Remarkable People

ID #5215

Shaka the Black Napoleon, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.

Shaka kaSenzangakhona (1787–1828) is sometimes referred to as Shaka Zulu. He is the most influential leader in Zulu history. He is credited with uniting the Northern Nguni into a nation that held sway over land between the Pongola and Mzimkhulu rivers.  He has been called a military genius for his reforms and innovations. When he died, Shaka ruled 250,000 people and could muster more than 50,000 warriors.

He was the first son of the chieftain Senzangakhona and Nandi and was born near Melmoth between 1781 and 1787. Some believe he was disowned and exiled by his father while others maintain that his parents were married. Whatever the case, he spent his childhood in his mother's settlements where he was initiated and inducted into an ibutho lempi (fighting unit). In his young days he served as a warrior under Dingiswayo and the Mthethwa, to whom the Zulu paid tribute. Dingiswayo called up the emDlatsheni iNtanga (age-group), of which Shaka was a member, and incorporated it into the Izichwe regiment. Shaka served as an Mthethwa warrior for ten years and distinguished himself with his courage.

On the death of Senzangakona (ca 1816), Dingiswayo aided Shaka to defeat his brother and assume leadership. Shaka refined the ibutho system used by Dingiswayo and others and, with Mthethwa's support, forged alliances with smaller neighbours, mostly to counter the threat of Ndwandwe raiding from the north. Later Dingiswayo was murdered by Zwide, chief of the Ndwandwe and Shaka took it upon himself to avenge Dingiswayo's death. At one point Zwide barely managed to escape. However, Shaka managed to capture Zwide's mother Ntombazi, a sangoma. He locked her in a house together with jackals or hyenas. They devoured her and, the following morning, Shaka burned the house to the ground. Despite carrying out this revenge, Shaka was still eager to kill Zwide, which he eventually accomplished in 1825.

Shaka moved southwards across the Thukela (Tugela), establishing his capital at Bulawayo in Qwabe territory. As he became more respected, Shaka was able to spread his ideas with ease. Because of his background as a soldier, he taught the Zulu that the most effective way of becoming powerful was by conquering and controlling other tribes. His teachings influenced the social outlook of the Zulu who developed a "warrior" mindset, making it easier for Shaka to build up his armies.

Shaka's hegemony was based on military might, smashing rivals and incorporating the scattered remnants into his own army. He supplemented this with a mixture of diplomacy and patronage, incorporating friendly chieftains, including Zihlandlo of the Mkhize, Jobe of the Sithole, and Mathubane of the Thuli. Shaka won them over with patronage and reward. The ruling Qwabe, for example, began re-inventing their genealogies to give the impression that the Qwabe and Zulu were closely related in the past—a handy fiction. A sense of cohesion was created in this way.

Shaka formed an alliance with the leaderless Mthethwa and was able to establish himself amongst the Qwabe. With Qwabe, Hlubi and Mkhize support, Shaka was able to assemble a force capable of resisting the Ndwandwe. Shaka's first battle against Zwide was the Battle of Gqokli Hill on the Mfolozi (Umfolozi) river. Shaka's troops maintained a strong position on the crest of the hill. Losses were high but the efficacy of Shaka's innovations was proven. Another decisive fight took place on the Mhlatuze river. In a two-day running battle, the Zulu inflicted a crushing defeat on their opponents. Shaka then led a fresh reserve seventy miles to the kraal of Zwide and destroyed it.

Dingane and Mhlangana, Shaka's half-brothers, appear to have made at least two attempts to assassinate Shaka before they succeeded. The monarch was killed by his three half-brothers in September 1828 when most manpower had been sent on a sweep to the north, leaving the royal kraal short of security. A diversion was created by Mbopa and Dingane and Mhlangana struck the fatal blows. Shaka's corpse was dumped into an empty grain pit which was filled with stones and mud. The site where he was buried remains uncertain.

Shaka was dissatisfied with the long throwing assegai and credited with introducing the iklwa, a short stabbing spear with a long, sword-like spearhead. It is said to have been named after the sounds made by its penetration into and withdrawal from the body. Shaka also introduced a larger, heavier shield made of cowhide and taught his warriors to use its left side to hook the enemy's shield to the right, exposing his ribs for a spear stab. The throwing spear was not discarded but used as a missile before close contact, when the shorter stabbing spear was used.

Sandals were discarded to toughen the feet of Zulu warriors. Implementation was typically blunt. Those who objected were killed, a practice which concentrated the minds of his warriors. He drilled his troops frequently, forced marches sometimes covering fifty miles a day in a fast trot over hot, rocky terrain. He also drilled his troops to carry out encirclement tactics. Most historians credit Shaka with development of the "buffalo horns" formation. It was made up of three elements:

o    The main force or "chest" closed with the enemy and pinned it in position.
o    The "horns": While the enemy impi was pinned by the "chest", the horns would flank the impi from both sides and encircle it.
o    The "loins", a reserve force, was seated behind the "chest" with their backs to the battle. The "loins" were committed wherever the enemy threatened to break out of their encirclement.

Coordination was supplied by regimental izinduna (chiefs or leaders) who used hand signals and messengers. The scheme was elegant in its simplicity, and well understood by his warriors. These were grouped into corps that took names from the military kraals where they were mustered, or sometimes the dominant regiment in the area.

Shaka changed the nature of warfare from an exchange of taunts with minimal loss of life into subjugation by wholesale slaughter. Together with his "buffalo horns" formation, the combination of iklwa and shield were devastating. When Shaka was assassinated in 1828, the Zulu kingdom was the greatest power in Southern Africa and a force with which to be reckoned. Some called him Shaka, the Black Napoleon, and, allowing for different societies and customs, the comparison is apt. Shaka is without doubt the greatest commander to come out of Africa. RSASZ

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Last update: 2014-03-02 21:47
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.5

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