Shaka Zulu & The History of the Zulu Kingdom Documentary
The man known to history as Shaka Zulu was born at some indeterminate time in the summer of 1787 in the heartland of the Zulu kingdom, largely encompassing Natal province in the northeast of modern-day South Africa, his name at birth was Shaka kaSenzangakhona. His father was Senzangakhona, the chieftain of the Zulu clan in modern-day Natal into which Shaka was born, Shaka’s father had assumed the rule of the clan around 1781, a few years before Shaka’s own birth and as head of the clan Senzangakhona had several wives, as was the custom in Zulu society, and sired numerous children, many of these offspring were male, therefore Shaka had numerous half-brothers, several of which would play a role at various points in his later life and throughout the subsequent history of the Zulu kingdom. Shaka’s mother was Nandi, the daughter of Bhebhe, a chief of a tribe of the Langeni people, a neighbouring clan of the Zulus, Nandi, though, was not one of Senzangakhona’s wives at the time of Shaka’s conception and birth, this made Shaka illegitimate in the eyes of the clan and as a result, Nandi and Shaka were cast out during his childhood.
After a nomadic existence for a period of time, in the late eighteenth century, Nandi and her son eventually settled with the Mthethwa people, here Shaka excelled in his youth as a fighter and soon joined the warrior class of the Mthethwa. It was not unusual for males in the region to involve themselves in military affairs once they entered their teenage years, but Shaka’s abilities were nevertheless precociously advanced for his age, yet there were also worrying signs concerning the level of violence Shaka displayed even in his youth, at one time the head of the Mthethwa, King Dingiswayo, a mentor of sorts to the future king of the Zulus, sent Shaka and several others to attack the neighbouring amaMbata people, this was intended to be a simple cattle raid, one which would only involve limited violence, but Shaka had the troops he commanded attack the tribe, pursue them and kill many of them, before returning to Dingiswayo with the stolen cattle, the king was extremely critical of Shaka afterward, reprimanding him for his excessive use of force and stating that it was not Mthethwa policy to seek to exterminate any people. The Mthethwa and the Zulu, both then and now, are a subgroup of the wider Bantu people who dominate much of Sub Saharan Africa, from the Congo, east to Kenya and all the way south to the Cape of Good Hope. It is necessary to understand the dynamics around which Zulu society and wider Bantu culture was organised and functioned in the early nineteenth century, before exploring further Shaka’s career and the establishment of the Zulu kingdom.
For example, the Zulu as well as the other Bantu peoples of Africa, are united by their use of the Bantu languages and largely based their economies and societies around cattle, the Zulus resided in the northeast of modern-day South Africa, occupying the lands between the Tugela River in the south and the Pongola River in the north. In the eighteenth century, the Zulus were not a unified people, but were divided into several small clans, each of which controlled small swathes of territory, just large enough to support their people and livestock with adequate pasturage for their cattle, these cattle provided a huge part of their diet in the shape of meat and milk, however, by the second half of the eighteenth century, the Zulu population and the herds of livestock under their control had expanded so much, that their traditional lands no longer sustained them, therefore they began expanding to the southwest, displacing the Khoi Khoi people who lived there in the process, however the Zulu remained subordinate to the Nguni kingdom, a fellow Bantu people to the northwest, around what is now the border between South Africa and Mozambique, chief amongst these Nguni people, around the year 1800, were the Ndwandwe. Zulu society maintained many traditions which had been practiced across Sub Saharan Africa for hundreds and even thousands of years, the small Zulu clans were each ruled over by an inKosi, a king or paramount chief, whose household consisted of his wives and usually many children, society further down was divided into the kraals or isibaya,, which were homesteads or economic units, inhabited by individual families, these kraal in turn were centred on the cattle owned by the Zulu people of a given region. Indeed, society was entirely centred on cattle, and to a lesser extent the sheep and goats which an individual clan had dominion over, these were so important because milk curds were the staple of the Zulu diet, as a result, cattle were the primary measure of wealth and also the form of currency within Zululand.
