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At the same time that Napoleon Bonaparte was conquering much of Europe, there arose in the eastern provinces of South Africa a black warrior and empire builder who, in his own world, was to become even more famous than the French emperor. By sheer strength of character and visionary ideas, Shaka molded a tiny band of loyal fighters into a conquering army that built the first Zulu nation. Not only did he introduce new tactics that proved devastating on the battlefield, but he also pursued total warfare on a scale just short of genocide, depopulating vast regions in the process.
In the late 18th century, the Zulus were an obscure Nguni tribe of some 1,500 people, ruled by a petty chief named Senzangakhona. In either 1786 or 1787, he met Nandi, 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.
At the age of 6, Shaka began to care for his father's sheep with the other herd boys. When he allowed a dog to kill one of the flock, his father became angry, his mother defended him and Senzangakhona dismissed them both from his kraal. Nandi and Shaka spent miserable years wandering from one kraal to another, pursued by derision and abuse. Around 1803, Nandi and her son finally found a haven in a kraal close to the center of the dominant power group in the region-the Mthethwa hegemony. Because of his intelligence, drive and unconquerable spirit, 16-year-old Shaka became the senior herd boy. Once the young man even stood his ground and single-handedly killed a leopard attacking the herd, earning praise and a cow from the king.
King Dingiswayo came to the Mthethwa throne and by diplomacy and warfare built up a federation of more than 50 tribes. He introduced the practice of organizing youths into military regiments, called amabutho, based on their age groups, which others soon emulated. The fierce competition among the cattle-herding Ngunis for the scarce grazing land was drastically changing the nature of warfare from a quasi-recreational pastime to a serious struggle for survival.
When King Dingiswayo called up Shaka's age group to form the Izi-cwe ('Bushmen') regiment, the 21-year-old recruit stood 6 feet, 3 inches, with a body that seemed to be all muscle, sinew and bone. He was issued an oval shield, 5 feet 9 inches high and 3 feet wide, and three light throwing spears, or assegais. His uniform consisted of white oxtails at the wrists and ankles, a kilt of fur strips, a skin cape with black widow-bird plumes and cowhide sandals.
An intertribal battle at that time normally consisted of two armed bodies of warriors facing each other at 40 and 50 yards, with each side casting their light spears at the other and returning those already hurled, until one side had enough and fled. If pursued, the retreating warriors had only to drop their weapons to the ground, signifying surrender, and their lives would be spared.
To Shaka, hurling the light spear at a distant foe, usually without any effect, seemed stupid, since the opponent merely picked up the thrown assegai and threw it back. He soon began to 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 assegai. Declaring that his cowhide sandals hampered his movements, he discarded them. The whole regiment soon became aware of the young warrior's skill in combat, and Shaka began leading the victory dance.
Finding the light throwing spear dangerously fragile when used as a striking or thrusting weapon, Shaka used the time between campaigns to design a single, massive-bladed assegai with a stout, short handle. Called aniklwa, in reference to the sound it made when it was plunged into and pulled from the victim's body, it later became the primary Zulu weapon and was used to cut a bloody swath through half a continent. He first used it in the 1810 campaigns, when he was 23 years old.
Later, King Dingiswayo and his army found the Butelezi tribe drawn up in battle formation on a ridge, with their cattle behind them and, farther back, their women and children. When the king's herald demanded the enemy's surrender, a famous Butelezi warrior issued a challenge, which Shaka accepted. After a quick victory with his new iklwa and close-in tactics, Shaka strode toward the Butelezi army, followed first by his friends, then his unit and finally the entire Izi-cwe regiment. That unexpected surge caused the Butelezis to break and flee among their cattle for protection. The Butelezis admitted defeat, accepted Dingiswayo's suzerainty and paid a compensation in cattle. The king rewarded Shaka with 10 head of cattle and promoted him to the command of 100 warriors. After subduing three more tribes, Dingiswayo headed home.
