A significant amount of myth surrounds the life of the Zulu leader Shaka Zulu, as he is recognized as one of the more popular leaders in African history and is widely known for his conquests in southern Africa. It is difficult to assess when Shaka Zulu was born, but scholars believe he was born sometime between 1781 and 1787.
It is also difficult to characterize his upbringing, due to the lack of sources, and therefore historians have difficulty ascertaining whether Shaka was mistreated by his father, Senzangakona, or whether his mother, Nandi, and Senzangakona had a stable relationship, but it can be ascertained that Shaka was conceived out of wedlock.
What is known by historians is that Shaka, as a young warrior, was under the guidance of Dingiswayo, a chief of the Mthethwa, who was instrumental to Shaka’s rise to power. Dingiswayo assisted Shaka in ousting his brothers for control of the Zulu in 1812.
After Shaka came to power, he created a number of alliances with neighboring tribes in order to check the growing power of the Ndwandwe. Aside from these alliances, Shaka also adopted a number of military reforms in order to strengthen the martial power of the Zulus.
It is open to debate whether Shaka himself devised these military changes, whether other Africans assisted in these designs, or whether he was influenced by the success of European models. It is known that the changes he initiated helped him to defeat the Ndwandwe.
Some of the reforms that he adopted included the exchange of the assegai for a short spear used to stab opponents, ordering his soldiers to fight without sandals in order to increase mobility, and using the “Buffalo Horns” formation, which primarily consisted of the right and left flanks surrounding the bulk of the opponent’s army, while the center was used as the main thrust against the enemy.
Shaka was eager to learn about European culture, and he was fascinated by Christianity. He was also interested in learning how to read and write. He had an intermediary named Jakot who traveled between the Zulu and the Europeans to provide Shaka with information regarding the foreigners.
From the news that he received, Shaka was able to make comparisons on various aspects of European and Zulu societies. The information he acquired regarding the power of Britain troubled Shaka, as he became concerned that the British might initiate a war against him and the Zulu. This concern may have prompted Shaka to send a diplomatic mission to King George in 1828, which proved relatively fruitless.
European perceptions of Shaka Zulu are complex and difficult to ascertain. This is particularly true when examining the writings of James Saunders King, who wrote articles for the South African Commercial Advertiser concerning the characteristics of Shaka Zulu. The article that was published by King on July 11, 1826, noted the hospitality that the Zulu leader extended towards others, but another article published the following week noted Shaka’s tyrannical nature.
Shaka fought a number of wars to gain supremacy in southern Africa, battling the Ndwandwe tribe a number of times. Shaka was forced to contend with the Ndwandwe, under the leadership of Zwide, in a number of battles, including the Battle of Gqokli Hill in 1818, where Shaka defeated a numerically superior Ndwandwe force, and another engagement on the Mhlatuze River.
After the latter battle, the Zulu were able to demolish Zwide’s kraal, forcing Zwide to flee from Shaka’s grasp, but Zwide did not long survive the destruction of his army, and he was later killed. Despite the fact that Shaka defeated the Ndwandwe tribe, he was forced to confront them again in 1826 when Zwide’s son, Sikhunyane, rose to power and became a threat to Shaka.
Shaka quickly dealt with this threat, attacking the Ndwandwe encampment that was situated in the vicinity of the Intombi River and slaughtering a significant number of Ndwandwe warriors. Following this victory, Shaka took possession of 60,000 Ndwandwe cattle and killed the Ndwandwe women and children in the vicinity, ending the Ndwandwe threat to his rule.
Following Shaka’s victory over the Ndwandwe, an event occurred that contributed to the downfall of the Zulu leader: His mother died. Nandi’s death in 1827 greatly affected Shaka Zulu, as illustrated by the terms of mourning that he initiated following her death.
He stipulated that milk was not to be extracted from cows for drinking, nor were the Zulu permitted to grow crops, threatening the Zulu with starvation. He also stipulated that women who were discovered to be with child within one year of Nandi’s death were to be executed along with their husbands.
Nandi’s death resulted in the deaths of many of the Zulu, as Shaka executed people for not following his terms of mourning or for not attending to him at the time of his mother’s death. Even after he ended the terms for the period of mourning, the continuation of this erratic behavior continued in 1828. His unpredictability is illustrated by the fact that he killed 300 women, some of whom were the wives of the leaders of Zulu regiments, while his warriors were absent.
Shaka’s bizarre behavior led conspirators to plot his assassination. It is not exactly known when Shaka died, but the best estimates claim September 1828. The assassination was a result of a plot between his half brothers Dingane and Mhlangana and a man named Mbopa, who was Shaka’s head domestic servant. The three men were encouraged to act by Mkabayi, the sister of Senzangakona, who asserted the belief that Shaka was implicated in the death of his mother.
It is impossible to know for certain whether Mkabayi believed this or if she wanted Shaka dead for ulterior motives. After Shaka was killed, a civil war ensued, as Dingane was forced to contend with pro-Shaka forces and his half brother Mpande, who was able to acquire the assistance of the Boers and the British settlers in southern Africa, in order to consolidate his grasp on the Zulu. Dingane failed to subdue all of his opponents, and Mpande was successful in overthrowing his half brother and becoming the leader of the Zulu in 1840.