Furthermore, Zulu culture was polygamous and men purchased their wives with cows, and religious beliefs were paramount in their society, being focused on magic and ancestral spirits, which Zulu people believed manifested themselves in the physical world, particularly during fire rituals and other ceremonies conducted by witch doctors, the equivalent in Bantu societies of priests. The technology of this society was primitive, most tools were formed out of wood and other malleable substances to make spoons, bowls and other household goods, what iron ore could be easily found on the surface of the region was smelted, using basic forges and generally fashioned into spear tips and other weapons, this focus on manufacturing weapons is hardly incongruous, as all adult males in Zulu society were warriors, they fought in huge massed formations of fighters called impis, they wore no real apparel or armour to protect themselves, other than wooden shields covered with cowhide, while the primary weapon was a six foot long spear called an assegai, also, battle tactics were virtually non-existent, individual clans relying on sheer numerical strength to overpower their rivals, thus, Shaka was born into a kingdom which was built around the idea of controlling cattle and manpower in order to rise to the top, his ascent would be based on his ability to do this effectively and also on some innovations which he introduced to Zulu warfare and society. Shaka’s rise to power began in 1816 when he was still short of his twentieth birthday when his father Senzangakhona died, the Zulu chieftain had designated another one of his many sons, Sigujana, to succeed him, but Shaka, the outcast son, was determined to interrupt this line of succession, and so it was that, with the help of Dingiswayo and his adoptive clan of the Mthethwa, Shaka pressed his claim to rule the Zulu in 1816, demonstrating a ruthlessness which would characterise his rule for years to come. To do this, he employed the services of another half-brother of his and Sigujana’s named Ngwadi to assassinate Sigujana, with this done, Shaka then returned to his birth tribe at the front of a daunting military escort which Dingiswayo had provided to him, of Mthethwa troops, these now executed any men associated overtly with the previous regime and Shaka assumed the kingship of the Zulu people, he would rule as part of a formidable confederacy of Bantu tribes in southeast Africa, which was based around the alliance of the Zulu and the Mthethwa. This alliance might well have proved a moderating influence on Shaka going forward, we have already seen how Dingiswayo had chastised Shaka some years earlier for his excessive use of force in prosecuting the amaMbata people near the Mthethwa, but if this was the case, then this restraining presence was quickly lost,as in 1817, just months after Shaka assumed the leadership of the Zulus, the Mthethwa ended up in conflict with the Ndwandwe people on their northern border and under their king Zwide Langa, Dingiswayo was captured early on by Zwinde and was executed, the Mthethwa now placed themselves under Shaka’s over-lordship, essentially subsuming their clan under the auspices of the Zulus, these events not only robbed Shaka of his friend and mentor Dingiswayo, they also signalled the expansion of the conflict between the Zulus and the Ndwandwe, the latter of which had exercised some control over the Zulus in past times. The Ndwandwe-Zulu War would last for two years through until 1819 and was the most significant period in the development of the Zulu kingdom as well as the establishment of Shaka’s predominance in the region, following minor skirmishes in 1817 the two sides, which were the Zulus and the Mthethwa led by Shaka on one side, and the Ndwandwe and their allies to the north led by Zwide on the other, finally confronted each other in a major pitched battle in April 1818, the Battle of Gqokli Hill took place in April 1818, near Ulundi in the northeast of the present day country of South Africa, Shaka and his allies were badly outnumbered in the engagement, Zwide brought perhaps as many as 12,000 warriors into the field and was advancing south into Zululand where the confrontation took place, by way of contrast, Shaka and his confederates had as little as half as many warriors, but owing to a number of military innovations, the Zulus and their allies were able to win the day.
To countermand the Ndwandwe advance into Zululand Shaka had already placed guerrilla units at strategic locations to harry Zwide’s advancing troops, the countryside was devastated and emptied of cattle and other livestock to ensure that the Ndwandwe could not acquire additional resources as they marched south, Shaka then placed the bulk of his army around the Gqokli Hill, hoping to make up for his numerical inferiority by occupying the high ground and benefiting from a greater defensive positon in the confrontation which eventually ensued. And so, when Zwide’s commander, Nomahlanjana, and his troops reached Gqokli Hill, the numerical superiority of the Ndwandwe actually proved hazardous, Nomahlanjana’s forces becoming overtly bunched together, thus becoming an easy target for projectiles which were hurled down the incline by Shaka’s Zulus. As the fighting wore on, the Ndwandwes’ lack of supplies also became an issue, particularly fresh water supplies.
Weakened and frustrated by the situation some hours into the conflict, Shaka signalled for a reserve column of his most elite warriors who were hiding nearby, to advance on Gqokli Hill and attack one of the exposed rear columns of the Ndwandwe, the result was a catastrophic breaking of the Ndwandwes’ lines, which broke and were pursued mercilessly by the Zulus in the hours that followed, by the end of the battle it was reported, perhaps with some exaggeration, that as many as seven and a half thousand of the Ndwandwe host had been killed, a striking military victory for Shaka and one which established his reputation as a warlord amongst the wider Bantu people of Sub Saharan Africa. The Battle of Gqokli Hill turned the course of the Ndwandwe-Zulu War, and after a subsequent military victory for Shaka at the Battle of the Mhlatuze River in 1819, the Zulu king and his impis advanced northwards into the lands of Ndwandwe. By the time they arrived at King Zwide’s headquarters near Nongoma, the fate of the war was wholly clear and Zwide had fled northwards along with several other senior rulers of the Ndwandwe. Shaka established Zulu suzerainty over the Ndwandwe, while rulers such as Zwide contented themselves with carving out new principalities further to the north in modern-day Mozambique and Tanzania, thus, the Ndwandwe-Zulu War of 1817 to 1819 had resulted in Shaka carving out a large Kingdom of the Zulus, which stretched from Natal all the way north to near the present-day border between South Africa and Mozambique. Exactly how had Shaka achieved such an extraordinary series of military victories in such a short period of time against such a numerically superior enemy? The answer lies in the military revolution he introduced into Zulu society, which quickly spread throughout Bantu society in Sub Saharan Africa. Shaka’s military conquests were driven by a series of military reforms which the Zulu king initiated in the late 1810s and early 1820s, as we have seen, for decades, the Zulu people had largely fought using the long javelin-like spear called the assegai, a six foot long spear with an iron or steel tip, which could be used in close quarters combat, but which was primarily used as a long range throwing spear.
