Jun 11, 2019 in Informative

The Significance of Shaka


History has left humanity with very little written documents about the wars in black Africa, as its nations simply had no writing. Arabs and Romans, in their historical writings, gave only fragmentary information about the war that took place in the south of the Sahara Desert. Even the most aggressive wars and the most significant rulers had found few notifications in the periodic writings of that time. That is why it is understandable, that there have been no data about military leaders. Only with the arrival of the first Europeans on the coast of the continent, the world has to know its history. However, in this long ignorance of the military history of Black Africa, the name of the great Negro commander conqueror has hidden. To the present day, the researchers pronounce his name with great respect. His name is Shaka, the Zulu ruler or, more correctly, the king of one of the most warlike peoples of South Africa.

In the nineteenth century, the most fertile and rich in natural resource areas in Africa were under the seizure of the European powers (Carton, Laband, & Sithole, 2008). Nevertheless, there were still lands, not conquered by the European powers. It was the land of the central and south-western Africa, poorly studied by European researchers. Here, namely, in the South-West Africa, the Zulu tribes lived. The huts in the tribes were arranged in circles, which created the resemblance of the hives. Since the villagers were engaged in animal husbandry, there was a corral in the middle of the circle. Sami Zulu tribes were divided into two classes – people who were working on the land and the warriors (Carton et al., 2008). In Zululand, in 1787, one of the great sons of these people Shaka Zulu was born.

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The Life of Shaka

Shaka was the illegitimate son of the Zulu leader Senzanga-ends and the woman from a lower caste named Nandi that in normal circumstances would have determined the future life. As a child, his peers subjected him to constant harassment from higher castes of the tribe, and in the future, this circumstance led to his bloody cruelty to the vanquished. In fact, the name “Shaka” has the meaning as “bastard.” Strictly speaking, it was not a name, but a contemptuous nickname given to this man by his closest associates.

Difficult childhood, full of memories of insults and humiliations inflicted and shaped the character of Shaka. Growing up, he discovered an extreme lust for power, sharp mind, and the nature of utter disregard for human life. Only one person could affect Shaka, and it was his mother, Nandi (Etherington, 2001). Ambitious Shaka, becoming an ordinary soldier, wanted to break into leadership. At the age of 16, this physically strong and fearless young man joined Dingiswayo’s army. The army was controlled by the leader named Mtetwa, who ruled of the Zulus at the time. Shaka learned the art of war from him, and under his command, the young warrior showed personal courage in many battles (Fry, 2010).

Shaka was the son of his father, and this fact gave him a chance to make a career in Dingiswayo’s army. Already after the first campaigns in the least warlike neighbours, Mtetwa leader drew attention to the young soldier, who owned a great spear and shield, and who knew no fear in the melee. After his death, in 1816, Senzangakhona Dingiswayo instructed Shaka to lead the Zulu army (Webb & Wright, 2001). This alone is an evidence of the fact that Shaka emerged as a military leader and enjoyed among the Zulu warriors great authority. 

Endowed with such powers, Shaka immediately began restructuring the Zulu army, while showing great talent. He divided his men on the shelves, just as did the highly revered them Dingiswayo. Their commanders were appointed only personally loyal to Shaka, who had shown significant achievements during the wars. Simultaneously with the beginning of military reform, Shaka began to violently take revenge on all those who were recently ill-treated him and especially to his beloved mother. The radical re-Zulu army has become something of a revolution in military affairs of Black Africa. 

Shaka brought his army in the strict discipline and commitment to one’s neighbour; he taught unarmed combat soldiers barefoot, without leather sandals, to make long passages on any terrain, whether it is a waterless desert savanna or tropical forests. It happened that they made diurnal transitions in 50 miles with intense heat and mountainous areas in order to attack the enemy by surprise (Etherington, 2001). Shaka warriors were in the truest sense of the word. Europeans do not accidentally surprise hardening Zulu warriors and their fearlessness in battle.

The rank of the Zulu warrior has been so honoured, that the male half of the people of South Africa had dreamed about it since childhood. Yong boys were eager to join the army of Shaka Zulu. After several years of training and campaigns of provisions, they became qualified warriors. This tradition is an immutable law in many African tribes, and there Shaka was not a reformer. However, they all saw in Shaka the “warrior king” who sought to put the beginning of the Zulu state.

