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The Zulu Empire to 1828

In the early 1800s a great social disruption occurred in southeastern Africa south of the Limpopo River. This was an area relatively free of disease, an area largely of grassland and sparse forest, good for farming and cattle raising. It was an area, as elsewhere in Africa's southeast, to which the Bantu people across the centuries had come, resulting in different dialects of a common Bantu language. It was an area that had been sparsely populated by farmers and herdsmen. There had been occasional raiding or fighting over cattle-grazing rights, with a warfare that had been recreational and without much bloodshed. Warriors on opposing sides squared off and shouted insults at each other while their women watched from the sidelines and shouted encouragement. A few prisoners might have been taken followed by negotiations for prisoner returns and reparations payments in cattle. In the early 1800s this changed. An increase in population intensified competition for land. Larger groupings emerged for the sake of waging bigger wars, and wars became more intense.

A military leader and ruler emerged among the Zulu who was to leave a lasting legacy. His name was Shaka. He was the son of a Zulu chieftain, Senzangahona, and of a woman not recognized as one of the chieftain's legitimate wives. Shaka's mother was driven into exile, and she took her little son, Shaka, with her. When Shaka was fifteen he and his mother were driven away again, and they found shelter in another clan. When Shaka was twenty-three, he was called into service by a chieftain named Dingiswayo, leader of one of the three strong federations that had emerged in Zululand, and Shaka's bravery won Dingiswayo's attention. Dingiswayo adopted Shaka as a son.

Shaka's real father died in 1816 when Shaka was twenty-nine, and Dingiswayo supported Shaka to succeed his father as a chieftain. Shaka employed a half-brother to assassinate the legitimate heir, another half-brother.

As chieftain – under Dingiswayo as overlord – Shaka reorganized his military, advancing their weaponry from light spears for tossing to heavy stabbing spears for hand-to-hand fighting. And his warriors were trained to fight as a unit rather than as individuals, in a formation similar to Alexander the Great's phalanx, with shields of cowhide to protect against thrown spears.

In 1818, Dingiswayo fought a war against one of the other two federations in Zululand: the Ndwandwe in Zululand's far north. Dingiswayo lost, was routed and killed. Shaka had not participated in the war, and he was now without an overlord. He added what had been Dingiswayo's army to his own, and he led his army against the Ndwandwe. The Ndwandwe force was greater in number, but Shaka's force was better at warfare, and Shaka shattered the Ndwandwe. The Ndwandwe scattered, migrating northward, leaving Shaka as overlord in the whole of Zululand.

In the wake of his great victory, Shaka consolidated his rule, putting to death a recalcitrant chief and his close relatives. All of Zululand was organized. Youth from all of Zululand were to serve in Shaka's army. From around 1821, young women were recruited into guilds for national service. Girls in the hundreds were distributed by "Father Shaka" as wives.

Shaka had created the most powerful African kingdom in the southeast of Africa, and it was a source of pride for the Zulu. But his manner of rule annoyed some of the Zulu, and three of his commanders fled, taking their regiments with them. One of the commanders founded his own kingdom in Gazaland. Other Zulus fleeing Shaka created what was to become known as Swaziland. Zulus fled as far north as Lake Malawi and eastward to Bechuana.

Shaka's raids for cattle and what else he could find sent neighboring non-Zulus fleeing, leaving areas depopulated. These were known locally as the Time of Troubles. Southwest of Zululand, in mountainous Basutoland, an able leader, Moshoeshoe, used guns, cavalry and diplomacy to fend off the Zulu, and he built up his nation, uniting a diverse people uprooted by war.

It was Shaka's aim, it is said, to rule all Africans, and warfare continued as Shaka expanded his empire. In 1824, two officers in Britain's Royal Navy arrived with a few English adventurers at Natal, south of Zululand, hoping to create a settlement. Shaka was curious and befriended them, winning their support for his wars of conquest. Shaka in return recognized Britain's occupation of land at Natal.

While on a hunt with the British, Shaka learned that his mother lay dying. In grief and in reverence to his mother he ordered several men executed, but his order was carried out chaotically and it is said that more than 7,000 were killed. The Zulu were becoming tired of constant warfare and all the bloodshed, and Shaka appeared to be losing touch with reality. On September 22, 1828, Shaka was stabbed to death by various half-brothers, and one them, Dingane (or Dingaan), replaced Shaka as ruler of Zululand.

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