In order to gain a greater tactical advantage in close range combat, Shaka began arming his troops with a shorter, sword-like weapon called the iklwa, this was used extensively at the Battle of Gqokli Hill. Shaka is also believed to have introduced the bullhorn formation into Zulu field tactics, which was perhaps something he had learned from Dingiswayo and the Mthethwa prior to assuming the kingship of the Zulus, through this formation Zulu warriors or impis formed up into a bull’s horns shape, with two large wings of troops on either side of the ranked formation, the bullhorn moved forward in the field of battle, with the centre of the formation called the ‘chest’ meeting the enemy, the troops arranged on the wings or horns to the left and right, who were usually the younger and faster warriors, moved around the enemy troops and began encircling them, if all went according to plan, the horns would fully encircle the enemy, setting the Zulu impis up to slaughter their trapped prey within the enclosed bullhorn. Other reforms which Shaka introduced into the Zulu military included the formation of different ranks of warriors according to their age and fighting ability, thus, the most experienced and hardened Zulu warriors fought at the centre of the bullhorn formation, while the younger and faster soldiers were placed on the horns on the left and right of the battlefield, he also enforced ruthless military discipline and oversaw a system whereby Zulu males had to begin fighting in his wars, when they entered their teenage years.
Other aspects of the Shakan military revolution, however, are mythical, for instance, despite claims that he did, there is no real evidence to suggest, that Shaka forced his warriors to fight and live largely barefoot in order to toughen their feet, while the suggestion by numerous historians that Shaka drilled his troops to march up to 80 kilometres in a single day is implausible, although they could cover perhaps as much as 20 kilometres, a not inconsiderable level of mobility for a society which did not use horses to travel or have carriages. Shaka’s military reforms could only be achieved through a simultaneous reform of Zulu society to make it more conducive to supplying the army, Shaka reformed Zulu society to move away from the more traditional hierarchy whereby individuals were promoted according to blood and clan structure, to one in which people were promoted to senior positions within the military and administration, based on merit, rather than blood birth. He also confronted the powerful caste of witchdoctors and gained control of the Zulu church, even reform of the social structure imposed on children was undertaken, in order to co-opt Zulu children as carriers of military supplies for the armies, all of this improved the mobility of the army and created a more regimented and centralised state headed by Shaka and his close followers, it was this which allowed him to unite the lands controlled by the Zulus, Mthethwa and Ndwandwe within just a few short years of establishing himself as the King of the Zulus. Thus far, we have seen Shaka’s ascent, largely occurring within a vacuum of African tribes, largely those of the wider Bantu people of Sub Saharan Africa, but having consolidated the Zulu position in the late 1810s, Shaka and the Zulus would increasingly find themselves having to engage with the newcomers to southern Africa in the 1820s, these were the various Europeans found to the southwest at the Cape of Good Hope and increasingly further north and northeast. European contact with the region was first established in the late fifteenth century, when the Portuguese had reached southern Africa, in their ongoing naval expeditions to try to round the African continent and find a sea route to Asia from Europe. The Portuguese established small settlements here in due course, in line with their policy of creating supply and trading stations along the coast of Africa during the sixteenth century, like a great proportion of the Portuguese colonies elsewhere in Asia and the Americas, these subsequently fell prey to attacks by the Dutch Republic in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as a result, the Dutch East India Company established the first major European settlement at the south of the African continent in 1652, like the Portuguese earlier, this was originally a waylay station for ships undertaking the voyage around Africa to Asia, but in the decades that followed the Cape Colony, as it became known, grew into a substantial colony in its own right, one which drew increasing numbers of Protestant refugees of Germans and Huguenots from France, as well as Dutch settlers.
