Introduction to Shaka Zulu Essay
In this paper, I shall discuss the impact of Shaka King Zulu’s reign in Southern Africa. Specifically taking into account how Shaka was able to use his military genius and political acumen to establish the Zulu Kingdom and stabilize his reign. The purpose of this paper is to discover as to how Shaka struggled to give a name for himself before he became ruler, and how he used his power to usher the creation of the Zulu nation. Other topics this paper would discuss is the military background of Shaka under the Mtetwa, how he rose to power, and how he was killed. This paper will also examine how Shaka became a symbol of nationalism and how his name became a myth and source of debate for many.
Early Years of King Shaka
Shaka Zulu is considered a myth to African history considering that no one is aware of his origins or early career. According to Hodge (2008), he was seen by historians as an illegitimate son of a chief, who had been cast-off from the tribe and paid service to another tribe leader . Others suggest that this record is true as Osei (2001) stated that Shaka was born in 1786 to King Senzangakona, who ruled the tribe living close to the Umvolosi and Umlatusi rivers. His mother was only known as Nandi, the first great woman to ever hold honor and influence in Zulu. Despite the fame of his parents, Shaka was scorned by his tribesmen was some believed him to be an illegitimate child of their chieftain. Once his treatment got so bad, his grandmother took Shaka away and stayed in Mtetwa where he met his future second-in-command Ngomane.
Under Service to Dingiswayo
After seven years of training and staying at the Mtetwa, Shaka entered into the service of Dingiswayo, who was the tribe’s chief at the period. Many commended Shaka’s fighting prowess and his successes were known throughout the tribe. Dingiswayo at that time had only began his reign in 1795 and managed to conquer neighboring tribes like the Quadi, Qwabe, Langeni, Ntshali and many others. However, he was unable to defeat King Zwide of the Ndwande, who was also a military genius in his own right. Shaka had entered into Dingiswayo’s army at that point and immediately became the tribe chief’s favorite as he made a name for himself in many conquests. Some even called him the Sigidi (thousand) after defeating thousands of enemy tribesmen. Shaka easily rose through the ranks in Dingiswayo’s army and became the Commander in Chief of the Izicwe Regiment. Under Dingiswayo, Shaka was able to learn not just military combat, but also governance. He took every detail and analyzed which areas of the tribe’s leadership would be a threat, such as Dingiswayo’s generosity. For Shaka, aggression can be prevented by ensuring that the conquered would no longer be able to retaliate once they are defeated. While earning praises in Mtetwa, Shaka remained in touch with the happenings in his old tribe. Rise of King Shaka
As Shaka slowly honed his political policies, his father had been reported to have passed away in 1810. Dingiswayo, upon hearing the news, knew that Shaka was most trustworthy than his brothers and had asked the Zulu to see him as their king. However, one of Shaka’s half-brothers took the throne, prompting Shaka to execute a conniving scheme to remove his brother from the throne. He had sent one of his half-brothers who went with him to Mtetwa, Ngwadi, and announce to their tribe that he was killed by Dingiswayo and he had barely escaped. Ngwadi had been able to sway their tribesmen and their reigning relatives, getting the chance he needs to assassinate the king. Ngwadi was able to commit the act when the King took a bath one morning, striking him with two spears from behind. Once the act was done and reported to Shaka, Dingiswayo gave his favorite general with an imposing staff and a select group of warriors as a farewell gift. Upon arriving in the tribe, Shaka was accepted immediately and was crowned the eleventh king of the Zulu. Dingiswayo became an ally to Shaka and both of them engaged in various campaigns around the region. However, Shaka knew this would be dangerous in the long run due to the plots by their previous targets. Dingiswayo had been taken out in one of their skirmishes, prompting Shaka to unite both the Mtetwas and Zulus to defeat this alliance and become their king .
