Shaka, lithograph by W. Bagg, 1836.
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Shaka (sometimes spelled Tshaka, Tchaka or Chaka; ca. 1787 – ca. 22 September 1828) was the most influential leader of the Zulu Empire.
He is widely credited with uniting the Zulu sub-tribes into the beginnings of a nation that held sway over the large portion of southern Africa between the Phongolo and Mzimkhulu rivers, and his statesmanship and vigour marked him as one of the greatest Zulu chieftains. He has been called a military genius for his reforms and innovations, and condemned for the brutality of his reign. Other historians note debate about Shaka's role as a uniter versus a usurper of traditional Zulu ruling prerogatives, and the notion of the Zulu state as a unique construction, divorced from the localized culture and the previous systems built by his predecessor Dingiswayo. Research continues into the character, methods and influence of the Zulu king, who still continues to cast a long shadow over the history of southern Africa.
Shaka was probably the first son of the chieftain Senzangakhona and Nandi, a daughter of Bhebhe, the past chief of the Elangeni tribe, born near present-day Melmoth, KwaZulu-Natal Province. He was conceived out of wedlock somewhere between 1781 and 1787. Some accounts state that he was disowned by his father (Tabile Raziya) and chased into exile. Others maintain that his parents married normally. Shaka almost certainly spent his childhood in his mother's settlements. He is recorded as having been initiated there and inducted into an ibutho lempi (fighting unit). In his early days, Shaka served as a warrior under the sway of local chieftain Dingiswayo and the Mthethwa, to whom the Zulu were then paying tribute.
Dingiswayo called up the emDlatsheni iNtanga (age-group), of which Shaka was part, and incorporated it in the isiZwe regiment. Shaka served as a Mthethwa warrior for perhaps as long as ten years, and distinguished himself with his courage, though he did not, as legend has it, rise to great position. Dingiswayo, having himself been exiled after a failed attempt to oust his father, had, along with a number of other groups in the region (including Mabhudu, Dlamini, Mkhize, Qwabe, and Ndwandwe, many probably responding to slaving pressures from southern Mozambique) helped develop new ideas of military and social organisation, in particular the ibutho, sometimes translated as 'regiment' or 'troop'; it was rather an age-based labour gang which included some better-refined military activities, but by no means exclusively. Most battles before this time were to settle disputes, and while the appearance of ibutho lempi (fighting unit) dramatically changed warfare at times, it largely remained an instrument for seasonal raiding and political persuasion rather than outright slaughter. Of particular importance here is the relationship which Shaka and Dingiswayo had.
European entrance into the Zulu nation was granted by Shaka on rare occasions. H.F. Fynn, noted earlier for his report on Shaka Zulu, provided medical treatment to the king after a battle. To show his gratitude, Shaka permitted European settlers to enter and operate in the Zulu kingdom. This would open the door for future British incursions into the Zulu kingdom that were not so peaceful. Shaka did clearly make an attempt at understanding the European way of life.
The Europeans, however, made little early effort to understand Shaka. The Zulu king maintained a mysterious but powerful presence both in the Zulu Kingdom and in the European colonies throughout his rule. This allowed the Zulu Revolution, unlike European revolutions, to be based not on notions of individualism or freedom of the citizen, but on ideals that were wholeheartedly African and not readily comprehensible to the European mind.
On the death of Senzangakona, Dingiswayo aided Shaka to defeat his brother and assume leadership in around 1816. Shaka began to further refine the ibutho system used by Dingiswayo and others and, with Mthethwa's support over the next several years, forged alliances with his smaller neighbours, mostly to counter the growing threat from Ndwandwe raiding from the north. The initial Zulu manoeuvres were defensive and offensive and Shaka mostly preferred to intervene or apply pressure diplomatically, aided by occasional judicious assassinations. His changes to local society built on existing structures and were as much social and propagandistic as they were military; though there were a number of battles, as the Zulu sources make clear.
Later Dingiswayo was murdered by Zwide, a powerful chief of the Ndwandwe (Nxumalo) clan. Shaka took it upon himself to avenge Dingiswayo's blood. At some point Zwide barely escaped Shaka, though the exact details are not known. In that encounter Zwide's mother, a Sangoma (Zulu seer or shaman) was killed by Shaka. Shaka chose a particularly gruesome revenge on Zwide's mother, locking her in a house and placing jackals or hyenas inside. They devoured her and, in the morning, Shaka burned the house to the ground. Despite carrying out this revenge, Shaka was still eager to kill Zwide. It was not until around 1825 that the two great military men would meet, near Phongola, in what would be their final meeting. Phongola is near the present day border of KwaZulu-Natal, a province in South Africa. The victory went to Shaka who, however, sustained heavy casualties and lost his head military commander, Umgobhozi Ovela Entabeni.
In the initial years, Shaka had neither the influence nor reputation to compel any but the smallest of groups to join him, and he operated under Dingiswayo's aegis until the latter's death at the hands of Zwide's Ndwandwe. At this point, Shaka moved southwards across the Thukela River, establishing his capital Bulawayo in Qwabe territory. He never did personally move back into the traditional Zulu heartland. In Qwabe, Shaka may have intervened in an existing succession dispute to help his own choice, Nqetho, into power; Nqetho then ruled as a proxy chieftain for Shaka.