By the late eighteenth century, the Cape Colony had expanded to well in excess of 50,000 settlers, known as ‘Boers’ from the Dutch and Afrikaans word for ‘farmer’, but the rule of the region was soon to shift dramatically, as a result of developments back in Europe. In the 1790s, Britain and the Dutch Republic found themselves on opposing sides in the French Revolutionary Wars, as a result in 1795, the British invaded the Cape Colony and after a swift victory at the Battle of Muizenberg in the early autumn, the Cape Colony fell under British occupation, then when the Napoleonic Wars were coming to a conclusion nearly twenty years later, the British and the Dutch signed the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814, under the terms of which, the Cape Colony officially and legally passed into British possession, as such the British had become the main European power at the Cape of Good Hope by the time that Shaka ascended to power, yet the Cape Colony remained something of a distant problem for the Zulus, as much more pressing was the knock-on effects of British conquest. With their loss of control of the Cape Colony, many of the Boers, the largely Dutch settlers, began migrating north and northeast away from the Cape Colony, where they could move outside the jurisdiction of the British and establish new independent colonies, in the course of the nineteenth century this would bring successive generations of Boers ever closer to the Zulu kingdom, with implications both for Shaka’s rule and especially those of his successors.
Signs of this European encroachment into the regions dominated by Shaka and the Zulus occurred from 1822 onwards, in that year Francis Farewell, a former lieutenant of the British Royal Navy, along with numerous other merchants from the Cape Colony, decided to begin trading with the Zulus and other native people from the Natal region at the site of the future city of Durban on the Natal coastline. This was formalised into a trading station in 1824, cementing the first concrete lines of trade and communication between the Zulus and the growing European population in southern Africa, the station here and the Europeans who arrived to the Natal region as a result, are highly significant for the story of the Zulus and our knowledge of Shaka’s reign. Much of what we know about Shaka and the rise of the Zulu kingdom in southern Africa in these years, is derived from the writings of contemporary Europeans who knew Shaka and lived in the region, principal amongst these, was Nathaniel Isaacs, an English adventurer and merchant, who arrived to the Cape Colony in 1825 and ended up travelling to the northeast shortly thereafter, the goal of this latter trip, was to trade with the Zulus in Natal, largely in ivory, and also to try to locate Henry Francis Fynn, an Englishman with some training as a physician, who had disappeared in the region sometime earlier, what they found was surprising, Fynn was living amongst the Zulus and had recently treated Shaka for a severe wound, using his training in European medicine, Fynn had also received lands in Zululand and had adopted Zulu practices, notably having married four different Zulu women, an admittedly common practice in a society which was polygamous. Isaacs and Fynn spent several years thereafter, living amongst the Zulus and much of our information about Shaka and his rule, is derived from a two-volume study, which Isaacs subsequently published in 1836, entitled: Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa, the first account by a European of king Shaka and his Zulu Empire. Yet, despite these early contacts between the Europeans who were arriving to the Natal region from the early 1820s onwards and the Zulu nation, the main point of conflict for Shaka lay with his fellow Bantu people, during these years he continued to make war with neighbouring tribes and assimilated them into the ever expanding Zulu state, some of this involved ongoing war with these tribes, utilising the military tactics developed early in his reign, but Shaka also proved himself to be an increasingly shrewd diplomat, it was due to this ability that he succeeded in incorporating several additional tribes into the growing Zulu kingdom during the 1820s, not through military aggression, but through a complex system of alliances, as a result, King Zihlando of the Mkhize tribe, King Jobe of the Sithole and King Mathubane of the Thuli tribe, were all brought into the Zulu sphere of influence, not through conquest but relatively peacefully, as vassal or subordinate states.
Nevertheless, war remained central to Shaka’s reign, the Zulu kingdom which Shaka created was achieved with an enormous human cost, accurate estimates of the number of people killed during the wars he orchestrated, between 1816 and 1828, are notoriously difficult to obtain, owing to the lack of death records, censuses, army lists and other records which would allow us to calculate the mortality rate in southeast Africa during his reign, but we can make some effort to assess the general level of death associated with Shaka’s rule, for instance, we know that the war with the Ndwandwe between 1817 and 1819, almost certainly resulted in over 25,000 deaths, equally scholars of Sub Saharan Africa during the nineteenth century, call this period the ‘Mfecane’, meaning the ‘crushing’ or ‘scattering’, a name applied to the decades from the late eighteenth century, through to the mid-nineteenth century, owing to the high levels of disruption and death which occurred throughout the region of modern-day South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Rwanda during this half century. Scholars agree that the total level of deaths associated with the ‘Mfecane’ range from between one and two million, Shaka’s wars were central to this, given that fact, we might safely conclude that the wars Shaka involved the Zulus in, along with the creation of the Zulu Kingdom, resulted in the deaths of at least 100,000 people and most likely considerably more than that figure. Indeed, there is no denying that Shaka’s own appetite for violence was considerable, when his armies conquered a region, villages were raided and multiple kraals and other buildings would be burnt to the ground, very often, if our sources are correct, children, old men, and women in the conquered region would be murdered indiscriminately, with those who survived and who were of a suitable age, being forced to serve in the ranks of the Zulu military, it is hardly surprising then to find, that recent studies have suggested that Shaka was a borderline genocidal ruler, evidenced by the many reports of his armies’ brutal violence and unwillingness to spare lives when they conquered a given region.
