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Zulus Rose to Prominence During the Reign of King Shaka

The Zulus rose to prominence during the reign of King Shaka (1818-1828). He lived his early years in exile but became strong enough to wrest the crown from his half-brother. After organizing the Zulu government, he transformed the Zulu army and led it into battle against neighboring tribes. Although he later became a tyrant, Shaka is still revered in present-day South Africa as one of its greatest heroes.  These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline with World History during that time period.

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Early Life

The great Zulu king Shaka was born between 1781 and 1787 in present-day KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He was the son of the Nguni chief Senzangakhona. His mother was Nandi, a girl from the Langeni tribe. Shaka’s grandmother and the Langeni tribe attempted to conceal Nandi’s pregnancy and childbirth from Senzangakhona by telling him that she suffered from an intestinal bug or “itshati.” (The name evolved to “shaka” which also meant “early pregnancy” or “ax.”) Eventually, Senzangakhona heard of Shaka’s existence, so he immediately set out to kill the child. A Zulu man named Mudli took the child and his mother out of the chieftain’s reach and sent them into exile to save their lives.

In another version, Nandi was Senzangakhona’s secondary wife. It was rumored that she possessed a fiery temper which displeased the Zulu royal court. She and her son were driven out of Zulu land and was forced to live with the Langeni. Mother and son, however, were considered outsiders by their own people. Despite being a prince, the children of the Langeni bullied him. This only gave Shaka the motivation to work hard and become more powerful.

In his youth, he served in the army of Dingiswayo, the powerful chief of the Mthethwa state. He found favor with Dingiswayo for his strength and heroism on the battlefield. Senzangakhona died in 1816, and his son, Sigujana, acceded the throne. Shaka now saw his chance to take the Zulu throne. With the support of his half-brother Ngwadi and his overlord Dingiswayo, he assassinated Sigujana and crowned himself the new chieftain of the Zulu in 1816.

As King of the Zulu

An 1824 impression of King Shaka by a European artist.

Shaka immediately overhauled the Zulu army when he gained the throne. During his service in Dingiswayo’s army, he saw how ineffective the assegais (long throwing spears) were in combats with large armies. He replaced the weapon with a shorter stabbing spear and retained the use of the large Nguni shields.

Shaka also maintained a large standing army by requiring his vassals to send their men to his royal household. These soldiers would stay in barracks and could be quickly summoned whenever an enemy threatened the Zulu. With their troops under his command, Shaka ensured his rivals would not be able to launch rebellions and coups.

He also realized that the way the Zulu army engaged in combat was disorderly, so he introduced a new tactical formation called the “buffalo horns.” He placed the majority of the army at the center or the “chest.” Two separate columns then flanked the chest in a formation that resembled a cow’s horns. The “horns” would close in on the enemy until the “tips” meet in a circle. This was the signal for the “chest” to attack the enemy. The men assigned to be the army’s “loins” would sit with their backs to the battlefield, and would only be summoned as reinforcements to the tired men who made up the “chest” and “horns.”

Shaka, the Empire Builder

In 1817, his mentor Dingiswayo died in a battle against Zwide, the chieftain of Ndwandwe. Shaka saw this as an opportunity to bring the Mthethwa people under his wings and absorb the tribe’s troops into his army. He and the Zulu army fought Zwide and Ndwandwe troops in the Battle of Gqokli Hill in 1818. The Zulu troops routed Zwide’s army, but the fight was not yet over. Zwide assembled a bigger army and prepared to fight Shaka once again.

Shaka knew that his army was no match for Zwide larger one. He waged a war with the Qwabe tribe with the intention of bringing them into his fold. After successfully routing them, he added their remaining troops to the Zulu ranks.

In February 1818, the Zulu troops faced the more formidable Ndwandwe army once again. This time the Zulu’s discipline and tactics proved much superior to those of the Ndwandwe, and they proceeded to decimate the enemy. Zwide barely escaped with his life, and his people were forced to flee to Mozambique after their defeat. The refugees joined the former Ndwandwe General Soshangane to form the Gaza Empire later on.

Other Conquests and Trade with the Portuguese and English

From 1818 onwards, the Zulu people continued their conquests of neighboring tribes until the Zulu state became an empire. Weaker tribes who could not afford to go to war would often declare him as their sovereign. By the 1820s, the Zulu Empire had managed to conquer the Sotho, Swazi, and Tsonga peoples.

The Zulu people under Shaka traded with the Portuguese at Maputo (Lourenco Marques) in present-day Mozambique. They also acquired guns from English traders at Durban (Port Natal) and allowed English traders to visit the Zulu royal court.

Shaka’s Deterioration and Death

Shaka’s empire was built at the expense of the neighboring tribes, so it was only natural that his enemies would want to have him killed in revenge. In 1824, Ndwandwe men traveled to Shaka’s court and stabbed him. The king was saved after his guest, the English trader Henry Francis Fynn, dressed his wound.

Zwide, Shaka’s mortal enemy, died in 1825. He was succeeded by Sikhunyana who then tried to rally the remnants of the Ndwandwe army to attack the Zulu. The revamped Ndwandwe army, however, was defeated despite its adoption of Zulu strategies.

Shaka’s mother Nandi died in 1828, and he soon became a tyrant to his people because of his grief. His mental state deteriorated further after a failed embassy to the British governor of Cape Colony. He then launched another campaign against General Soshagane’s people, but stayed behind and allowed his troops to push the refugees further north without him at the helm. The Zulus won the battle but made no substantial gains.

It was during this time that his half-brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana, started to plot against him. While the army was busy decimating Soshagane’s people, Shaka’s brothers stabbed him to death. Dingane then killed Mhlangana so he alone could rule the powerful Zulu Empire.


Picture by: James King –, Public Domain, Link

Fage, J.D. A History of Africa. London: Routledge, 1998.

Omer-Cooper, J.D. The Cambridge History of Africa: from c. 1790 to 1870. Edited by John E. Flint. Vol. 5. London: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Oliver, Roland Anthony, and John Donnelly Fage. A Short History of Africa. Sixth ed. London: Penguin Books, 1988.

Wylie, Dan. Shaka: A Jacana Pocket Biography. Auckland Park, South Africa: Jacana Media, 2011.

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