As Shaka became more respected by his people, he was able to spread his ideas with greater ease. Because of his background as a soldier, Shaka taught the Zulus that the most effective way of becoming powerful quickly was by conquering and controlling other tribes. His teachings greatly influenced the social outlook of the Zulu people. The Zulu tribe soon developed a "warrior" mindframe, which made it easier for Shaka to build up his armies.
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 of patronage and reward. The ruling Qwabe, for example, began re-inventing their genealogies to give the impression that Qwabe and Zulu were closely related in the past—a handy fiction. In this way a greater sense of cohesion was created, though it never became complete, as subsequent civil wars attest.
Sigujana was killed, the coup was relatively bloodless and accepted by the Zulu. Shaka still recognised Dingiswayo and his larger Mthethwa clan as overlord after he returned to the Zulu but, some years later, Dingiswayo was ambushed by Zwide's amaNdwandwe and killed. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that Shaka had betrayed Dingiswayo. Indeed, the core Zulu had to retreat before several Ndwandwe incursions; the Ndwandwe was clearly the most aggressive grouping in the sub-region.
Shaka was able to form an alliance with the leaderless Mthethwa clan and was able to establish himself amongst the Qwabe, after Phakathwayo was overthrown with relative ease. With Qwabe, Hlubi and Mkhize support, Shaka was finally able to summon a force capable of resisting the Ndwandwe (of the Nxumalo clan). Historians like Donald Morris (Washing of the Spears) state that Shaka's first major battle against Zwide of the Ndwandwe was the Battle of Gqokli Hill, on the Mfolozi river. Shaka's troops maintained a strong position on the crest of the hill. A frontal assault by their opponents failed to dislodge them and Shaka sealed the victory by sending elements in a sweep around the hill to attack the enemy's rear. Losses were high overall but the efficacy of the new Shakan innovations was proved. It is probable that, over time, the Zulu were able to hone and improve their encirclement tactics.
Another decisive fight eventually took place on the Mhlatuze river, at the confluence with the Mvuzane stream. In a two-day running battle, the Zulu inflicted a resounding defeat on their opponents. Shaka then led a fresh reserve some seventy miles to Ndwandwe ruler Zwide's royal kraal, and destroyed it. Zwide himself escaped with a handful of followers before falling foul of a chieftainess named Mjanji, ruler of the baPedi clan. He died in mysterious circumstances shortly after. Shaka's general Soshangane (of the Shangaan) moved off north towards what is now Mozambique to inflict further damage on less resistant foes and take advantage of slaving opportunities, causing Portuguese traders to give tribute. Shaka later had to contend again with Zwide's son Sikhunyane in 1826.
The Zulu monarch was killed by three assassins sometime in 1828 (September is the most often cited date), when almost all available Zulu manpower had been sent on yet another mass sweep to the north. This left the royal kraal critically short of security. It was all the conspirators needed—they being Shaka's half-brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana, and an inDuna called Mbopa. A diversion was created by Mbopa, and Dingane and Mhlangana struck the fatal blows. Shaka's corpse was dumped into an empty grain pit by his assassins and filled with stones and mud. The exact site is unknown. Historian Donald Morris holds that it is somewhere on Couper Street in the village of Stanger, South Africa.
Shaka's half-brother Dingane assumed power and embarked on an extensive purge of pro-Shaka elements and chieftains, running over several years, in order to secure his position. A virtual civil war broke out. Dingane ruled 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, and ruled for some 30 years. Later in the 19th century the Zulus would be one of the few African peoples who managed to defeat the British Army (at the Battle of Isandlwana).
Some have doubted the military and social innovations customarily attributed to Shaka, denying them outright, or attributing them variously to European influences. Others argue that both explanations fall short, and in fact the Zulu culture which included other tribes and clans, contained a number of practices that Shaka could have drawn on to fulfill his objectives - whether in raiding, conquest or hegemony. Some of these practices are shown below.
Most historians credit Shaka with initial development of the famous "buffalo horns" formation. It was composed of three elements:
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 the warriors assigned to each echelon.
The expanding Zulu power inevitably clashed with European hegemony in the decades after Shaka's death. In fact, European travellers to Shaka's kingdom demonstrated advanced technology such as firearms and writing, but the Zulu monarch was less than convinced. There was no need to record messages, he held, since his messengers stood under penalty of death should they bear inaccurate tidings. As for firearms, Shaka acknowledged their utility as missle weapons after seeing muzzle-loaders demonstrated, but argued that in the time a gunman took to reload, he would be swamped by charging spear-wielding warriors.
The first major clash after Shaka's death took place under his successor Dingane, against expanding European Voortrekkers from the Cape. Initial Zulu success rested on fast-moving surprise attacks and ambushes, but the Voortrekkers recovered and dealt the Zulu a severe defeat from their fortified wagon laager at the Battle of Blood River. The second major clash was against the British during 1879. Once again, most Zulu successes rested on their mobility, ability to screen their forces and to close quickly when their opponents were unfavourably deployed. Their major victory at the Battle of Isandlwana is well known, but they also forced back a British column at the Battle of Hlobane mountain, deploying fast- moving regiments over a wide area in the rugged ravines and gullies while the British were on the move.