All of this just served to further destabilise the wider region, as several of Shaka’s leading generals simply decided to abandon their overlord and carve out their own principalities, for instance, Mzilikazi elected to abandon the traditional lands of the Zulus during the mid-1820s, taking extensive cattle and troops with him to forge his own Ndebele kingdom, in a similar fashion, another of Shaka’s commanders named Zwangendaba migrated north into the region approximating to modern-day Zimbabwe and established his own fiefdom there. As a result of the military reforms he initiated, with the corresponding overhaul of Bantu society in southeast Africa, and the almost unceasing wars of the late 1810s and 1820s, Shaka had carved out a large kingdom of the Zulus. By 1825, he had conquered a region covering some 11,500 square miles or 30,000 kilometres, stretching from the Pongolo River south to central Natal and from the coast all the way inland to the Drakensberg Mountain range, here he ruled over perhaps a quarter of a million Zulus and hundreds of thousands of other dependent peoples, all joined in an increasingly sophisticated system of administration, whereby tributes in the form of foodstuffs, cattle, ivory, textiles and other goods, were delivered to the Zulus. As the 1820s proceeded, some aspects of Shaka’s reign as it went on escape exact description, despite the accounts which have come down to us from Isaacs, Fynn and others, perhaps one of the most difficult to understand aspects, concerns Shaka’s family life, as we have seen, Zulu society was polygamous and a warrior king such as Shaka would have been expected to have many wives, as well as dozens of concubines, and a very large number of offspring, the goal here was to produce many sons, from amongst which, the best warrior and ruler would emerge on merit, rather than simply by dent of being the eldest, such as was the practice amongst Europe’s aristocracies, but to the best of our knowledge, Shaka did not have any children, male or female, at least none that he acknowledged, it has variously been supposed as a result, that he was either sterile or perhaps homosexual, but this might not have been the case at all, it was a common practice amongst Shaka’s successors, to not publicly declare their children, the better to prevent any succession crises arising amongst a wide brood of children, given that in the 1820s, Shaka was still a healthy man in his thirties, he might well have been reluctant to declare who his children were, in order to avoid rivalries developing amongst them and political factions emerging, if this was the case, it proved counter-productive to his lineage, as Shaka was struck down relatively early in his life. While Shaka’s lack of a recognised male heir might be explained in this fashion, the setbacks which otherwise began to beset the Zulu kingdom in the mid-1820s, perhaps require further explanation, Shaka’s ascent to power and early reign are most noteworthy for the stratospheric success he seemed to enjoy, not only was he able to return to his homeland and, against major odds, establish himself as head of the Zulus, against the opposing claims of his many half-brothers in 1816, but in short order thereafter, he was able to conquer a wide number of opposing tribes and establish the largest kingdom southeast Africa had seem in some time, this had largely been achieved on the back of the military revolution which Shaka introduced into Zulu society along with his allies such as the Mthethwa, but the success of this system quickly produced imitators, and so, the Zulus ran into opposition in the 1820s. The first of these opposing tribes were the Mpondo people.
In April 1824, Mdlaka kaNcidi, one of Shaka’s most accomplished military commanders, led a substantial Zulu army southwards along the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains and east through the valley of the River Mzimvubu into the Mpondo lands, Mdlaka commanded perhaps three to five thousand Zulu warriors, our records are not clear on this count, however, this was largely a cattle raid and he attempted to abscond with a large proportion of King Faku of the Mpondo’s herd, but Faku’s impis quickly responded and won out over Mdlaka’s raiding party, before harrying them with guerrilla style strikes, all the way along, as they proceeded north back to the Kingdom of the Zulus, eventually Mdlaka abandoned the captured cattle, and his warriors were so short of rations during their retreat, that they had to rely on their stores of watermelon for water, the campaign, the first major defeat of a Zulu horde during Shaka’s reign, became known as the ‘amabece impi’, roughly meaning ‘the melon campaign’ and this incident lived long in the memory of the Zulus. This, along with several other military and political reverses for Shaka in the months that followed, produced increasingly vengeful and violent behaviour from him between 1824 and 1826, an example of this, was seen in an attack he commanded against the Qwabe tribe. The Qwabe had been one of the first smaller tribes adjoining Zululand, which had fallen under his sway in the early 1820s, but now, in response to a series of political assassinations within his kingdom, Shaka sent a major army against the Qwabe, this was not an army of conquest with some hard and clear military or political goals, it was an army of extermination. Shaka’s impis fanned out across the countryside and killed the Qwabe wherever they could find them, it was subsequently reported that the violence displayed was so great, that Shaka’s mother Nandi, a tough figure who had never before reprimanded her son, was appalled with Shaka’s actions on this occasion. In the aftermath of the Qwabe campaign, Shaka moved the Zulu capital to their conquered lands, we have a particularly detailed description of the Zulu court that was established here, and how the kingdom Shaka had built over the past ten years had developed, at the time, provided by accounts from individuals such as Isaacs and Fynn, who witnessed it in 1827 and 1828.
