Shaka Zulu, a military genius who founded the Zulu Kingdom and is known as the fiercest warrior in the entire history of the Zulus, was murdered by his two half-brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana. The duo killed Shaka as he suffered from a mental illness that threatened to destroy the entire Zulu tribe.
Shaka was never married, and there is no concrete evidence to prove that he ever had children. It is reported that women who were found pregnant by him were killed. As a result, Dingane, one of the brothers, became the king of the Zulus after his killing.
Shaka Zulu Is The Son Of A Zulu Chief
The exact day that Shaka Zulu was born is not known, however, we know that the Zulu warrior was born in the year 1787. Several records point to the fact that Shaka was born in the Zulu lunar month of uNtulikazi, which is around July in the Gregorian calendar. This means Shaka Zulu was born in July 1787.
Shaka was born to a Zulu chief called Senzangakhona who was respected among his people. Senzangakhona’s name was derived from a Zulu word that means “he who acts with a good reason”. Senzangakhona was loved by his people who had cause to trust his leadership. Shaka’s mother was also born to a chief. She was a woman called Nandi, the daughter of Bhebhe, chief of the Elangeni clan. Shaka and his mother had a great relationship.
His Was Considered An Illegitimate Child
Even though Shaka Zulu was born to a chief, he was considered an illegitimate child. This was because he was born out of wedlock. At the time, being born out of wedlock was a serious matter. Unmarried couples were allowed to have fun romantically with each other but were not allowed to have sex or get pregnant. Unmarried couples were even allowed to take part in ukuhlobonga – a sexual act between couples without actual penetration. This act was known as “the fun of the roads” (amahlaya endlela) and was popular among unmarried couples at the time.
When Senzangakhona fell in love with Shaka’s mother, they both engaged in an act of ukuhlobonga as an unmarried couple. However, they got carried away while they were having fun and so, Shaka Zulu was conceived. After Nandi became pregnant, it caused a serious problem between her people (the Elangeni clan also known as the Mhlongo people) and Senzangakhona’s clan (the Zulus). The enraged Elangeni people eventually demanded that Senzangakhona pay damages for his non-traditional act of impregnating Nandi. Senzangakhona agreed to pay 55 herds of cattle as payment for damages so as to avoid war.
When Shaka Zulu was eventually born, he and his mother were initially accepted into his father’s household, however, Nandi was treated as a lesser wife and Shaka was looked upon as an illegitimate child. At the time, being a Great Wife was a very important status symbol among the Zulu people. Therefore, because his mother was seen as a lesser wife to her husband, Shaka was not the heir to his father’s throne even though he was his father’s first son.
At first, the relationship between Shaka Zulu’s parents was good. However, they soon fell out with each other and the love waned between them greatly. After some time, Nandi’s relationship with Senzangakhona deteriorated so much that she was forced to leave the Zuly chiefdom to return to her people in Elangeni.
Shaka Endured A Fatherless Childhood
When Shaka Zulu’s mother left his father’s Zulu chiefdom to return to her own people, she left her son behind to grow up in his father’s house. However, it soon became evident that Shaka’s life at Senzangakhona’s household was at stake especially because of his status as an illegitimate son. Because of this, Shaka’s uncle, Mudli, brought him to reunite with his mother at Elangeni. As a result, Shaka Zulu grew up without a father by his side.
Shaka’s mother Nandi was, however, a strong woman. After Shaka reunited with her at Elangeni, she worked hard to protect the boy from harm and raised him to be a strong man. However, there was a problem; she was despised even among her own people at Elangeni as some felt she brought shame to them by getting pregnant out of wedlock. The hate was so much that she was forced to protect her son against assassination attempts and enemies. There were assassination attempts directed at Shaka because he too was despised at Elangeni. Eventually, Nandi had to leave Elangeni to live among the neighboring Qwabe people.
While at Qwabe, Nandi met a man there called Gendeyana and fell in love with him. They later got married and she gave birth to Shaka’s half-brother, Ngwadi. At first, Shaka and his mother found it very comfortable living among the Qwabe people. However, the place soon became hostile and Nandi was forced to take her sons and leave Qwabe. Shaka, along with his mother and half-brother, relocated from Qwabe and went to live amongst the Mthethwa people led by a chief called Dingiswayo. At Mthethwa, they were treated nicely so they settled there permanently.
