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Shaka Zulu

Shaka Zulu was the most famous Zulu warrior ever. He became king of a huge empire. We don’t have a lot of information about this period of history, so we rely on oral histories and reports written by European traders.


The Zulus started out as a group of around 1500 people living in a tiny patch and grew into one of the largest empires.

Eventually, Shaka’s empire was home to around 250,000 people and it covered an area the size of New Jersey in America and was slightly bigger than the county of Yorkshire in the UK.

Shaka Empire

Who were the Zulu people?

They lived in what is now described as the eastern part of Africa. Their wealth was measured mostly in cattle. They farmed maize and milk.


At the end of the eighteenth-century, warfare consisted of mainly fighting at arm’s length, with spears. Battles normally ended with the transferring of a small amount of territory or cattle.

Shaka was to change all of this. He began to fight battles in order to gain territory and power.

Why was Shaka Zulu unlike any other warriors?

Shaka Zulu

Shaka Zulu changed the course of battle for the Zulus. He used different weapons and strategies to fight. For example, he used shorter spears and people began to battle at close quarters.

He developed a technique where he would surround his enemies. This was called the bull horn technique.

Shaka shouldn’t have become King at all

Shaka wasn’t actually the heir to the Zulu throne. He was illegitimate, which meant his mother wasn’t part of the royal family or married to the king.

He was sent away from the Kingdom to live with the neighbouring Elangeni community.

Shaka became a warrior for another neighbouring group called the Mtethwa. Under the leadership of Jobe, then Dingiswayo, he learnt to become a fierce warrior.

Dingiswayo noticed that Shaka had a real skill for fighting and battle. He also knew that he had royal blood, too. So Dingiswayo put him in charge of his own army.


Shaka came up with a new fighting tactic called the bull horn. He split his army into three groups, all named after parts of the cow. The three groups were the horns, the chest and the loins.

Like this, the army would surround their enemies, with the chest charging forward. The horn groups surrounded the enemy from either side, and the loins waited in the reserves to slot in where they were needed.

Armed with new battle tactics and his ally, Dingiswayo, Shaka decided to take the Zulu throne.


Shaka takes the throne

When Shaka heard the news that his father had died, he decided to assassinate his half-brother and take the throne for himself.

Shaka was the ruler of Zulu but Dingiswayo was still ruler of the Mthetwa. However, Dingiswayo was killed by another man named Zwide, ruler of another group called the Edondwe.

Shaka sought vengeance and also took Dingisway’s place as ruler of the Mthetwa.  With this, he merged the Zulu with the Edondwe, Mthetwa and other local groups.

Europeans come along

A lot of our information comes from European traders, who came to this part of Africa, mostly looking for ivory. This is when they encountered Shaka. An increased demand for ivory led to more hunting of elephants.

Hannibal in Italy on elephant

Hunting elephants needs groups of people to come together to hunt. This could be one of the reasons that the new type of warfare, under Shaka’s control, began to spread.

A big drought (dry spell) also caused the European crops to fail. This meant that the area was prime for the ‘crushing’.

Shaka’s war: the Crushing

Between 1815 and 1840, there was a new period of war and total chaos as people fought back against Shaka.

Shaka’s War

First, Shaka had to build his power and his army. The Mthetwe and the Zulu became warriors under Shaka. Shaka began to expand his territory in quite a brutal way.

Sometimes, Shaka would use diplomatic tactics (where you try to befriend other peoples and foreigners to get them on side). When diplomacy didn’t work, Shaka used violence to defeat his enemies in the area and conquer more lands.

When Shaka was satisfied he had enough fighters, he took on Zwide, leader of the Ndwandwe group. Shaka and Zwide (the one who killed Dingiswayo) went to war.


The Ndwande still had twice as many men as Shaka, so they really thought that victory was certain for them. Shaka had cleverly put his men on top of a huge hill, which made it difficult for the chaotic and disorganised Ndwande army.

The Zulu, of course, had their short stabbing spears and ran the Ndwande army down the hill. The Ndwande had to climb the hill five times. They began to tire and suffer from the scorching hot climate of Africa.

Shaka was ready for one final attack because he had kept back one third of his men, ‘the loins’ of the cow, in reserve. Shaka finally crushed Zwide’s army. The bull horn fighting technique had really worked in defeating the Ndwande.


There were many casualties in this bloody war. Nearly 2000 Zulus died and 7,500 Ndwandwe died too. Luckily for Shaka, Zwide was not very popular with many of the neighbouring groups.

Word had spread that his army was not that strong, and so Shaka gained many more allies. One final battle at the Mhlathuze River finished off Zwide’s forces for good.

Shaka marched on the Ndwande capital and conquered it. He used horrible brutal tactics and burnt houses to the ground. Shaka turned his confederacy into an empire.


The price of Shaka’s brutality

Over the next 15 years, over 1,000,000 people would die as a result of these brutal tactics. The story goes that Shaka committed lots of terrible atrocities after his mother died.

It was said he ordered no grains to be planted for a year and that all baby calves were to be killed.


In the end, his brothers assassinated him as they had been trying to get rid of him for a long time.

Shaka had built the Zulu Empire on blood and warfare. At least, this is how he is remembered in history.

Of course, we know that the victors (winners) write the history, so we might need to look carefully at all the sources of information before making up our own minds.

Quiz Time!

quiz activity for kids

Who was Dingiswayo?

What did Dingiswayo think Shaka was good at?

What was Shaka’s fighting technique known as?

What do you think the most important reason was for the defeat of the Ndwande?

Who killed Shaka?

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