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He came out of nowhere to lead his people to greatness. But while Shaka Zulu has been called the black Napoléon, he ultimately morphed into a 19th century Idi Amin. He was assassinated in, well, perhaps not his prime, since he’d already gone mad and was murdering his tribesmen, including women and children, by the thousands. Yet the legacy of Shaka lived on to motivate and guide the 20,000-man Zulu army that a half-century later shamed the haughty British with the biggest defeat Europeans had yet suffered at the hands of Africans—the 1879 Battle of Isandlwana.

Shaka was said to be a military genius and remarkably reached that pinnacle on his own; he had no recourse to European lessons learned in long-ago battles between white men. “He had absolutely no contact with whites, as far as we know, despite the fact people wanted to believe he’d learned from Europeans,” says Bruce Vandervort, professor of African history at Virginia Military Institute and author of Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830–1914. “You run into this kind of thing in North America, too, with people refusing to believe that American Indians could have built forts. They thought those skills had to have been taught by Europeans.”

“These people foreswore guns,” says Vandervort. “They were a primitive infantry thrust into a period of European expansion in Africa, and they did pretty well for themselves.” In Shaka’s time the long guns available to Africans through European traders were mainly outmoded muzzle-loaders, and Shaka reasoned an enemy might get off a single inaccurate shot, but his spear-carrying troops could swarm the enemy well before they could reload.

What impression of Shaka has history handed down to us? Just how, exactly, did legitimate historians, wide-eyed newspaper reporters and pulp-fiction writers claim to know anything about this African warrior whom few Europeans had ever met? Shaka came from a world whites rarely entered, and we don’t even know what he looked like, much less how he thought, planned and fought.

Born circa 1787, Shaka was an out- sider, so far as we know. He was the illegitimate offspring of an afternoon dalliance between Senzangakhona kaJama, chief of a clan of Nguni people, and a woman named Nandi, orphaned daughter of a neighboring clan’s late chief. Nandi was pushy and well aware of her royal lineage—though kings and queens were a dime a dozen in southern Africa in that era of some 800 separate clans and tribes.

Senzangakhona clashed with his headstrong mistress and wanted little to do with his bastard son, so he eventually sent Nandi and Shaka packing.

They found no welcome on Nandi’s home turf either, as her adultery was held in low regard. They eventually settled with a relative’s clan. Shaka was said to have spent his youth enduring cruel banter from the boys with whom he herded cattle. The hazing was ceaseless and often hurtful, but he bore it in silence. He made note, however, of exactly which boys had been cruelest. They would pay with their lives when Shaka became a man.

While the boys tended the livestock, they played at stick fighting, the standard martial art among Ngunis. It is an ancient African sport, played with a long, thin parrying stick and small shield held in one hand and another long stick for offense in the other. Shaka practiced stick fighting on his own, and by the time he took on challengers, he was a powerful and proficient teenager. Shaka attacked not in fun but to wound, to disable, perhaps even to kill. It only took a few stick fights before he could find no more willing rivals.

He had learned to endure pain and was beginning to enjoy inflicting it.

Nguni clan chieftains, particularly Dingiswayo, recognized not only Shaka’s physical prowess but also his intelligence and eagerness to learn. Dingiswayo was then building a small army, and he enlisted Shaka as a promising soldier. The chief was himself an innovator; rather than recruiting a simple mob, he formed his army intounits, each with a distinctive name, commander and colors. Europeans would have called them regiments and their subunits companies. Inevitably, the separate cadres developed unit pride and became stronger for it.

But Zulu warfare at the time was more ceremony than combat. Opposing forces would face off, dance, strut and yell insults at each other, similar to the traditional haka war dance of New Zealand’s Maori. A pair of paladins representing each African clan might confront each other and scuffle. Finally, one side or the other would sense an opportunity and charge, flinging their assegai—6-foot iron-pointed spears —from a distance. Few of the spears did any real damage, and the side under attack would usually flee unmolested. The winners might annex some land, rarely more than that, and soon it was business as usual until the next raid or battle.

Building on the organizational structure Dingiswayo had begun, Shaka was credited with forever changing this ceremonial style of war. He came to power at a time when small clans were increasingly trying to expand their grazing grounds and establish new trading routes to reach European outposts along the southern African coast. But the clan armies were ineffectual, disorganized and untrained.

