Shaka (ca. 1787-1828) was an African warrior leader and creator of the Zulu military monarchy. His career was a transforming influence in the history of southern and central Africa.

Shaka was the son of the Zulu chieftain Senzangakona, but doubt surrounds his legitimacy, and it seems that his mother, Nandi, was soon expelled with her child from Senzangakona's household. Thus Shaka grew up an exile in the territories of neighboring chiefs. The distortions in his adult personality, his indifference to suffering, his fierce devotion to his mother, and his urge to dominate may, in some measure, be attributable to the experiences of those years.

The latter phase of this period of exile was spent in the territory of the Mthethwa chief Dingiswayo. Here Shaka found himself at the center of military activity and political change, for Dingiswayo was engaged in subjugating his weaker neighbors and establishing a confederacy of chief-tainships under Mthethwa overlordship.

Upon reaching adulthood, Shaka was drafted into the Mthethwa army and rapidly distinguished himself. By 1816 he had been promoted to a position of command and had won Dingiswayo's patronage. With this backing Shaka plotted successfully for the assassination of his own half brother Sigujana, who had succeeded Senzangakona, and then seized the Zulu chieftainship for himself.

Leader of the Zulu

As chief of the Zulu people, Shaka stood in a client relationship to Dingiswayo, but after the Mthethwa chief's death (ca. 1818) Shaka launched an independent career of conquest. A master of strategy and battle tactics, he injected a new ferocity into warfare by subjecting his men to iron discipline and training them in novel methods of close combat. Shields were exploited as weapons for disarming the enemy, and short-handled stabbing spears were introduced in place of the traditional throwing assegais.

Shaka also built as he conquered. His regiments were not enrolled territorially; instead, as he expanded his domains, he drafted the men of the conquered chiefdoms into age regiments under a system of centralized command. Thus traditional local loyalties were deprived of any means of military expression, and the men of fighting age were made wholly dependent on the will of their new ruler. Even marriage was prohibited except to men of regiments that had earned this privilege by service in arms.

Shaka's most decisive victory (ca. 1818/1819) was probably that against the Ndwandwe chief, Zwide, who had been Dingiswayo's most dangerous rival. After that, there was no serious obstacle to the expansion of Shaka's power, and by 1824 his rule extended over the country east of the Drakensberg from the southern frontiers of present-day Swaziland to the lands of Natal beyond the Tugela River. Dingiswayo had established a Mthethwa overlordship; Shaka created a centralized monarchy in which the chief-doms of the past were obliterated except in certain privileged enclaves and on the marches of his kingdom, where some chiefly lines seem to have retained a measure of local authority under a client relationship.

Repercussions of Shakan Militarism

Shaka's influence was not confined to the region of his own conquests. In several instances chiefs who were the victims of his attacks, or who feared his wrath, fled with their followers and began careers of plunder that contributed to disruption far beyond the area in which the Zulu armies were operating. This upheaval (the Difaqane) affected the patterns of population distribution over a large part of southern and central Africa.

In Natal and in the central plateau region the devastation was such that the Afrikaners (South Africans of European descent) and Boers (South Africans of Dutch or Huguenot descent) found apparently empty lands awaiting them when they spread out from the Cape in 1836-1838. Elsewhere, either in imitation of Shaka's military state or in response to the critical conditions resulting from the Difaqane, new polities were constructed by the Bantu-speaking peoples which profoundly influenced the history of southern and central Africa.

By sending refugees spilling southward, Shaka's campaigns increased the pressures on the already-troubled Cape eastern frontier. And by permitting white traders and hunters to establish themselves at Port Natal in 1824, he nurtured the seeds of a new British colony that would ultimately annex Zululand and carry it into a white-controlled Union of South Africa.

Shaka lived long enough to have only a limited awareness of the changes wrought by his career. In 1827, after the death of his mother, he imposed extravagant mourning ceremonies that left loyalty strained, and in 1828 he was assassinated by two of his half brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana, acting in conspiracy with his personal attendant, Mbopa. However, the Zulu kingdom remained an important factor in South African politics until its defeat by Britain in 1879, and a sense of Zulu nationhood survives to this day.

Further Reading on Shaka

E. A. Ritter's popular biography Shaka Zulu: The Rise of the Zulu Empire (1955) is enriched by oral tradition but marred by a tendency to romanticize. It should be read with Alfred T. Bryant, Olden Times in Zululand and Natal (1929); Donald R. Morris, The Washing of the Spears (1965); and John D. Omer-Cooper, The Zulu Aftermath (1966). Also helpful is Monica Wilson and Leonard Thompson, eds., The Oxford History of South Africa (1969).