year of 1787 near present-day Melmoth, KwaZulu-Natal Province. Due to persecution as a result of his illegitimacy, Shaka spent his childhood in his mother's settlements where he was initiated into an ibutho lempi (fighting unit). In his early days, Shaka served as a warrior under the sway of Dingiswayo.
Shaka went on to further refine the ibutho system used by Dingiswayo and others and, with the Mthethwa empire's support over the next several years, forged alliances with his smaller neighbours, to counter the growing threat from Ndwandwe raids from the north. The initial Zulu maneuvers were primarily defensive in nature, as Shaka preferred to apply pressure diplomatically, aided by an occasional strategic assassination. His changes to local society built on existing structures. Although he preferred social and propagandistic political methods, he also engaged in a number of battles, as the Zulu sources make clear. In turn, he was ultimately assassinated by his own half brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana. Shaka's reign coincided with the start of the Mfecane ("Upheaval" or "The Crushing"), a period of widespread destruction and warfare in southern Africa between 1815 and about 1840 that depopulated the region. His role in the Mfecane is highly controversial.
When Senzangakhona (Shaka's father) died in 1816, Shaka's younger half-brother Sigujana assumed power as the legitimate heir to the Zulu chiefdom. Sigujana's reign was short, however, as Dingiswayo, anxious to confirm his authority, lent Shaka a regiment so that he was able to put Sigujana to death, launching a relatively bloodless coup that was substantially accepted by the Zulu. Thus Shaka became Chief of the Zulu clan, although he remained a vassal of the Mthethwa empire until Dingiswayo's death in battle a year later at the hands of Zwide, powerful chief of the Ndwandwe (Nxumalo) nation. When the Mthethwa forces were defeated and scattered temporarily, the power vacuum was filled by Shaka. He reformed the remnants of the Mthethwa and other regional tribes and later defeated Zwide in the Zulu Civil War of 1819-20.
When Dingiswayo was murdered by Zwide, Shaka sought to avenge his death. At some point, Zwide barely escaped Shaka, though the exact details are not known. In that encounter, Zwide's mother Ntombazi, a Sangoma (Zulu seer or shaman), was killed by Shaka. Shaka chose a particularly gruesome revenge on her, locking her in a house and placing jackals or hyenas inside: they devoured her and, in the morning, Shaka burned the house to the ground. Despite carrying out this revenge, Shaka continued his pursuit of Zwide. It was not until around 1825 that the two military leaders met, near Phongola, in what would be their final meeting. Phongola is near the present day border of KwaZulu-Natal, a province in South Africa. Shaka was victorious in battle, although his forces sustained heavy casualties, which included his head military commander, Umgobhozi Ovela Entabeni.
In the initial years, Shaka had neither the influence nor reputation to compel any but the smallest of groups to join him, and upon Dingiswayo's death, Shaka moved southwards across the Thukela River, establishing his capital Bulawayo in Qwabe territory; he never did move back into the traditional Zulu heartland. In Qwabe, Shaka may have intervened in an existing succession dispute to help his own choice, Nqetho, into power.
As Shaka became more respected by his people, he was able to spread his ideas with greater ease. Because of his background as a soldier, Shaka taught the Zulus that the most effective way of becoming powerful quickly was by conquering and controlling other tribes. His teachings greatly influenced the social outlook of the Zulu people. The Zulu tribe soon developed a warrior outlook, which Shaka turned to his advantage.
Shaka's hegemony was primarily based on military might, smashing rivals and incorporating scattered remnants into his own army. He supplemented this with a mixture of diplomacy and patronage, incorporating friendly chieftains, including Zihlandlo of the Mkhize, Jobe of the Sithole, and Mathubane of the Thuli. These peoples were never defeated in battle by the Zulu; they did not have to be. Shaka won them over by subtler tactics, such as patronage and reward. As for the ruling Qwabe, they began re-inventing their genealogies to give the impression that Qwabe and Zulu were closely related in the past. In this way a greater sense of cohesion was created, though it never became complete, as subsequent civil wars attest.
