The Zulu started off as a major clan within what is known today as Northern KwaZulu-Natal in around 1709 by Zulu kaMalandela. In the traditional Nguni languages, iZulu represented the word “heaven”. Many communities of Nguni cultural ideals began migrating down Africa’s eastern coast, working their way to southern Africa as part of the great Bantu migrations. At long last, around the ninth century or so, the southern districts of the African colonized had been “colonized” in a sense by the Bantu people.
It wasn’t until 1818 when the Zulu formed itself into a powerful leader, uniting under Shaka Zulu – whom gained incredible power throughout the southern empires. Shaka Zulu has gone down in history as a great military strategist, but the facts show us that Shaka doesn’t necessarily deserve the total credit that he’s been given.
How do we know about Shaka Zulu? Well, mostly through trading records and military experiences as recorded by the British Empire. The series of wars that occurred was only partially Shaka’s responsibility, yet the majority of these written records came from English traders who specifically came to Zulu lands.
Let me explain it this way: by shining this spotlight of significance on Shaka, the primary historical sources really left everyone within the other tribes in the dark. By personally dealing with Shaka’s empire, the notes and references are primarily focused around him and his empire.
But, with that out of the way, the Zulus are a rather interesting group of people to research. Despite facing an internationally acclaimed enemy with more modern artillery and more organized regiments, the Zulus found themselves leaving a mark in history through terrorizing the British army. To think of it, the Zulus had literally risen up from nobodies to a powerful force!
At the dawn of the 19th century, the Zulus were nothing more than a small, insignificant, and undistinguished clan amongst many others. We can assume through limited records that there were as few as 1500 people classified as a Zulu, living within an initial area the size of a 10 square miles. But, with rather breathtaking speed, the Zulus erupted!
Wars prior to the Zulu burst were rarely, if ever, decided. Short throwing spears were the primary weapon, and battles between South African kingdoms never really led to land getting swapped. It was more or less a chest-buffing competition to see which kingdom could intimidate the others. Throwing spears was not meant to take land or kill clans, but to show force rather than total violence.
But, with the introduction of Shaka Zulu along with four or five other external influences, the style of invasion relatively changed for good.
With the population boom of the late 18th century and the famine of the early 19th century, chiefdoms slowly started to take over the clan style of living that the society was accustomed to. Shaka was the “main course” in this upheaval, but the situation he arrived in was rather interesting.
The Zulu people were a rather pastoral people. They’d regularly eat maize and other agricultural goods, but they’d use cows and cattle as a form of currency, in a sense. One of the main influences aforementioned was because of this.
As population gradually and literally boomed, the need to expand to have more cattle because increasingly significant to the Zulu people and the tribes surrounding them. As cattle was a form of wealth, the space that cattle grazed in would have been counted as immensely important. This great movement towards the centralization of tribes throughout the area led to a growing conflict for land.
However, despite conflicting differences and the thirst for land, the people within the area hadn’t seen nor thought of a destructive sense of warfare until they managed to develop the ideology for it.
Born in 1787, Shaka Zulu was born as the illegitimate son to the chief of the Zulu clan, Senzangakhona kaJama. According to oral traditions, Shaka was conceived during an act of what began as “ukuhlobonga”, a form of sexual foreplay forbidding penetration which was socially allowed between unmarried or single couples. The word “Shaka” means “intestinal beetle” in the Zulu bantu language, showing just how his father felt about him.
Because of his illegitimacy, Shaka spent his childhood within his mother’s clan. Serving as a soldier, it is here where Shaka became interested in revolutionizing the strategies of Southern Africa. Refining the system for several years, Shaka forged alliances with smaller clans surrounding him and elevated him to a status of successful pride.
But, unlike popular tales, the initial Zulu structures and maneuvers that Shaka initiated began as defensive. Shaka started out his legacy with an attempt to intervene through diplomatic pressures, but his battling predominance soon took control of his foreign affairs and domestic plans. Because of Shaka Zulu, a confederation of around fifty small tribes united battling techniques to cause a major threat in the region.
Shaka changed the throwing spear technique of yester-year and introduced the close-fighting tactics through the Iwisa war hammer and impi military units. Although the late 18th century and early 19th century included the rise of several significant kingdoms, the historical focus on Shaka Zulu allows the story to signify one line of interest as well.
Zulu’s seven years of fighting led to a fantastic border expansion in which at least half the territory was a “puppet” access point for Zulu people.
Alas, all stories come to an end. In 1827, Shaka’s mother Nandi died. The Great Zulu Warrior became openly psychotic, killing at least 7,000 of his own men in his terrible rampage. He refused to let crops be grown in his boundaries, calling for a period of absolute grief in the nation he allowed to grow for so long. Nor could milk from cows be used at all. The basis of the Zulu diet was disrupted. Shaka’s grief for his mother led to him ordering his military “officers” to slay all pregnant women (along with their husbands).
Zulu’s most psychotic mistake? He ordered that thousands of cows – the status of wealth and the bringer of milk – be slaughtered so that every calf within the Zulu land would “know what it was like to lose” their mothers.
Shaka was assassinated on September 22nd, 1828, in KwaDukuza, South Africa at the age of 41. Dingane and Mhlangana, Shaka’s half-brothers, were the cause. Dingane assumed power, purging pro-Shaka elements and chieftains. However, he fell short at maintaining the loyalty within the tribe. He addressed the loyalty problems through completely disbanding Shaka’s laws. Digane allowed the Zulu people to marry, something banned in Shaka’s kingdom, and he re-instated the traditional cattle homesteads.
Dingane ruled for twelve years, fighting disastrously against neighboring tribes and against his own half-brother Mpande. Thanks to Boer and British external support, Mpande would take over the Zulu leadership in the year 1840, ruling for some thirty years.
…But, that’s where part one of this two-part history of the Zulu tribe turned kingdom ends. The rise of the Zulu power had plateaued, and the Boer/British neighbors will further impact the history of South Africa in the decades coming. Next up? The fall.