Shaka kaSenzangakhona (c. July 1787 – 22 September 1828), also known as Shaka Zulu was the King of the Zulu Kingdom from 1816 to 1828. He was one of the most influential monarchs of the Zulu Kingdom, credited with creating a fighting force that devastated the entire region. His life is the subject of numerous colorful and exaggerated stories, many of which are debated by historians. 

shaka zulu village
Zulu Village

Shaka was the son of Senzangakona, chieftain of the Zulu, and Nandi, an orphaned princess of the neighbouring Langeni clan. Because his parents belonged to the same clan, their marriage violated Zulu custom, and the stigma of this extended to the child. The couple separated when Shaka was six, and Nandi took her son back to the Langeni, where he passed a fatherless boyhood among the people who despised his mother. 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. The Zulu people — who numbered in the tens of thousands — were concentrated in the southeastern portion of what would become the country of South Africa. They shared a culture, but remained a disorganized cluster of clans without a common leader until a vicious warrior united them.

In 1816, Shaka Zulu took power of his Zulus after distinguishing himself in battle, both physically and strategically, and began a campaign of conquest to unite all of the clans in the region under his rule.

shaka zulu warriors
Zulu Warriors

Shaka began with a systematic reorganization of Zulu warriors, introduced the long-bladed assegai (spear) and the bullhorn formation were innovations that led to greater success on the battlefield. He had ruthless military discipline and incorporated both men and youths in his armies. He also forbade his troops to marry.

He conquered neighboring territories or created alliances until he controlled all of present-day Natal. In doing so, many rivals were forced out of their territories and migrated, causing disruption throughout the region. However, he was not in conflict with the Europeans in the area. He allowed some European settlers in the Zulu Kingdom.

In just a couple of years, his army had brutally executed, displaced or assimilated a vast territory with more than 200,000 inhabitants who became his subjects. Despite its violent methodology, his clan had formed one united nation — the biggest and most powerful in southern Africa.

When Shaka’s mother, Nandi, died in October 1827, his grief led to an erratic and deadly behavior. He required everyone else to grieve with him and executed anyone he decided was not grieving sufficiently, as many as 7,000 people. He ordered that no crops be planted and no milk could be used, two orders sure to induce famine. Any pregnant woman would be executed, and her husband too.

Nandi mother of shaka zulu
Nandi(Mother of Shaka)

Shaka’s two half-brothers tried more than once to assassinate him. Their successful attempt came when most of the Zulu troops had been sent north and security was lax at the Royal Kraal. The brothers were joined by a servant, Mbopa. Accounts vary as to whether the servant did the actual killing or it was done by the brothers. They dumped his body in an empty grain pit and filled the pit, so the exact location is unknown.

Dingane assumed the throne and purged loyalists to Shaka. He allowed the troops to marry and set up a homestead, which built loyalty with the military. He ruled for 12 years until he was defeated by his half-brother Mpande.