Shaka started small, with an army of just 350 men, but his warriors were strong, skilled and extremely aggressive. “What makes Shaka stand out is that he created a standing army that had a very strong offensive ethos,” says Vandervort. “His army was intended to conquer, to build an empire. As a state builder he was head and shoulders above anybody else in his part of Africa, and he used that army to create a sprawling state.”

Other clans and tribes had warriors, and Dingiswayo had organized his soldiers into military units, but no one took tactics, strategy and warfare as seriously as Shaka. He was an angry—and ultimately fatally deranged—warrior who led from the front. It was said Shaka had his own soldiers killed if they returned from battle with a back wound, which suggested an injury inflicted while fleeing. “Shaka’s armies were so physically prepared for war,” Vandervort points out. “They trained from the time they were young. They took to military life as a vocation. They were grouped in regiments by their age, stationed all around [Zululand], and they drilled when they weren’t fighting. Shaka not only developed a standing army but used it for aggressive purposes, and that hadn’t been done before.”

Shaka’s intent was not just to evict his enemies from their land and seize their cattle. He wanted to conquer them, slaughter them, obliterate them and wipe them out clan by clan, tribe by tribe, family by family. His army fought hand to hand, quickly overpowering opponents accustomed to standoff ritualistic battles. Those strong enough to survive became Zulus—soldiers in his army. “He carried out a process called ethnogenesis,” says Vandervort, “incorporating other people into his nation, making them Zulus and expanding his empire that way rather than simply conquering them and taking their cattle and territory. A lot of his soldiers, toward the end of his reign, were people who had been conquered.”

Shaka’s infantry was exceptionally mobile, though they specifically chose to have nothing to do with horses. Zulu armies moved at a constant trot and were said to be able to cover up to 50 miles on a good day, 30 or 40 miles routinely. Women were used for logistics, carrying food and supplies in a support train, while boys carried replacement weapons. None of the troops were husbands or fathers, as Shaka enforced celibacy among his soldiers in the belief that sex dampened aggressiveness. “All primitive people I’ve studied had the same attitude toward sex and soldiers,” explains Vandervort. “It was considered a distraction.” Shaka also believed his men could move faster barefoot, and legend has it he forced them to drill atop beds of thorns to toughen their feet.

Zulus attacked on the run in a formation of Shaka’s invention called “the horns of the bull.” A mass of troops in the center attacked frontally, while behind it a body of warriors waited in reserve, their backs to the action to ward off anxiety or distraction. Shaka had his men advance showing only the edges of their large cowhide shields. At the final charge the warriors flipped the faces of their shields forward, making it seem the onrushing horde had doubled in size.

Most important were the “horns,” well to the left and right of the “chest of the bull.” These fast-moving columns of spearmen bypassed the main battle, hooking around either side of it to flank an enemy preoccupied with the horde of war-crying Zulus to their front. It was a sophisticated maneuver that required speed, careful alignment and perfect coordination, often over challenging terrain.

The horns functioned like cavalry, their swift maneuvers leaving little time to prepare a defense, especially if they could be screened behind foliage or in convenient ravines. Shaka built a fearsome reputation on such deceptive, imaginative tactics. On several occasions he placed young herders in the open with his supply animals as bait. He won his first major battle against a far larger clan by establishing a defensive position atop a hill miles from the nearest spring. By the time the enemy warriors had clawed their way upslope to confront Shaka’s army, they were tired and parched. Shaka had hidden reserve troops inside a natural depression atop his redoubt, and they joined the attack just as the enemy was at its weakest.

After the battle Shaka was said to have led his army some 70 miles, at a trot, to the enemy’s home stockade. Approaching it in the dark, he had his troops sing the enemy’s victory chant. Hundreds of women, children and older men turned out to greet what they assumed was their army and were quickly slaughtered.

Shaka is also credited with the development of an important new weapon and a deadly combat tactic. He disdained use of the long-shafted assegai; after all, why literally throw away your best offensive weapon on a one-shot attempt to skewer someone from a distance? Shaka instead developed a shorter spear, just 2 feet long, topped by a foot-long, sword-like blade. Called an iklwa (reportedly for the sound it made when withdrawn from a victim’s body), it was a thrusting rather than throwing weapon, intended for close-quarters combat. Shaka’s opponents had never seen anything like it.

The iklwa was particularly effective as part of a Zulu shield-wielding technique Shaka taught his troops. Hooking an opponent’s shield with his own, a warrior would sweep it upward and to the left (again, these were the best-conditioned infantrymen in Africa), which left his opponent’s left side from armpit to waist exposed to an iklwa thrust. As his enemy slumped to the ground, the victorious warrior would shout, “Ngadla!” (“I have eaten!).