He Suffered Bullying As A Child
Many accounts have pointed to the fact Shaka Zulu suffered serious bullying when he was a child. The bullying started from the time he was with his mother’s people at Elangeni where he was subjected to series of humiliations and cruel treatment by the Elangeni boys. They mocked his status as an illegitimate child and laughed in his face at the slightest opportunity they got to do that. Some accounts claim that Shaka was, sometimes, tortured by the boys who went as far as pouring hot porridge into his hand and also forcing hot collops down his throat. But, he endured all this with the assurance from his mother that everything will be fine eventually.
When he relocated with his mother to live among the Qwabe people, the bullying became more pronounced. Many boys his age teased him and subjected him to serious emotional torture. Shaka Zulu would later remember some of those who bullied him and deal with them as an adult. His bullying may have been because of his physical looks as some reports have it that he was not very good-looking. Even though a lot of details about Shaka’s appearance remain quite unknown, some reports claim his enemies described him as an ugly man who had a big nose and two prominent front teeth. He was also said to have a protruding forehead. Many other sources have also agreed that Shaka actually had a very muscular body, was not fat, and was very strong.
When Shaka Zulu and his little family moved from Qwabe to live among the Mthethwa people, he also suffered another round of bullying. Some sources say the boys his age resented his claims to chiefly descent and laughed at him.
Becoming A Man
It is noteworthy that by the time he settled among the Mthethwa people with his mother, Shaka Zulu was already growing into a young man and, despite all the bullying, had started developing into a strong, self-willed youth who knew what he wanted and went all out to get it.
Shaka became stronger as he kept growing and developed strong muscular features. He was also very tall, towering above his peers. Because of his intimidating physical build, it was not too long before he started to command natural mastery over the youths in his age group. The bullying stopped and more young people began to respect him out of fear for his strength. Inwardly, at this point, Shaka was already developing a thirst for power. He knew who he was; the son of a king!
The King Of The Mthethwa People Turned Shaka Zulu Into A Warrior
The people at Mthethwa were generally accommodating towards Shaka Zulu and his mother and even their king, Dingiswayo, welcomed them with open hands. Dingiswayo was keenly observing Shaka’s growth into a strong young man and when he turned 23 years old in 1810, he summoned Shaka and other boys in his age group for military service and training.
Shaka and the boys were trained to be warriors and served in the Mthethwa army after being drafted into one of the regiments. Shaka Zulu, who had previously been without friends, found the army a very welcome change. He found deep satisfaction in fighting and strategizing on how to defeat the enemy. The battleground became the arena where he found fulfillment because it was where he could freely demonstrate his unbeatable courage and fighting talents.
Because he was so fearless and absolutely focused on his work in the Mthethwa military, Shaka soon became known to his overlord in the army who found his intelligence and bravery very intriguing. Eventually, his outstanding deeds made him stand out in Dingiswayo’s army such that he soon became one of the king’s foremost commanders. At the time, his courage and utter fearlessness made the other soldiers nickname him Nodumehlezi which means the one who when seated causes the earth to rumble. He was the one the other soldiers looked up to and the one who often led the way.
How Shaka Zulu Became King Of The Zulu People
In 1816, about six years after Shaka Zulu began serving in the Mthethwa army, news came that his father, Senzangakhona, had died. The news also revealed that following Senzangakhona’s death, Shaka’s younger half-brother, Sigujana, had assumed power as the legitimate heir to the Zulu chiefdom.
This did not sit well with Shaka Zulu who wanted to take over as the ruler of the Zulu chiefdom. The king of Mthethwa, Dingiswayo, also agreed that Shaka should become the ruler of the Zulu chiefdom so he released the young man from military service and sent him to take over power from Sigujana. Consequently, Shaka stormed the Zulu chiefdom with the strong military support given to him by Dingiswayo and took over from his brother.
Shaka Zulu staged a coup, killed his half-brother, and established himself on the seat of power of the Zulu clan. Apart from the killing of his brother, the coup was relatively bloodless and it was substantially accepted by the Zulu people afterward. It is noteworthy that at the time Shaka Zulu took over as the ruler of the Zulu clan, the clan was very small and was, in fact, among the smallest of the more than 800 Eastern Nguni–Bantu clans scattered around the region. However, from the day that Shaka Zulu began his reign, the Zulu clan began their swift march to greatness. They would later rise to become one of the most feared kingdoms in the region.
