Shaka, The Warrior King



If you have seen the movie Shaka Zulu: The Last Warrior, by Joshua Sinclair then you know it is an extraordinary body of work bringing to live the story of a powerful warrior king. Modern Zulu culture is heavily influenced by King Shaka Zulu’s kingdom, which established a dominant Zulu state and solidified its influence among the Northern Nguni people in the 1800s. Shaka was (born c. 1787—died Sept. 22, 1828), Zulu chief (1816–28), founder of Southern Africa’s Zulu Empire. He is credited with creating a fighting force that devastated the entire region. Shaka conquered all the groups in Zululand and united them into a single powerful Zulu nation, that made its influence felt over southern and central Africa.


Shaka was the son of Senzangakona, chieftain of the Zulu, and Nandi, an orphaned princess of the neighboring Langeni clan. Because his parents belonged to the same clan, their marriage violated Zulu custom, and this stigma will eventually extend to Shaka. This also led to Shaka's parents separating when he was six years old. Nandi took her son back to the Langeni, a people who despised her. In 1802 the Langeni drove Nandi out, and she finally found shelter with the Dletsheni, a subclan of the powerful Mthethwa. When Shaka was 23, Dingiswayo, the Mthethwa paramount chieftain, called up Shaka’s Dletsheni age group for military service.


For the next six years, he served with brilliance as a warrior of the Mthethwa Empire. Senzangakona died in 1816, and Dingiswayo released Shaka from service and sent him to take over the Zulu, which at the time numbered fewer than 1,500, occupying an area on the White Umfolozi River in South Africa. They were among the smallest of the more than 800 Eastern Nguni–Bantu clans, but from the day of Shaka’s arrival they commenced their march to greatness. Shaka ruled with an iron hand from the outset, meting out instant death for the slightest opposition. During these early decades of the nineteenth century, the legendary warrior Shaka will transform a chiefdom into the feared Zulu empire that came to be known today. Seizing territory with intensely trained, disciplined regiments of soldiers, amabutho, and deploying those regiments in new, close-combat battlefield formations with a formidable new weapon, a short, stabbing spear.


This era according to Henry Louis Gates Jr. is marked as a tumultuous change on the continent, known as the Mfecane, ("Upheaval" or "The Crushing"), a period of widespread destruction and warfare in southern Africa between 1815 and about 1840 that depopulated the region. His role in the Mfecane is highly controversial as no less encroaching foreign traders, and conflict and environmental challenges disrupted borders and displaced populations. According to an article by Donald R. Morris titled Shaka, "The first Europeans arrived in Port Natal (present-day Durban) in 1824. A dozen settlers of the Farewell Trading Company established a post on the landlocked bay and soon made contact with Shaka. At the time, Shaka’s kraal Bulawayo lay 100 miles (160 km) to the north." Shaka became fascinated by the ways of the European settlers and their artifacts that he permitted them to stay. Although, he was still convinced that his own civilization was much more superior than the European settlers.



Two of the early settlers, Henry Francis Fynn and Nathaniel Isaacs, became fluent Zulu linguists, and most of what is known of early Nguni history stems from their writings according to Donald R. Morris. In the mid-1820s Henry Francis Fynn was said to have provided medical treatment to the king after an assassination attempt by a rival tribe member hidden in a crowd. As a result, Shaka permitted European settlers to enter his territory and operate in the Zulu kingdom as a way of showing his gratitude. This would open the door for future British incursions into the Zulu kingdom that were not so peaceful.


In 1827 his mother Nandi died, and with his mother’s death, Shaka became openly psychotic according to various reports. About 7,000 Zulus were killed in the initial paroxysm of his grief, and 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 milch cows, so that even the calves might know what it was to lose a mother, states Donald R. Morris. Early in 1828, Shaka sent the impi south in a raid that carried the warriors clear to the borders of the Cape Colony. They had no sooner returned, expecting the usual season’s rest, than he sent them off to raid far in the north. It was too much for his associates, and two of his half brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana, together with an induna named Mbopa, murdered him in September of that year.

Nevertheless, Shaka was one of the most influential monarchs of the Zulu Kingdom. His military tactics and formation were mostly innovative and strategic and began as a campaign for conquest to unite all of the clans in the region under his rule. Shaka's hegemony was primarily based on military might, smashing rivals and incorporating 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. These peoples were never defeated in battle by the Zulu; they did not have to be. Shaka won them over by subtler tactics, such as patronage and reward.



Once a year, in the heart of South Africa's Kingdom of the Zulu, thousands of people make the long journey to one of His Majesty’s, the King of the Zulu nation's royal residence at KwaNyokeni Palace. Here, in Nongoma, early every September month, young Zulu maidens will take part in a colorful cultural festival, the Royal Reed Dance festival - or Umkhosi woMhlanga in the Zulu language. For visitors to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa's most popular tourist destination, the Reed Dance festival offers the unique opportunity to experience the natural beauty and majesty of the Kingdom of the Zulu, combined with the vibrant spectacle of Zulu cultural life.

The road to the Reed Dance festival runs north from the city of Durban, and winds through the green lushness of the North Coast sugar-belt, skirting through the Kingdom's world-renowned wildlife reserves of Zululand and Maputaland. Finally, it leads into the gently rolling hills and valleys of Zululand, a landscape rich with the silent memories of the heroic clashes of the Anglo-Zulu War, which took place more than 100 years ago.

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