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“Shaka the Great” of the Zulu Kingdom
“Shaka the Great” of the Zulu Kingdom

By - Victoria Akindele

Posted - 19-09-2019

Shaka kaSenzangakhona, also known as Shaka Zulu, was born in the lunar month of uNtulikazi (July) in the year 1787 near present-day Melmoth, KwaZulu-Natal Province to the Zulu chief Senzangakhona KaJama, and Nandi. At age six, Shaka and his mother were exiled from his father’s kraal, a traditional African village of huts, or courts due to persecution of his illegitimacy.

Shaka and his mother returned to her home where they were unwelcome and eventually driven out to join a different tribe entirely, the Mthethwa. In his late teens, Shaka was initiated into an ibutho lempi, a military regiment of young men separated based on age group, called upon when needed for combat, labor, policing, or hunting. During this time he caught the attention of premier chieftain, Dingiswayo because he displayed great valor, skill, and strength.

The Young Warrior
When Senzangakhona, Shaka’s father died in 1816, Shaka’s younger half-brother Sigujana assumed power as the legitimate heir to the Zulu chiefdom. With the help of one of Dingiswayo’s regiments, Shaka killed Sigujana and took charge of the 1,500 Zulus. Thus, Shaka became Chief of the Zulu clan and his new domain extended one hundred square miles but he still remained a subordinate to Dingiswayo until the chieftain died at the hands of Zwide, powerful chief of the Ndwandwe (Nxumalo) nation in 1817.

Dingiswayo’s death resulted in many Mthethwa defecting to the Ndwandwe, while others joined Shaka. Zwide proved a formidable enemy to him in the beginning, but Shaka reformed the remnants of the Mthethwa and other regional tribes and later defeated Zwide in the Zulu Civil War of 1819 to 1820. This success allowed Shaka the freedom to pursue alliances with other tribes and he consolidated his power while he grew his army.

Shaka became known as Nodumehlezi, “the one who when seated causes the earth to rumble.” He also fashioned his own sword with a short, thick handle and a massive blade and called it the iklwa because of the sound it made when it was thrust and pulled out of someone’s body. By means of profuse training and discipline, Shaka built up his forces, which soon became the terror of the land. He prohibited the wearing of sandals, toughening his warriors’ feet by making them run barefoot over rough thorny ground and in so doing secured their greater mobility. His war cry was `Victory or death!’ and he kept his impi on continuous military campaigns until he thought they had earned the right to wear the head ring (isicoco) of manhood and then formally dissolved and allowed to marry.

Shaka’s first capital was on the banks of the Mhodi, a small tributary of the Mkhumbane River in the Babanango district. He named his great place KwaBulawayo (`at the place of the murder’). As his kingdom grew, he built a far bigger KwaBulawayo, a royal household of about 1,400 huts, in the Mhlathuze valley, some 27 kilometres from the present town of Eshowe.

Great slaughter and migrations were results of Shaka’s wars. The effect was felt even far north of the Zambezi River and because they feared Shaka, leaders like Zwangendaba, Mzilikazi, and Shoshangane moved northwards far into the central African interior. Shaka’s wars between 1818 and 1828 contributed to a series of forced migrations in various parts of southern Africa such as the Mfecane, Difaqane, Lifaqane, or Fetcani. Groups of refugees from Shaka’s assaults, first Hlubi and Ngwane clans, later followed by the Mantatees and the Matabele of Mzilikazi, crossed the Drakensberg to the west, smashing chiefdoms in their path. Famine and chaos followed the wholesale extermination of populations and the destruction of herds and crops between the Limpopo and the Gariep River. Old chiefdoms vanished and new ones were created.

However, the cattle wealth of the whole community throughout the kingdom was greatly improved; even though most of the herds were owned by the king and his chiefs and indunas, all shared in the pride roused by the magnificence of the royal herds as well as the pride of belonging to the unequalled military power of the Zulu kingdom. Shaka ruled without rival over 250,000 people for 10 years and he could assemble more than 50,000 warriors at a time as it is said that he was responsible for the deaths of some two million people by warfare alone.

The young Zulu king was known for his cruelty. The general consensus among historians is that as he formed more alliances, defeated more chiefs, and expanded the Zulu Kingdom, he became a brutal despot. He demanded loyalty from his warriors and should anyone dare to insult him or his mother, he condemned them to death by clubbing, spearing or head-twisting.

In 1826, in order to be closer and more accessible to the settlers at Port Natal, Shaka built a large military barracks at Dukuza, (‘the place where one gets lost’). It was 80 kilometres further south of his previous royal residence kwaBulawayo, on the site of the present day town of Stanger (KwaDukuza).

Nonetheless, he remained peaceful to white colonialists and even sent delegates of his domain to visit them. Under his reign, there were no conflicts between the Zulu people and white traders. Though the British did negotiate control over the Port Natal (now the city of Durban in South Africa) they made no attempt to challenge Shaka. Not until after Shaka’s death that bloody conflicts between his people and the Dutch-Afrikaner settlers known as the “Boers” began.

A cruel tyrant, he had men executed with a nod of his head. The loyalties of his people were severely strained as the frequent cruelties of their great king increased steadily. The climax came with the death of his mother Nandi in October 1827, Shaka lost his mind, ordering 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 seven thousand 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 and his armies were sent out to force the surrounding chiefdoms to grieve.

Taking advantage of the absence of his armies, on Sept. 22, 1828, his bodyguard Mbopha, and his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana, stabbed Shaka near his military barracks at Dukuza. His body was buried in a hurry in a grain-pit nearby and having died without an heir, Dingane succeeded him and murdered all Zulus who were likely to remain loyal to Shaka Zulu.

Shaka, chieftain of the Zulu tribe, was described as the “African Napoleon” for his military genius and consolidation of hundreds of South African tribes under the Zulu Empire. Though short-lived, Shaka left quite a legacy following his raging and harsh reign.

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