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(sometimes spelled Tshaka, Tchaka or Chaka)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

(ca. 1781 - ca. 22 September 1828) is widely credited with transforming the Zulu tribe, from a small clan, into the beginnings of a nation that held sway over that portion of Southern Africa between the Phongolo and Mzimkhulu rivers. His military prowess and destructiveness have been widely credited. One Encyclopaedia Brittanica article (Macropaedia Article "Shaka" 1974 ed) asserts that he was something of a military genius for his reforms and innovations. Other writers take a more limited view. Nevertheless, his statesmanship and vigour in assimilating some neighbours and ruling by proxy through others marks him as one of the greatest Zulu chieftains.

Early Years

Shaka was probably the first son of the chieftain Senzangakhona and Nandi, a daughter of a past chief of the Langeni tribe, born near present-day Melmoth, KwaZulu-Natal Province. He was conceived out of wedlock somewhere between 1781 and 1787. Some accounts state that he was disowned by his father and chased into exile. Others maintain that his parents married normally. Most accounts attribute his commonly used name to taunts and insults- "ishaka" being a type of native intestinal beetle, perhaps a reference to his illegitimate birth. Other names may have been in effect. Shaka almost certainly spent his childhood in his father's settlements, is recorded as having been initiated there and inducted into an ibutho or 'age-group regiment'. In this early days, Shaka served as a warrior under the sway of local chieftain Dingiswayo and the Mthethwa, to whom the Zulu were then paying tribute.

Dingiswayo called up the emDlatsheni iNtanga (age-group), of which he was part, and incorporated it in the iziCwe regiment. He served as a Mthethwa warrior for perhaps as long as ten years, and distinguished himself with his courage, though he did not, as legend has it, rise to great position. Dingiswayo, having himself been exiled after a failed attempt to oust his father, had, along with a number of other groups in the region (including Mabhudu, Dlamini, Mkhize, Qwabe, and Ndwandwe, many probably responding to slaving pressures from southern Mozambique) helped develop new ideas of military and social organisation, in particular the ibutho, sometimes translated as 'regiment'; it was rather an age-based labour gang which included some better-refined military activities, but by no means exclusively. Most battles before this time were to settle disputes, and while the appearance of the impi (fighting unit) dramatically changed warfare at times, it largely remained a matter of seasonal raiding, political pressures rather than outright slaughter. Of particular importance here is the relationship which Shaka and Dingiswayo had. Later Dingiswayo was murdered by Zwide, a powerful chief of the Ndwandwe(Nxumalo)clan. Shaka took it upon himself to avenge Dingiswayo's blood. At some point Zwide barely escaped Shaka. In that encounter Zwide's mother, a Sangoma (Zulu word for a seer, more than it is a traditional doctor. This person can consult the spirits of the dead, cast spells, bewitch, heal and many others) was eaten alive by Jackals or Hyenas which Shaka had commissioned his men to capture alive (He locked her in a house and asked for the Jackals to be put in. They devoured her and, in the morning, Shaka burned the house to the ground). Despite carrying out this revenge, he was still eager to kill Zwide. It was not until around 1825 that the two great military men would meet. This time it was for last. They met near Phongola. Present day border of Kwa Zulu Natal - a privince in South Africa. In fact when you are in Phongola you can actually see some Swazi settlements. However, this battle was not free for the mighty Zulus. Shaka lost a considerable amount of casualties. Moreover, he lost his army commander - Umgobhozi Ovela Entabeni.

Shaka's social and military revolution
On the death of Senzangakona, Dingiswayo aided Shaka to defeat his brother and assume leadership in around 1812. Shaka began further to refine the ibutho system followed by Dingiswayo and others, and with Mthethwa support over the next several years forged alliances with his smaller neighbours, mostly to counter the growing threat from Ndwandwe raiding from the north. The initial Zulu manoeuvres were defensive and offensive, and mostly Shaka preferred to intervene or pressure diplomatically, aided by just a few judicious assassinations. His changes to local society built on existing structures, and were as much social and propagandistic as they were military; there were a number of battles, as the Zulu sources make clear.