Shaka still recognised Dingiswayo and his larger Mthethwa clan as overlord after he returned to the Zulu but, some years later, Dingiswayo was ambushed by Zwide's amaNdwandwe and killed. There is no evidence to suggest that Shaka betrayed Dingiswayo. Indeed, the core Zulu had to retreat before several Ndwandwe incursions; the Ndwandwe was clearly the most aggressive grouping in the sub-region.
Shaka was able to form an alliance with the leaderless Mthethwa clan and was able to establish himself amongst the Qwabe, after Phakathwayo was overthrown with relative ease. With Qwabe, Hlubi and Mkhize support, Shaka was finally able to summon a force capable of resisting the Ndwandwe (of the Nxumalo clan). Historian Donald Morris states that Shaka's first major battle against Zwide, of the Ndwandwe, was the Battle of Gqokli Hill, on the Mfolozi river. Shaka's troops maintained a strong position on the crest of the hill. A frontal assault by their opponents failed to dislodge them, and Shaka sealed the victory by sending his reserve forces in a sweep around the hill to attack the enemy's rear. Losses were high overall but the efficiency of the new Shakan innovations was proved. It is probable that, over time, the Zulu were able to hone and improve their encirclement tactics.
Another decisive fight eventually took place on the Mhlatuze river, at the confluence with the Mvuzane stream. In a two-day running battle, the Zulu inflicted a resounding defeat on their opponents. Shaka then led a fresh reserve some 70 miles (110 km) to the royal kraal of Zwide, ruler of the Ndwandwe, and destroyed it. Zwide himself escaped with a handful of followers before falling foul of a chieftainess named Mjanji, ruler of a baBelu clan. (He died in mysterious circumstances soon afterwards.) Zwide's general Soshangane (of the Shangaan) moved north towards what is now Mozambique to inflict further damage on less resistant foes and take advantage of slaving opportunities, obliging Portuguese traders to give tribute. Shaka later had to contend again with Zwide's son Sikhunyane in 1826.
Shaka granted permission to Europeans to enter Zulu territory on rare occasions. In the mid-1820s Henry Francis Fynn provided medical treatment to the king after an assassination attempt by a rival tribe member hidden in a crowd (see account of Nathaniel Isaacs).[clarification needed] To show his gratitude, Shaka permitted European settlers to enter and operate in the Zulu kingdom. This would open the door for future British incursions into the Zulu kingdom that were not so peaceful. Shaka observed several demonstrations of European technology and knowledge, but he held that the Zulu way was superior to that of the foreigners.
Dingane and Mhlangana, Shaka's half-brothers, appear to have made at least two attempts to assassinate Shaka before they succeeded, with perhaps support from Mpondo elements and some disaffected iziYendane people. While the British colonialists considered his regime to be a future threat, allegations that European traders wished him dead were problematic given that Shaka had granted concessions to Europeans prior to his death, including the right to settle at Port Natal (now Durban). Shaka had made enough enemies among his own people to hasten his demise. It came relatively quickly after the death of his mother Nandi in October 1827, and the devastation caused by Shaka's subsequent erratic behavior. According to Donald Morris, Shaka ordered that no crops should be planted during the following year of mourning, no milk (the basis of the Zulu diet at the time) was to be used, and any woman who became pregnant was to be killed along with her husband. At least 7,000 people who were deemed to be insufficiently grief-stricken were executed, although the killing was not restricted to humans: cows were slaughtered so that their calves would know what losing a mother felt like.
The Zulu monarch was killed by three assassins sometime in 1828; September is the most frequently cited date, when almost all available Zulu manpower had been sent on yet another mass sweep to the north. This left the royal kraal critically lacking in security. It was all the conspirators needed--they being Shaka's half-brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana, and an iNduna called Mbopa. A diversion was created by Mbopa, and Dingane and Mhlangana struck the fatal blows. Shaka's corpse was dumped by his assassins in an empty grain pit, which was then filled with stones and mud. The exact location is unknown. A monument was built at one alleged site. Historian Donald Morris holds that the true site is somewhere on Couper Street in the village of Stanger, South Africa.