Shaka had his new capital just to the south of the River Mhlathuze, on a ridge of hills which lay approximately 27 kilometres to the north of the modern-day settlement of Eshowe, it is perhaps symbolic of Shaka’s entire reign, that the location was known as kwaBulawayo which means ‘the place of death’, the Zulu royal capital which he had built here, would have been a larger town than most settlements in the Zulu kingdom, nearly all of which were effectively villages. At the centre of the capital at kwaBulawayo, was the isogodlo, a kind of royal palace which was reserved for Shaka and his harem of wives and concubines, it was heavily guarded and almost no one was allowed to enter here, any who trespassed inside the isogodlo without a royal summons from Shaka himself, would be punished with death, but far from acting exclusively as a Zulu harem, this was also the centre of government and Shaka’s closest advisors and government ministers had cabins which adjoined the isogodlo. Despite the primitive nature of their government and technological development here at kwaBulawayo, by 1826 and 1827 the same mechanisms which dominated Europe’s royal courts in the medieval period were in operation. The court life was extremely ceremonial, a gatekeeper of the isogodlo would call out in the mornings when Shaka rose, to alert the wider community of kwaBulawayo, that the Zulu king had risen and thereafter throughout the day, events were marked by formal processes, banquets with hierarchies of seating and dining were arranged in the evenings, when individuals were ushered into the royal presence for formal greetings and drinks, so far as this was a hierarchical society it is possible to imagine that when British officials began arriving here in the 1820s and in the decades that followed, that while they might have found many aspects of the Zulu court profoundly alien, they would have been able to recognise the formality and rigid societal structure, as being something which also obtained in Georgian and Victorian Britain. This, then, was the nature of the Zulu court at the centre of the kingdom Shaka built up, in the ten years following his first seizure of power in 1816, but it would have been an increasingly uncomfortable place to live from a psychological perspective, especially as, in the last years of his life, Shaka became profoundly tyrannical, he had always been notorious for his brutality, for instance, one infamous story concerning the Zulu warlord relates how he would confine enemies to a kraal, with some starving hyenas or jackals and wait until the animals within had attacked and killed the victim of Shaka’s animosity.
The hut or kraal would then be burned to the ground with the remains of the party who had offended him within, as a warning to all, not to resist the power of the King of the Zulus, but in the final year of his life Shaka became more and more erratic, this shift in his behaviour was instigated by the death of his mother, Nandi, in October 1827. Shaka and she, had had a particularly close bond, a result no doubt, of his childhood, when Nandi had been cast out and Shaka had been disavowed by his father Senzangakhona. Shaka took his mother’s death particularly badly and is alleged to have descended into a form of madness in the days and weeks that followed, his people were commanded to engage in an extensive period of grieving for the king’s mother, those who were deemed to be demonstrating an insufficient level of grief were punished, sometimes with death, but the foremost issue, according to later chroniclers, was that Shaka ordered a suspension of basic work such as the sowing of crops and the milking of cattle during the grieving process, a decision which sparked a minor famine throughout Zululand as the months went by. These latter claims about Shaka’s actions in the last months of his life, might well have been inventions created in subsequent times, by those who orchestrated his death in the autumn of 1828, a year after Nandi’s death. The plot originated from within Shaka’s own extended family, and was led by two of his half-brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana, the pair had previously made an attempt to assassinate Shaka prior to this, in the fall of 1828, but this had proved abortive and the brothers had not been discovered in their treachery, now they found fresh supporters, chief among them Mkabayi, an aunt of Shaka’s and sister to the late King Senzangakona. On the afternoon of the 22nd of September 1828 the pair, along with a group of others conspirators, arrived at one of Shaka’s other royal residences called kwaNyakamubi, annoyed by the arrival of this group, Shaka commanded them to leave saying it was late in the day, at which point several of them fell on him, Dingane and Mhlangana bursting from behind the fence of the kraal to join in, as they stabbed the King of the Zulus to death, he is believed to have turned to them and said, “Children of my father, what is wrong?”, though some other reports have it that he more prophetically asked, “Are you stabbing me, kings of the earth? You will come to an end through killing one another.”
whichever is true, we know what happened next, the King of the Zulus, the man who had united and built up the kingdom over the past ten years, died right there, he was just 41 years old. In the aftermath of Shaka’s assassination, his half-brother and murderer, Dingane, seized control of the Zulu kingdom, paranoia drove his reign, and in the weeks and months that followed, he conducted a widespread purge of the members of the extended royal family to secure his position and eliminate any potential challengers, but the greatest threat to his rule, came from outside of the Zulu kingdom. In 1836, the Boer communities further to the southwest began moving northeast and inland to avoid falling under British rule, originally led by Piet Retief, these Voortrekkers, or Boer Trekkers, as they were termed, initially allied with Dingane’s Zulus, but after a falling out and the ascent to power amongst them of Andries Pretorius, the Zulus faced a growing threat from the Voortrekkers.