Back at the military kraal, Shaka began shaping his 100-man command into an effective fighting machine. The young commander divided his men into three separate bodies. The largest was the central compact one, with two smaller ones on each flank. Shaka's tactical genius brought about the deployment of two enveloping 'horns' (flanking forces) from the 'head' (main body) and supported behind by the 'loins' (reserve force). It was later destined to become the well-known and traditional Zulu 'buffalo' battle formation.
Shaka and his 100 men performed so outstandingly in combat that the king appointed him as regimental commander. After Shaka had trained the Izi-cwe in his innovative fighting, Dingiswayo moved against Zwide, the chief of the powerful Ndwandwe tribe. The Mthethwas found Zwide's army on a steep ridge, with a 500-strong allied contingent rushing to link up with it. Shaka and his Izi-cwe regiment raced to cut off the allied warriors, wheeled and struck them head-on with a furious attack. As Shaka had hoped, many of the Ndwandwe warriors now streamed off the ridge to aid their allies and catch the Izi-cwe regiment in a pincer movement. After putting the allies to rout, Shaka turned to face and hold the Ndwandwes from the ridge until his army arrived. He then ordered his right flank to extend and surround them. Before all of Chief Zwide's army could join the battle, it had already been won by Shaka's tactics, which had transformed a traditional set-piece battle into one of movement, permitting the defeat of the enemy in detail.
Shaka's reward was a generous share of the captured cattle, which he gave to his men. King Dingiswayo also appointed Shaka as his commander in chief and maneuvered a reconciliation with his estranged father, Senzangakhona, who promised to make Shaka his heir.
Before Shaka's father died in 1816, his eighth wife persuaded him to appoint her son as his successor instead of Shaka. When the new Zulu chieftain was assassinated shortly thereafter, King Dingiswayo told Shaka to assume the Zulu throne and gave him a regiment to enforce that decision. Shaka's new domain consisted of about 100 square miles, and he could reach any point of his frontier in less than a hour from his centralized royal kraal. Those Zulus who had slighted his mother or him in the past he condemned to death by clubbing, spearing, head-twisting or impaling.
The new Zulu ruler called up every subject capable of bearing arms and formed them into regiments. He selected a regiment of 20-year-old youths to garrison his newly built kraal of 100 huts, named Bulawayo. Shaka quickly shaped his army of 500 warriors into an effective fighting force. Each day he visited the military kraals, chastised any violator of his rules and strove to instill a sense of special Zulu pride. The new chief forced them to abandon their cowhide sandals and throwing spears and adopt his revolutionary method of close-in fighting with the short, thick-bladed iklwa.
Shaka's first independent campaign was against the eLangeni, his mother's tribe. After a march of 25 miles, his warriors surrounded the capital kraal under the cover of darkness and obtained a surrender without a fight. Once again, his judgment seat dealt out punishment for any who had done evil against his mother or himself, with the more hideous forms of execution used for those who had insulted his mother. This conquest doubled his number of spear-wielding warriors.
Shaka next declared war on the Butelezi tribe, and both armies formed their battle lines about 100 yards apart at the appointed time and place. The Butelezi had come in the usual manner, with their women and ample supplies of beer trailing behind to celebrate their expected victory. Their 600-strong army formed up in five lines about 200 yards long, with their leader seated comfortably in the shade of a tree on a hill far behind his warriors, as had long been the practice for most African chiefs.
Personally leading his 750-strong army, Shaka placed his best 300 warriors in the center as the army's head, with a regiment behind as the loins and half of another regiment on each flank as the horns. The Zulu center advanced to within 60 yards of the foe, then charged. The surprised Butelezis did not even have time to throw their spears before the Zulus were among them, stabbing with the fatal 'left hook' method. The Butelezi army panicked and fled, but the Zulus, their iklwas delivering deadly blows, stayed on their heels. The encircling horns, meanwhile, had closed in on the women spectators also, and soon even the last screaming woman had been dispatched. The Zulus had suffered only a few casualties. Those wounded beyond help were put out of their misery with a single, merciful spear thrust. Shaka then sent his warriors throughout the land to gather all the women, children and cattle, slay all the useless people and burn every hut. With that campaign, Shaka introduced a new type of warfare to southern Africa-one of total annihilation.
