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Africa Chronology

Shaka Zulu

1785-1828

Probably the most famous southern African in history, Shaka Zulu is known for his peerless leadership of the Zulu clan. He was a fierce and militaristic king, contributing to the murder of a million people. To understand the man we know today as "King Shaka", we have to understand the driving force that made him to be the noted leader he was.

Shaka's mother was a child of a deceased chieftain of the eLangeni clan and her name was Nandi. Shaka's father was a chieftain of the small, then unknown Zulu clan and his name was Senzangakona. But an out of wedlock pregnancy--Nandi was said to be suffering from 'iShaka'(1)-- and a failed marriage forced Nandi to return to her tribe, but she was less welcomed there then with the Zulus. Shaka grew up fatherless among people who despised his mother and him. He was made the butt of every cruel joke and ridiculed about his body. He grew up lonely and bitter with his only companion being his mother, whose life also was miserable. The intelligent and naturally sensitive boy knew of his royal blood and the origins of his tormentors. He harbored great hatred for them till his death.

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At the age of 23, he was called to serve as a Mtetwa warrior and did so for the next six years. In battle, he found an outlet for his pent-up frustrations and developed his political policy. He saw battle as the one safe method of political growth and was never satisfied with a clan's submission before being taken to war. He fought for total annihilation. He also developed a brutal and fatal weapon called the 'iKlwa'.

In his first battle, he fought the Butelezi clan winning their territories that included the Zulu clan. At this time, Dingiswayo, the Mtetwa chieftain, saw the qualities of a leader in Shaka. He decided that he would be the potential chieftain of the Zulus, especially since they were too far out in the Mtetwa territory and could be a buffer from outside attack. Meanwhile, Shaka was made the leader of the Mtetwa army and here he refined his battle tactics, tools and the army. When Senzangakona died, Shaka was made the Zulu chieftain. From that day forward the Zulus were destined for fame.

Shaka worked the Zulu warriors rigorously, treating them as clay for his molding. He punished the sign of slightest hesitation with death, commanded his army to become celibate except for those already wed, placed them under one roof but separated them in specialty regiments, made weapons from scratch and instilled in the warriors the same fighting spirit he had. He spared himself no luxury of a true king. He had now reshaped what had been the unknown Zulus.

The first people he attacked were the eLangeni clan. From them, he only spared those who showed him and his mother kindness. Then he went on and destroyed the Butelezi clan, leaving few survivors. He took the Butelezi maidens and formed them in a seraglio, which eventually numbered to 1,200 women. He never referred to them as his 'wives', which is what they would have normally been, but as his 'sisters'. He claimed offspirng were undesirable because they might someday oppose him, so he would only engage in ukuHlobonga (2). It is probable, due to his character in every other aspect, that he never managed to consummate a full relationship with any of these women.

By 1817, the Zulu territories had quadrupled. In that autumn, word got to Shaka that his stepfather lay dying. He returned to bid him good-bye. He then met with the Mtetwa chief, Dingiswayo, and they decided to engage in a major expedition that would take over much of Southeast Africa. That year, Dingiswayo died and battles between major clans began to take over the Mtetwa Empire. By 1820, Shaka had won and commanded most of southeast Africa and Natal.

In 1824, Europeans had arrived at Natal post and visited Shaka. During this visit, Shaka was stabbed by enemy clans and was treated by the Europeans. Shaka held these Europeans in high regard. He signed over land to them not knowing he had actually given it away. The Europeans aided Shaka in his wars to conquer more of South Africa. While on a hunt with Europeans, word came to Shaka that his mother lay dying. In grief, Shaka ordered several men executed but in the chaos, over 7,000 people died. Shaka practically ordered his clan to death by starvation in reverence to his mother. After three months, order was finally restored, but the seed of anguish against Shaka had been sowed. Shaka and his army began to go downhill as Shaka seemed to increasingly lose touch with reality. On September 22nd, 1828, this once great 'king' and warrior of Africa was murdered. His half brothers from his father repeatedly stabbed him to death. They took the body and threw it in an empty grain pot, which then was filled with stones.

This ended the 12-year rule of 'King Shaka'. He was believed to be 41 years old at his death. His legacy, to this day, still echoes and lives on.


Notes:

1. An intestinal beetile on which menstrual irregularities were usually blamed.

2. External intercourse, not full, which still could result in pregnancy. This was allowed among unwed couples.

3. Background is South African art.


Sources:

Morris, Donald R. The Washing of the Spears. first ed. New York: Somon and Schuster, Inc, 1965.

Mostert, Noel. Frontiers. first ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.


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