The Rise of The Zulu Empire
Like we have mentioned, when Shaka Zulu took over as ruler of the Zulu clan, the clan was just a small settlement covering less than 100 square miles of land with less than 1,500 people resident in it. However, all this would later change when Shaka began his conquests. Shaka was thirsty for conquests; he wanted to turn his clan into an empire and this was what he set out to do immediately after he took over.
Shaka made it absolutely clear from the very onset that he was out to rule the clan with an iron hand. He dished out instructions that were to be followed to the letter and meted out instant death for the slightest opposition. He understood that to become a huge empire, he would need to fight and conquer other kingdoms but he also knew that he needed a dependable army to do that. So, he first decided to reorganize the Zulu army.
How He Reorganized the Army
Having already served in the Mthethwa army, militarism was now a way of life for Shaka Zulu. He knew the ins and outs of what a real army should look like and he went all out to re-order the fighting forces of his people in accordance with ideas he had developed as a warrior in Dingiswayo’s army.
One of the first things Shaka Zulu did to the army was to rigorously discipline the soldiers and give them a new philosophy; win or die! Shaka explained to them that they had absolutely no choice in battle than to win the fight otherwise it was painful to death to them all. They were to go to battle with a conquering warrior’s mindset.
He set out new training styles to toughen his warriors. These included making them jog over hills for up to 50 miles in a day without any shoes. Those who objected to this were dealt roughly with. Many of the soldiers were isolated from their wives and families for maximum effect. Shaka also made sure he drilled the troops to carry out encirclement tactics. The training worked as the Zulu army slowly metamorphosed into a vicious collection of string men ready to smash through any obstacle.
In addition to a new philosophy and training he gave his soldiers, Shaka Zulu also developed new weapons for his fighting men. At the time, the armies around the region were known to go to war armed with long spears known as the assegai. The assegai is a pole weapon that is usually a light spear or javelin made up of a wooden handle and an iron tip. The weapon was used by the Zulu soldiers for throwing from long distances during battles.
However, Shaka Zulu did not like the assegai. Instead, he invented a new weapon called the iklwa which was a short stabbing spear. Unlike the assegai, the iklwa was long-bladed but short-hafted. It was designed to have a long, broad, and sword-like, spearhead that could be used to stab the enemy at close range instead of throwing it from afar. This weapon was what the Zulus used to inflict heavy losses on the enemy in subsequent years. Shaka Zulu also introduced new shields for his soldiers. He introduced the cowhide shields to be carried by the fighting because they were a lot stronger than the wood shields that were used previously.
He Instituted A Regimental System
Shaka Zulu was bent on turning his army into an unbeatable, well-organized fighting machine. To achieve this, he instituted the regimental system that was based on age groups. Each age group was separated and quartered at separate kraals (the Zulu word for ‘villages’). These different fighting groups were also distinguished by some distinctive, uniform markings crafted on their shields, as well as by the various combinations of headdresses and ornaments they wore.
Each of these regiments had their place in the battle and were always trained to understand what they needed to do when a battle began and where they needed to take formation. The soldiers were always battle-ready and were always being trained rigorously. Each regiment had an able-bodied commander whom they must obey and be guided by.
New Fighting Style
With the new philosophy and new weapons came a new fighting style. Shaka Zulu was not comfortable with the way the Zulus fought their wars at the time. Before Shaka’s emergence, African warriors, including the Zulus, usually went to war with their long assegai weapons and then throw the spears at the enemy from a long distance. They would then decide to immediately attack or retreat according to the reaction of the enemy in front of them.
However, Shaka felt this fighting style was completely ineffective and even cowardly. He developed his own fighting style and new standard tactics, which the Zulu used in every battle. Shaka did not like the idea of throwing spears from a distance, he wanted his soldiers to come face to the face with the enemy and battle them. This was why he discarded the assegai and invented his own weapon which was shorter than the assegai, and allowed his soldiers to move very close to the army and stab many of them to death with ease.
Shaka usually sent out a group of warriors who held tightly onto their iklwa instead of hurling them like the assegai, to face the enemy. They would move right up to where the enemy was while standing behind the shelter of a barrier of shields. They would then have surprised their opponents at their mercy and go on to accomplish a resounding and complete victory.
