Shaka Zulu is said to be one of the greatest military leaders in African history, and perhaps all of history. There is controversy around the brutality of his methods, and the strictness with which he trained his troops, but in many ways, he improved warfare methods forever. Born in 1787 in what is now South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, he died in 1828. His legacy lived on in the Zulu warriors who fought the British in 1879. The military conflict helped immortalize the Zulu in the minds of Westerners, but Zulu history was far from over in 1879. The Zulus persevered through apartheid and remain the largest ethnic group in South Africa. Here are 16 things that made Shaka Zulu a military genius.
Source: Wikipedia.org, Amazon.com, HistoryofWar.org, Historywiz.com, Kwanzaaguide.com
Tired of the assegai — a long pole weapon made of wood with pointed iron at the end and thrown like a javelin — Shaka Zulu introduced the ikwla, a weapon with a shorter sphere 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.
Shaka Zulu supposedly introduced cowhide shields, which were much stronger than the iron or wood shields used previously.
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.
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 2,000 warriors. By 1824, his army numbered up to 20,000.
By stating these rules for his army, Shaka gained confidence and support: 1) He eliminated privilege and class. Warriors had to earn their positions and rank. 2) All the spoils of war taken from the defeated armies were to be split among the warriors, and all resources shared. 3) Ageing members of society were to be treated with dignity, and allowed to retire.
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 horn 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.
Shaka Zulu had soldiers carry different colored or patterned shields, depending on their rank. In a troop of hundreds, this made it much easier for soldiers to know exactly where to go when forming the bull horn.
With the exception of those already married, he made sexual abstinence mandatory. Many believe that Shaka was a homosexual who had some procreative issues. Would such issues tie into his lifestyle demands for his troops?
Shaka was ruthless and violent with grief after his mother Nandi’s death in 1827. Pregnant women and their husbands from his tribe were murdered, crop planting and milk production was banned, and many Zulus were executed.
Children over age 6 would became apprentice warriors, delivering rations, cooking supplies and weapons to real warriors. By the time children came of age, they were accustomed to being in battle surroundings and were more emotionally ready to fight.
Shaka spoke these words to his army in 1818 after a victory: “Great nation of Zulu, you have shown courage against a superior enemy. The nations that spoke of you with contempt are chilled by your songs. Kings and princes shiver in their little thrones. Enemies flee to hide in the mountain caves.” (HistoryWiz). He could be nice…sometimes…
Before Shaka Zulu, South African battles are said to have consisted of a “ritualized exchange of taunts with minimal loss of life.” Shaka Zulu introduced methods that turned war into warfare.
Shaka Zulu is the inspiration for a song used throughout Africa when a revered authoritative figure is celebrated. The opening lines are, “He is Shaka the unshakeable,
Thunderer-while-sitting, son of Menzi. He is the bird that preys on other birds.”
In mourning the death of his mother, Shaka Zulu implemented drastic measures including forbidding crops to be planted, the use of milk and even executions. One Zulu member stood up to Shaka Zulu and reminded him that his mother was not the first person to ever die in their community and that some of his mourning methods were too harsh. Zulu listened, called off his mourning measures, and rewarded the tribe member for bravery in speaking up.
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.
In the early 19th century, the Nguni tribes were merely farmers and pastoralists, concerned about finding the most fertile land for their cattle to graze on. Disputes were settled in weak-kneed skirmish fashion, until Shaka Zulu came along.