Shaka Zulu (1)

He was one of the greatest military commanders in history. He revolutionised warfare on his own continent. A huge statue of him now stands in the middle of a restaurant in London :

He was born in July 1787 and he was assassinated on September 22nd 1828. He was the King of the Zulus from 1816 to 1828. His name was Tshaka kaSenzangakhona but he was better known as “Shaka Zulu”.

His enemies said that he had a big nose, that he had two prominent front teeth and that he spoke as though “his tongue were too big for his mouth.” Many people said that he spoke with a speech impediment. He himself admitted that “Shaka himself was ugly, with a protruding forehead”.

We have no photographs, of course, in 1820. Just drawings or paintings:

Two British ivory traders, Francis Farewell and Henry Fynn, introduced other white men to Shaka in 1824. They were appalled by his cruelty to his enemies. At the same time, they could see his obvious leadership qualities, impressive self possession, great intelligence and a genuine sense of humour.

Shaka was tall. He was muscled. He was strong. His skin tone was dark brown. Petros Sibani, a current historian and tour guide of the Zulu battlefields, has given a sensible opinion about him. He said that there was no doubting that :

“Shaka was a cruel and ruthless man, but these were cruel and ruthless times”

Some historians have called him the Black Napoleon. Fans of the reggae sound system culture regularly chant his name:  “Shakalaka”:

Praise indeed.

As Shaka gradually earned the respect of the Zulu people, they became increasingly willing to adapt his ideas.

Shaka taught the Zulus that if they were to dominate the tribes around them, the most effective strategy was to beat them on the battlefield. Those surrounding tribes had to be conquered and their lands and cattle taken for the Zulus. Any prisoners were given the opportunity of joining his Zulu army.  In this way, the Zulu tribe increased in size extremely quickly and every Zulu soon developed the mindset of a true warrior.

On occasion, though, Chaka made use of other methods as well,  such as diplomatic ties and patronage. The chiefs of friendly tribes became his allies. These included Zihlandlo of the Mkhize, Jobe of the Sithole, and Mathubane of the Thuli. These three tribes were never beaten in battle by the Zulu. Instead Chaka won their hearts and minds by treating them well and repeatedly rewarding them for their loyalty to him.

Initially, the Zulus had fought with a long throwing assegai but to make them more successful, Chaka made radical changes to this traditional weapon. Here is the throwing assegai:

The Zulus had always carried a shield in the left hand. It was a piece of defensive armour designed to deflect enemy spears or assegais and the arrows fired by Hottentots and other non-Bantu peoples . It was often carried also during lion or leopard hunts as protection against such fierce animals. I think that this is the pre-Chaka defensive shield:

Boys would practice with their weapons in “stick fights” with other boys. This activity still exists nowadays:

Chaka would make changes to all of the traditional activities and weapons. He would transform the Zulus into a disciplined army, equipped with weapons that suited the sophisticated new tactics that he had taught them.

He re-organised the Zulu army from top to bottom and transformed it into a fearsome fighting force through a number of  tactical changes. These changes would permit the Zulus to fight against Europeans and, on occasion, to inflict heavy defeats, as happened here at the Battle of Isandlwana:

Next time, the new weapons and the new tactics in more detail, and some more very long Zulu words.

“Sobonana ngokuzayo !”


Filed under Africa, History, military

14 responses to “Shaka Zulu (1)

    • I’m glad that you enjoyed it. It was Black History Month recently and I suppose that this was my rather tardy contribution. I have always been a huge Zulu fan ever since I started reading Rider Haggard books as a little boy.

      • I remember going to see the film Zulu with my dad. It turns out that it bends the truth a bit especially in regard of the VCs. There is an opinion that so many were awarded to deflect public opinion away from the defeat at Isandlwana. At the time, Sir Garnet Wolsely disagreed with granting so many. Most awards were made immediately but Corporal Schiess as a South African had to wait over a year.

        History is easily distorted. In 1964 Stanley Baker was the star of the film but if you buy the DVD now it is Michael Caine.

      • Yes, I suppose that Baker made the career mistake of dying in 1976 ! As long as Sir Michael survives, he is guaranteed to get all of the praise on offer to the pair of them. (I wish I could have got Stanley Baxter out of my mind while I was writing that. I used to really like him!)

  1. Excellent history, John. Fascinating ever since the screening of Zulu. I look forward to the rest

    • Thank you, Derrick. Chaka was a great leader of the Zulus and one of the biggest names in the African continent. He deserves not to be forgotten, even though he operated in “cruel and ruthless times” and was more than up to the job!

  2. GP

    I must admit, I had forgotten this history. Good work, John.

    • Thank you very much for your kind words. There is a great deal of interesting history in Africa with mighty empires and kingdoms that rose and fell, and personally, I knew virtually nothing of them. Once or twice they appear in the Bible such as when Solomon traded with Ophir which must have been in black Africa since he received ivory, apes and monkeys. And, to paraphrase a very old BTO song, “Any knowledge is good knowledge”.

  3. I have great admiration for Shaka Zulu as a leader of his people. Thanks for sharing.

    • I’m very glad that you enjoyed it. I have the idea that if both black and white knew more of the history of Africa, attitudes would change for the better. Chaka’s achievements were just as great as any of our warrior kings such as William the Conqueror or Edward I. He deserves a little,publicity!

  4. He sounds like he was a great leader of men and a very knowledgeable warrior. Great write up John!

    • Thank you for those kind words. The great historical enigma is “What would have happened if Chaka had been the Zulu king fighting the British Empire?” In reality, the two are separated by more than fifty years, but when you have seen Chaka’s simple but highly effective fighting tactics next time, you might well think that we should be grateful for that half century between us and him!

  5. Fascinating. I wonder about the life of women in those times. I am reading a fascinating book , Lord’s of the Deccan by Anirudh Kannisetti. This too is about warriors and their conquests. Regards

    • Chaka, in fact, was years ahead of his time. He used unmarried young women as soldiers in his army, and, as far as I know, they fought just like the men, with a regiment of their own.
      The married women, of course, concentrated on raising sons for the Zulu army.

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