Shaka was certainly an innovator in weapons, tactics and even grand strategy, but was he the consummate military leader historians often portray him to be?

“The popular ‘Shaka, the black Napoléon,’ is largely a myth,” says professor Charles Thomas, an African military expert at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. “It’s not that he wasn’t a good commander. It’s not that he didn’t expand his kingdom and project force over a large part of southern Africa. It’s just that a lot of the things that are attributed to him, like the stabbing assegai, the demands for close-quarters combat, the incredibly rigorous discipline…a lot of that existed across southern Africa for at least a generation before him.”

Vandervort largely agrees. “How do we know what we do about Shaka?” he asks. “Few Europeans had any contact with him during his lifetime, but there were legends built up about him later. Stories and firsthand information from people who had been around Shaka were used to fashion our idea of what he was like. Probably two-thirds of what was thus learned could be verified, but there was a lot of hype, a lot of exaggeration. There’s been a lot of reappraisal of Shaka, a lot of thought that maybe he wasn’t as great as was claimed.”

By all accounts Shaka had turned into a despot by the mid-1820s. When his beloved mother, Nandi, died in late 1827, he ordered a yearlong period of mourning during which no crops were to be planted, husbands and wives were to avoid intercourse, any woman found pregnant was to be killed (along with her husband), and all milk from cattle and goats was to be poured on the ground. Naturally, there was widespread starvation.

Shaka had also split his army, sending part of it south and the rest on an ill-advised northern campaign, of course at a forced-march trot. Morale plummeted, for Zulu military life had turned into celibate servitude rather than glorious service.

Shaka called off the mourning, starvation and bloodletting after three months, but it was too late. In September 1828 he fell to the blades of a trio of assassins—yes, it took three men— who speared him during a routine council meeting. Shaka was 41 and had ruled for only a dozen years, but he had united a quarter-million Zulus.

In the 1960s, as anti-apartheid resistance grew in South Africa, there was a movement among black Africans to create a strong and important past, to build an African consciousness, and they reinvented Shaka as the warrior-king, as autocratic and powerful as any European king, founder of a mythic kingdom that was able, on at least one occasion, to beat the British. “You had Caesar, Alexander, Napoléon, Lee, Rommel,” these Africans said. “We had Shaka, and he was as great as anyone you can offer.” A legend was born, and it is no accident that from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s producers released two major Zulu warrior films and the popular TV series Shaka Zulu.

“He went from being a tyrant, a madman, to in the 1970s and ’80s becoming rehabilitated in peoples’ eyes,” says Thomas. “People decided he was actually an enlightened king, and that those stories of his tyranny were lies, or maybe they were understandable things he did because of the tradition in which he lived.”

Whatever his horrendous faults, and however popular history has distorted his image, Shaka did create the Zulu empire, amalgamate a nation covering hundreds of thousands of square miles and build a standing army of more than 50,000 troops.

“Shaka’s importance at an immediate level was putting together a Zulu nation, even a generally fractured one,” says West Point’s Thomas. “Beyond that his importance is as a historical artifact that allowed a myth to be built upon it. A myth that served as a foundation first for colonial rule and now for much of southern Africa’s understanding of itself.”

“His importance,” adds Vandervort, “is that he demonstrates his indigenous civilization was capable of developing a way of war, capable of thinking imperially and capable of building an empire. We like to think of people like Zulus as copying from Europeans, and Shaka’s people showed they could do it all on their own.”

Still, as is so often the case, the carnival mirror of myth has warped the image of Shaka Zulu, most recently because black South Africans needed him to be larger than life, just as white Americans in the Civil War–era South, needing a martial yet courtly and chivalrous figure that reinforced their own perceived values, mythologized Robert E. Lee. Shaka became both the ultimate African warrior and the most feared African tyrant of his time.

Says Thomas, “a French scholar once said, ‘Everything we know about Shaka is by choice, and there are an infinite number of Shakas to choose from.’” Ultimately, Shaka Zulu has become an artful construct, and each of us observes our own version of him.

For further reading Stephan Wilkinson recommends Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830–1914, by Bruce C. Vandervort; Shaka: the Story of a Zulu King, by Alex Coutts; The Washing of the Spears, by Donald R. Morris; Myth of Iron: Shaka in History, by Dan Wylie; and British Infantryman vs. Zulu Warrior: Anglo-Zulu War, 1879, by Ian Knight.

Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.