Much controversy still surrounds the character, methods and activities of the Zulu king. From a military standpoint, respected British war historian John Keegan notes the exaggerations and myths that surround Shaka, but nevertheless observes:
A number of historians argue that Shaka 'changed the nature of warfare in Africa' from 'a ritualised exchange of taunts with minimal loss of life into a true method of subjugation by wholesale slaughter'. His military campaigns created widespread destruction and local distress where his impis were active. When the bigger picture of the entire region is considered, other historians point to additional factors in play, including European expansion at the Cape, slaving in Mozambique, and the usual assortment of agricultural pressures common to that region. Still, on balance, it seems clear that Shaka's military expansion caused much disruption and turmoil of the Mfecane, and played a major role in shaping the area where he resided and beyond.
The figure of Shaka still sparks interest among not only the contemporary Zulu but many worldwide who have encountered the tribe and its history. The current tendency appears to be to lionize him; popular film and other media have certainly contributed to his appeal. Against this must be balanced the devastation and destruction that he wrought. And yet, traditional Zulu culture still reveres the dead monarch, as the typical praise song above attests. It should be noted that the praise song is one of the most widely used poetic forms in Africa, applying not only to gods but to men, animals, plants and even towns.
Among the many fascinating cases of the Mfecane is that of Mzilikazi of the Khumalo who was a 'general' of Shaka's, who fled Shaka's employ, and in turn conquered an empire in Zimbabwe, after clashing with European groups like the Boers. Other notable figures to arise from the Mfecane include Shoshangane, who expanded from the Zulu area into what is now Mozambique. Shaka was clearly a tough, able leader, the most able of his time who, during the last four years of his reign, indulged in several long-distance raids.
The theory of the Mfecane holds that the aggressive expansion of Shaka's armies caused a brutal chain reaction across the southern areas of the continent, as dispossessed tribe after tribe turned on their neighbours in a deadly cycle of fight and conquest. This theory must be treated with caution, as it generally neglects several other factors such as the impact of white encroachment and expansion in that area of Southern Africa around the same time. Revised histories have cast doubt on the concept of the Mfecane and its attribution of wholesale migration and destruction to the Zulu. A more balanced approach sees Zulu expansionism as one of a number of factors (albeit an important one) that disrupted traditional patterns of the local area. One outstanding example of the traditional view of the Mfecane is J.D. Omer-Cooper's The Zulu Aftermath.
Scholarship in recent years has revised views of the sources on Shaka's reign. The earliest are two eyewitness accounts written by white adventurer-traders who met Shaka during the last four years of his reign. Nathaniel Isaacs published his Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa in 1836, creating a picture of Shaka as a degenerate and pathological monster which survives in modified forms to this day. Isaacs was aided in this by Henry Francis Fynn, whose diary (actually a rewritten collage of various papers) was edited by James Stuart only in 1950.
Their accounts may be balanced by the rich resource of oral histories collected around 1900 by the same James Stuart, now published in 6 volumes as The James Stuart Archive. Stuart's early 20th century work was continued by D. McK. Malcolm in 1950. These and other sources such as A.T. Bryant gives us a more Zulu-centred picture. Most popular accounts are based on E. A. Ritter's novel Shaka Zulu (1955), a potboiling romance which was re-edited into something more closely resembling a history. The work of John Wright (history professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg), Julian Cobbing and Dan Wylie (Rhodes University, Grahamstown) have been among a number of writers that have modified these stories.
Various modern historians writing on Shaka and the Zulu point to the uncertain nature of Fynn and Issac's accounts of Shaka's reign. A standard general reference work in the field is Donald Morris' "The Washing of The Spears" (1965) which notes that sources as a whole for the historical era are not the best. Morris nevertheless references a large number of sources, including Stuart, and A.T. Bryant's extensive but uneven "Olden Times in Zululand and Natal" which is based on four decades of exhaustive interviews of tribal sources. After sifting through these sources and noting their strengths and weaknesses, Morris generally credits Shaka with a large number of military and social innovations, and this is the general consensus in the field. (Morris 617-620).
Military historians of the Zulu War must also be considered for their description of Zulu fighting methods and tactics, including authors like Ian Knight ("Anatomy of the Zulu Army") and Robert Edgerton ("Like Lions They Fought"). General histories of Southern Africa are also valuable including Noel Mostert's "Frontiers" and a detailed account of the results from the Zulu expansion, J. D Omer-Cooper's "The Zulu Aftermath", which advances the traditional Mfecane theory.
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'Living Shaka' was a stage and soccer legend; Henry Cele brought the famous Zulu warrior to life for audiences here and abroad and was also renowned as the 'Black Cat' of South African football.(News)
Nov 04, 2007; BYLINE: Nomfundo Mcetywa In the eyes of many, Henry Cele's death amounts to the loss of the living image of King Shaka...