The available regiments in Shaka Zulu’s army (known collectively as the impi) were divided into three groups; the strongest group was termed the “chest”, and the next was called the “horns”, followed by a reserve called the “loins”. The “chest” regiment was usually sent to close in with the enemy and pin them down with their brutal force and strength. As this is going on, two “horns” would then charge at the battle and then encircle and attack the enemy from behind, creating an element of surprise that could destabilize them.
In all this, the reserve regiment known as the “loins” would be ordered to be seated nearby, usually with their backs to the battle so that they would not get unduly excited by the heavy fighting. They were set apart just in case reinforcement is needed in any part of the fighting ring so they could go in and provide support for their army. They were also sent out to thwart any plan by the enemy if they threatened to break out.
When the Zulus are at war, the ensuing battle was supervised by officers known as the “indunas”. These indunas directed the different regimens by using hand signals. It was clear to all the fighting men in Shaka Zulu’s army that war was a serious matter and that there were only two options; win or die!
Different reports have revealed that Shaka’s soldiers were often accompanied by young boys whose main role was to carry the warriors’ sleeping mats and cooking pots and some of their weapons too. This was to make it lighter for the warriors to move and retain their energy into battle.
The Many Conquests Of Shaka Zulu
Immediately he assumed power as the ruler of the Zulu people, Shaka Zulu got the people together and explained to them his vision of transforming the Zulu chiefdom into a huge empire. He also taught them that the most effective way of achieving this vision and becoming powerful as fast as possible was by invading, conquering, and controlling other tribes. While they did not have much of a choice on the matter, the Zulus quickly accepted his teachings.
Shaka’s teachings immensely influenced the Zulu people and their social outlook quickly changed. With the reorganization of the army, the Zulu tribe soon assumed a warrior outlook, ready to go out and change their world forever. This new outlook gladdened Shaka Zulu’s heart and he turned it to his advantage.
He Started With The Smaller Clans
With his army properly structured, Shaka Zulu swung into action, beginning his conquests from the nearby, smaller clans. These clans included his mother’s people, the Elangeni. Shaka attacked the people there and after they had surrendered, he specifically sought out the men who had mocked and bullied him as a child. He then proceeded to deal with them brutally. He even impaled some of these men on the sharpened stakes of their own kraal fences.
Shaka also attacked the nearby Buthelezi clan that was ruled by a chief called Panagashe. Determined not to go out without a fight, Panagashe mobilized his people to fight back. When Panagashe’s army and Shaka’s soldiers met, Panagashe’s soldiers threw their spears from afar the way they usually did in the past not knowing that Shaka’s army had developed new fighting tactics. They caught the spears in their shields and quickly threw them back before they charged at Panagashe’s army with a dexterity that surprised the enemy. In no time, Panagashe and his people were crushed badly. Their cattle were taken and their homes destroyed. Their warriors were incorporated into the Zulu army and the rest were slaughtered, save for the young wives and virgins. Shaka Zulu then went on search of other clans to conquer. Shaka’s victories were always followed by great slaughter and destruction.
In a matter of months, all the nearby clans and chiefdoms had been conquered by Shaka Zulu and his army of powerful fighting men. When Shaka fought his wars, he fought for extermination and complete crushing to avoid any opposition. He then proceeded to incorporate the remnants of the clans he had decimated into the Zulu kingdom. With this method, he kept on expanding the Zulu territory and thus, kept increasing the influence of the people steadily.
The Zulu army also multiplied because all the men that were defeated and captured in the war against other clans were quickly incorporated into the Zulu army and given adequate training to become one with the Zulu soldiers. Soon, Shaka was commanding a number of men almost 4 times what he started with. It is noteworthy that at the time this was happening, Shaka was still a vassal of the Mthethwa empire. This means that he was still answerable to the king of the Mthethwa people, Dingiswayo.
The Death Of Dingiswayo Consolidated Shaka’s Powers
In 1818, when Shaka Zulu’s power was beginning to become almost unmatched, his overlord, Dingiswayo, the ruler of the Mthethwa people, was killed. Dingiswayo was killed by Zwide, the King of Ndwande while he was trying to invade Ndwande. What happened was that King Zwide, who was considered to be one of the strongest rulers in the region, saw Dingiswayo as his biggest rival. According to sources, in a bid to expand his borders, Zwide instigated a war with the Mthethwa people by killing the husband of Dingiswayo’s sister in early 1818.