Shaka's half-brother Dingane assumed power and embarked on an extensive purge of pro-Shaka elements and chieftains, running over several years, in order to secure his position. The initial problem Dingane faced was maintaining the loyalty of the Zulu fighting regiments, or amabutho. He addressed this by allowing them to marry and set up homesteads (which was forbidden during Shaka's rule) and they also received cattle from Dingane. Loyalty was also maintained through fear, as anyone who was suspected of rivaling Dingane was killed. He set up his main residence at Mmungungundlovo and established his authority over the Zulu kingdom. Dingane ruled for some twelve years, during which time he fought, disastrously, against the Voortrekkers, and against another half-brother, Mpande, who, with Boer and British support, took over the Zulu leadership in 1840, ruling for some 30 years.
Some older histories have doubted the military and social innovations customarily attributed to Shaka, denying them outright, or attributing them variously to European influences. More modern researchers argue that such explanations fall short, and that the general Zulu culture, which included other tribes and clans, contained a number of practices that Shaka could have drawn on to fulfill his objectives, whether in raiding, conquest or hegemony. Some of these practices are shown below.
Shaka is often said to have been dissatisfied with the long throwing assegai, and is credited with introducing a new variant of the weapon: the iklwa, a short stabbing spear with a long, broad, and indeed sword-like, spearhead.
Though Shaka probably did not invent the iklwa, according to Zulu scholar John Laband, the leader did insist that his warriors train with the weapon, which gave them a "terrifying advantage over opponents who clung to the traditional practice of throwing their spears and avoiding hand-to-hand conflict." The throwing spear was not discarded but used as an initial missile weapon before close contact with the enemy, when the shorter stabbing spear was used in hand-to-hand combat.
It is also supposed that Shaka introduced a larger, heavier version of the Nguni shield. Furthermore, it is believed that he taught his warriors how to use the shield's left side to hook the enemy's shield to the right, exposing the enemy's ribs for a fatal spear stab. In Shaka's time, these cowhide shields were supplied by the king, and they remained the king's property. Different coloured shields distinguished different amabutho within Shaka's army. Some had black shields, others used white shields with black spots, and some had white shields with brown spots, while others used pure brown or white shields.
The story that sandals were discarded to toughen the feet of Zulu warriors has been noted in various military accounts such as The Washing of the Spears, Like Lions They Fought, and Anatomy of the Zulu Army. Implementation was typically blunt. Those who objected to going without sandals were simply killed. Shaka drilled his troops frequently, in forced marches that sometimes covered more than 50 miles (80 km) a day in a fast trot over hot, rocky terrain. He also drilled the troops to carry out encirclement tactics.
Historian John Laband dismisses these stories as myth, writing: "What are we to make, then, of [European trader Henry Francis] Fynn's statement that once the Zulu army reached hard and stony ground in 1826, Shaka ordered sandals of ox-hide to be made for himself?"
Laband also dismissed the idea of a 50 miles (80 km) march in a single day as ridiculous. He further claims that even though these stories have been repeated by "astonished and admiring white commentators," the Zulu army covered "no more than 19 kilometres (12 mi) a day, and usually went only about 14 kilometres (8.7 mi)." Furthermore, Zulus under Shaka sometimes advanced more slowly. They spent two whole days recuperating in one instance, and on another they rested for a day and two nights before pursuing their enemy. Several other historians of the Zulu, and the Zulu military system, however, affirm the mobility rate of up to 50 miles per day.
Boys and girls aged six and over joined Shaka's force as apprentice warriors (udibi) and served as carriers of rations, supplies like cooking pots and sleeping mats, and extra weapons until they joined the main ranks. It is sometimes held that such support was used more for very light forces designed to extract tribute in cattle and slaves from neighbouring groups. Nevertheless, the concept of "light" forces is questionable. The fast-moving Zulu raiding party, or "ibutho lempi," on a mission invariably travelled light, driving cattle as provisions on the hoof, and were not weighed down with heavy weapons and supply packs.
Age-grade groupings of various sorts were common in the Bantu culture of the day, and indeed are still important in much of Africa. Age grades were responsible for a variety of activities, from guarding the camp, to cattle herding, to certain rituals and ceremonies. Shaka organised various grades into regiments, and quartered them in special military kraals, with regiments having their own distinctive names and insignia. The regimental system clearly built on existing tribal cultural elements that could be adapted and shaped to fit an expansionist agenda.
