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History Of Shaka Zulu: From Unwanted Son To Great Zulu King

History Of Shaka Zulu - From Unwanted Son To Great Zulu King

The Zulu Kingdom (sometimes referred to as the Zulu Empire or the Kingdom of Zulu land), was a monarchy in Southern Africa that extended along the coast of the Indian ocean from the Tugela River in the south to Pongola River in the north. A region populated by many independent Nguni chiefdoms, it had its capital in kwabulawayo (at the place of the murder) and shared a common language; ‘Zulu’.

The Zulu religion (based on ancestor worship and beliefs in a creator god) was adopted by all Zulus who also used a common currency known as ‘Cattle’. At its peak, the Zulu empire comprises of a vast landmass of about 29,785km2 (11,500sq mi) and a population of about 250,000.

The empire was preceded by the mtetwa paramountcy and later grew to dominate much of what is today known as kwazulu-Natal and Southern Africa. Amongst the monarchs to have ruled the Zulu empire―although his reign was brief―is one who brought together more than a hundred chiefdoms, was greatly feared, and respected for his military prowess. His name is Sigidi Kasenzangakhona (also known as the great Shaka Zulu).


Who was Shaka Zulu?

Born Sigidi Kasenzangakhona in 1787, Shaka was a king who ruled the Zulu from 1816-1828. His father Senzangakhona was a minor chief of the Zulu speaking clans, while his mother Nandi was the daughter of Chief Mbhengi of the rival Langeni clan. Shaka’s birth was considered a sin because his parents were from different clans. Shaka, or Sigidi Kasenzangakhona, was given his name as a constant reminder of his illegitimacy.

Information about Shaka’s early years is gleaned entirely from oral sources. It is claimed that Shaka was born into Senzangakhona’s household but that the couple were not yet married according to traditional customs. One popular narrative is that Shaka’s conception was a mistake after his parents got carried away during ‘Uku-hlobonga’ (a ritual for unmarried couples involving sexual foreplay and no penetrative sex). When Zulu elders―including Senzangakhona himself―discovered that Nandi was pregnant, they tried to deny it; Senzangakhona claiming that Nandi’s bloated belly was a symptom of ‘iShaka’ (an intestinal and parasitic beetle).

At the age of six—due to pressure from tribal leaders, Shaka’s parents separated, resulting in his exile from his father’s Kraal (a traditional African village of huts) and clan, alongside his mother. Returning to his mother’s home ‘Langeni’, in 1802, he and his mother were unwelcome and eventually driven out to join a different ethnic nationality called the ‘Mthethwa’. Consequently, Shaka was harassed, tormented, and neglected.

As Shaka grew older, he recalled with anger his tormenting by Langeni members. While in Mthethwa, he was assigned an ‘amabutho’, (a military regiment of young men separated based on age group). Each amabutho was called upon when needed for combat, labor, policing, or hunting. It was during this time, that Shaka caught the attention of premier chieftain, Dingiswayo. Shaka who displayed great valor, skill, and strength, impressed Dingiswayo, and became his mentee.  


A more credible account recounts that the relationship between Nandi and Senzangakhona was illicit and that Shaka was born in Langeni territory at the Nguga homestead of Nandi’s uncle. His name is said to have stemmed from Senzangakhona claims that Nandi was not pregnant but was suffering from an intestinal condition caused by the iShaka beetle. Despite his attempts to deny the paternity, Senzangakhona eventually installed Nandi as his third wife.

Shaka thus spent his earliest years at his father’s Esiklebeni homestead near present Babanango, in the hallowed Emakhosini or burial-place of the Kings. The relationship between Senzangakhona and Nandi seems to have been an unhappy one and ended in the chief driving Nandi from his court.

Nandi and her son sought sanctuary in the Mhlathuze Valley of the Langeni people. There―while growing up as a fatherless child, he was the victim of constant humiliation and cruel treatments by the Langeni boys. At that time there were two strong rival Nguni groups: The Mthethwa led by the paramount chief Dingiswayo; and the Ndwandwe under the ruthless Zwide. Later―probably at the time of the Madlantule or the ‘Great Famine’ (1802), he was taken to the Mthethwa, where the shelter was found in the home of Nandi’s aunt.

There, he grew up in the court of Dingiswayo who welcomed them with friendliness. Shaka, however, saw much suffering from the bullying and teasing of the Mthethwa boys, too. They resented his claims to chiefly descent. As Shaka grew to manhood, he began to discover new talents and skills. Tall and powerfully built by outward appearance, his skills and daring looks gave him a natural edge over the youths in his age group. Inwardly, Shaka was developing a thirst for power.

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Shaka as a Young Warrior

At age 21, young Shaka got his first taste of warfare. By then, Shaka was a powerhouse of muscles standing at six feet and three inches. He was equipped with a five-feet, 9-inched oval shield and three light spears for throwing, and was clad with a kilt of fur stripes, a skin cape with black widow-bird feathers, cowhide sandals and white oxtails around his ankles and wrists. Intertribal battles of the time were a show of strength with very little bloodshed.