When Pretorius won a major military victory against Dingane in 1839, the Zulu leader moved north towards Swaziland, following which, a half-brother of his named Mpande, who had been spared in the purges of Dingane’s early reign, allied with Pretorius. A short campaign thereafter, saw Dingane killed and Mpande proclaimed as the king of the Zulus in 1840, meanwhile Pretorius and his Voortrekkers establish the state of Natalia, Mpande’s rule is perhaps best characterised by its relative peace, as after the British conquered Natalia in 1842, he allied with Queen Victoria’s government, a relatively shrewd move, which ensured that the Zulu kingdom remained independent through to the end of his reign in 1872. However, at this time, storm clouds were gathering, and, in the course of the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s, the British presence on the southern tip of the African continent continued to expand. During the 1850s and 1860s, several states emerged in the region, which today encapsulates South Africa, central was the Cape Colony under the British and we have already seen how Natalia quickly emerged under the Voortrekkers and was then equally rapidly subsumed into the British state, but other Boer states were created during the 1850s, as the British became distracted by events elsewhere, principally with the Crimean War in southeast Europe, between 1853 and 1856 and the Great Mutiny in India in 1857, as these events occurred, the Boer states of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic were created, they would survive for nearly fifty years, forming a buffer of sorts between the British and the Zulus and a crucial alternative enemy for the Cape Colony. However, the problem for the Zulus was that there was an ever growing discovery of resources in the region, including gold and diamonds which drew ever larger numbers of settlers to the region, such as the notorious proponent of British imperialism in Africa, Cecil Rhodes. As settlement in the region increased, Mpande’s successor, his son Cetshwayo, from the very point that he succeeded his father in 1872, faced growing pressure from the British to the southwest, this would culminate in the Anglo-Zulu War which erupted in 1879, and which has gained major notoriety in the history of European imperialism in nineteenth-century Africa.
The Anglo-Zulu War was fought over six months between January 1879 and June of the same year, the war has become very well-known to western audiences owing to the 1964 film Zulu starring Michael Caine as well as the follow up film Zulu Dawn, which was released in 1979 and featured Burt Lancaster and Peter O’Toole in the lead roles, but these films have conveyed the idea of a kind of Zulu victory in the war, the first film showing a small British garrison, battling against overwhelming odds when attacked by thousands of Zulu warriors and Zulu Dawn covering the famous battle of Isandlwana, one of the most significant defeats inflicted on a British colonial army during the nineteenth century, the reality of the wider conflict though was much different, with a swift six month campaign in 1879, resulting in a total British victory and the effective destruction of the Zulu kingdom. The war broke out owing to pressure having been applied on King Cetshwayo in 1878 by Sir Bartle Frere, the high commissioner of the British Empire in the Cape Colony, in an effort to provoke a war with the Zulu kingdom, Frere orchestrated a boundary dispute with the Zulus during 1878, and then in December, he sent an ultimatum to Cetshwayo, the terms of this were outrageous, Frere, for instance, demanded that the Zulu army be entirely disbanded and that the entire military caste of Zulu society, be dispensed with, Christian missionaries were to be given protected status and allowed to preach within Zululand, the most egregious provision, though, concerned the appointment of a British Resident as Queen Victoria’s representative at the Zulu king’s court, it was clear that this ‘Resident’ would be much more than an ambassador, as the ultimatum also stipulated that he should be present when certain courts were held before Cetshwayo. These terms essentially would have amounted to becoming a vassal of the British government of the Cape Colony, and could not be accepted by Cetshwayo, these reservations aside, he was also anxious to avoid a war and tried to avoid rejecting Frere’s ultimatum outright, it was no use though, as Frere’s goal had been to provoke a conflict and when Cetshwayo prevaricated, the British crossed over the border with thousands of troops in January 1879.
The British under Lord Chelmsford, commenced their invasion of Zululand, on the 11th of January 1879, it had originally been intended to send approximately 16,000 troops into Zululand in five different contingents, but less than 10,000 were eventually mobilised in three divisions, against them Cetshwayo had roughly 35,000 warriors, but these largely fought with primitive weapons, consisting of spears, shields and some limited use of firearms. Despite their technological inferiority, the Zulus were able to draw first blood and repel the first invasion of Zululand. On the 22nd of January, a force of nearly 20,000 Zulu warriors attacked an isolated column of 1,800 British and colonial troops, encamped near the hill of Isandlwana, in the northeast of modern-day South Africa, the British had underestimated the Zulus and failed to set up a defensive perimeter at Isandlwana, sheer numbers did the rest, the Zulus lack of military technology compensated for, by outnumbering the British eleven to one, while the Zulu bullhorn battle formation was used to encircle and surround the British troops.