Some revisionists have doubted the military and social innovations customarily attributed to Shaka, denying them outright, or attributing them variously to European influences. But both explanations fall short. In fact the 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.

Weapons changes: the stabbing spear and shield -- Shaka is often said to have been dissatisfied with the long throwing assegai, and credited with introducing a new variant of the weapon-the Iklwa, a short stabbing spear, with a long, swordlike spearhead. It was named, allegedly, for the sound made as it went in, then out, of the body. Shaka is also supposed to have introduced a larger, heavier shield made of cowhide and to have 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. The throwing spear was not discarded, but used as an initial missile weapon, until the impis closed with the enemy, hand to hand.

Introduction of a shorter stabbing spear area makes practical sense if an attack is to be pressed home, versus ritualized stand-off encounters involving throwing spears, as is the use of a larger shield in such close quarters combat. Implementation of a more reliable hand-held weapon would have been a must for aggressive raiding operations implemented under the Shakan regime.

Sandal-less feet for greater mobility --- The story that sandals were discarded to toughen the feet of his men may or may not be accurate but the bare feet of many Zulu warriors has been noted in various military accounts. (See Donald Morris "The Washing of the Spears" or Edgerton's "They Fought Like Lions" or Ian Knight's "Anatomy of the Zulu Army"). It is probably true that Shaka's troops practiced by covering more than fifty miles in a fast trot over hot, rocky terrain in a single day so that they could surprise the enemy.

Logistic support by youth formations --- Young boys from the age of six up 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, women or young men from neighbouring groups; they preferred this surprise tactic to open battle. Nevertheless, the concept of "light" forces is questionable. The fast-moving Zulu raiding party or impi on a mission did travel "light", driving cattle as provisions on the hoof and were not weighed down with heavy weapon and supply packs. The herdboy logistic structure was deployed in support of such activities, and was easily adaptable, whether the force was numerous ("heavy") or not.

The age-grade regimental system --- Age-grade groupings of various sorts were common in the tribal culture of the day. Modifications to fit an agenda of raiding and conquest were quite within Shaka's scope and opportunity. Whether such grouping constituted a permanent military in the Western sense is a question overshadowed by the fact that, again, tribal cultural elements were already in place that could be adapted and shaped to fit an expansionist agenda. Some historians argue that the large military establishment was a drain on the Zulu economy and necessitated continual raiding and expansion.

The famous "buffalo horns" formation

Most historians (Morris, Knight et al.) credit Shaka with initial development of the famous "buffalo horns" formation. It was composed of three elements:

(1) the "horns" or flanking right and left wing elements to encircle and pin the enemy,

(2) the "chest" or central main force which delivered the coup de grace

(3) the "loins" or reserves used to exploit success or reinforce elsewhere.

Subsequent developments may have taken place after Shaka's death, as witnessed by the use of multiple prongs of attack by the Zulu against the British in 1879. Assignment of regiments varied as well, such as older veterans held in reserve to steady greener troops. Nevertheless the impis generally fought in the "classical" charging buffalo pattern.

Some controversy has arisen over whether Shaka could have developed such a system. However, the use of separate maneuver elements to support a stronger central group is well known in pre-mechanized tribal warfare, as is the use of reserve elements farther back. The Gauls deployed such against their Roman opponents for example, and indeed some Xhosa groups of Southern Africa used separate elements including an advance guard. See Noel Mostert's history of Southern Africa "Frontiers" and McMillian's "Boer, Bantu and Briton". Morris notes on page 38 that attempts to surround an enemy were not unknown even in the ritualized battles.

