Shaka Zulu is said to be one of the greatest military leaders in African history, and perhaps all of history. There is controversy around the brutality of his methods, and the strictness with which he trained his troops, but in many ways, he improved warfare methods forever. Born in 1787 in what is now South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, he died in 1828. His legacy lived on in the Zulu warriors who fought the British in 1879. The military conflict helped immortalize the Zulu in the minds of Westerners, but Zulu history was far from over in 1879. The Zulus persevered through apartheid and remain the largest ethnic group in South Africa. Here are 16 things that made Shaka Zulu a military genius.
He introduced new weapons to the Zulu people
Tired of the assegai — a long pole weapon made of wood with pointed iron at the end and thrown like a javelin — Shaka Zulu introduced the ikwla, a weapon with a shorter sphere and a longer spearhead, sort of like a sword. This weapon gave Shaka’s warriors a huge advantage over opponents when they came up close for hand-to-hand combat.
He introduced cowhide shields
Shaka Zulu supposedly introduced cowhide shields, which were much stronger than the iron or wood shields used previously.
He accustomed his troops to war conditions
Some historians say that Shaka Zulu would make his troops go on 50-mile marches for practice over rough and hot terrain so they wouldn’t be fazed by difficult conditions during battle.
He collected troops like they were acorns
When his father Senzangakona, the chief of the small Zulu tribe, died in 1816, Shaka Zulu took the throne. The following year, he had gathered an army of more than 2,000 warriors. By 1824, his army numbered up to 20,000.
His strict military decrees earned him respect
By stating these rules for his army, Shaka gained confidence and support: 1) He eliminated privilege and class. Warriors had to earn their positions and rank. 2) All the spoils of war taken from the defeated armies were to be split among the warriors, and all resources shared. 3) Ageing members of society were to be treated with dignity, and allowed to retire.
He introduced (and perhaps invented) the bull horn formation
Many historians say Shaka Zulu was the first military leader to use the bull horn formation. This is a three-part attack system in which seasoned warriors form the “chest” of the horn at the front, pinning the enemy into a position where it can be easily attacked. Younger warriors would form the “horns” and encircle the enemy, attacking from the sides, and additional warriors formed the “loins,” standing behind the “chest” with their back to the battle, protecting against any additional attackers.
He differentiated soldiers
Shaka Zulu had soldiers carry different colored or patterned shields, depending on their rank. In a troop of hundreds, this made it much easier for soldiers to know exactly where to go when forming the bull horn.
He made his soldiers remain celibate
With the exception of those already married, he made sexual abstinence mandatory. Many believe that Shaka was a homosexual who had some procreative issues. Would such issues tie into his lifestyle demands for his troops?
He was fiercely dedicated to his mother
Shaka was ruthless and violent with grief after his mother Nandi’s death in 1827. Pregnant women and their husbands from his tribe were murdered, crop planting and milk production was banned, and many Zulus were executed.
He started apprenticeships
Children over age 6 would became apprentice warriors, delivering rations, cooking supplies and weapons to real warriors. By the time children came of age, they were accustomed to being in battle surroundings and were more emotionally ready to fight.
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