Jun 10

Shaka Zulu

by in Africa, South Africa

From Capetown we took a short flight to Durbin.  We stayed outside the city on Salt Beach, near the borders of the Zulu nation. 

The Zulus are the largest African tribe in South Africa – 8.5 million people out of 48 million in the country.  The current President is a Zulu. 

The Zulus live in huts and you can see many modern huts along the highway.  They need huts because Zulu men are allowed to marry as many women as they can afford (4 or 5 is not unusual) and each one needs their own hut for herself and children.

The Zulus were originally a small tribe, but their destiny changed in the early 1800s under the leadership of Shaka Zulu.  We drove out to “Shakaland” – originally a movie set and now a historical recreation of a Zulu village – to learn more.

Shaka is sometimes referred to as the “African Napoleon”.   He revolutionized warfare and conquered and unified the neighboring kingdoms. When he fought, there was no mercy, only surrenders and death.

Shaka was parented by the prior king of the Zulus and his “play-wife”. The play-wife thought their relationship was something more, and when her stomach swelled up she contacted the king. The king dismissed her claim, and said it was probably just the stomach beetle or “Shaka”. When the wife presented him with her child, he claimed him but ignored and shunned him. The boy was named Shaka, after the stomach beetle.

Shaka was an easy target for bullies, and was beaten up and injured throughout his childhood. Finally, when the mother and son could take it no more, they fled in secrecy and found another village where they were accepted.

Shaka quickly rose among the ranks of the village’s army, starting as a soldier and ending up within a few years as a general.

When Shaka became a general, he realized that the Zulu way of warfare, namely blocks of men on the battlefield throwing spears, was not effective. Once you throw your spear, you can’t get it back.  And, your enemy can use it against you.

Shaka looked for a new weapon.  He broke one of the throwing spears in half, and found it strangely wonderful. He stabbed, and blocked and jumped, and yelled, slaughtering an invisible force. Satisfied, he set out to prepare for his campaign to conquer all of South Africa.


His idea for a short spear was ingenious. He went to the blacksmith and asked him to make him the new spear – short with a wide, leaf-shaped blade. Upon completion, Shaka named his weapon after the sound it made when entering and exiting a body. (I wonder how he knew. *grimace*)

The men under his command were each issued one of the new spears and a large oval cowhide shield. Soldiers were to have the shield in their left hand, and the spear in their right.  (If you were a lefty, Shaka would cut off one of the fingers on your left hand so you started using your right hand with the spear instead.)

Shaka then set to work on devising new battle tactics and strategies. There were three problems he faced.

1)      A new Battle Strategy

2)      Better intimidation

3)      Battlefield excitement gone wrong

His strategy was soon found. He called it, “The Bull’s Horns”. Basically, a block of men would charge out to meet the enemy; the head. Meanwhile two contingents of swift warriors would be running around the battle to get to the side and rear of the enemy’s forces; the horns. When the horns crashed into the enemy, the surprise and hesitation about which direction to fight caused massive devastation. Soon the battle was over, and Shaka was victorious.

For intimidation, Shaka invented a battle dance, to be danced before the conflict with vigorous beating of drums. The beat of the drums and the war cries would get his men filled with fervor while having the opposite effect on the enemy.

Shaka was a soldier’s general. Often he would fight in the front lines along with his men. The men loved him for it, and as a bonus to his natural honor and camaradie, this gave him enough loyalty and respect to enforce this next solution. You see, during the heat of battle, warriors would get so excited that if they saw a girl they would chase after her. Warrior chasing girl = one less person fighting. His solution was that every man would wear a special item that looked like a large walnut. It was woven out of sharp wood strips and the entrance was about the width of a thumb.  Any man wearing this who became distracted would be painfully reminded to return to battle.

Soon Shaka had conquered all of South Africa and beyond. He made the military strength of the Zulu’s so formidable, that later on in history, the Zulus would deal the British invaders the most devastating defeat ever received from an indigenous army.

If you want to see a re-created Zulu village for yourself, just drive an hour or so out of Durbin. Shaka’s work will be waiting for you.


One Response to “Shaka Zulu”

  1. From Charlie:

    Off topic but Bruins Stanley Cup game 7 tonight

    Posted on 15. Jun, 2011 at 6:07 pm #