Organization of the Zulu Army

Shaka found that upon reaching 18-19 years, all Zulu boys were called to the royal army. The recruits formed a regiment (or poured into the already existing), which gave the name and prescribed uniforms (mainly consisting of special colour panels and different combinations ceremonial feathers and fur). Then recruits built regimental barracks and received military training. The soldiers remained in the possession of the king before his marriage, and then go into the category of reservists calls on during the war. Resolution of the marriage was issued personally by a king. In Zulus, as in any society, there were people shy away from life, because life in the army was often associated with the half-starved existence and constant fights on sticks with colleagues and shelves-rivals. With such a fight sometimes grew into real stabbing (for example, too much people were killed with assegai in several minutes). Such left in Natal, was ruled by whites, or become shamans are not subject to appeal. Zulu regiment (approximately 1,000 persons) was divided into battalions (senior and junior), battalions into divisions, divisions in the company, and the company at the branch (Delius, 2010). 

Armament Invented by Zulu

Zulu Shield, entered in the Shake, was made of cowhide and had a height of about 1.3 meters and a width of about 60 cm. Later, firearms boards that were lighter and smaller were distributed, however, the old model boards also remained in vogue. Military protection of all regiments belonged to the king in person and stored in special warehouses. The main offensive weapon was a Zulu spear. Shake attributed to radical reform in this area - how to send the Zulus. Now Zulus were armed with assegai with long, wide tip about 45 cm long and the short shaft of a length of about 75 cm. Extant finds assegai tips have a smaller, but photos and eyewitness accounts suggest that assegai Shaka was similar to those described above. Shaka replaced “assegai” - personal weapons warrior Zulu, which is successfully used in hunting, into heavy smashing spear – “ilk vasa” wide and a massive blade and armed troops with new shields from bovine skin, larger and heavier than the old smash (Webb & Wright, 2001). Shaka personally trained Zulu warriors to strike such shields on the shield of the enemy, to move it to the right, open the chest of the enemy for the application of the deathblow “ilk vasa.”

In connection with the advent of the white armed with guns, the soldiers returned to the heirs of Shaka javelins, which allowed to fight at a distance, but the main weapon was a spear piercing. For throwing Zulu used mainly dart tip length of about 25 cm and a length of the shaft of 90 cm, which can be thrown a distance of 45 m., but the effective range of the cast does not exceed 25-30 meters. In addition, copies of the Zulus armed with clubs wood to 60 cm long (Webb & Wright, 2001). Also high Zulus were using battle-axes, which is both ceremonial weapons and fighting.

With the growth of trade with whites, the country began to receive an increasing number of firearms. By the time the war with the British in 1879, many Zulus were armed already with muskets. Muskets were, of course, the old samples, besides the quality of gunpowder and bullets left much to be desired. Among the Zulus, there were very few good shooters, and most of them could barely aim, therefore, even if the capture Isandlvane 1000 modern British rifles are not too stressed firepower Zulu army (Guy, 2014). One of British said that the Zulus, seeing how Europeans when shooting at long distances raise rear sight, decided that it increases the power of the gun, and always shot with raised slats. Consequently, in the decisive battle of Ulundi British, despite the fact that they were built by a dense square, lost by fire Zulu just half a dozen people were killed and 80 wounded.

The Training of Troops

In the days of Shaka, soldiers were forbidden to carry or throw darts assegai. The King demanded quick attack in close order and converge with the enemy hand-to-hand. Since the age of seven, Zulu attached to the ancient tradition of the fights on sticks that were “first blood in the head,” after such a fight rivals tied each other wounds, indicating that is not hostile to each other. In later years taught military boys to dance with shield and spear, which were both group and single “fighting with a shadow”, often these dances ended these fights on sticks (Comaroff & Comaroff, 1986). After the entry into Zulu, army recruit was trained basic skills dealing with assegai and shield combat, sometimes-arranged exercises in which one regiment attacked the other, and soldiers practiced using shields and spears directly into the mass struggle. Constant skirmishes between rival regiments also served for the physical and psychological preparation of fighters (assegais use in such fights were forbidden and soldiers armed with shields and sticks). As soon as the fighting flared up, the officers encouraged their soldiers, keeping rhythm with sticks on the boards; The battle lasted until the officers were not commanded, “Enough!” and dispersed soldiers (Webb & Wright, 2001). 