The expanding Zulu power inevitably clashed with European hegemony in the decades after Shaka's death. In fact, European travellers to Shaka's kingdom demonstrated advanced technology such as firearms and writing, but the Zulu monarch was less than convinced. There was no need to record messages, he held, since his messengers stood under penalty of death should they bear inaccurate tidings. As for firearms, Shaka acknowledged their utility as missile weapons after seeing muzzle-loaders demonstrated, but he argued that in the time a gunman took to reload, he would be swamped by charging spear-wielding warriors.
The first major clash after Shaka's death took place under his successor Dingane, against expanding European Voortrekkers from the Cape. Initial Zulu success rested on fast-moving surprise attacks and ambushes, but the Voortrekkers recovered and dealt the Zulu a severe defeat from their fortified wagon laager at the Battle of Blood River. The second major clash was against the British during 1879. Once again, most Zulu successes rested on their mobility, ability to screen their forces and to close when their opponents were unfavourably deployed. Their major victory at the Battle of Isandlwana is well known, but they also forced back a British column at the Battle of Hlobane mountain, by deploying fast-moving regiments over a wide area of rugged ravines and gullies, and attacking the British who were forced into a rapid disorderly fighting retreat, back to the town of Kambula.
A number of historians[who?] argue that Shaka "changed the nature of warfare in Southern Africa" from "a ritualised exchange of taunts with minimal loss of life into a true method of subjugation by wholesale slaughter." Others dispute this characterization (see Scholarship section below). A number of writers focus on Shaka's military innovations such as the iklwa - the Zulu thrusting spear, and the "buffalo horns" formation. This combination has been compared to the standardisation implemented by the reorganised Roman legions under Marius.
Much controversy still surrounds the character, methods and activities of the Zulu king. From a military standpoint, historian John Keegan notes exaggerations and myths that surround Shaka, but nevertheless maintains:
Fanciful commentators called him Shaka, the Black Napoleon, and allowing for different societies and customs, the comparison is apt. Shaka is without doubt the greatest commander to come out of Africa.
Some scholars[who?] hold that popular depictions of Shaka as a suddenly appearing genius creating innovation are overstated, and that to the contrary, Shaka was a borrower and imitator of indigenous methods, customs and even ruler-lineages already in place. They also argue that Shaka's line was relatively short-lived and receives undue attention, compared to other, longer established lines and rulers in the region.
It seems much more likely that Shaka, seeking to build the power of a previously insignificant chiefdom, drew on an existing heritage of statecraft known to his immediate neighbors. J.H. Soga implied as much when he used genealogical evidence to argue that the Zulu were an upstart group inferior in dignity and distinction to established chiefdoms in their region, for example, the Hlubi, Ndwandwe, and Dlamini lines.83 Using different informants and genealogical charts, A.T. Bryant arrived at similar conclusions. The Zulu line - "a royal house of doubtful pedigree" - was very short in comparison to the Langene, Ndwandwe, Swazi, and Hlubi lines. Using his standard formula of eighteen years per reign, Bryant calculated that the Swazi, Ndwandwe, and Hlubi lines could be traced back to the beginning of the fifteenth century, while the eponymous chief Zulu had died at the beginning of the eighteenth century.-- Etherington, 
Shaka's triumphs did not succeed in obliterating or diminishing the memories of his better-born rivals. The hypothesis that several states of a new kind arose about the same time does not take account of the contrast between the short line of Shaka and the long pedigrees of his most important opponents - especially the coalition grouped around his deadly enemy Zwide (d. 1822). The founders of the states which Omer-Cooper called "Zulu-type states," including the Ndebele, the Gasa, the Ngoni, and the Swazi had all been closely associated with Zwide. Instead of hypothesizing that they all chose to imitate Shaka, it is easier to imagine that he modeled his state on theirs. And as they stemmed from ancient families it is entirely possible that states of that type existed in a more remote past. Soga and Bryant related each of them to a larger grouping they called Mho."
