The Military Career of Shaka, Zulu King
This is a summary of a presentation done on in Durban on 12 February 2015 for the Military Historians Society of South Africa.
During the early 1600’s, a small band of people under the patriarch Malandela settled for a time on the Highveld in the proximity of present Vryheid. After trouble with local tribesmen during which the stone walls of their cattle kraals were damaged, they migrated down the White Umfolozi Valley, sojourning for a time in the area later known as Emakhoseni.
In due course they settled in the Valley of the Umhlatuze under Malandela, who established an umuzi on the long slope north of the present maNdawe Church.
After a quarrel between his sons Zulu and Quabe, Zulu returned with his mother Nozinja to the beloved Emakhosini Valley they had traversed earlier. He is recorded as living from 1627 to 1709. From these origins sprang a long line of Zulu chiefs (kings).
The otherwise nondescript valley holds the grave-sites of Zulu, Phunga, Mageba, Ndaba, Jama, Senzangakhona and Dinuzulu. Shaka’s entire life was influenced by the heritage of the emerging Zulu nation, centred on the Emakhoseni valley, the ‘Valley of the kings’. Much of his military career can be attributed to his mother Nandi’s insistence that he take a rightful place in that dynasty.
In 1787, after a tryst between the Zulu heir Senzangahkona and Nandi, princess of the Elangeni tribe to the south, Shaka was born as an illegitimate. The Zulu dismissed the pregnancy as the work of ‘an intestinal beetle’. Shaka’s strong-willed mother became the unloved third wife of Senzangakhona. The fact resulted in humiliation for Shaka and his mother, leading to many hatreds and grudges and an urge to fight his way to supremacy.
Nandi kept the kingly vision in front of Shaka from his birth until her death and constantly brought to his attention that he was the son of a Zulu paramount chief (king). She urged him to resurrect the Zulu nation to dominance in opposition to his many less robust half-brothers.
This ensured the honing of Shaka’s character and skills during a tough and even brutal childhood. He endured torment and hardships as a young herder, and oppression from the Elangeni tribe of his mother. These cruelties are supported by many anecdotes. He learned stick-fighting and perfected it until left severely alone by the other boys, apart from grudging respect. After an indiscretion involving disagreements with the Elangeni heir apparent Makedama and the stabbing of an unmanageable cow during the famine of 1802-04, he was obliged to flee with his mother Nandi to Mthethwa territory closer to the coast. They lived with that tribe for a decade.
Quick to learn military techniques and tactics, Shaka became a rising military star of the Mthethwa and a favourite of the renowned Dingiswayo. Shaka stamped his authority and presence on the younger warriors, and recorded notable achievements such as killing a cattle-raider known as Lembe.
In due course Shaka’s patron Dingiswayo engineered the young warrior’s supremacy amongst the Zulus in order to secure his western flank militarily against the feared Ndwandwe living to the north along the Phongolo River. Shaka arranged the assassination of his brother Sigujana and assumed the kingship while backed by a Mthethwa regiment. On Dingiswayo death at the hands of Zwide, he was free to extend his powers further.
He innovated the short, powerful iklwa stabbing spear and huge war shield, buffalo attack formation and hardening of his troops for battle. A strict regimen of discipline was instituted. Selected campaign strategies were refined and practiced on smaller local tribes. The Elangeni were overrun and a brutal vengeance exacted on those who had done him or his mother any hurt. The Buthelezi were defeated. Their leaders were incorporated as councillors, if compliant enough. Shaka steadily incorporated tribes near and far, and embarked on campaigns worthy of more historically lauded military leaders elsewhere, even Napoleon.
In his prime, Shaka as king was a magnificent physical specimen, resplendent in ceremonial dress. He showed an acute intelligence, capable of weighing evidence dispassionately, hypothesising, applying critical analysis and engaging with creative strategising. He showed acute awareness of how complex social and natural systems tend to operate. Many of these thinking processes are evident in his complex and usually successful military strategies.
Major battles includes Kwa Gqokli, involving an intricate deception to divide the Ndwandwe army between assaulting the Zulu regiments ensconced on Kwa Goqlkli hill, and pursuing a small herd of Zulu decoy cattle. Shaka used many elements such as thirst, breaking up the invading forces by various stratagems, superior fighting weapons, disciplined troop formations, and the constant availability of food and water provisions, to his advantage. The outcome was a far greater loss of manpower on the Ndwandwe side than with the Zulus. The result was more than satisfactory, because the Ndwandwe reward was a limited number of cattle as the spoils of war, while the Zulus bought time during which to build up their forces.
A major defensive campaign a year later was also concluded successfully, with the Ndwandwe suffering tremendous losses. The Ndwandwe were finally reduced to impotence in a savage campaign of retribution that took the Zulu army as far as the upper Phongolo River.
After the death of Shaka’s mother Nandi in 1827, the king introduced severe constraints to ensure a satisfactory period of national mourning for her. Sexual intercourse was banned. Living women were recorded as having been opened to check the presence of the unborn. Many cattle were also killed as result of the mourning period, while solid food might not be eaten. Resentment grew.
Shaka seemed to be suffering from schizophrenia, with wild mood swings consuming him in his last year. He was wounded by Quabe or Ndwandwe attackers, with a blade driven under his left biceps and into his ribs. The wounds were attended to by Farewell, to the king’s gratitude.
A few years after first meeting the white settlers who became ensconced in Port Natal in 1824 as traders, in 1828 Shaka engaged them with his army in an attempt to carve a way through Southern Natal and Xhosa territory to establish trading relations with the Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown.
The traders had a broad strategy of setting up a trading empire that would eventually link in with the Cape authorities. This involved a major campaign to Xhosa territory to the south. The policy brought mutterings from the Zulus, who felt that Shaka’s relationships with the traders were too warm, and too disparaging of the Zulus themselves. There were rising intrigues against the king.
The king was murdered in September 1828, in a side-kraal Nyakamubi of the great ikhanda (military village) at Stanger in Natal. The role of Shaka’s aged aunt and previously regent, Mkabayi, is clear in approving the actions to be taken by Dingane, Mhlangana and Mbopa to ‘save the nation’.
The book Shaka.The story of a Zulu king is available for a few dollars on Amazon Kindle and in hard copy from Createspace, under Alex Coutts. The web site www.alexeducational.co.za and blog site www.alexstoriesandart.blogspot.com will get you there. Alternatively you might just enjoy looking at the 50 paintings on the website or reading of the blogsite stories set in KZN.