King Shaka’s Warriors

Sketch of King Shaka from 1824 (found in Nathaniel Isaacs’ book ‘Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa,’ published in 1836)

Below is a description of King Shaka’s warriors. King Shaka is known for the military and social innovations he brought to the Zulu people unifying them into a formidable empire admired by some, and feared by others. What stands out is the great discipline of his warriors.  The Zulu army or Zulu impi was the most powerful war machine the British ever faced in Southern Africa.  The Zulu combat strategy was perfected by King Shaka himself, who added great organization and discipline to the traditional qualities of courage and mobility cultivated within African armies.  During the battle, the Zulu army would organize itself as an arc facing the adversary. This arrangement was known as the “bull horn” formation. At the center (known as the chest in Zulu) were found the most seasoned regiments; on the wings (or horns) were found the regiments of younger warriors.  The latter used their speed and agility to outflank the enemy by attacking him on the flanks while trying to encircle him, while the chest warriors engaged him in the front.  Behind the chest, and with their back turned so as to keep their calm, were the veteran regiments (also known as the kidneys) who will wait as reserves, intervening only to switch the battle to victory. Every man knew his place, moves, and maneuvers with extreme precision. Shaka’s methods reached their high point during the Zulu victory at Isandhlwana against the British forces in 1879.

Zulu warrior in 1913

Although Isaacs’ account below of his visit to Shaka’s palace is a biased view from a European who saw everything African, Black, as inferior, it is still good to note the number, the order of the troops, the strength of the king (who was not just complacent, but an active member of his troops), and much more. This also gives a better idea of the dressing of the warriors and girls, as well as the living structure in the kraal. This account can be found in N. Isaacs, Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa volume 1.

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Reception of the Zulus for Chaka from Isaacs’s book Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa. Descriptive of the Zulus, their manners, customs, with a sketch of Natal.

This morning three regiments of boys arrived to be reviewed. There appeared to be nearly 6000, all having black shields. The respective corps were distinguished by the shape and ornament of their caps. One regiment had them in the shape of Malay hats, with a peak on the crown about six inches high, and a bunch of feathers at the top. Another wore a turban made of otter-skin, having a crane’s feather or two on each side ; and the third wore small bunches of feathers over the whole head, made fast by means of small ties. Thus accoutred and distinguished, they entered the gate, ran up the kraal, halted in front of the palace, and saluted the king.

Zulu kraal near Umlazi in Natal 1849

One boy stepped in front and made a long harangue. When the orator had concluded, the whole of his comrades first shouted, and then commenced running over the kraal, trying to excel each other in feats of agility and gesture, regardless of order, regularity, or discipline. After this exhibition, which lasted three hours, a regiment of men arrived with white shields, having on them one or two black spots in the center; they saluted Shaka, then retired to put away their shields, and assembled again in one body to dance. They formed a half circle; the men in the center and the boys at the two extremities. The king placed himself in the middle of the space within the circle, and about 1500 girls stood opposite to the men three deep, in a straight line, and with great regularity. His majesty then commenced dancing, the warriors followed, and the girls kept time by singing, clapping their hands, and raising their bodies on their toes. The strange attitudes of the men exceeded anything I had seen before.

Zulu warrior in full regalia 1860: carrying the large isihlangu war shield. The upper body is covered in cow tails, the kilt is of spotted cat, genet or civet skin and the shins are decorated with cowtails. The elaborate headdress consists of a browband and face-framing flaps of leopard skin with another band of otter skin above. There are multiple ostrich feather plumes and a single upright crane’s feather.

The king was remarkable for his unequaled activity, and the surprising muscular powers he exhibited. He was decorated with a profusion of green and yellow glass beads. The girls had their share of ornaments, in addition too they had each of them four brass bangles round their necks, which kept them in an erect posture, and rendered them as immovable as the neck of a statue. This ceremony was performed with considerable regularity, from the king- giving, as it were, the time for every motion. Wherever he cast his eye, there was the greatest effort made, and nothing could exceed the exertion of the whole until sunset, when Shaka, accompanied by his girls, retired within the palace, and the warriors to their respective huts. Many, however, first went to the river and performed their evening ablutions.

Portrait of Shaka, the Great Zulu King

Sketch of King Shaka from 1824 (found in Nathaniel Isaacs’ book ‘Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa,’ published in 1836)

King Shaka, Shaka kaSenzangakhona (Shaka son of Senzangakhona), or Shaka Zulu, is known today as the founder of the Zulu Empire or Zululand. He ruled from 1816 to 1828, and was one of the most influential monarchs of the Zulu, responsible for re-organizing the Zulu military into a formidable force via a series of wide-reaching and influential reforms; thus he was responsible for uniting small Zulu clans to form an impressive Empire which was a real threat to European advances in the region. Shaka was a master military strategist who revolutionized the Zulu military by dividing his army into components, sometimes on the basis of age and fighting strength. For example, he tasked young boys, perhaps in their early teens, with transporting military supplies. This allowed his fighting machine to move very quickly during raids or conquests. When Shaka first became king, the Zulu were a cluster of tribes of less than 2000 people; by the end of his reign, the population was 250,000 people, an impressive growth for a 12-year reign.

Nathaniel Isaacs, a British explorer met King Shaka. Below is a portrait he made of King Shaka found in N. Isaacs, Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa Vol I, 1836.

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Reception of the Zulus for Chaka from Isaacs’s book Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa. Descriptive of the Zulus, their manners, customs, with a sketch of Natal.

“In the evening, at the request of the king, we joined in their amusements, and could not … avoid singing: we commenced with ‘God save the King.’ On our explaining its literal meaning, Chaka was highly pleased; in fact, there was nothing but good humour to be observed in the countenances of every one present. The party broke up at a late hour; and, as is usual, in the morning we paid the king an early visit. We now expressed a wish to see him in his war dress; he immediately retired, and in a short time returned attired: his dress consists of monkeys’ skins, in three folds from his waist to the knee, from which two white cows’ tails are suspended, as well as from each arm; round his head is a neat band of fur stuffed, in front of which is placed a tall feather, and on each side a variegated plume. He advanced with his shield, an oval about four feet in length, and an umconto, or spear, when his warriors commenced a war song, and he began his maneuvres. Chaka is about thirty-eight years of age, upwards of six feet in height, and well proportioned: he is allowed to be the best pedestrian in his country, and, in fact, during his wonderful exercises this day he exhibited the most astonishing activity.”