How the Legendary Shaka Zulu Became the Zulu Kingdom’s Most Famous Leader

How the Legendary Shaka Zulu Became the Zulu Kingdom’s Most Famous Leader

Patrick Lynch - February 14, 2018

The Zulu Kingdom was a relatively short-lived kingdom which was founded by Shaka Zulu in around 1816, although some historians believe it was earlier. One of its most memorable victories was the defeat of the British in the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 in what was Britain’s worst-ever defeat at the hands of an African kingdom. Eventually, Britain’s greater resources told, and it defeated the Zulus at the Siege of Ulundi less than six months later.

Its founder, Shaka Zulu, is the subject of many myths and legends. What we know is that he introduced various social, military, and cultural reforms and created an organized and centralized Zulu state. Among the more important innovations was the transformation of the Zulu army including new tactics and the introduction of new weapons. He also oversaw the integration of beaten clans into the Zulu. These individuals were given full equality which meant they could gain promotions in the army and civil service. Now, let’s take a look at the life of the legendary Shaka Zulu.

How the Legendary Shaka Zulu Became the Zulu Kingdom’s Most Famous Leader
Depiction of Shaka Zulu – Ancient Origins

Early Life

Shaka was probably born in 1787 in KwaZulu-Natal. It is alleged that he was the product of ukuhlobonga, a tradition which involved sexual foreplay without penetration. Legend has it that his parents got carried away and he was conceived. As a result, Shaka was illegitimate and was taunted during his childhood. In Shaka, Dan Wylie asserts that the illegitimacy story is false and slanderous. After all, his father, Senzangakhona, married his mother, Nandi, and there were no mentions of Shaka being a bastard until after his death. Another suggestion is that Senzangakhona had not been circumcised; which was deemed to be a proper initiation into manhood. He was quickly circumcised and married Nandi, so Shaka was, in fact, legitimate.

Shaka’s life, right up until he became the leader of the Zulu Kingdom in 1816, is a source of mystery which of course means it is laden with information we can’t take at face value. For example, Shaka was allegedly bullied everywhere he went because of his supposed illegitimacy. Another dubious story says his father chased him and his mother away, so Shaka spent his childhood as an outsider in Nandi’s Langeni clan. Still, more tales say he was tormented by boys who trapped him with fecal matter buried in holes, he was forced to drink downstream from others, and he had hot curds poured all over his hands.

How the Legendary Shaka Zulu Became the Zulu Kingdom’s Most Famous Leader
Image from Shaka Zulu series 1986 – Netflix

One of the details about his early life that isn’t disputed is the fact he went to the Mthethwa tribe. The reason is unclear. One story says his father grew jealous of Shaka and decided that his son must die. Shaka learned about his father’s plans and fled to the Mthethwa. Under the tutelage of Chief Dingiswayo, Shaka became a fierce warrior and also learned military tactics.

Over the next few years, Shaka, with the blessing of the Mthethwa, forged alliances with smaller neighbors as a means of preparing to fight against the marauding Ndwandwe tribe. Zulu sources make it clear that Shaka was involved in many battles where he honed his skills. There are also some unsavory details. For example, he apparently had a propensity to ambush girls on bush paths where he would have intercourse with them. Many of these girls became impregnated. Soon, he would have the chance to emerge from the shadows and become the leader of a kingdom.

How the Legendary Shaka Zulu Became the Zulu Kingdom’s Most Famous Leader
Statue of Shaka Zulu in London – Wikipedia

Shaka’s Rise to Power

There is some debate as to when Shaka became the Zulu chieftain after his father died. A lot of sources say 1816, but Wylie believes it was closer to 1812. Shaka’s half-brother, Sigujana, became the new chief but Dingiswayo had other ideas. He lent his protégé a regiment, so Shaka was able to kill Sigujana and stage an otherwise bloodless coup. Shaka remained a vassal of the Mthethwa Empire until Dingiswayo died in battle a year later against Zwide, the leader of the Ndwandwe Nation.

The beginning of Shaka’s reign was far from smooth as he suffered several military setbacks. The Ndwandwe was a real thorn in his side, and they launched an enormous series of attacks in 1815. They defeated the Ngwane and felt confident enough to take on the much larger Mthethwa. Shaka’s forces suffered a couple of early defeats, and soon, the Ndwandwe burned the Zulu heartland’s imizi to the ground.

The deeply concerned Shaka elected to call on the Qwabe for help, and he ensured his protégé, Nqetho, became the leader of these new allies. It was at this time that Dingiswayo died and his demise left a large power vacuum in the Mthethwa nation. It disintegrated as some switched alliances and joined the Ndwandwe while others joined Shaka. It was a complete mess, but soon enough, Shaka would solve the problem in a crucial encounter with the enemy.

