Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Black Spartans - the rise of the Zulu Nation

And now for something completely different. I have recently been watching the '80's miniseries Shaka Zulu. It is an enjoyable romp and a bold piece of television for the time, in which whole hour long episodes pass without the 'stars' Edward Fox and Robert Powell making an appearance and instead centre stage being given to the cast of African newcomers to tell the story of Shaka's remarkable rise to power.

 The Zulu war machine
As I watched, I mused that the story of the rise of the Zulus had many coincidental parallels in classical history. On the plains of Southern Africa in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries there occurred something akin to the hoplite revolution of ancient Greece, where ideas on organisation, weapons and tactics evolved in similar way, albeit with different causes and consequences. The man who drove this revolution forward more than any other was Shaka, who was born in approximately 1787 in not entirely promising circumstances. He was a bastard, albeit of noble parentage. His father was the Zulu prince Sengzangakhona. At the time the Zulu were a relatively small and insignificant tribe, just one of a hundred Nguni chiefdoms scattered across the plains between the Drakensburg Mountains and the Indian Ocean.

Each tribe lived a pastoral existence. Settlements were centred around the kraal of the chief, with the beehive shaped huts of the people radiating outwards in concentric circles. Wealth and status was measured above all in cattle, the tending of which was the responsibility of men folk, particularly the young boys, whilst the raising of crops was the preserve of the women. The Nguni male was also a hunter and a warrior. Wars were fought between tribes on a strictly limited basis, generally over control of pasture or to settle some insult. Fighting largely took place over long range with the throwing of spears and consisted of more posturing than actual combat. The womenfolk of the tribes would come to watch from a distance. Occasionally one side might charge the other to drive them from the field. The defeated enemy was not generally pursued. If a tribe was driven from their lands they simply moved on. Shaka would change all of this.

Shaka's path to the leadership of his people would not be easy however. His mother Nandi was the daughter of the chief of the neighbouring Langeni tribe. Her illicit dalliance with Sengzangakhona was regretted by the Zulu prince, who at first attempted to deny Nandi's pregnancy. He instead claimed that the woman was fantasizing and that she was suffering from a swelling of the stomach caused by the iShaka beetle. When the boy was born, Nandi's ironic choice of name was a tongue in cheek riposte to his father's protestations. Sengzangakhona was eventually forced to acknowledge his paternal responsibilities and took Nandi as his third wife. The reconciliation was short-lived however and Shaka and his mother were driven out into a life of exile.

A portrait of Shaka by Nathaniel Isaacs
The rejection of his father and the humiliation of his mother lit the fire of a lifelong resentment in young Shaka. Relentless bullying at the hands of the youths of the Mthethwa people, amongst whom Nandi took refuge in the home of her aunt, served to stoke this resentment into a dark rage. In the opening years of the Nineteenth Century the Mthethwa were one of two large rival power groups amongst the Nguni. Under the leadership of their paramount chief Dingiswayo, the foundations of the military system that Shaka would create were being put into place. When Shaka took his place amongst the young warriors of the Mthethwa, he would find the perfect outlet for his inner fury.

Despite his commitment to the organisation of his forces, Dingiswayo remained traditional in his views on weapons and tactics. Dingiswayo was a relatively conciliatory overlord, who believed in the age old concepts of limited warfare. Shaka on the other hand, believed in total war, with the objectives being the annihilation and complete subjugation of the enemy. Shaka rose through the ranks to become a prominent commander of Dingiswayo's forces.When Shaka's father died in 1816 Dingiswayo backed Shaka's bid for power in which he overcame his brother Sigujana and took over the rule of the Zulus as a vassal of Dingiswayo.

Two years later Shaka would betray his benefactor when Dingiswayo led his warriors against the rival tribal confederation of the Ndwandwe. Shaka failed to arrive in time to support Dingiswayo and the Mthethwa chief was captured and murdered by his rival Zwide. In the aftermath of his death, none save Shaka had the strength to take control of Dingiswayo's fragmented kingdom.

