Lionized for his conquests, excoriated for his tyranny, Shaka is one of the most complex and controversial rulers in African history. Unquestionably one of military history’s greatest commanders, his reforms to the Zulu armies gave them an efficiency, organization, and lethality that made the impi one of the most feared forces in the world.
He was born the illegitimate son of Zulu chief Senzangakhona, and Nandi, the daughter of a Langeni chief. His mother brought the young Shaka back among her own people to spend a difficult childhood, subject to scorn and stigma. Nandi and Shaka were driven out and into a vassal tribe of the Mthethwa Empire.
During this time, Shaka enrolled in the ibutho, a traditional regional military cadre program. Young men of the same age group would be grouped together into a unit within the ibutho, and the unit would eventually disband when the men aged out of the warrior class. Shaka’s unit served under the command of the chief Dingiswayo. Dingiswayo laid the groundwork for the system of command that would eventually be brought to ultimate refinement under Shaka.
When his father died in 1816, Shaka, by now a renowned commander in his own right, left Dingiswayo’s armies and returned to lead the Zulu, who were at this time the smallest of the region’s Bantu clans. Southern Africa would quickly learn to fear the Zulu.
Shaka immediately reorganized the army and its training. The age-grade system of the ibutho was refined and strengthened into an age-based regimental organization, with each regiment having a distinct fortified village (or ikanda), uniform heraldry on their ox-hide shields, specific ornamentation in jewelry and headdresses, and sworn loyalty to Shaka. Organization of the impi and its tactics were standardized. Shaka introduced a corps of officers, promoted on the basis of merit and ability, from all the subordinate tribes. Comparisons to the Marian reformations of the Roman Legions are apt; both commanders took control of fundamentally competent basic forces, and transformed them into unstoppable military machines.
Shaka then took his impi on a march of conquest. A tribe, once conquered, was subordinated into the Zulu kingdom, its young men were incorporated into the ibutho, and then the Zulu marched on. His first conquest was said to be the Langeni, who humiliated him as a boy. Shaka also offered diplomatic carrots, with the stick of the impi ever-present.
When his former commander Dingiswayo was assassinated by the rival Zulu chief Zwide, Shaka swore vengeance, and a full-scale civil war of the Zulu broke out. Zwide was decisively routed at the Battle of Gqokli Hill by a force half his size under Shaka’s command. Zwide died a fugitive and prisoner.
But Shaka’s reign was not uncontested. There was substantial opposition to his policies within his own kingdom. Escalation of warfare between tribes into near-extermination were a marked change from previous patterns of war. Tensions were exacerbated when Shaka granted European traders concessions. But it was the death of his mother in 1827 that seems to have marked the beginning of the end of Shaka – and the bloodiest part of his reign.
Grief-stricken, and possibly insane, Shaka ordered that no crops be planted, nor milk used for a year (and milk was the staple of the Zulu diet). Women found pregnant were to be killed with their husbands, as was anyone found to be insufficiently mournful. Cows were to be slaughtered “so that calves would know what it was like to lose a mother.” Accounts number 7,000 of Shaka's subjects were killed in his grief.
His two half-brothers had been actively conspiring against him for some time. In 1828, while the impi were on campaign to the north, he was assassinated by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana, along with a third co-conspirator name Mbopa. Tradition states that Shaka’s dying words were a warning both about the growing power of the Europeans in South Africa and about the peril of Zulu disunity.
The meteoric rise of the Zulu under Shaka, coming at a time of increasing European colonization in the region, had a profound and complex impact on the history and culture of Southern Africa, whose implications are still debated and considered. Shaka’s legacy as a ruler is not a simple one, even within Zulu culture today. But his impact on the history of the world is beyond question, and his name still stands as one of power.