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Useful Notes / Shaka Zulu

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The Genghis Khan of South Africa and the Founder of the Zulu Kingdom. Shaka kaSenzangakhona (circa July 1787 – September 22 1828) was born a prince of what was then a fairly minor tribe. He served as a warrior for the nearby chieftain Dingiswayo who would help Shaka secure his position when his father died.

After this came the typical years of Gambit Pileup that constitutes politics wherever it takes place. During this time Shaka was able to refine his army into the form it would later become. It was composed of a number of Impis (usually translated as "regiment") and systematically trained to attack with thrusting spears called iklwa (as opposed to the assegai javelins) using double-envelopment tactics. Besides the added tactical sophistication, the sheer frightfulness of being willing to close to hand-to-hand combat so ferociously (a feat few unarmored troops can be counted on to do regularly) broke the power of rival tribes. Other details include rigorous training and a system of military apprenticeship that made the Zulu army something close to a professional standing army (the only thing it might be said to have lacked to make it a "professional standing army" was a Vast Bureaucracy of support troops, which concept wasn't available in the area) and many historians have marveled at the Zulu army's rigorous training and organizational features.

In the process of his conquests Shaka was able to assimilate a number of tribes until he had an empire that could field tens of thousands of warriors. He died in a coup and was succeeded by his half-brother Digaane.

Needless to say, Shaka is also the center of epics and folk tales circulating among the peoples of his former empire. Like it often happens with folk memory, they don't shy away from misrepresenting the facts to make the story better, and often don't mind including various fantastic elements.