Shaka continued the expansion of his territories and reorganised and re-equipped his fighting men in accordance with his own ideas. Under Dingiswayo, Shaka had championed changes to the traditional weapons to make them more suitable for close infantry tactics and hand to hand fighting. The traditional long-shafted assegai, useful only as a missile weapon, was shortened and given a larger blade to make it easier to wield at close quarters. The small cowhide shield carried mainly to deflect missile weapons, was enlarged to offer effective protection when closing with the enemy. Shaka's warriors also still carried a throwing spear, to be discharged at the enemy in a volley like Roman pila, prior to a charge. To make their charge more effective, Shaka banned his troops from wearing sandals and legend has it, made them toughen their feet by trampling thorn bushes barefoot.

Toughening the feet by trampling thorn bushes
Shaka's reforms extended to battlefield tactics, deploying his troops into a centre, wings and reserve that would have been familiar to any ancient general, although they were deployed in a novel crescent formation. The wings, termed the horns of the bull, had the primary objective of outflanking and encircling the enemy, driving them onto the spears of the troops of the centre, termed the chest. The oldest warriors, like the triarii of the Roman Republic, formed the reserve, thrown into the fight when the young blades tired or where resistance was strongest.

Shaka took his revolution beyond the battlefield and endeavoured to build a militarised society with a distinct resemblance to the Lycurgan reforms that created the Spartan system.  The young men of Shaka's kingdom were organised for military training in a fashion that bore resemblance to the Spartan agoge. Divided into age-based groups known as intanga, boys began to learn military skills from as young as six, initially accompanying the older warriors on campaign in the capacity of porters and herders. Later as they reached manhood they would join their own regiment or ibutho, where young, unmarried men lived together communally and devoted themselves to warlike pursuits. Young females were also arranged into groups known as amabutho, which would in time provide brides for the young warriors, once they had sufficiently proved their fighting prowess and were permitted to marry enmasse.

Zwide of the Ndwandwe could not let Shaka's rise go unchallenged and led an invasion of Zulu territory. Shaka drew him deep into his own lands and then met him in battle at the Mhlathuze River where the combination of superior Zulu weapons and tactics and Shaka's own leadership delivered a decisive victory. After smashing the Ndwandwe, Shaka faced no significant challenge as he continued to mop up the peoples of the region and unite them under his kingship. He found however, as other great consolidators from Attila the Hun to Genghis Khan had done, that once he had united the fractious tribes, he required further military adventures in order to sustain the system he had created. His impi were sent out ever further on campaigns of subjugation. Many tribes chose to flee and a mass migration northward was triggered which in turn caused further conflict as new arrivals sought land. Amongst those who led his people north was Mzilikazi, a one-time protégé of Shaka. He would recreate the Zulu military system amongst his own people, the Matabele who would later clash with the colonial ambitions of CJ Rhodes.

Francis Farewell
Shaka's continued expansion soon brought his impi close to the frontiers of Britain's new colonial possessions in the Cape. It was concern at Shaka's intentions that led the Cape governor in 1824 to dispatch the expedition of Francis Farewell, dashingly played by Edward Fox in Shaka Zulu, to make contact with Shaka and attempt to establish peaceful relations with the Zulu king. Farewell built a good relationship with Shaka and established a trading post at Port Natal on territory gifted him by the Zulu ruler. Shaka for his part was fascinated by the westerners and even created a new settlement in order to be closer to Farewell's colony. Accompanying Farewell was Henry Fynn, later Cape governor, whose diary provided much detail on the court and character of Shaka. Eighteen months later another expedition led by Lt James King was sent to find Farewell. King was accompanied by Nathaniel Isaacs who later wrote a colourful account Travels and Adventures in East Africa.

Despite good relations with the white traders at Port Natal, Shaka was becoming a brutal tyrant. The death of his mother Nandi in 1828 unhinged him and he demanded extravagant displays of mourning from his subjects. The growing of crops and the consumption of milk was banned, enforced on pain of death. Famine and starvation were the predictable outcome and faced with the meltdown of their king, his brothers and bodyguard took action and Shaka was assassinated. He was succeeded by his half-brother Dingane who would later clash with the Voortrekkers as they brought their wagons north in search of a new homeland away from British domination.

Under Shaka, the Zulus had become the masters of a united and militarised kingdom that was now on a collision course with the white colonists. But that's another movie.

Dingane in an 1847 illustration

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All images used in this blog are in the public domain or are my own photographs

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