A favourite scheme of war of the Zulus was “bull horns”, which was formed by the four groups. The first group, “Chest”, was going straight to the enemy, the two “horns” have tried to surround the enemy and attack from the flanks. The forth unit “Lions” standing in reserve (Saunders, 1988). Also in the reserve were often very young, newly formed regiment, which was used only to prosecute and collect production.

The military leader of the Zulus managed to avenge the death of mentor Dingiswayo. After a year, increasing the size of its army, Shaka’s a two-day battle at Mlatuzi on May 1819 destroyed the Zvide army, attempted to retreat (Saunders, 1988). In the war against ndvanda, Shaka used a ‘scorched earth’: the Zulu army on the enemy territory does not reserve anything alive.  Because of the campaigns, the number of actual Zulu people grew to 250 thousand people (Saunders, 1988). Another part of his warriors was Zulus conquered tribes who gradually assimilated with the conquerors. Therefore, in the first quarter of the XIX century (in 1818-1828 years) it created a huge African state, known in history as the Zulu Empire, the territory of which amounted to about two million square miles (Saunders, 1988). It stretched from the modern port city of Cape Town in the south of the African continent and to the modern Republic of Tanzania in the north (Saunders, 1988).

The Legacy of Shaka

Shaka had the talent of strategist and tactician, which appears only once in a century. He never studied any of Military Sciences and had never read treatises. In fact, he did not know how to read. All of the victories of the warriors under his command were the result of his genius mind. Shaka drove only a few campaigns personally, when he was strengthening the Zulus state. Afterwards he authorized the generals for these missions. Consequently, he led the very first and most important of his campaigns, and then he just reformed army. Despite he had won only two wars personally, he influenced the whole development of the Zulu army. 

Having established their dominance over most of South Africa's history of Shaka, there are unknown reasons why he never took trips to the north and west of the African continent. Although, by the time the Zulu army was so numerous and powerful, the new military campaigns Chaka Zulu powers beyond most surely would have ended successfully. The military art of Shaka has the deep roots. Even half a century after his death, the Zulu army in battles using the martial construction of the "buffalo", successfully defeated their enemies and black reflecting their frequent invasions of their territory. However, the military heritage of the most famous African commander of XIX century did not help his people to resist militant Europeans conquerors - the British and the Boers with their firearms (Cobbing, 1988). Zulu resisted Europeans for a long time and was very hard, but to no avail. 

Of course, the activities of Shaka in the subsequent history of South Africa are ambiguous. The consolidation was accompanied by the collapse of the Zulu people and the weakening of many other tribes in the face of the Boers and the British expansion. And the very formation of a powerful military-political union with the Zulus strong central authority can hardly attribute to only one person. However, Shaka is respected by many people. The valor and strength of the warrior had found its place in the works of the novelist Robert Dhlomo, who dedicated him the novel named "Shaka".

Shaka made a huge contribution to the development of South Eastern Africa. He gave an impetus towards the education of its people. In the history of its name remains forever, the word Zulu, many associated with the name of the great leader, who stood at the origins of a peculiar African empire. Shaka was definitely tough. However, in the debate about him, this cruelty is often equated to the bloody crimes of dictators of XX century. This comparison is absolutely inappropriate. Shaka belonged to the community at a completely different level of development. All human values, the attitude to human life were quite different. That is why Shaka remains a significant person in the history.

Moreover, Shaka paid tribute not only to the Zulus. The head of the revolutionary underground in South Africa, Nelson Mandela said in 1965 that the struggle for human dignity of Africans was inspired by the memory of the great deeds of Shaka. These words appeared in his speech at the trial where he was sentenced to life imprisonment. That is why, it is impossible to deny the role of Shaka in the history of humanity.


Shaka Zulu is considered to be one of the greatest military leaders in the history of Africa. There is controversy surrounding the brutality of his methods, and rigor with which he trained his troops, but in many ways, he improved the methods of warfare forever. Shaka is known in military history by the improvements he made in tactics of warfare of African warriors. Before the bulk of his warriors of a tribe rushed into the enemy, they threw darts at them and spears. The manoeuvrability on the battlefield was very low because of poor training and lack of discipline of the soldiers. 

The strategy of the military leader of the Zulus was simple and consistent with the spirit of the time, not only in Sub-Saharan Africa. He started aggressive wars with attacks on the smallest of the neighbouring tribes. Because it always happened suddenly, and opponents are always inferior in the number of Zulus, Shaka did not know even the occasional defeats.


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