Dingiswayo was so enraged about this that he set off to fight Zwide, steering his army toward the land of the Ndwandwes. He also ordered Shaka Zulu to do the same and meet him with his army toward the land of Ndwandwe. However, Shaka Zulu was late in arriving and while Dingiswayo was waiting for Shaka’s arrival, he was tricked into captivity by King Zwide who tortured him. Zwide eventually killed Dingiswayo by cutting off his head and taking out some of his vital organs to prepare charms. As expected, when Dingiswayo was killed, his Mthethwa army which was now without a leader, fled in disarray.
Shaka himself, who was coming to the battle with the Zulu army, managed to escape falling into a trap after receiving a warning. It was clear that they were hopelessly outnumbered by the Ndwandwe army and so they took a precaution to avoid unnecessary defeat in the hands of the charged-up fighting men of King Zwide. Shaka retreated with his fighting men intact. Because of this, many people have accused Shaka of conspiring to betray Dingiswayo. However, no evidence of this is recorded anywhere.
Even though the death of Dingiswayo was very painful for Shaka Zulu, it also helped to consolidate his grip on more power because the situation enabled him to take over authority in the now leaderless Mthethwa kingdom. The killing of Dingiswayo also meant that the last restraint on Zulu expansion was removed because if Dingiswayo was alive, Shaka Zulu would not be able to take over Mthethwa since Dingiswayo was his leader and overlord.
Shaka’s Bigger Victories
Shaka Zulu knew he had to avenge the death of Dingiswayo and this was exactly what he decided to do. But, first, he knew that he needed a larger army because the Ndwandwe army was really large and so, to beat them, he had to increase his fighting men.
With this in mind, Shaka assumed leadership of the Mthethwa people, adding their fighting men to his Zulu ranks. He then went on to establish himself among the Qwabe people and also got other chiefdoms to fall to his side, including the Hlubi and Mkhize people. With all this support, Shaka was ready to advance and attack the Ndwandwe. He was finally able to summon a force that was capable of resisting and beating Zwide.
On his own end, Zwide was busy consolidating his powers too. He eliminated some tribes around him and formed alliances with others before deciding to remove the Zulu threat by attacking Shaka Zulu and his fighting men.
The Battle of Gqokli Hill
The first battle between Shaka Zulu and Zwide took place around April 1818 and is now known as the Battle of Gqokli Hill. The battle was hard-fought and both armies suffered several casualties. Shaka’s fighting men maintained a very strong position as they stood on the crest of the hill and attacked Zwide’s men by launching a frontal assault against them.
However, this failed to decimate the enemy so Shaka sent out reserve forces to strike an attack on Zwide’s soldiers from the rear thereby sealing the victory. Zwide’s army fled but with the intention of returning with a reinforced army to continue fighting. This first victory against the Ndwandwe was Shaka Zulu’s first victory against a major kingdom. It also proved that his tactics were working.
Battle of Mhlatuze River
After he was dealt with at the Battle of Gqokli Hill, King Zwide got his army reinforced and tried again to conquer Shaka Zulu in order to establish his supreme authority over Zululand. However, Shaka Zulu was ready for him. This second battle became known as the Battle of Mhlatuze River because it took place on the Mhlatuze river, at the confluence with the Mvuzane stream in 1820.
The battle ran for two whole days with each side suffering heavy losses. However, the Zulu ultimately inflicted a truly resounding defeat on their opponents. After shattering the Ndwandwe army, Shaka Zulu sent out a fresh reserve of soldiers straight into the home of Zwide, the ruler of the Ndwandwe people, and completely destroyed it. However, King Zwide himself escaped with a handful of followers. He later died in mysterious circumstances soon after this. After the Battle of Mhlatuze River was won, the entire Zulu army charged through Ndwandweland and slaughtered every person they met there. They burned all huts and seized the livestock. It was complete destruction.
By securing this resounding victory against the Ndwandwe, Shaka Zulu became the undisputed controller of the Southern African region and gained absolute control over the heartland of the Nguni, creating a much greater and larger Zulu empire and adding more men to his army ranks. He continued his conquests, striking through villages and decimating everyone and everything who failed to kneel before him.
