Fanciful commentators called him Shaka, the Black Napoleon, and allowing for different societies and customs, the comparison is apt. Shaka is without doubt the greatest commander to come out of Africa.
He was born in the month of uNtulikazi (July) in the year of 1787 near present-day Melmoth, KwaZulu-Natal Province. According to tradition, Shaka was conceived during an act of what began as ukuhlobonga, a form of sexual foreplay without penetration allowed to unmarried couples, also known as "the fun of the roads" (amahlaya endlela), during which the lovers became "carried away".
When Senzangakhona (Shaka's father) died in 1816 Shaka's younger half-brother Sigujana assumed power as the legitimate heir to the Zulu chiefdom. Sigujana's reign was short however as Dingiswayo, anxious to confirm his authority, lent Shaka a regiment so that he was able to put Sigujana to death launching a relatively bloodless coup that was substantially accepted by the Zulu. Thus Shaka became Chief of the Zulu clan, although he remained a vassal of the Mthethwa empire until Dingiswayo's death in battle a year later at the hands of Zwide, powerful chief of the Ndwandwe (Nxumalo) nation. When the Mthethwa forces were defeated and scattered temporarily, the power vacuum was filled by Shaka. He reformed the remnants of the Mthethwa and other regional tribes and later defeated Zwide in the Zulu Civil War of 1819–20.
Shaka granted permission to Europeans to enter Zulu territory on rare occasions. In the mid-1820s Henry Francis Fynn provided medical treatment to the king after an assassination attempt by a rival tribe member hidden in a crowd (see account of Nathaniel Isaacs). To show his gratitude, Shaka permitted European settlers to enter and operate in the Zulu kingdom. This would open the door for Future British incursions into the Zulu kingdom that were not so peaceful. Shaka observed several demonstrations of European Technology and knowledge, but he held that the Zulu way was superior to that of the foreigners.
When Dingiswayo was murdered by Zwide, Shaka sought to avenge his death. At some point Zwide barely escaped Shaka, though the exact details are not known. In that encounter Zwide's mother Ntombazi, a Sangoma (Zulu seer or shaman), was killed by Shaka. Shaka chose a particularly gruesome revenge on her, locking her in a house and placing jackals or hyenas inside: they devoured her and, in the morning, Shaka burned the house to the ground. Despite carrying out this revenge, Shaka continued his pursuit of Zwide. It was not until around 1825 that the two military Leaders met, near Phongola, in what would be their final meeting. Phongola is near the present day border of KwaZulu-Natal, a province in South Africa. Shaka was victorious in battle, although his forces sustained heavy casualties, which included his head military commander, Umgobhozi Ovela Entabeni.
Historian John Laband dismisses these stories as myth, writing: "What are we to make, then, of [European trader Henry Francis] Fynn's statement that once the Zulu army reached hard and stony ground in 1826, Shaka ordered sandals of ox-hide to be made for himself?"
The development of the view that Shaka was the Monster responsible for the devastation is based on the need of apartheid era historians to justify the apartheid regime's racist policies according to Julian Cobbing. Other scholars acknowledge distortion of the historical record by apartheid supporters and shady European traders seeking to cover their tracks, but dispute the revisionist approach, noting that stories of cannibalism, raiding, burning of villages, or mass slaughter were not developed out of thin air but based on the clearly documented accounts of hundreds of black victims and refugees. Confirmation of such accounts can also be seen in modern archaeology of the village of Lepalong, an entire settlement built underground to shelter remnants of the Kwena people from 1827–36 against the tide of disruption that engulfed the region during Shakan times.
The Zulu monarch was killed by three assassins sometime in 1828; September is the most frequently cited date, when almost all available Zulu manpower had been sent on yet another mass sweep to the north. This left the royal kraal critically lacking in security. It was all the conspirators needed—they being Shaka's half-brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana, and an iNduna called Mbopa. A diversion was created by Mbopa, and Dingane and Mhlangana struck the fatal blows. Shaka's corpse was dumped by his assassins in an empty grain pit, which was then filled with stones and mud. The exact location is unknown. A monument was built at one alleged site. Historian Donald Morris holds that the true site is somewhere on Couper Street in the village of Stanger, South Africa.
Scholarship in recent years has revised views of the sources on Shaka's reign. The earliest are two eyewitness accounts written by European adventurer-traders who met Shaka during the last four years of his reign. Nathaniel Isaacs published his Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa in 1836, creating a picture of Shaka as a degenerate and pathological Monster, which survives in modified forms to this day. Isaacs was aided in this by Henry Francis Fynn, whose diary (actually a rewritten collage of various papers) was edited by James Stuart only in 1950.
Shaka's half-brother Dingane assumed power and embarked on an extensive purge of pro-Shaka elements and chieftains, running over several years, in order to secure his position. The initial Problem Dingane faced was maintaining the loyalty of the Zulu fighting regiments or amabutho. He addressed this by allowing them to marry and set up a homestead (this was forbidden during Shaka's rule), and they also received cattle from Dingane. Loyalty was also maintained through fear as anyone who was suspected of rivaling Dingane was killed. He set up his main residence at Mmungungundlovo and established his authority over the Zulu kingdom. Dingane ruled for some twelve years, during which time he fought, disastrously, against the Voortrekkers, and against another half-brother Mpande, who, with Boer and British support, took over the Zulu leadership in 1840, ruling for some 30 years. At the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, the Zulus would become one of the few African peoples to inflict a defeat on the British Army.
