(sometimes spelled Tshaka, Tchaka
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.
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
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.
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
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")
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
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
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
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
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
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.