Scholarship in recent years has revised views of the sources on Shaka's reign. The earliest are two eyewitness accounts written by European adventurer-traders who met Shaka during the last four years of his reign. Nathaniel Isaacs published his Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa in 1836, creating a picture of Shaka as a degenerate and pathological monster, which survives in modified forms to this day. Isaacs was aided in this by Henry Francis Fynn, whose diary (actually a rewritten collage of various papers) was edited by James Stuart only in 1950.
Their accounts may be balanced by the rich resource of oral histories collected around 1900 by the same James Stuart, now published in six volumes as The James Stuart Archive. Stuart's early 20th century work was continued by D. McK. Malcolm in 1950. These and other sources such as A.T. Bryant gives us a more Zulu-centred picture. Most popular accounts are based on E.A. Ritter's novel Shaka Zulu (1955), a potboiling romance that was re-edited into something more closely resembling a history. John Wright (history professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg), Julian Cobbing and Dan Wylie (Rhodes University, Grahamstown) are among a number of writers who have modified these stories.
Various modern historians writing on Shaka and the Zulu point to the uncertain nature of Fynn and Isaac's accounts of Shaka's reign. A standard general reference work in the field is Donald Morris's "The Washing of The Spears", which notes that the sources, as a whole, for this historical era are not the best. Morris nevertheless references a large number of sources, including Stuart, and A. T. Bryant's extensive but uneven "Olden Times in Zululand and Natal", which is based on four decades of exhaustive interviews of tribal sources. After sifting through these sources and noting their strengths and weaknesses, Morris generally credits Shaka with a large number of military and social innovations, and this is the general consensus in the field.
A 1998 study by historian Carolyn Hamilton summarizes much of the scholarship on Shaka towards the dawn of the 21st century in areas ranging from ideology, politics and culture, to the use of his name and image in a popular South African theme park, Shakaland. It argues that in many ways, the image of Shaka has been "invented" in the modern era according to whatever agenda persons hold. This "imagining of Shaka" it is held, should be balanced by a sober view of the historical record, and allow greater scope for the contributions of indigenous African discourse.
Military historians of the Zulu War must also be considered for their description of Zulu fighting methods and tactics, including authors like Ian Knight and Robert Edgerton. General histories of Southern Africa are also valuable including Noel Mostert's "Frontiers" and a detailed account of the results from the Zulu expansion, J.D. Omer-Cooper's "The Zulu Aftermath", which advances the traditional Mfecane theory.
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 impis. The ripple effect caused by these mass migrations would become known (though only in the twentieth century) as the Mfecane (annihilation).
Shaka's army set out on a massive programme of expansion, killing or enslaving those who resisted in the territories he conquered. His impis (warrior regiments) were rigorously disciplined: failure in battle meant death.
At the time of his death, Shaka ruled over 250,000 people and could muster more than 50,000 warriors. His 10-year-long kingship resulted in a massive number of deaths, mostly due to the disruptions the Zulu caused in neighbouring tribes, although the exact death toll is a matter of scholarly dispute. Further unquantifiable deaths occurred during mass tribal migrations to escape his armies.
The Mfecane produced Mzilikazi of the Khumalo, a general of Shaka's. He fled Shaka's employ, and in turn conquered an empire in Zimbabwe, after clashing with European groups like the Boers. The settling of Mzilikazi's people, the AmaNdebele or Matabele, in the south of Zimbabwe with the concomitant driving of the AmaShona into the north caused a tribal conflict that still resonates today. Other notable figures to arise from the Mfecane include Soshangane, who expanded from the Zulu area into what is now Mozambique.
The theory of the Mfecane holds that the aggressive expansion of Shaka's armies caused a brutal chain reaction across the southern areas of the continent, as dispossessed tribe after tribe turned on their neighbours in a deadly cycle of fight and conquest. Some scholars contend that this theory must be treated with caution as it generally neglects several other factors such as the impact of European encroachment, slave trading and expansion in that area of Southern Africa around the same time. Normal estimates for the death toll range from 1 million to 2 million. These numbers are, however, controversial.
