Shaka ka Senzangakhona, also known as Shaka Zulu, is arguably the most famous African warrior in history. His remarkable life is a testament to the resilient Spirit of the Warrior, overcoming so many odds to become the most successful King of the Zulu Empire. His reign lasted from 1816 to 1828 where he was responsible for uniting the Nguni people into the Zulu Kingdom. This resulted in the unprecedented expansion of the Zulu nation, making the Zulus one of the most powerful and feared tribes in all of Africa.
Birth and Early Life of Shaka
Shaka was born in 1787 to parents who were from rival clans. Due to this, Shaka and his mother were exiled from his father - Senzangakhona’s clan. His mother would soon return to her own clan but was shunned as a consequence of bearing a child of a rival clan. Due to this, Shaka faced daily torment, harassment and was often neglected. As he grew, so did his will to overcome his oppressors.
I believe that the treatment that Shaka endured in his youth, although difficult, fortified his mind and Spirit for the great path that lay ahead of him.
Shaka Zulu the Warrior
Shaka, upon reaching manhood, decided to join the Mthethwa clan where he served as a warrior for 6 years under the then Chief Dingiswayo. During this time, Shaka trained incessantly to hone and improve his warrior skills. Dingiswayo was impressed with Shaka for his courage and endurance. Shaka would assume the position of commander of Chief Dingiswayo’s army and he was unmatched in strength, courage and skill.
Shaka later revolutionised warfare in Africa and was responsible for many military innovations. His innovations spanned the improvement of weapons to the implementation of superior strategies of war.
“Bull Horn” Formation Battle Strategy
The prevailing method of battle was to throw the long handed spear from a distance. Shaka’s assessment of this method was that it was ineffective in destroying the enemy. He preferred close quarter fighting and devised a unique strategy to get closer to his adversaries.
The formation that Shaka pioneered was referred to as the “Bull Horn”. It was named as such due to the 2 flanks that resemble bull horns which were employed to encircle, confuse and surround the enemy. The Bull Horn formation was made up of the 2 flanks which comprised younger and fitter warriors that encircled the enemy and a chest or body of seasoned warriors that absorbed the full force of the enemy.
The military tactic was particularly successful when the main set of warriors were hidden out of sight whilst the encircling was in progress. Upon completion of the encirclement the main warriors would rise up and slaughter the enemy which could no longer retreat.
The Zulu army was also stocked with many in reserve. These reserves sat with their backs to the enemy and took instructions from their commanders who received orders from Shaka through runners.
The Zulu Spear and Shield
Prior to Shaka’s ascendancy, the weapon of choice for African warring tribes was the lighter, long spear called the Assegai. The Assegai was usually accompanied by a full length body shield. Shaka was dissatisfied with the light and long handled Assegai as it was unsuitable for close quarter combat. Instead, he modified the long handled spear, making a heavier short handled spear for stabbing the enemy at close range.
As a warrior who trained intensely day in and day out, Shaka soon realised that he was more agile and quick when he fought and trained without sandals. He, therefore, discarded his sandals and walked barefoot to make the soles of his feet stronger and impervious to injury from the African terrain. This was also a policy he instituted for his soldiers giving them speed and agility when battling their adversaries.
Shaka Zulu’s Ascendency to Power
Shaka claimed his father’s chieftaincy upon hearing of his death. This was accomplished through military force with assistance from Dingiswayo’s army. As the new Chief, Shaka reformed the clan's military force which was largely ceremonial to a fierce and capable army.
Shaka’s first significant battle as Chief was to avenge the assassination of his mentor Dingiswayo. This was the beginning of the building of the Zulu empire in which Shaka united all of the Zulu-speaking clans. The population of the Zulu empire is estimated to have reached 250,000 strong. At the peak of Shaka’s power, he commanded 50,000 Zulu warriors into battle and controlled most of the area that is now South Africa. His state emerged as the largest in the history of Southern Africa.
Shaka was hailed King of the Zulus upon uniting the Zulu nation. The thriving Zulu nation would celebrate his return from each military campaign he embarked on with dance and feast. However, his rule became more ruthless and tyrannical, the more powerful he became. The tipping point for Shaka was the loss of his mother who was the dearest to him. Shaka was thrust into a deep depression from her loss. Memories of how his mother was treated at the hands of her clan, led to the massacre of many Zulus. Shaka’s brutal reign of his people resulted in his assassination by his half brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana.
Shaka Zulu’s life is a fascinating one. That which drove him to build the great Zulu nation was the very same thing that led to his demise. There is much that we can learn from this Zulu Warrior King.
Very often we fail to see the human-side of our heroes and leaders. In the end, we are all human. We each have our own strengths and flaws. What we decide to do with these will ultimately have a lasting impact on ourselves and those around us.
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