Shaka (sometimes spelled Tshaka, Tchaka or Chaka; sometimes referred to as Shaka Zulu; c. 1787 – c. 22 September, 1828) was the most influential leader of the Zulu Kingdom.

He is widely credited with uniting many of the Northern Nguni people, specifically the Mtetwa Paramountcy and the Ndwandwe into the Zulu kingdom, the beginnings of a nation that held sway over the large portion of southern Africa between the Phongolo and Mzimkhulu rivers, and his statesmanship and vigour marked him as one of the greatest Zulu chieftains. He has been called a military genius for his reforms and innovations, and condemned for the brutality of his reign.

Other historians note debate about Shaka’s role as a uniter versus a usurper of traditional Zulu ruling prerogatives, and the notion of the Zulu state as a unique construction, divorced from the localised culture and the previous systems built by his predecessor Dingiswayo. Research continues into the character, methods and influence of the Zulu king, who continues to cast a long shadow over the history of southern Africa.

Early life
Shaka was probably the first son of the chieftain Senzangakhona and Nandi, a daughter of Bhebhe, the past chief of the Langeni tribe, born near present-day Melmoth, KwaZulu-Natal Province.He was conceived out of wedlock somewhere between 1781 and 1787. Some accounts state that he was disowned by his father (Tabile Raziya) and chased into exile. Others maintain that his parents married normally. Shaka almost certainly spent his childhood in his mother’s settlements. He is recorded as having been initiated there and inducted into an ibutho lempi (fighting unit). In his early days, Shaka served as a warrior under the sway of local chieftain Dingiswayo and the Mthethwa, to whom the Zulu were then paying tribute.

Dingiswayo called up the emDlatsheni iNtanga (age-group), of which Shaka was part, and incorporated it in the Izichwe regiment. Shaka served as a Mthethwa warrior for perhaps as long as ten years, and distinguished himself with his courage, though he did not, as legend has it, rise to great position. Dingiswayo, having himself been exiled after a failed attempt to oust his father, had, along with a number of other groups in the region (including Mabhudu, Dlamini, Mkhize, Qwabe, and Ndwandwe, many probably responding to slaving pressures from southern Mozambique) helped develop new ideas of military and social organisation, in particular the ibutho, sometimes translated as ‘regiment’ or ‘troop’; it was rather an age-based labour gang which included some better-refined military activities, but by no means exclusively. Most battles before this time were to settle disputes, and while the appearance of ibutho lempi (fighting unit) dramatically changed warfare at times, it largely remained an instrument for seasonal raiding and political persuasion rather than outright slaughter. Of particular importance here is the relationship which Shaka and Dingiswayo had.

European entrance into the Zulu nation was granted by Shaka on rare occasions. Henry Francis Fynn provided medical treatment to the king after an assassination attempt from 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 held that the Zulu way was superior to that of the foreigners.

Scholarship in recent years has revised views of the sources on Shaka’s reign. The earliest are two eyewitness accounts written by white 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.

Their accounts may be balanced by the rich resource of oral histories collected around 1900 by the same James Stuart, now published in 6 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 which was re-edited into something more closely resembling a history. The work of John Wright (history professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg), Julian Cobbing and Dan Wylie (Rhodes University, Grahamstown) have been among a number of writers that have modified these stories.

Various modern historians writing on Shaka and the Zulu point to the uncertain nature of Fynn and Isaac’s accounts of Shaka’s reign. A standard general reference work in the field is Donald Morris’s “The Washing of The Spears” that notes the sources, as a whole, for this historical era are not the best. Morris nevertheless references a large number of sources, including Stuart, and A. T. Bryant’s extensive but uneven “Olden Times in Zululand and Natal” which is based on four decades of exhaustive interviews of tribal sources. After sifting through these sources and noting their strengths and weaknesses, Morris generally credits Shaka with a large number of military and social innovations, and this is the general consensus in the field.

A 1998 study by historian C. Hamilton summarizes much of the scholarship on Shaka towrds 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.

Military historians of the Zulu War must also be considered for their description of Zulu fighting methods and tactics, including authors like Ian Knight and Robert Edgerton. General histories of Southern Africa are also valuable including Noel Mostert’s “Frontiers” and a detailed account of the results from the Zulu expansion, J. D. Omer-Cooper’s “The Zulu Aftermath”, which advances the traditional Mfecane theory.