According to Julian Cobbing, the development of the view that Shaka was the monster responsible for the devastation is based on the need of apartheid era historians to justify the apartheid regime's racist policies. Other scholars acknowledge distortion of the historical record by apartheid supporters and shady European traders seeking to cover their tracks, but dispute the revisionist approach, noting that stories of cannibalism, raiding, burning of villages, or mass slaughter were not developed out of thin air but based on the clearly documented accounts of hundreds of black victims and refugees. Confirmation of such accounts can also be seen in modern archaeology of the village of Lepalong, an entire settlement built underground to shelter remnants of the Kwena people from 1827-36 against the tide of disruption that engulfed the region during Shakan times.
William Rubinstein wrote that "Western guilt over colonialism, have also accounted for much of this distortion of what pre-literate societies actually were like, as does the wish to avoid anything which smacks of racism, even when this means distorting the actual and often appalling facts of life in many pre-literate societies". Rubinstein also notes:
One element in Shaka's destruction was to create a vast artificial desert around his domain... 'to make the destruction complete, organized bands of Zulu murderers regularly patrolled the waste, hunting for any stray men and running them down like wild pig'... An area 200 miles to the north of the center of the state, 300 miles to the west, and 500 miles to the south was ravaged and depopulated...
Wylie (2006) expressed skepticism of the portrayal of Shaka as a pathological monster destroying everything within reach. They argue that attempts to distort his life and image have been systematic--beginning with the first European visitors to his kingdom. One (Nathaniel Isaacs) wrote to Henry Fynn, a white adventurer, trader and sometime local chieftain:
Fynn complies, and Wylie notes that he had an additional motive to distort Shaka's image--he applied for a huge grant of land--an area allegedly depopulated by Shaka's savagery.
Though much remains unknown about Shaka's personal appearance, sources tend to agree he had a strong, muscular body and was not fat. He was tall and his skin tone was dark brown.
Shaka's enemies described him as ugly in some respects. He had a big nose, according to Baleka of the Qwabe, as told by her father. He also had two prominent front teeth. Her father also told Baleka that Shaka spoke as though "his tongue were too big for his mouth." Many said that he spoke with a speech impediment.
There is an anecdote that Shaka joked with one of his friends, Magaye, that he could not kill Magaye because he would be laughed at. Supposedly if he killed Magaye, it would appear to be out of jealousy because Magaye was so handsome and "Shaka himself was ugly, with a protruding forehead".
The figure of Shaka still sparks interest among not only the contemporary Zulu but many worldwide who have encountered the tribe and its history. The current tendency appears to be to lionise him; popular film and other media have certainly contributed to his appeal. Certain aspects of traditional Zulu culture still revere the dead monarch, as the typical praise song below attests. The praise song is one of the most widely used poetic forms in Africa, applying not only to spirits but to men, animals, plants and even towns.
He is Shaka the unshakeable,
Thunderer-while-sitting, son of Menzi
He is the bird that preys on other birds,
The battle-axe that excels over other battle-axes in sharpness,
He is the long-strided pursuer, son of Ndaba,
Who pursued the sun and the moon.
He is the great hubbub like the rocks of Nkandla
Where elephants take shelter
When the heavens frown...
Traditional Zulu praise song, English translation by Ezekiel Mphahlele
Other Zulu sources are sometimes critical of Shaka, and numerous negative images abound in Zulu oral history. When Shaka's mother Nandi died for example, the monarch ordered a massive outpouring of grief including mass executions, forbidding the planting of crops or the use of milk, and the killing of all pregnant women and their husbands. Oral sources record that in this period of devastation, a singular Zulu, a man named Gala, eventually stood up to Shaka and objected to these measures, pointing out that Nandi was not the first person to die in Zululand. Taken aback by such candid talk, the Zulu king is supposed to have called off the destructive edicts, rewarding the blunt teller-of-truths with a gift of cattle.
The figure of Shaka thus remains an ambiguous one in African oral tradition, defying simplistic depictions of the Zulu king as a heroic, protean nation builder on one hand, or a depraved monster on the other. This ambiguity continues to lend the image of Shaka its continued power and influence, almost two centuries after his death.