How the Legendary Shaka Zulu Became the Zulu Kingdom’s Most Famous Leader
Young Zulu Warriors – God’s Golden Acre

Supreme Power

The Ndwandwe invaded the Makhosini area in 1819 or 1820, and while Shaka retreated at first, it was all part of his plan. He hid his main force near Mvuzane stream and waited. According to legend, Shaka began pumping up his warriors by shouting “victory or death.” Suddenly, he went to the top of a hill and waited. Soon, Zwide and his men appeared, and Shaka’s men attacked. Day one of the fight was little more than a skirmish, but on day two, the two armies fought until sunset and finally, Shaka unleashed his reserves which overpowered the enemy and forced an all-out retreat.

The victory gave Shaka the freedom to begin forging more alliances with groups down south. Zwide survived the battle and was far from beaten. Despite earning a major victory, Shaka showed no inclination to expand at this time. Contrary to what some anti-Zulu sources say, the group had no involvement in the notorious violence that occurred between St. Lucia and the Phongolo River.

Instead, Shaka took the sensible step of consolidating. He appointed a man named Maphitha as the chief of Ndwandwe territory; Maphitha ruled this region independently long after the death of Shaka. Overall, the Zulu leader was intent on ensuring he could balance power blocs against each other.

How the Legendary Shaka Zulu Became the Zulu Kingdom’s Most Famous Leader
Map of the Zulu Kingdom – British Empire

Expanding an Empire

Shaka’s strategy was a clever one because he became known as a kind of ‘haven’ for tribes and warriors who were fleeing attacks. Shaka was careful to ensure these refugees felt welcome because he needed all the manpower he could get. Given his preference for diplomacy over war at this stage of his reign, the suggestion that he murdered the entire Langeni tribe is almost certainly nonsense. Shaka apparently tried to fill up Thathiyana Gorge with the dead; a neat trick since there is no evidence that this gorge even existed. In reality, most of the Langeni submitted without the need for bloodshed.

Shaka had problems with the Qwabe, but eventually, he managed to kill its leader, Phakathwayo, after the Qwabe chief refused to help against Zwide and insulted the Zulu chief’s nether regions. There is some doubt over the veracity of the tale but killing Phakathwayo would explain how Shaka managed to get the Qwabe on his side. Over the next few years, Shaka was able to expand north and in the central region which was near the Zulu ancestral heartlands. It is important to note that Shaka always remained behind his army and didn’t get directly involved in battles.

By the middle of the 1820s, the Zulu apparently controlled an area of over 11,500 square miles. He seemingly met white traders in 1824, and while he was friendly to them, there is a suggestion that Shaka was intent on attacking them at a later stage. Although he had an enormous amount of power, Shaka had yet to defeat Zwide completely. He finally got his chance in 1825 when his army met Zwide near his royal kraal. His men destroyed the kraal and forced Zwide to flee. He died in mysterious circumstances soon after he fled to a female chief named Mjanji, who led the baBelu clan.

How the Legendary Shaka Zulu Became the Zulu Kingdom’s Most Famous Leader
Depiction of Shaka Zulu – Ancient Pages

The Death of Shaka Zulu

Such was the nature of his kingdom that despite his success, Shaka’s crown was never secure. His two half-brothers, Mhlangana, and Dingane, apparently made at least two assassination attempts. The truth is, despite trying to be diplomatic, Shaka made many enemies during his lifetime. He supposedly went off the rails when his mother, Nandi, died in October 1827. One tale suggests that he ordered the death of pregnant Zulu women and their husbands, and decreed that no milk could be used and no crops could be grown. Moreover, 7,000 people who were accused of not grieving enough for Nandi were executed.

Sources for these allegations are sketchy, but it is likely that Shaka met his end at the hands of three assassins in September 1828. He had sent most of his men north and lacked enough security to protect himself against the plotters. Dingane and Mhlangana are the likely culprits, along with an iNduna called Mbopa. They dumped Shaka’s body in a grain pit and covered it with stones and mud; the body has never been recovered.

Dingane became the new chief, and he embarked on a tyrannical reign of terror. He murdered everyone he suspected of being pro-Shaka and killed numerous chieftains to secure his throne. During his 12-year reign, Dingane embarked on a foolhardy war against the Voortrekkers and another against Mpande which was an even bigger disaster. With the support of the British, Mpande seized the crown and Dingane was murdered.

As for Shaka Zulu, he will be remembered for creating the Zulu Kingdom. He introduced military innovations that helped his people get the upper hand against enemies, and while many exaggerations and myths surround his name, Shaka Zulu is arguably the best military leader that Africa has ever produced.



Myth of Iron: Shaka in History – Dan Wylie

Fortune of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavour – Martin Meredith

Shaka Zula: The Rise of the Zula Empire – E. A. Ritter