This meant that the two opposing sides would face each other at 40 or 50 yards and hurl their spears until one side fled. If pursued, the fleeing side just had to drop their weapons and surrender, and their lives would be spared. When Shaka was 23, Dingiswayo called up Shaka’s Dletsheni age group for military service.

For the next six years, Shaka served with brilliance as a warrior for the Mthethwa who were expanding. During this time, he found a satisfaction he had never known before. With the impi in the izicwe regiment, he had the companionship he had previously lacked, while the battlefield provided an arena in which he could demonstrate his talents and courage.

With time, Shaka displayed his innate ability for warfare and began to change the combat tools issued to him. First, he discarded his cowhide sandals which he believed could make him lose his balance. This afforded him increased agility; Shaka could engage an enemy at close quarters. Shaka also invented a new battle tactic of not throwing his spare. Instead, he deflected enemy spears with his shield and then charged in for the kill.


Hooking the enemy’s shield aside with his own, Shaka could then plunge his spear into his victim. He also fashioned his own weapon which had a short, thick handle and a massive blade. In effect, he had created a sword. This he called iklwa, because of the sound it makes when thrusted in and pulled out of someone’s body. His outstanding deeds of courage attracted the attention of his overlord, and rising rapidly in Dingiswayo’s army, Shaka became one of his foremost commanders.

At this time, Shaka was given the name Nodumehlezi (the one who when seated causes the earth to rumble). While in the Mthethwa army, he became engrossed in problems of strategy and battle tactics, and Dingiswayo contributed much toward his later accomplishments in war. Militarism was therefore to be a way of life for him, and one that he was to inflict on thousands of others.

Dingiswayos’s Death and Rise to Power

Chief Dingiswayo made Shaka his commander-in-chief. He also oversaw the process of reconciliation between Shaka and his estranged father, Senzangakhona. Being the chieftain’s favorite comrade, Shaka was granted an unusual amount of freedom which enabled him carve out a bigger principality for himself by conquering and assimilating his neighbors, including the Buthelezi and Langeni clans. Writing in his diary on Dingiswayo’s death (1817), Henry Francis Fynn notes that the Chieftains death was as a result of Shaka’s treachery, although there is no firm testimony to support this.

What is known, however, is that when Dingiswayo fought his last battle, Shaka did not arrive at the scene until after his overlord’s capture. This meant that he retained his forces intact. Zwide later murdered Dingiswayo, and upon the collapse of the leaderless Mthethwa state, he immediately assumed leadership and began conquering surrounding chiefdoms, adding their forces to his own and building up a new kingdom.


As his kingdom grew, he saw to the building of a far bigger Kwabulawayo―a royal household of about 1,400 huts, in the Mhlathuze valley―some 27 km from the present town of Eshowe. The only thing in his way to total conquest was, however, Shaka.

Zwide decided to smash his new rival. At first he embarked on an expedition which met defeat due to the superior strategies of the Zulu at Gqokoli Hill. This was followed by an all-out assault, when in April 1818, Zwide sent all his army into Zululand. At first, it seemed like the invading forces would have the upper hand, nevertheless, Shaka this time wore down the invaders by pretending he was retreating, hence, drew Zwide’s forces deep into his own territory; upon which once the invaders had been successfully exhausted, he flung his own regiments on them, conclusively defeating them at the Mhlathuze river. This defeat left the Ndwandwe state shattered.

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Part of the main Ndwandwe force under Shoshangane, together with the Jere under Zwangendaba, the Maseko under Ngwane, and the Msene led by Nxaba, fled northwards, while the survivors of the main Ndwandwe force settled for a time on the upper Pongola River. In 1826, they would―under the command of Zwide’s successor, Sikhunyane―again fight the Zulu, but were totally defeated, leaving the majority of them submitting to Shaka. Through these sources, Shaka was able to recruit additional warriors whom he proceeded to train in his own methods of close combat. Additionally, he won himself a generous share of captured cattle.

Senzangakhona made Shaka his heir, but before his assassination in 1816, one of his wives convinced him to make Shaka’s half-brother Sigujana his successor instead. Shaka, however, did not let it stand, and with the help of one of Dingiswayo’s regiments, he had Sigujana killed, after which he took charge of some 1,500 Zulus.


Shaka’s Supremacy and a United Zulu Kingdom

At this point, Shaka had no major rival in the area presently known as Kwazulu Natal. During his brief reign―which lasted only ten years after his final defeat of the Ndwandwe―his regiments continuously went on campaigns, steadily extending their assaults further abroad as the areas they came in contact with were stripped of their cattle. Any chiefdom which resisted was conquered and either destroyed, or―like the Thembu and Chunu―driven off as landless refugees.

When a chiefdom submitted, he left local administration in the hands of the reigning chief or another member of the traditional ruling family appointed by him. His new domain extended 100 square miles. This success allowed him the freedom to pursue alliances with other tribes and he consolidated his power while he grew his army.