  • Asskicking Leads to Leadership: Before becoming leader of the Zulu tribe, Shaka had a distinguished career as a common soldier in King Dingiswayo's army. At a time when combat between African tribes consisted of fighting mostly by throwing spears at each other from a distance, Shaka preferred to fight his enemies up close with a custom-made spear he eventually named "Aniklwa" in reference to the sound it made when he plunged it into opposing soldiers. He eventually earned a promotion to a commander by defeating a famous warrior of the Butelezi tribe in a one-on-one duel and then leading the rest of the army to victory.
  • Badass Army: The Zulu army, natch.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Shaka grew up in a village where he and his single mother both suffered continual bullying from the locals. As leader, Shaka returned to the village and had all the bullies put to death by impalement, as slowly and painfully as possible. Those who had not bullied them but just let it happen were put to death more quickly and less painfully. Only one man was spared because Shaka remembered him being nice to his mother.
  • Benevolent Boss: Dingiswayo was this to Shaka, as well as his Mentor. Alas, he died, killed by the enemy he once showed mercy, and Shaka drew exactly the conclusions you'd expect him to do.
  • Cain and Abel: Did not have a good relationship with his siblings, having one of his brothers assassinated to take the Zulu throne. He was later dispatched by his two brothers when he went mad... and one of them, Dingane, quickly reduced that family to just one member to claim the crown himself.
  • Celibate Hero: Of a sort. According to the stories, Shaka held a superstitious belief that a man aged only because he had living children. As such, whenever any of his wives fell pregnant, he murdered her.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Which according to legend involved making warriors run over hot coals barefoot and go celibate until killing a man thus combining two tropes. In fact the second at least is doubtful (they were forbidden marriage), though Zulus were known for their march rate and exercised a lot.
  • The Emperor: He assimilated a number of other tribes into the Zulu during his expansion.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Shaka was said to have completely out-Caligula-ed himself after his mother's death, ordering year-long fasting, killing random people and all the like.
  • Evil Mentor: While it's one of the fantastic elements, some versions of his tale have him, as a young man, meet a wizard who offers him a Deal with the Devil. Shaka then decides he'd rather be a powerful conqueror than marry his beloved.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: Shaka's name actually stems from "Ishaka", a Zulu word that loosely translates as "belly-ache" or "gut problem", specifically relating to a parasitic insect that caused intestinal distress; it was a reference that his mother had denied being pregnant with Shaka and claimed she instead was suffering from an Ishaka infestation.
  • Founder of the Kingdom: He founded the Zulu empire.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: On occasion, some people give him this treatment. Among the commoner ways of how it is done is to depict him as a Noble Demon of one sort or another, or a doomed Visionary Villain who intends to build an empire strong enough to resist the Europeans.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: But other people have less benevolent interpretations, of course. For one, some of the more fanciful legends depict him reach the top with the use of black magic.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: Obviously, and arguably the man who turned the Zulus as a whole into this.
  • Rock Beats Laser: Or perhaps Spear Beats Rifle: Shaka acknowledged firearms as a powerful utility and hoped to train his men with them. However, he felt that that the iklwa spear was superior than the rifle because by the time the riflemen reloaded his rifle, he would have been already been swarmed by spear-wielding warriors in close range. His theory bore some fruit nearly 60 years after his death during the Battle of Isandlwana where the British suffered a major defeat in the battle despite the British technological superiority (in addition to being swarmed by spear-wielding warriors). It was then flatly debunked later on the same day when a garrison of just 140 men at the fortress of Rorke's Drift managed to repulse a Zulu army of nearly 4,000 soldiers while taking minimal casualties. The British eventually came back in a second invasion which resulted in the Zulu Empire going down in a hail of gunfire and artillery with the occasional bayonet thrust, at the Battle of Ulundi (where the British essentially formed a giant square edged with machine guns and cannons and opened fire. Even considering that their rifles had a maximum range of 1900 yards, and the Zulu troops were charging into that, canister shot and machine guns, they still got within 30 yards of the square). Even Isandlwana was a dubious victory in the big picture, because it cost the Zulu far more casualties than the British in a war where the British had both superior firepower and more people.
    • It should be remembered that Shaka died nearly 60 years before Isandlwana; his assumptions about European firearms at the time of his reign were mostly true. There's a reason that many of his contemporaries in Europe and North America believed that the socket bayonet was a superior weapon to the actual firearm.
    • It should also be noted that the Zulu actually suffered less casualties than the British at Isandlwana. To be fair, however, a lot of this can be chalked up to brilliant Zulu generalship, gross misjudgements among the British (though the above remains true), and the tactical situation. The Zulu armies favoured speed, functioning as more or less as close to cavalry as infantry soldiers could get. As a result, the open, but broken ground (the latter of which allowed them to actually outrun horses) of Isandlwana played right into their hands. The British, by contrast, favoured dug in positions that played to their advantages in firepower - which the terrain of Rorke's Drift suited perfectly.
  • Sanity Slippage: He... didn't do well after his mom died, going completely insane and issuing nonsensical commands, randomly killing cows to teach their calves about loss and executing people for not grieving enough. His brothers took the chance to get rid of him after that.
  • Self-Made Man: Shaka started out his career as a common soldier with neither wealth nor landholdings, yet ended up forging one of the greatest empires in the history of Africa.
  • Scary Black Man: Most accounts describe Shaka as being over six feet tall and as a conqueror whose military innovations made him the bane of many other nations, you can bet your bottom dollar that he was scary.
  • The Spartan Way: Though the extent is somewhat exaggerated by some accounts, many accounts claim he forced his army to run 50 miles (80 kilometers) a day.
  • Training from Hell: As mentioned above, Shaka trained his army using rigorous and brutal methods. Anyone who failed to obey his orders instantly often faced summary execution on the spot.
  • Warrior Prince: And one of the greatest from Africa.

Depictions in fiction:

  • There was a miniseries in 1986 called Shaka Zulu, which was produced by the South African Broadcasting Company and shown in America on syndication. It starred Henry Cele as Shaka, Christopher Lee as Lord Bathurst, and Roy Dotrice as King George IV.
  • Appears in the Civilization series as the Zulu leader. In fact, he's one of only three leaders to have appeared in all six mainline entries in the series. (The other two are Genghis Khan and Mahatma Gandhi.)
  • While the man himself doesn't appear save as a generic leader in skirmish games, Empire Earth 2's Zulu civilization has the unique Beast Horns formation that lets their Heavy Infantry do more damage. Their unique units include an iklwa wielder and (in the modern age) mobile artillery named Horn of the Impi. The game also lets you fight the battle of Rorke's Drift as either side.
  • In Epic Rap Battles of History, he goes face-to-face with another military genius, Julius Caesar.