Why King Shaka Zulu was One of the Greatest Military Leaders in History

Shaka kaSenzangakhona, also known as Shaka Zulu, was a great Zulu king and conqueror. He lived in an area of South-East Africa, between the Drakensberg and the Indian Ocean, a region populated by many independent Nguni chiefdoms. Born in 1787, Shaka was the son of Senzangakhona, ruler of a small chiefdom, the Zulu.

His mother was Nandi, the daughter of a Langeni chief. Shaka’s penchant for violence caught the attention of the Zulu King, who made Shaka a war chief upon his father’s death. As a war chief, he demonstrated just how ruthlessly violent he could be. In 1816, he took the reigns of the kingdom in a coup and named himself King.

Shaka began with a systematic reorganization of Zulu warriors, implementing a rigid training program, new blade weaponry that replaced the traditional spear, new attack formations and a strict code of obedience. Zulu society — much like Sparta — was entirely restructured to support the army.

In just a couple of years, his army had brutally executed, displaced or assimilated a vast territory with more than 200,000 inhabitants who became his subjects. Despite its violent methodology, his clan had formed one united nation — the biggest and most powerful in southern Africa.

He introduced new weapons to the Zulu


Before Shaka, the Zulus used a long spear called an assegai. Hurling the light spear at a distant foe, seemed ineffective to Shaka, since the opponent merely picked up the thrown assegai and threw it back. Shaka Zulu introduced the ikwla, a weapon with a shorter handle and a longer spearhead, sort of like a sword. This weapon gave Shaka’s warriors a huge advantage over opponents when they came up close for hand-to-hand combat. His tactic was to move in close with the enemy instead of standing off from him. Parrying his opponent’s thrown spear with his shield, he would charge forward, hook the enemy’s shield aside with his own, and stab him to death with his ikwla. He also introduced cowhide shields to the Zulu army.

He created harden warriors


Some historians say that Shaka Zulu would make his troops go on 50-mile marches for practice, over rough and hot terrain so they wouldn’t be fazed by difficult conditions during battle. Shaka prohibited the wearing of sandals, toughening his warriors’ feet by making them run barefoot over rough, thorny ground and in so doing, secured their greater mobility. Shaka also made sexual abstinence mandatory within his army, with the exception of those already married.

He amassed a massive army


When his father Senzangakona, the chief of the small Zulu tribe, died in 1816, Shaka Zulu took the throne. The following year, he had gathered an army of more than 1,500 warriors. Word of Shaka Zulu’s advanced military tactics did one of two things to neighboring tribes: they either moved far away or joined his forces, making him stronger and his enemies less formidable. He also would force conquered warriors to join his army or be instantly killed. Largely due to this tactic, Shaka grew the Zulu Empire from 1,500 people at the start of his reign, to 250,000 people prior to his assassination.

He introduced (and perhaps invented) the bull horn formation

bull horn formation

Many historians say Shaka Zulu was the first military leader to use the bull horn formation. This is a three-part attack system in which seasoned warriors form the “chest” of the bull at the front, pinning the enemy into a position where it can be easily attacked. Younger warriors would form the “horns” and encircle the enemy, attacking from the sides, and additional warriors formed the “loins,” standing behind the “chest” with their back to the battle, protecting against any additional attackers.

His name came from an intestinal parasite

In the late 18th century, the Zulus were an obscure Nguni tribe of some 1,500 people, ruled by a chief named Senzangakhona (who would become Shaka’s father). In either 1786 or 1787, he met Nandi (who would become Shaka’s mother), a woman of the eLangeni tribe, while traveling and the two engaged in the Nguni institution of uku-hlobonga, designed to release sexual tension among the young without conception resulting. However, both partners broke the rules. Once it was discovered that Nandi was pregnant, a messenger was dispatched, bearing a formal indictment against the young Zulu chief. He replied insultingly, that the pregnancy no doubt was false and due to iShaka, an intestinal parasite known to cause menstrual irregularity. Some months later, the eLangeni elders requested Senzangakhona to come and collect his woman and her ‘iShaka,’ which he reluctantly did. A corruption of the intestinal parasite’s name became the less-than-flattering name Senzangakhona gave to his newborn son, Shaka.

He was killed by his brothers

In 1827, when Shaka’s mother, Nandi died, he became emotionally distraught. He began having any pregnant woman and her husband killed. His psychotic behavior even had him killing pregnant livestock and banning the planting of new crops. In the end, he was responsible for killing more Zulus, than had died in previous war conflicts with other tribes. When it became clear that his irrational behavior would destroy the entire Zulu Empire, his two half-brothers (Dingane and Mhlangana) came together and had him killed in 1828.

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