It is doubtful if Shaka thought up such a formation out of the blue or that he copied European troops drilling hundreds of miles distant at the Cape. He merely had to systematize and extend known tribal practice. The fact that the "reserve" forces or "loins" were sometimes said by to be positioned with their backs to the battle so as not to get unduly excited before deployment (see Morris) suggests origins rooted in earlier known ritualistic tribal warfare. Whether such positioning was widespread in actual close combat as opposed to posturing in ritualized battles is questionable, nevertheless the suggestion again points to the fact that Shaka was quite capable of, and had sufficient cultural precedent to implement the famous "buffalo horns" formation, with its reserve, flanking and forward elements.

Patterns of Shaka's hegemony

In the initial years, Shaka had neither the clout nor the kudos to compel any but the smallest of groups to join him, and he operated under Dingiswayo's aegis until the latter's death at the hands of Zwide's Ndwandwe. At this point Shaka moved southwards across the Thukela River, establishing his capital Bulawayo in Qwabe territory. He never did personally move back into the traditional Zulu heartland. In Qwabe, Shaka may have intervened in an existing succession dispute, and help his own choice, Nqetho, into power; Nqetho then ruled as a proxy chieftain for Shaka. Shaka's hegemony was primarily based on military might, smashing rivals and incorporating scattered remmants 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 of patronage and reward. The ruling Qwabe, for example, began re-inventing their genealogies to give the impression that Qwabe and Zulu were closely related in the past - a handy fiction. In this way a greater sense of cohesion was created, though it never became complete, as subsequent civil wars attest.

Shaka as the creator of a revolutionary warfare style

The idea that Shaka 'changed the nature of warfare in Africa' (or even in his corner of southern Africa) from 'a ritualised exchange of taunts with minimal loss of life into a true method of subjugation by wholesale slaughter', is open to question. Certainly his military campaigns created widespread destruction and local distress where his impis were active. When the bigger picture of the entire region is considered, several other factors come into play, including white expansion at the Cape, slaving in Mozambique, and the usual assortment of agricultural pressures common to that region. Still on the balance it seems clear that Shaka's military expansion played a major role in shaping the area where he resided and beyond.

Like every other aspiring hegemon, Shaka faced dissent and opposition, but the mere presence of these did not negate his activities or plans. And while traditional broad brush claims of Shaka's revolutionary impact must be treated with caution, so too must more limited revisionist assertions, which in turn fail to achieve a balanced view of the Shakan tenure, and fail to see that the tribal structures and culture itself, provided enough precedent and raw material for Shaka to embark on his plans of hegemony or expansion, and many of the innovations he is traditionally credited with.

The Major Conflicts

In 1816, after the death of his father, Shaka had seized power over the then-insignificant Zulu clan. Though he was boosted in by the Mthethwa, and his brother Sigujana was killed, the coup was relatively bloodless and accepted by the Zulu. 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 absolutely no evidence to suggest that Shaka betrayed Dingiswayo. Indeed, the core Zulu had to retreat before several Ndwandwe incursions; the Ndwandwe were 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 without much of a fight, if any. With Qwabe, Hlubi and Mkhize support, Shaka was finally able to summons a force capable of resisting the Ndwandwe (of the Nxumalo clan). Historians like Morris state 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 elements in a sweep around the hill to attack the enemy's rear. Losses were high overall, but the efficacy 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 seventy miles to Zwide's royal kraal, and destroyed it. Zwide himself escaped with a handful of followers, before falling foul of a chieftainess named Mjanji, ruler of the baPedi clan. He died in mysterious circumstances shortly after. His general Soshangane (of the Shangaan) moved off north towards what is now Mozambique, to inflict further damage on less resistant foes and avail himself of slaving opportunities, putting Portuguese traders to tribute. Shaka later had to contend again with Zwide's son, Sikhunyane, in 1826.

Mfecane - The Scattering
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. Some groups which moved off (like the Hlubi and Ngwane to the north of the Zulus) could have been impelled by the Ndwandwe, not the Zulu. Some moved south (like the Chunu and the Thembe), but never suffered much in the way of attack; it was precautionary, and they left many people behind in their traditional homelands.

