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Concept Art for Shaka of the Zulu

Shaka Zulu: The Story of a Ruthless Ruler

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The Zulu monarch Shaka was a contemporary of the French emperor Napoleon, and has even been dubbed the ‘African Napoleon’ by some. However, apart from their reputation as great military leaders, history has remembered these two men quite differently. On the one hand, Napoleon, despite the wars he waged across Europe, has been considered by some as an enlightened despot. Shaka, on the other hand, has been remembered more negatively as a ruthless and bloodthirsty madman.

His Name and a Parasite – Shaka’s Beginnings

Those seeking an explanation for Shaka’s brutality may begin with his childhood. According to popular belief, Shaka was an illegitimate child of Senzangakhona kaJama, a minor Zulu chief, and Nandi. It is said that Shaka was conceived when the two engaged in uku-hlobonga, a form of sexual foreplay without penetrative sex that was allowed to unmarried couples.

This was meant to release sexual tension between young people, and prevent pregnancies from happening. In the case of Senzangakhona and Nandi, however, the rules were broken. When Nandi’s pregnancy was discovered, a formal indictment was sent to Senzangakhona. The chief, however, dismissed the news, and said that Nandi’s menstrual irregularity was caused by an intestinal parasite known as the iShaka. Nevertheless, Nandi gave birth several months later, and Senzangakhona was told to collect Nandi and her son. The child was called Shaka, a corruption of the parasite’s name.

As a child, Shaka herded sheep for his father. When the young Shaka allowed a dog to kill one of the sheep, his father was furious. Nandi, however, defended her son. As a result, both mother and son were banished from the kraal (a traditional African village of huts).

A Zulu kraal. (1849). Shaka and his mother Nandi reportedly were banished from their kraal by Shaka’s father.

A Zulu kraal. (1849). Shaka and his mother Nandi reportedly were banished from their kraal by Shaka’s father. (Public Domain)

For the next few years, Shaka and his mother wandered from one kraal to another, often treated with abuse and derision. Around 1803, Shaka and his mother finally found refuge in the Mthethwa hegemony, a kraal belonging to the region’s dominant power group. The Mthethwa throne was occupied by King Dingiswayo, who built up a federation of 50 tribes through diplomacy and warfare. It was under this king that Shaka’s fortunes began to take a turn for the better.

A Turn of Fortunes – Shaka Becomes a Warrior

At the age of 16, Shaka became the king’s senior herd boy due to his intelligence, courage, and resolution. According to one story, Shaka once stood his ground against a leopard attacking the herd. He single-handedly killed the beast, thus earning the praise and a cow from Dingiswayo.

The fierce competition between the cattle herders of the region for the scarce grazing ground meant that conflict was almost inevitable. Dingiswayo prepared for this by organizing his youths into regiments based on their age groups. Shaka was soon recruited as a warrior, and his regiment was known as the Izi-cwe (‘Bushmen’). Shaka was equipped with the standard weapons of that region – an oval shield and three assegais (light spears for throwing). He wore a kilt of fur stripes, a skin cape with black widow-bird plumes, cowhide sandals and white oxtails at the wrist and ankles.     

Sketch of a Zulu warrior wearing traditional clothing and using standard weaponry.

Sketch of a Zulu warrior wearing traditional clothing and using standard weaponry. (1913) (Public Domain)

Battles between the tribes of the region at that time usually began with two bodies of warriors facing each other at a distance of between 35 to 45 meters (115 - 148 feet.) Then, each side would cast their light spears at the enemy, and return those that were already hurled. The battle was over when one side had enough and fled. If the victors gave chase, the routing warrior could have their lives spared by dropping their weapons, thus signifying their surrender. This form of combat seemed pointless and ineffective to Shaka, as the light spears that were thrown at a distant foe usually did not do much damage.

A New Way to Battle with a New Weapon

Shaka decided to change the way battles were fought. Instead of hurling spears form a distance, he decided to close in on the enemy and engage in melee combat. When the opponent threw their spears, he would parry them with his shield. Then, he would charge forward, hook the enemy’s shield aside with his own, and stab the warrior to death with his light spear. To make himself a more effective warrior, Shaka discarded his cowhide sandals, as they hampered his movements.

