Shaka, king of the Zulus, devised innovative tactics and weapons to establish nineteenth-century Zulu dominance of Africa and increase his control over a population that began at 1,500 and grew to more than 250,000. Known to friend and foe alike as cruel, bloodthirsty, and deranged, Shaka still managed to develop a military system that reined supreme for more than fifty years after his death.
Shaka’s illegitimate birth in about 1787 to a Zulu chief and a woman of a lower-class clan led to his harsh treatment as an outcast, perhaps the root of his own future ruthlessness. The name Shaka itself translates as “intestinal parasite,” or more simply as “bastard.”
By the time Shaka reached adulthood, he was already exhibiting extreme ambition, keen intelligence, and a general disregard for human life. At about the age of sixteen, Shaka joined the warrior force of Chief Diniswayo, of the Mthethwa, who ruled the Zulus. From Dingiswyao, Shaka learned military organization and tactics while proving his personal bravery in numerous engagements.
When Shaka’s father died in 1816, Dingiswayo dispatched him back to the Zulus to assume their military leadership. Shaka immediately began improving the army and taking revenge on those who had treated his mother and him badly during his childhood.
The new Zulu chief instituted a regimental system similar to that of Dingiswayo and replaced light throwing javelins, called assegais, with heavy bladed thrusting spears known as i-klwas. Shaka also introduced a larger, heavier shield made of cowhide and taught each warrior how to use the shield’s left side to hook the enemy’s shield to the right, exposing his ribs for a fatal spear stab.
Disciplined and close combat characterized Shaka’s army. To toughen his men, he discarded their leather sandals, having them train and fight in bare feet. Shaka’s troops practiced by covering more than fifty miles in a fast trot over hot, rocky terrain in a single day so that they could surprise the enemy. Young boys joined Shaka’s force as apprentice warriors and served as carriers of rations and extra weapons until they joined the main ranks.
Prior to Shaka, most African combat included mass attacks accompanied by spear throwing with little maneuver. Shaka changed that with a tactical innovation called the “buffalo” formation. Four sections – two “horns,” the “chest,” and the “loins” – formed the buffalo. During an attack, the chest assaulted the enemy front, while the horns struck the flanks to encircle the opponents. The loins remained in reserve, usually facing away from the battle or waiting behind some terrain obstruction so that they could not see the fight, become excited, and reinforce too soon. Shaka directed his buffalo formation from nearby high ground and controlled the four sections by means of foot messengers.
Shaka’s strategy in employing his buffalo tactics was simple. His initial attacks came against smaller bands and clans, yielding him fairly easy victory. He then offered the survivors the choice of either death or joining his force. Those who chose to join Shaka, and most did, considering the option, also gave up their tribal affiliations. They not only joined the Zulu; they also became Zulus. The new warriors received training in the Zulu style of war and integrated into the regiments.
Shaka began with only 350 warriors, but by the end of his first year of leadership the Zulu ranks numbers 2,000. In 1818, Shaka, thirty-one, was attempting to move to support his mentor Dingiswayo in battle against the Ndwandwa when he became engaged at the Battle of Gqokli Hill, causing him to fight one of the few defensive engagements of his career. Dingisqyo died in the fight, and Shaka, barely escaping defeat, withdrew and for the next year engaged weaker enemies to add to his army. Less than a year after Gqokli, Shaka avenged Dingiswayo’s death by destroying the Ndwandwe in a two-day battle at the Mhlatuzi fords. Against the Ndwandwe, Shaka introduced a tactic new to African warfare. As Shaka destroyed his enemy, he employed a policy of scorched earth, leaving nothing living or capable of sustaining life in his wake.
For ten years Shaka continued to raid, destroy, and absorb clans and tribes throughout southern Africa. The Zulu nation grew to a population of 250,000, with an army of more than forty thousand warriors occupying territory of about 2 million square miles, from Cape Colony in the south to modern Tanzania in the north. An estimated 2 million of Shaka’s enemies died during his decade of power.
Shaka’s sphere of interest remained limited to southern Africa until 1824, when visiting Englishman H. F. Fynn provided medical treatment to the wounded Zulu king. In appreciation, Shaka allowed English traders to begin operations in his kingdom and even made an attempt to exchange royal ambassadors with King George.
Ultimately, Shaka’s end came from internal rather than external enemies. Shaka’s erratic behavior worsened with the death of his mother in 1827. The often cruel treatment of his own subjects, including execution for “smelling like a witch” and arbitrary mass executions of entire villages, created terror within his civilian subjects. His army also grew unhappy with the constant operations, which ranged farther and farther from home as Shaka sought new tribes and lands to conquer. Shaka’s enforcement of chastity in his warriors also lowered their morale.
By the time of his mother’s death, Shaka no longer took the field at the head of his army, further eroding the confidence of his people. On September 23, 1828, Shaka’s half brothers Dingane and Mhlangana assassinated him. Shaka, forty-one, reportedly died a death without dignity, begging his attackers for mercy. His killers buried him in an unmarked grave somewhere near today’s Natal village of Stanger.
The death of Shaka did not mean the end of Zulu power. Dingane soon killed his coconspirator and became the single chieftain of the Zulus. New leadership, combined with Shaka’s organization and tactics, provided continued Zulu dominance. A half century after his death, the Zulu nation still employed the buffalo formation to defeat their enemies and to repel invaders, reinforcing Shaka’s reputation as modern Africa’s most influential military leader.