Because he was so fearsome, many villages and clans, who were yet to be conquered by him, relocated from the region and moved far away from the reach of the Zulu warlord. This meant that he was left with very few enemies who were often very far away from his domain and never dared raised a hand against him. His conquest led to mass migrations in the region as thousands of people fled from his trail.
By the year 1820, about four years after he started out on his first campaign to subdue territories, Shaka Zulu had already conquered a territory that was larger than France. Many people feared him as he built up a centralized monarchy that gave him an utter command of his forces and his people. He had succeeded in building the Zulu Empire and he was at the peak of his powers.
How The Downfall Of Shaka Zulu Began
After he had created the Zulu Empire and gained absolute control over his kingdom, Shaka Zulu began to make enemies among his own people. According to several reports, he began to treat his subjects with such ruthlessness and ferocity. Some of his soldiers were clubbed to death if they showed any sign of weakness at all.
Shaka was also said to have expelled all rainmakers from the kingdom, declaring that only he, the king could make rainfall. He reportedly instilled fear among the people by having people’s hands cut off, sometimes for no reason. While some of these claims have been disputed, one thing was clear; his people were beginning to hate him.
His Mother’s Death Drove Him Insane
The last straw that broke the camel’s back was the death of Shaka Zulu’s mother, Nandi. It is said that Nandi died in 1827, and her passing deeply troubled Shaka. In fact, he was so troubled that he lost his mind. This was because the Zulu King loved his mother too much, almost to the point of worship, and so he could not imagine life without her.
The feared warrior subsequently became psychotic as he went on a rampage and slaughtered thousands of his subjects so their families would also feel the pain of losing someone and mourn along with him. Some reports have it that up to 7,000 people were killed in the massacre. It has been reported that some women who were found to be pregnant were also murdered alongside their husbands at the time. Shaka Zulu also ordered that no crop should be planted and no milk should be produced for about one year. Even milch cows were killed in their thousands in his grief. It was clear that Shaka Zulu had lost his mind.
Sometime, early in 1828, the King sent out his army to carry out a raid around the borders of the Cape Colony. There were very exhausted when they finally returned, however, no sooner than they came home were they sent out again on another raid far north. This was too much for everyone.
Shaka Zulu Was Killed By His Own Half-Brothers
In late 1828, many people in the Zulu Kingdom were already fed up with Shaka Zulu and his erratic ways since his mother’s passing. Soon, his half-brothers; Dingane and Mhlangana, and an officer (iNduna) called Mbopa began to plot to have him killed. Their opportunity came when Shaka sent out almost all the available military manpower on another raid to the north. His half-brothers used the opportunity to strike.
To make sure they were not caught in the act, a diversion was created by Mbopa, giving Dingane and Mhlangana ample room to stab Shaka Zulu to death. Some reports say he was ambushed in his hut by his brothers who then proceeded to strike him with the fatal blows that ended his life. Shaka Zulu is reported to have died on 22 September 1828. He was just 41 years old.
Where Was He Buried?
After he was killed, Shaka Zulu was buried in an unmarked grave by his killers. It is said that his corpse was dumped inside an empty grain pit and was then covered with stones and mud. However, the exact location of this grave is unknown today.
Historian Donald Morris claims that the true site of Shaka Zulu’s burial is located somewhere on Couper Street in the village of Stanger, South Africa. This is yet to be proven correct.
The King Who Reigned After Shaka Zulu
After killing Shaka Zulu, one of the half-brothers, Dingane, took over power and quickly consolidated his grip on authority by killing pro-Shaka chieftains and other elements that stood in his way. This extensive purge lasted for several years. He also tried to win the support of the people by allowing them to do things Shaka Zulu did not let them do, like marrying and setting up homesteads.
Was Shaka Zulu Married?
There is no evidence to prove that King Shaka Zulu ever got married throughout his lifetime. In fact, he preached abstinence among his soldiers, and no officer was allowed to marry until he had given the person permission to do so.
Some reports say that Shaka Zulu never took a legal wife and never fathered a son during his lifetime because he feared that his heir might plot against him. It has also been reported that Shaka Zulu actually had sexual relations with women. However, his concubines were executed if they were discovered pregnant.