Additionally, Shaka designed a new type of spear for combat, as the light throwing spears were rather fragile when used to strike or stab an enemy. This resulted in a spear with a massive blade attached to a stout, short handle. This was called the iklwa, a reference to the sound made when it was thrust and pulled out from a victim’s body. Shaka is also credited with refining the existing military formation into the now well-known ‘buffalo horns’ formation. This formation consisted of a ‘head’ (main body), ‘horns’ (flanking forces) and ‘loins’ (reserves).

Zulu Warrior with a iklwa spear (designed by Shaka for a bloodier battle).

Zulu Warrior with a iklwa spear (designed by Shaka for a bloodier battle). (1898) (Public Domain)

A Rise to Power for the Increasingly Cruel Shaka Zulu

Over the years, Shaka defeated other chiefs, and enlarged the territory controlled by the Zulus. Shaka also became increasingly brutal and mad. For instance, it is said that he would have his warriors clubbed to death upon the merest sign of weakness.

In addition, those who had treated his mother or him badly in the past were condemned to brutal deaths. Furthermore, he neither took a legal wife nor fathered a son, paranoid that an heir would plot against him. If a concubine became pregnant, she was executed. Thousands of his subjects were massacred when his mother died, so that their families would mourn along with him. Shaka’s madness caused those close to him to fear for their lives.

How Much of His Story is True?

In 1828, his half-brother, Dingawe, assassinated Shaka, buried the body in an unmarked grave, and assumed the throne.

Although Shaka’s brutality and insanity is well-known today, it is unclear how much of his life story is true. For instance, it has been argued that there is really little evidence to support the veracity of the stories surrounding his birth and childhood.

A muster and dance at Shaka’s kraal. (1827) To an extent Shaka continues to receive the traditional Zulu reverence towards a dead monarch, as in a praise song in which he has been called “Shaka the Unshakeable.”

A muster and dance at Shaka’s kraal. (1827) To an extent Shaka continues to receive the traditional Zulu reverence towards a dead monarch, as in a praise song in which he has been called “Shaka the Unshakeable.” (Public Domain)

Moreover, as the sources for Shaka’s life are derived from either variable Zulu storytellers or biased white chroniclers of the colonial-era, it may just be possible that his brutality has been exaggerated, and that there may also be a rational explanation for his insanity -  though it now remains lost to history.

Nonetheless, a fascination with Shaka has placed the Zulu leader in the spotlight for several books and even a television series. It was recently announced that the South African The Bomb Productions has begun working on a 12-part series discussing his influences, allies and enemies. Titled ‘ Shaka-Ilembe’, the three planned seasons are said to be created with a global audience in mind. The production company aims for the series to be like an “African "Game Of Thrones".” The creators have a team of consultants including historians, traditional leaders, oral custodians and royal advisors, with the desire to tell Shaka’s story as accurately as possible.

Featured image: Concept Art for Shaka of the Zulu (Civilization Wikia)

By Ḏḥwty

Updated on January 22, 2021.


Carroll, R., 2006. Shaka Zulu's brutality was exaggerated, says new book. [Online]
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HistoryNet Staff, 2006. Shaka: Zulu Chieftain. [Online]
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South African History Online, 2015. King Shaka Zulu. [Online]
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Whipps, H., 2008. How Shaka Zulu Changed the World. [Online]
Available at:, 2015. Shaka Zulu assassinated. [Online]
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This page didn't have anything to write about so they dredged up a story with dubious authenticity to fill the space.

I forget the name of the author, but there was a brilliant book written about Shaka many years ago.
I think that, like most histories written by the victors, his image was badly tarnished. It is more than likely that a lot of the insane & ferocious acts attributed to him were perpetrated by his commanders in his name. Dingaan, for e.g., would have had a good reason to put a lot of blame for his own cruel acts on Shaka, as he needed to justify his murder of Shaka.
But there can be no doubt that Shaka left huge footsteps over the entire Southern African region, and that his Empire's expansion had a chain reaction to events that still shape South Africa today.
If not for his warfare the Boer's would have encountered Bantu people in the Free State, instead of finding the area virtually devoid of inhabitants and thus claiming it as their own.

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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