Early in 1818, Chief Zwide killed the husband of Dingiswayo's sister, and the incensed king quickly marched his army toward the land of the Ndwandwes, ordering Shaka to do likewise. The king reached the enemy kraal and, while waiting for Shaka, let himself be tricked into captivity. When Chief Zwide cut off his head, the leaderless Mthethwa army fled. The onrushing Shaka and his now hopelessly outnumbered army avoided falling into a trap only through a warning from a friendly chief. The entire Izi-cwe regiment now flocked to Shaka's standard, as did many individual Mthethwas, bring his total fighting force close to 5,000.
After eliminating other tribes and forming additional alliances, Chief Zwide decided to remove the Zulu threat. He placed one of his sons, Nomahlanjana, in command of 10,000 warriors and sent them marching on the Zulu capital. The Ndwandwe army reached the northernmost border of Zululand, the White Umfolozi River, in early April 1818.
To contest that invasion, Shaka had less than 4,000 warriors, because a sizable bodyguard had to be detached to guard the women, children and cattle evacuated southward into the forest. He had placed Zulu warriors at the few fords where the rain-swollen river could be crossed, and his main force on the top of Qokli Hill, just south of the river. Shaka positioned his regiments in a complete circle, five lines deep. He concealed his reserve on the central plateau, where ample supplies of water, food and firewood had been stored. No water existed for some distance from Qokli Hill. He made his stand on the hill because there were no natural obstacles on the plain on which to anchor his flanks. As a last resort, he planned to form his warriors into a solid phalanx and burst through the encircling enemy to seek refuge in the forest to the south. Basically, the Zulu commander had adopted a circular version of the famous British hollow square tactics that Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, had used to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Shaka planned to fight defensively only until the Ndwandwes made a mistake, then launch his counterattack.
After reaching the fords, Nomahlanjana tried to force a passage but failed. By nightfall, the receding waters permitted crossings anywhere, and reinforcements swelled Nomahlanjana's ranks to more than three times the Zulu numbers. With daybreak, the Ndwandwes poured across the White Umfolozi River and saw a herd of cattle being driven over a hill seven miles away. Their commander assumed the entire Zulu herd was being rushed to safety and sent 4,000 warriors racing after it. He formed the remaining 8,000 in a semicircle on the northeastern base of the Qokli Hill.
Seeing only about 1,500 Zulus defending the height, Nomahlanjana ordered an assault, then seated himself beneath a mimosa tree near the base of the hill and drank calabashes of beer. As the Ndwandwes marched up the hill, they compressed their formations. Shaka ordered his first two lines to attack the closely packed enemy warriors, who did not have room to throw an assegai. The Zulus slashed into the helpless foe, and after 10 minutes of slaughter Nomahlanjana ordered a withdrawal. He then had half his army remain at the foot of the hill, while the other half assaulted upward with wide intervals between the formations and ample space between the warriors. They closed and started hurling their assegais. When the Ndwandwes in the first and second lines had only one spear left, Shaka launched his first two lines. Within five minutes they had killed or mortally wounded the entire first line of the Ndwandwes. Once again Nomahlanjana withdrew all his forces off the hill.
For the next attack, Nomahlanjana ordered his first line of fresh warriors to rush forward with spears in hand, while those in the second line threw their spears at any Zulu battling in the first rank. Shaka foiled that plan by ordering an assault as soon as the attackers came within spear's throw. That charge drove the enemy's first two lines into the third, where the jammed warriors had no room to cast a spear, while the Zulus' stabbing iklwas wrought great carnage. For the third time, Nomahlanjana withdrew his forces down the hill. After a fourth attack failed, Nomahlanjana ordered his warriors to fight only briefly, then simulate flight and, upon reaching the bottom of the hill, turn and fling themselves upon the pursuing Zulus. Following orders, the Ndwandwes soon were fleeing downhill, their shields covering their backs. Many of Shaka's over-eager warriors dashed after them, inflicting fearful slaughter. Upon reaching the base of the hill, however, they realized their danger and ran back up, still keeping their formations. Soon the pursuing Ndwandwes confronted solid Zulu lines in their original positions, clashed for a few frustrating minutes, then fell back.