The first major clash after Shaka's death took place under his successor Dingane, against expanding European Voortrekkers from the Cape. Initial Zulu success rested on fast-moving surprise attacks and ambushes, but the Voortrekkers recovered and dealt the Zulu a severe defeat from their fortified wagon laager at the Battle of Blood River. The second major clash was against the British during 1879. Once again, most Zulu successes rested on their mobility, ability to screen their forces and to close when their opponents were unfavourably deployed. Their major victory at the Battle of Isandlwana is well known, but they also forced back a British column at the Battle of Hlobane mountain, by deploying fast-moving regiments over a wide area of rugged ravines and gullies, and attacking the British who were forced into a rapid disorderly fighting retreat, back to the town of Kambula.
Their accounts may be balanced by the rich resource of oral histories collected around 1900 by the same James Stuart, now published in six volumes as The James Stuart Archive. Stuart's early 20th century work was continued by D. McK. Malcolm in 1950. These and other sources such as A. T. Bryant gives us a more Zulu-centred picture. Most popular accounts are based on E. A. Ritter's novel Shaka Zulu (1955), a potboiling romance that was re-edited into something more closely resembling a history. John Wright (history professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg), Julian Cobbing and Dan Wylie (Rhodes University, Grahamstown) are among a number of Writers who have modified these stories.
Shaka went on to further refine the ibutho system used by Dingiswayo and others and, with Mthethwa's support over the next several years, forged alliances with his smaller neighbours, to counter the growing threat from Ndwandwe raids from the north. The initial Zulu maneuvers were primarily defensive in nature, as Shaka preferred to apply pressure diplomatically, aided by an occasional strategic assassination. His changes to local society built on existing structures. Although he preferred social and propagandistic political methods, he also engaged in a number of battles, as the Zulu sources make clear. In turn, he was ultimately assassinated by his own half brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana. In 1986, a century later Henry Cele starred as Shaka in the TV series Shaka Zulu.
A 1998 study by Historian Carolyn Hamilton summarizes much of the scholarship on Shaka towards the dawn of the 21st century in areas ranging from ideology, politics and culture, to the use of his name and image in a popular South African theme park, Shakaland. It argues that in many ways, the image of Shaka has been "invented" in the modern era according to whatever agenda persons hold. This "imagining of Shaka" it is held, should be balanced by a sober view of the historical record, and allow greater scope for the contributions of indigenous African discourse.
Wylie (2006) expressed skepticism of the portrayal of Shaka as a pathological Monster destroying everything within reach. They argue that attempts to distort his life and image have been systematic—beginning with the first European visitors to his kingdom. One (Nathaniel Isaacs) wrote to Henry Fynn, a white adventurer, trader and sometime local chieftain:
Shaka's triumphs did not succeed in obliterating or diminishing the memories of his better-born rivals. The hypothesis that several states of a new kind arose about the same time does not take account of the contrast between the short line of Shaka and the long pedigrees of his most important opponents – especially the coalition grouped around his deadly enemy Zwide (d. 1822). The founders of the states which Omer-Cooper called "Zulu-type states," including the Ndebele, the Gasa, the Ngoni, and the Swazi had all been closely associated with Zwide. Instead of hypothesizing that they all chose to imitate Shaka, it is easier to imagine that he modeled his state on theirs. And as they stemmed from ancient families it is entirely possible that states of that type existed in a more remote past. Soga and Bryant related each of them to a larger grouping they called Mho."
Wylie holds that Fynn, whose diary has been widely hailed as a definitive source on Shaka is contradictory, self-serving and at times mendacious, and that Fynn himself was a frontier swashbuckler who occasionally ordered the murder of those who had displeased him, while doctoring his written account to portray himself, and European settlers as beneficent humanitarians. Fynn also sometimes served as an agent of the colonial authorities on certain deniable "dirty work" missions, such as instigating hostilities between various tribes. Wylie asserts that far from being a genocidal maniac, Shaka often ruled as a traditional Bantu monarch of his era. He attacked some enemies, but he also left numerous tribes in place, and maintained a network of dependent states in peaceful tributary relations, or as allied client states. The massive killing sprees alleged are distorted—Shaka was not the only operator in the area. There were other tribes and Leaders of the era, each on the move with their own conflicts, that created turmoil, not merely Shaka. Others included the Ndwandwe, and the Mabhudu who built a polity that outlasted Shaka's and were: "partly responsible for pushing the Diamini-Swazi Tlokwa and Ngwane groups west across the Lubombo hills on to the highveld... the Ndwandwe would become easily the most aggressive of all groups, certainly surpassing the Zulu." Wylie also notes that the Zulu themselves were born in circumstances of threat even before Shaka was born as the Mthethwa, protectors of the small Zulu clan, jockeyed against regional rivals like the Ndwandwe, the Chunu and the Thembu. His war operations did not spring out of a vacuum.