During the final clashes of the engagement, the British ran out of ammunition and the confrontation descended into fierce hand to hand fighting, in which the Zulus were at less of a disadvantage militarily. In the end, only a few hundred of the 1,800 British and colonials escaped from the Battle of Isandlwana, approximately 1,300 lay dead across the battlefield, however, there are no accurate figures for the Zulu dead and wounded, but it is believed that the rough estimations of the time, extended into the thousands. The defeat, the largest suffered by a British force, against such a poorly armed, indigenous army, up to that time, was only partly assuaged by the successful repulsion of a force of approximately 3,500 Zulus by 150 British soldiers at Rorke’s Drift, a mission station nearby, the following day. The two events, the Battle of Isandlwana and the Battle of Rorke’s Drift are the central events of the films Zulu Dawn and Zulu respectively.
The defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana ensured that the first invasion of Zululand could not meet with success, though some of the other detachments continued to operate around the border with Zululand into the spring of 1879, then in the early summer, Lord Chelmsford, who knew he was to be revoked from his command shortly, in an effort to save face after the disaster at Isandlwana, led a second invasion into Zululand, this one was imminently more successful, not least because Chelmsford brought a much greater army with him, in excess of 20,000 men. Rapid progress was made, culminating in the Battle of Ulundi on the 4th of July 1879, here some 4,000 British and colonial troops squared off against over 13,000 Zulu warriors, at the capital of Cetshwayo’s kingdom, here a disciplined advance by ranks of British gunmen, aided by Gatling guns, rendered the Zulu battle tactics completely ineffective and the Zulu warriors eventually fled from the region, in the end, just ten British soldiers had been killed, while over 500 Zulus lay dead across the battlefield of Ulundi, and a thousand more were badly wounded. Victory at Ulundi effectively brought the Anglo-Zulu War to an end and also ended the independence of the Zulu nation, which Shaka had built over half a century earlier.
In the aftermath of the war, Cethswayo was essentially made a puppet king, one who was briefly sent to England for an audience with Queen Victoria, he died in 1884 and despite the best efforts of his son and heir Dinuzulu, to preserve the Zulu kingdom, in part by attempting alliances with the Boer states, Zululand was annexed by the British in 1887. It was the beginnings of a period of rapid centralisation and expansion of the British presence in South Africa, which resulted in two wars with the Boers between 1880 and 1881, and more consequentially from 1899 to 1902. Following the latter struggle, known as the Second Boer War, the British had become the hegemonic power in the region approximating to the modern day state of South Africa, hence, the kingdom which Shaka had created, between 1816 and 1828, lasted for fifty years against British encroachments, hut eventually, it, like the various Boer states, could not resist the advance of British dominion in southern Africa.
How should we evaluate Shaka Zulu in light of the kingdom he created and the fate of the Zulu kingdom after his death? There is perhaps a tendency to view Shaka today, as a romantic figure, one who bravely tried to build up a centralised Zulu kingdom, which could withstand the impending onslaught of the European aggressors, but this is to give Shaka far too much credit, there is no denying the brutality of European imperialism in Africa during the nineteenth century, but this was really only starting at the time of Shaka’s rise to power, during the first half of the nineteenth century, when Shaka reigned, the European presence in Sub Saharan Africa was largely confined to some limited coastal regions like the Cape Colony, the Gold Coast, as well as the port towns along the west coast, it was not until the 1860s and the 1870s, that the real Scramble for Africa began, as such, while the Zulus and Shaka would have been conscious of the European presence, in the form of the British and the Boers to the southwest, and were also increasingly in direct contact with them as traders, they would not have perceived them as an existential threat to their way of life, in the 1810s and 1820s. Given this, we might perceive Shaka as a power-monger, one who built up the Zulu kingdom, not as a way of resisting the white man, but purely for his own gain, virtually his entire career was spent making war on his own fellow Bantu people, and while there is little denying his capabilities as a war-leader, and while his centralisation of the Zulu state in order to make it a more effective war machine was undoubtedly impressive for its time, the simple fact is that Shaka killed tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of individuals, in order to further his desire for power. Then having attained that power, like so many other autocrats in history, he slipped into delusional behaviour and bloodshed.
Such was the figure who created the Zulu kingdom, but there is no denying that, that same kingdom was able to inflict one of the most substantial military defeats on British forces in Africa, during the nineteenth century, that, more than anything else, has left an indelible impression on the public imagination, concerning the Zulu kingdom which Shaka first brought to power in southern Africa. What do you think of Shaka Zulu? Was he a vicious warlord who built his power through conquering his fellow Bantu people, or was he an African hero who succeeded in establishing a kingdom, which was able to resist European encroachments, for decades after his own death? Please let us know in the comment section, and in the meantime, thank you very much for watching.