Now the heat of the day reached its peak. Although the Zulus had plenty of water, more and more Ndwandwes began departing to quench their thirst.
Only two lines of Zulus now remained on the hill, a mere 600 men, many of them wounded. Soon a 200-yard-long column of warriors, 70 ranks of 20 men abreast, with 7 feet between ranks, streamed uphill toward where Shaka sat. It was a simple battering-ram tactic, designed to break the Zulu lines by sheer brute force. Wanting to be in at the final kill, Nomahlanjana and his four brothers joined the tail end of the column.
Shaka now decided to commit his hidden reserves, for smoke signals warned of the return of the enemy force that had captured his cattle herd. He placed 500 reserve warriors as a 'chest' right in the path of the attacking column and sent the other 1,500 dashing downhill in two enveloping horns. After those horns clamped shut behind the enemy column, broad Zulu blades drained the blood of all within, including Nomahlanjana and four of his brothers, at the cost of only 500 Zulus.
Shaka immediately sent 1,000 of his surviving warriors to seek out and slay the enemy who had drifted off in search of water, and then join him at the Bulawayo kraal for a final stand. He next formed his remaining two lines into a chest and two horns to deal with the Ndwandwes still encircling the base of the hill. The Ndwandwe leader, once informed of the loss of his chief and the attacking column, ordered a retreat and, despite grievous losses, succeeded in joining up with the returning regiments that had captured the token Zulu cattle herd.
The regrouped Ndwandwes attacked and drove the Zulus back to the Bulawayo kraal. More than 3,000 fresh enemy warriors threw themselves against the last remaining Zulu formation. Shaka rushed from one threatened point to the next with his 'fire brigade' of selected men, always managing to choke off the fatal breach in his lines. Then, his men who had slain the thirsty foe appeared in the rear of the attacking Ndwandwes. The enemy warriors tried to flee, but less than 1,000 of them escaped encirclement and death. Shaka's casualties for the entire campaign totaled 1,500 killed and 500 seriously wounded. His opponent lost some 7,500 dead.
The Mthethwa hegemony and many smaller ones now rallied to Shaka, enlarging his territory to more than 7,000 square miles. Soon Shaka had eight full regiments at his disposal, each 1,000 strong. His drillmaster mercilessly trained them to obey orders and fight at close quarters. Shaka then took them on 60-mile hikes, often at a fast trot, with any warrior failing to keep up being slain on the spot.
Chief Zwide, meanwhile, vowed revenge for his five lost sons and forged an alliance with the other tribes threatened by the meteoritic rise of the Zulu kingdom under the upstart Shaka. In the spring of 1819 he sent some 18,000 warriors under the command of the seasoned veteran Soshangane to eliminate Shaka. The invaders carried only enough food for their three-day march to the border, fully expecting to feast upon captured grain and cattle. Shaka, alerted by his spies, evacuated all his people, cattle and food within 40 miles of his threatened northern border to the Nkandla forest to the south. He planned to let hunger and exhaustion wear down his more numerous opponents before giving battle.
The invaders crossed the White Umfolozi and pursued the elusive Zulu regiment that retreated southward. Sham Zulu attacks that night frustrated the enemy's attempts to sleep. The next day, when the invaders' ox herd trailed too far behind, another Zulu regiment dashed out of hiding to capture it and fight a rear-guard action until darkness ended their efforts. That night Shaka had a large herd of oxen driven close to the enemy camp to give the impression that the entire Zulu nation and its cattle were fleeing to the safety of the southern forest, and Soshangane fell for this deception.
Daybreak revealed the Zulus and their cattle disappearing over a hill, about seven miles distant, and the famished foe set out in pursuit. The Zulus led them on a 35-mile chase to the Tugela River, then crossed over, wheeled about and stood their ground. The Ndwandwe warriors implored their chief to attack at once, but Soshangane refused, suspicious of the small number of warriors defending the fords. Instead, he ordered his army to camp for the night and called a council of war. The next morning, the Ndwandwe host began an apparent retreat but, late in the afternoon, hidden behind a dense screen of scouts, the main body turned sharply and disappeared into the Nkandla forest to await Shaka's next move. Ndwandwe foraging parties ranged far and wide in search of food. Shaka selected 500 warriors to make infiltrating attacks through the night and keep the Ndwandwes from sleeping.
