Shaka Zulu Research Paper

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Shaka Zulu (1787–1828) created an African kingdom that stood as an influential military and economic power at a time when European nations were encroaching on African sovereignty. Shaka’s instincts and innovative leadership skills helped to build the mightiest kingdom in sub- Saharan Africa in the early nineteenth century.

King Shaka Zulu increased the Zulu nation to nearly three million subjects and the Zulu kingdom to thousands of square kilometers in the early nineteenth century. He actively participated in the emerging global economy through trade with Europeans, and his military genius changed the art of African warfare.

Shaka was conceived during an affair between his mother, Nandi, who was a Langeni woman, and Senzangakona, chief of a minor Zulu clan. With Shaka’s birth eminent, his mother was forced to become Senzangakona’s third wife. The union was turbulent, and Nandi and her son were never fully accepted among the Zulu. Nandi was sent back to her people with her son and an infant daughter. Her return to the Langeni forced repayment of the bride price, which brought shame upon Nandi and her children. They were ostracized, and Shaka was frequently teased. When Shaka was fifteen his mother found a home within the Mthethwa confederacy. This confederacy was formed early in the eighteenth century when the chiefs of several small Nguni clans living in the region between the Thukela (Tugela) and Phongolo (Pongola) rivers (now in KwaZulu-Natal), joined forces under Chief Dingiswayo. It was here that Shaka grew into a strong, self-confident leader.

At the age of twenty-three he was drafted by Chief Dingiswayo into the Mthethwa’s best regiment. In the military Shaka found his passion and place in life. He quickly developed into a consummate military strategist. In developing his war strategy he designed new types of weapons, as well as improved fighting tactics. He replaced the long-handled throwing spear with a short-handled, broad blade stabbing assegai. He increased the length of the rawhide shield to fully cover a warrior’s body. He implemented an attack formation that allowed his army to advance on an enemy from the middle while simultaneously flanking them to attack from multiple sides. The enhanced shields enabled warriors to block the throwing spears of their opponents and get close enough to stab them. Shaka insisted on conditioning; he trained with his men until they could run barefoot 80 kilometers a day. This gave his army advantages in range and speed of attack. He also introduced the concept of unlimited war: annihilation of enemies to prevent reprisal. Previously warfare consisted of ritualistic displays of fierceness, bravery, and then providing forgiveness to the enemy upon defeat. Shaka instituted an aggressive battle style and insisted on complete submission or genocide upon victory.

Shaka was an innovative leader. He formed agespecific regiments that lived in permanent military settlements and remained on duty for years. Girls of marriageable age were formed into female regiments in these towns. These women provided support and agricultural labor. When a regiment had served its time or was particularly brave and victorious they were retired from service and allowed to marry girls from the female regiment. Shaka himself never married. He refused to produce an heir that might one day challenge him for power. When not fighting, the regiments hunted elephants and hippopotamus for Shaka’s ivory trade with the Portuguese at Delagoa Bay. Shaka also traded with the English and Dutch, and he granted them land near Natal to promote trade.

As a Mthethwa warrior, Shaka returned to his mother’s people and killed those who had tormented him and ostracized his mother when he was young. He assumed control of the Zulu clan with Chief Dingiswayo’s help. Furthermore, when Dingiswayo died in 1818, Shaka became leader of the Mthethwa confederacy. He immediately began to spread his empire; he conquered new lands, created a massive army, and incorporated more and more neighboring polities into the Zulu nation. The wars wrought by Shaka, his generals, and the people he displaced eventually led to massive migration and lethal consequences. The people he attacked were displaced; in their search for new homes they attacked and displaced others. No clan between present-day South Africa and Tanzania was spared this misery. A drought occurring at the same time made cultivation difficult, and people were often displaced before they could reap what they had sown. People wandered from place to place looking for a home. This might be considered the first refugee crisis in southern Africa.

Shaka suffered an emotional breakdown when his mother died in 1827. He went into mourning for a year and insisted his people do likewise, killing thousands for failure to demonstrate adequate sorrow at the queen mother’s death. In 1828 Shaka was stabbed to death by his half brother Dingane. But the state he had created resisted European colonialism for fifty years after his death, and the Zulu people remain a recognizable political force in South Africa today.


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