Shaka Zulu

Political Leader & Publisher/Journalist

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

Shaka kaSenzangakhona, also known as Shaka Zulu, was one of the most influential monarchs of the Zulu Kingdom.

Shaka Zulu, 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 Zulu

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 Zulu

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 co-conspirator 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.


Quick Facts

Birth Date:
August 17, 1887

Death Date:
June 10, 1940


  • It’s believed the founder of the Zulu clan was conceived through what started out as ukuhlobonga, a sexual act without actual penetration, allowed to unmarried couples, during which Senzangakhona and Nandi got carried away. As a consequence to his illegitimacy, Shaka was raised in his mother’s settlements. He was trained and served as a warrior under Dingiswayo, chief of the Mthethwa clan.
  • Senzangakhona, his father, never called his son Shaka. He named him Sgidi and the child resented being called Shaka. The name he would eventually become known by was a reference to his illegitimacy. Nandi’s clan at first refused to believe she could be pregnant, as she was not married, and instead thought her pregnancy symptoms to be the result of a disease known as utshaka.
  • Shaka was fond of traveling. It is reported that he sat very little indoors and travelled the country by foot. Many places known today in KwaZulu-Natal were named according to Shaka’s first interactions with them, for example he found the water of Amanzimtoti sweet or tasty, he survived an assassination attack at the place now known as KwaDukuza (dukuza is isiZulu for ‘lightly stabbing’), and many people from his tribe were grabbed (in isiZulu ukuphanga) by crocodiles at the place known as Mpangeni.
  • His capital kraal was called KwaBulawayo, which means where they are killed. People deemed unfit to live were brought to KwaBulawayo to be killed off. These included short men, deemed useless as they would not be able to see approaching enemy impi (warriors) from afar; troops who had wounds in their backs after a battle, as this meant they’d been running away; and anyone who went against his will.
  • Few men were allowed to challenge Shaka’s decisions. One of them was Ngqengelele kaMvuyana, a Buthelezi who had arrived as a stranger to Mthaniya’s place but was later adopted and gradually earned Shaka’s respect. Another was Shaka’s protégé, Zulu kaNogandaya, who had almost equal rights to Shaka. Zulu kaNogandaya could do as he pleased with Shaka’s support, and was one of few people who ate with Shaka. (No one else had the courage or rank to do so.)
  • Shaka prevented his troops, even old men, from marrying, as he believed that marital affairs would weaken the men’s combat skills. He would claim that he was saving them from the evils present in marriage.
  • Shaka Zulu
  • Shaka Zulu
  • Shaka Zulu

Similar Entries

Guion Bluford Military

Guion Bluford

Guion Bluford Jr., Ph.D., is an American aerospace engineer, retired U.S. Air Force officer and fighter pilot, and former NASA astronaut, who is the first African American and the second person of African descent to go to space.

Read More
Henry Flipper Military

Henry Flipper

Henry Flipper was an American soldier, former slave and, in 1877, the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point, earning a commission as a second lieutenant in the US Army.

Read More
Marcus Garvey Military

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey, Jr. ONH was a Jamaican political activist, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator. He was the founder and first President-General of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL, commonly known as UNIA).

Read More
Fela Kuti Music

Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti, or simply Fela, was a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer, pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre and human rights activist. At the height of his popularity, he was referred to as one of Africa's most “challenging and charismatic music performers.”

Read More
Miriam Makeba Music

Miriam Makeba

Zenzile Miriam Makeba, nicknamed Mama Africa, was a South African singer, songwriter, actress, United Nations goodwill ambassador, and civil rights activist. Associated with various musical genres, she was an advocate against apartheid and white-minority government in South Africa.

Read More
Nelson Mandela Politics

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was the country's first black head of state and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election.

Read More