Leadership and Military under King Shaka
Many historians considered Shaka to be a revolutionary in terms of reorganizing the entire kingdom. According to Knight (1995), the kingdom remained as a conglomerate of various tribes: either defeated by Shaka in the past or those who allied with him. Each of these clans retained their autonomy from one another and they are represented by regional chiefs or the izikhulu (isikhulu for singular) in the national council. It would be difficult to for Shaka or his successors to argue against these chiefs as they may end up indoctrinating the tribes handled by these chiefs and risk being killed. However, Shaka had showcased that he can balance these chiefs by centralizing power to himself and staving these chiefs away from full control and revert the system back to its previous state before his reign.
Shaka had also reorganized the nation’s military and political system as he permitted young men from other tribes to enter service directly to the king rather than going to the local chiefs. This ensured that Shaka had full control over the military and the economy, binding the clans under his rule. He also established guilds called the amabutho (ibutho), which recruited members based on their age or capacity. Usually, members of the amabutho would need to serve the king for 15 to 20 years. Once their term is finished, they can marry and move around; however, these men can still be called into service in emergencies. Shaka also exerted a tight grip over his constituents since at that time, only his political system existed to unite them . It was said that the first clear contact and record about Shaka was written at this point through the diary of a British medic, Henry Francis Fynn. Fynn was in Durban as the medic of the British ivory traders in 1824. Under his leadership, according to these records, Zulu managed to claim the area now known today as Natal and reached even to the Eastern Cape. His conquests even triggered the movement of many Africans towards southeast Africa or the mfecane. This left many areas in the region underpopulated and undeveloped .
Death of Shaka King and Legacy
Shaka was killed in 1828 by his followers and his half-brother Dingane, who eventually succeeded the throne as the new king. According to Falola (2002), although Shaka had made Zulu a formidable nation, the fact he left the nation without a legitimate heir caused the nation to crumble. Many were also against Shaka’s rule because he had alienated many of his relatives and allies. He was also never married despite having the choice of concubines and royal women to become his bride, killing those found pregnant of his progeny in the fear this heir would claim his position. He was also quite notorious for killing tribesmen who made a single mistake such as in 1827 when he killed several people because they were not morning properly for the death of his mother. However, Shaka’s successor had triggered the downfall of the kingdom as he did not have the same military and political acumen as Shaka. Dingane even directed his attention towards the Boers of South Africa, whom he perceived as rivals to his kingdom . Britain was even requested to intercede to stop the fighting; but, it led to the Zulu War of 1879. Although the British army failed to win in the Battle of Isandhiwana, it had slowly broken the Zulu nation break apart due to the impact of the war .
Regardless of the destruction of the empire he had built, Shaka remained an icon for many ethnic groups, especially for the nationalists. According to Wright (2006), the King’s life became a myth for both whites and blacks alike from 1880 to the 1920s, seeing him as the revolutionary in the region. Historians argued that many of Shaka’s allies may have manipulated the records deliberately to ensure that Shaka would be seen in a negative light by the future generation. Admittedly, he had been the cause of major uprooting and migrations of many tribes due to his violent conquests. However, some viewed him as a prime mover or a revolutionary as he was able to establish a somewhat stable government despite the lack of example. As the years progressed, Shaka was viewed as the face of African nationalism as nationalists used him as an example for South Africans to emulate to regain control of their ‘nation’ which the British government took from them .
While history remains uncertain as to the actual account of King Shaka’s life, it could be argued that Shaka was a revolutionary in his own right. He had used his military and political genius to establish a united nation with its very own political system unlike anything seen in the region. He understood where the existing political regimes were weak and exploited it to gain his throne. He had been the one who raised a revolution around the region to unite tribes into one group. Shaka also showed ruthlessness that earned him enemies, but it had enabled him to secure his throne and nation without putting them into chaos.
Falola, T. (2002). Key Events in African History: A Reference Guide. Westport: Greenwood Publishing.
Hodge, C. C. (2008). Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800-1914. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Knight, I. (1995). Zulu, 1816-1906. Oxford: Osprey Publishing.
Osei, G. K. (2001). Shaka the Great. Baltimore: Black Classic Press.
Wright, J. (2006). Reconstituting Shaka Zulu for the twenty-first century. Southern African Humanities, 18(3), 139-153.