Among the many fascinating cases of the Mfecane is that of Mzilikazi of the Khumalo who was a 'general' of Shaka's, who fled Shaka's employ, and in turn conquered an empire in Zimbabwe, after clashing with European groups like the Boers. Other notable figures to arise from the Mfecane include Shoshangane, who expanded from the Zulu area into what is now Mozambique. Shaka was clearly a tough, able leader, the most able of his time, and during the last four years of his reign indulged in several long-distance raids.

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 neignbors in a deadly cycle of flight and conquest. This theory must be treated with caution, as it generally neglects several other factors such as the impact of white encroachment and expansion in that area of Southern Africa around the same time. Revised histories have cast doubt on the concept of the Mfecane and its attribution of wholesale migration and destruction to the Zulu. A more balanced approach sees Zulu expansionism as one of a number of factors (albeit an important one) that disrupted traditional patterns of the local area. One outstanding example of the traditional view of the Mfecane is J.D. Omer-Cooper's "The Zulu Aftermath".

It is safe to say that Shaka was neither a dusky Napoleon, or an ebony Montgomery with a "master-plan", nor a brutish, ignorant savage. To the contrary the record shows a shrewd, if harsh manipulator of circumstances, customs and events to cobble together the Zulu nation under difficult circumstances and with patchy success at times.

Death and Succession

Dingane and Mhlangana, Shaka's half-brothers, appear to have made at least two attempts to assassinate Shaka before they succeeded, with support from Mpondo elements, some disaffected iziYendane people, and the white traders at Port Natal (now Durban). The details must remain controversial, including the exact date (late September 1828). What is clear is that Dingane was obliged to embark on an extensive purge of pro-Shaka elements and chieftains, running over several years, in order to secure his position. A virtual civil war broke out. Dingane ruled for some twelve years, during which time he was obliged to fight, disastrously, against the Voortrekkers, and against another half-brother Mpande, who with Boer and British support, took over the Zulu leadership in 1840, and ruled for some 30 years. Later in the 19th century the Zulus would be one of the few African peoples who managed to defeat the British Army at the Battle of Isandlwana.


Scholarship in recent years has revised views of the sources on Shaka's reign. The earliest are two eyewitness accounts written by white 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 abetted in this by Henry Francis Fynn, whose so-called Diary (actually a rewritten collage of various papers) was edited by James Stuart only in 1950. Both men were disreputable charlatans who ran guns, fought as mercenaries, murdered in cold blood, and tried to trade in slaves. This is clear from contemporary archival documents.

Their now discredited accounts may be balanced by the rich resource of oral histories collected around 1900 by (ironically) the same James Stuart, now published in 6 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 which was re-edited by a Longmans ghostwriter into something more closely resembling a history. Both its monstrous aspects and its heroic ones are largely inventions, and it must be discarded as a valid source. The work of John Wright (history professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg), Julian Cobbing and Dan Wylie (Rhodes University, Grahamstown) have been among a number of writers that have modified these stories.

Various modern historians writing on Shaka and the Zulu point to the uncertain nature of Ritter's "Shaka Zulu" as well as Fynn and Issac's accounts of Shaka's reign. A standard general reference work in the field is Donald Morris' "The Washing of The Spears" (1965) which notes that sources as a whole for the 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. (Morris 617-620).

Military historians of the Zulu War must also be considered for their description of Zulu fighting methods and tactics, including authors like Ian Knight ("Anatomy of the Zulu Army") and Robert Edgerton ("Like Lions They Fought"). 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.


  • Donald Morris, The Washing of The Spears.
  • Ian Knight, Anatomy of the Zulu Army.
  • Robert Edgerton, Like Lions They Fought.
  • Noel Mostert, Frontier.
  • J.D. Omer-Cooper, The Zulu Aftermath.

See also

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