How Shaka Zulu rose from an unwanted son to a great Zulu king in 1820

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Shaka Zulu made his mark in history as a great warrior and king of the Zulu in South Africa. His story has fascinated historians, who have tried to figure out the aspects that drove him to be the conqueror he is known today.

Even his death on this day in 1828 at the hands of his brothers did not mar the legacy he left behind.

Shaka Zulu was born Sgidi kaSenzangakhona circa 1787 in present-day Kwa Zulu Natal.  History indicates that he was conceived in a process called ukuhlobonga, a sexual act between an unmarried couple where penetration does not occur.

His father, Senzangakhona, was a chief of the Zulu, then a small community. His mother was  Nandi,  the daughter of a Langeni chief.  Senzangakhona tried to deny responsibility for Nandi’s pregnancy but eventually installed her as his third wife. The marriage was tumultuous and Senzangakhona eventually drove Nandi out of his homestead.

As Shaka was growing up in his father’s homestead, he preferred the name Sgidi to Shaka, which was a reference to his illegitimacy. When he moved to his mother’s community, he was subjected to ridicule and humiliation because he was ‘fatherless’.

His experience was the same when he moved to Mthetwa, under paramount chief Dingiswayo, who mentored him. He grew up to be a tall and skilful, putting himself way above his agemates. He joined the Mthetwa regiment at 23 years old and with his thirst for power, his prowess and intelligence, he rose up the ranks.

When Senzangakhona died in 1816, Shaka’s half-brother Sigujana took over as the chief of the Zulu.  Chief Dingiswayo allowed Shaka to usurp Sigujana and become chief. Since he was the paramount chief’s favourite, he had the freedom to do what he wanted.

1824 European artist’s impression of Shaka

He used this freedom to conquer and assimilate the neighbouring chiefdoms including the Lengeni, who had teased him in his boyhood.

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Dingiswayo was killed by the leader of a rival clan, Zwide and Shaka made his mission to avenge him. He reorganised the Mthetwa regiment, making it one of the fiercest armies at the time.  He defeated Zwide’s army in the Zulu Civil War of 1819-1820.

It took Shaka seven years to meet and kill Zwide. Years before Shaka had brutally killed Zwide’s mother by locking her up in a hut with jackals and hyenas which devoured her. He later burnt the hut down.

After the death of Zwide, Shaka became an unrivalled leader of the Zulu. His brief reign saw the expansion of the region, in which small chiefdoms would surrender to his rule or forcibly destroyed and conquered.  The chiefdoms that surrendered were then overseen by either the reigning chief or a relative specifically selected by Shaka.

Some of the things Shaka is remembered for include the introduction of a new weapon called the ikilwa; enhancing the mobility of the army; incorporating the youth-both boys and girls- into the army; and involving women in leading the community in his absence.

He was also remembered for some brutal acts like putting to death the women who got pregnant by him and killing people who wronged him by the nod of his death.

The king loved his mother, Nandi, so much that when she died of dysentery in 1827, he randomly killed 7000 people at her funeral because they were not showing adequate remorse. He had also stated that in the year of mourning, no crops should be planted and no milk should be used. He even ordered the execution of couples who would get pregnant in that year.

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As the cruelties increased, more people wavered in their loyalty to the king. It was no surprise that he was killed by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana with the help of Mbopha, his servant

As his life ebbed away, Shaka called out to Dingane.

“Hey brother! You kill me, thinking you will rule, but the swallows [white people] will do that. Are you stabbing me, kings of the earth? You will come to an end through killing one another.”

Upon Shaka’s death, Dingane became king but his reign saw the decline of the Zulu army in the region. He was deposed by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana, and an advisor called Mbopa. It is said Mbopa created a diversion, which distracted Shaka and provided Dingane and Mhlangana with the opportunity to strike the fatal blows.

Shaka’s body was thrown into a pit, whose precise location is unknown until today despite the erection of a monument at one of the alleged locations.

This memorial Stone of King Shaka Zulu in Stranger, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. Photo: Wiki CC

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