Shaka was known for his cruelty. The general consensus among historians is that as he formed more alliances, defeated more chiefs, and expanded the Zulu Kingdom, he became a brutal despot who demanded utmost loyalty from his warriors. Should anyone insult his mother or him he condemned them to death by clubbing, spearing, head-twisting or impaling. But he remained peaceful to white colonialists and even sent delegates of his domain to visit them. Under his reign, there were no conflicts between the Zulu people and white traders.

Though the British did negotiate control over the Port Natal—now the city of Durban in South Africa—they made no attempt to challenge Shaka. It wouldn’t be until after Shaka’s death that bloody conflicts between his people and the Dutch-Afrikaner settlers known as the “Boers” began. The warrior king ruled without rival over 250,000 people for ten years. He could assemble more than 50,000 warriors at a time and it is said that he was responsible for the deaths of some two million people by warfare alone.


When his mother died in 1827, some historians believed that the Zulu king lost his mind. Overcome with grief, he became openly psychotic. About 7,000 Zulus were killed in the initial fit of his grief. For a year, no crops were planted, nor could milk—the basis of the Zulu diet staple—be used. All women found pregnant were slain with their husbands, as were thousands of milk cows, so that even the calves might know what it felt like to lose a mother.

The Fall of Shaka

Early in 1828, Shaka sent the impi south in a raid that carried his warriors clear to the borders of the Cape Colony. No sooner had they returned, expecting the usual season’s rest, he sent them off to raid far in the north. This proved too much for his associates, and two of his half-brothers―Dingane and Mhlangana―together with an induna named Mbopa, conspired to murder him in September―the most frequently cited month of his death―of that year, when almost all available Zulu manpower had been sent on the mass sweep to the north.

Some sources suggest that Dingane and Mhlangana appear to have made at least two attempts to assassinate him, only to succeed on the third. While it is not in doubt that the British colonialists considered his regime to be a future threat, allegations that European traders wished him dead were problematic given that he had given grants to Europeans prior to his death, including the right to settle at Port Natal (now Durban).

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It should be noted that Shaka had made enough enemies among his own people to hasten his demise. This came relatively quickly after the death of his mother in October 1827, followed by the devastation caused by his subsequent erratic behaviour. The absence of the army left the royal kraal critically lacking in security. It was all the conspirators needed to create a diversion and strike the fatal blow.


According to members of his family, Shaka’s last words were: “Are you stabbing me, kings of the earth? You will come to an end through killing one another.” The killers dumped his corpse in an empty grain pit, which they then filled with stones and mud. Its exact location is unknown, although a monument was built at one alleged site. Historian Donald Morris posits that the true site is somewhere on Couper Street in the village of Stanger, South Africa.

After Shaka’s death,Dingane assumed power and embarked on an extensive purge of pro-Shaka elements and chieftains, running over several years, so as to secure his position. The initial problem he faced was that of maintaining the loyalty of the Zulu fighting regiments. This he addressed by allowing them to marry and set up homesteads (a tradition forbidden during Shaka’s rule). In addition, they also received cattle from Dingane. Loyalty was also maintained through fear, as anyone suspected of rivalling Dingane was killed.

He set up his main residence at Mmungungundlovo as he established his authority over the Zulu kingdom. Dingane would rule for some twelve years, during which time he fought, disastrously, against the Voortrekkers, and against another half-brother, Mpande, who, with Boer and British support, took over the Zulu leadership in 1840, ruling for some 30 years.

Effects of Shaka’s Wars

Shaka’s wars were accompanied by great slaughter and caused many forced migrations (known as the Mfekane, Fetcani, or Difeqane in various parts of southern Africa). Their effects were felt even as far north of the Zambezi River. Because they feared Shaka, leaders like Zwangendaba, Mzilikazi, and Shoshangane moved northwards far into the central African interior and in their turn sowed war and destruction before developing their own kingdoms.


It is estimated by some scholars that during his reign Shaka caused the death of more than a million people. Groups of refugees from Shaka’s assaults―first Hlubi and Ngwane clans, later followed by the Mantatees and the Matabele of Mzilikazi―crossed the Drakensberg to the west, smashing chiefdoms in their path. Famine and bedlam followed the wholesale extermination of populations and the destruction of herds and crops between the Limpopo and the Gariep River. With all going on, old chiefdoms vanished and new ones created.


Hampton, C. (2008). Shaka Zulu. In J. Middleton, & J. C. Miller, (ed.). New Encyclopedia of Africa. New York: Scribner’s.

Howcroft, P. (n.d.). South Africa Encyclopedia: Prehistory to the year 2000. Unpublished papers with SA History Online. Retrieved May 17, 2020 from SA History:


Robinson, A. J. (2005). Shaka. In K. A. Appiah, & H. L. Gates, Jr., (ed.). Africana, the Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. New York: Oxford University Press.

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