At daybreak, Soshangane led his exhausted, starving army to the safety of the open plain and a speedy retreat homeward. Shaka and his 10,000 Zulus swiftly caught up with the retreating army of 16,000, and the two bodies squared off. Shaka formed columns of five warriors abreast and sent them to outflank both the enemy's wings. After stretching his front line to the danger point in the face of the solid phalanx of Shaka's main force, Soshangane detached two regiments, sent them off to cover the flanking columns and ordered the rest of his army back to its original positions.
Shaka pretended to make a full-scale attack, but let only the two wings of his main body clash with those of the foe. Under cover of the resulting confusion, two Zulu regiments raced straight for the detached Ndwandwe regiments covering the initial outflanking Zulu troops. Soshangane could only watch helplessly as his doomed regiments formed lines facing both ways and fought to the last man. Shaka next disengaged the wings that had been pinning those of his foe, keeping them out of spear range. Soshangane soon gave up trying to force the Zulus to stand and fight, wheeled his army about and resumed his retirement, still in a battle formation. The Zulus trailed close behind, killing any stragglers.
Reaching the Umbrella River the next day with an army reduced to 12,000, Shoshangane located a narrow ford and, posting his best regiment in a dense formation to guard it, he started withdrawing his regiments, which were strung out on a 2,000-yard front parallel with the river. The cautious commander failed to notice that his front line facing the Zulus had not been shortened to compensate for the withdrawn units.
But Shaka did notice and launched an attack by 7,000 of his warriors, holding back only 1,000 in reserve. The Zulus smashed through the poorly arrayed Ndwandwes, slaying all who did not swim to the other side. Shaka next secretly dispatched two regiments-one downstream and the other upstream-to slip unseen across the river and strike the foe's rear. Once they had struck both flanks and begun rolling them up onto the center, Shaka ordered his main army to force a crossing and join the battle. His unexpected tactics quickly broke the Ndwandwe formation into small bands of fugitives, closely hounded by the victorious Zulus. When night halted the pursuit, Shaka sent his two freshest regiments racing to Zwide's kraal, but they failed to capture the enemy chief, who fled some 200 miles before halting. The next morning, the entire Zulu army swept through Ndwandweland, killing every person it encountered, burning all huts and seizing the livestock.
By this victory, Shaka gained absolute control over the heartland of the Nguni, which he used to create a much greater Zulu empire. From then until his death, Shaka's armies ranged the surrounding lands, leaving rotting corpses, burning huts and total devastation in their wake. Shaka became as absolute a ruler as was possible in an age of primitive technology. He amassed vast herds of cattle, each one bred to a single color. Few kings or dictators, before or since, have treated their subjects with such ruthlessness and ferocity. He had his warriors clubbed to death upon the merest sign of weakness. He neither took a legal wife nor fathered a son, for fear that his heir would plot against him, and had his concubines executed if he discovered they were pregnant. He expelled all rainmakers, declaring that only the king could make rain. When his mother died, he massacred thousands of his subjects so their families would mourn along with him. Now clearly insane, Shaka retained his throne through the worst kind of sheer terror-vast mass executions, torture and mindless butchery.
In 1828, Shaka's half-brother, Dingawe-by then fearing for his own life-slew the mad tyrant and assumed the throne, quickly murdering all prominent Zulus likely to protest his actions. He had Shaka's body buried secretly in an unmarked grave.
At his death, Shaka ruled over 250,000 people and could muster more than 50,000 warriors, whose iron discipline equaled that of the Roman legions in their prime. His 10-year-long kingship had resulted in more than 2 million deaths by warfare alone, not counting the deaths during mass tribal migrations to escape his armies. His semi-Pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Qokli Hill and his masterful conduct of the Second Ndwandwe War remained the highlights of his military exploits, establishing Shaka, king of the Zulus, among the great commanders of all time.
This article was written by Truman R. Strobridge and originally published in Military History Magazine in October 2002.
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