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”:
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 !”