Africa: Zulu Empire – Shaka Zulu Becomes King – Extra History – #1


Welcome to a new series of Extra History. Before we start, I’ve got two announcements. Thanks to all of you who supported us on Patreon, Extra History is now officially a weekly show. New episodes will come out every Saturday from here on, and to help us do that, We’ve got a new team member. Allow me to introduce Heather McNabb. She and David will be trading off every series. I’m excited. Let’s get started. For the next few weeks, we’ll be covering the Zulu Empire: its rise, its fall, and its famous fight against the British. We’ll see a small tribe become an Empire. We’ll see European factions playing out the game of power on South African shores, and we’ll see a late post-Napoleonic army, well drilled and equipped with modern rifles, be beaten by an indigenous population wielding nothing more than spears and hide shields, but before we can do so we need to talk about sources. There’s a lot about this period that we just don’t know. It’s not like the Sengoku Jidai where it’s simply hard to find the translations of the more obscure records. In this case we’re dealing with a culture that didn’t keep written records, so all we have to go on are scant accounts from European traders and oral histories collected decades after the fact. Much of what we’re going to tell you, especially about the early period we’re covering, are best guesses by the historians and archaeologists who have worked tirelessly to piece together the puzzle of exactly what transformed the Zulus, a tribe perhaps as small as 1,500 people living in an area of probably around 10 square miles, into an empire of 250,000 people, ruling over an area roughly the size of New Jersey. So, with that caveat, let’s start laying out the background. Who were the Zulu people when this all began? What did life look like for them? How did they subsist? What was their government, their economy, their military? Well, they were a relatively minor tribe within the larger Bantu people who occupied a region in what would now be the Eastern part of South Africa. They had a largely pastoral economy with wealth being measured in cattle and the population mostly subsisting on maize and milk. They operated under a kingship, but they had very little in the way of what we would consider centralized governance. And war? Well when our story begins, somewhere in the end of the 18th century, warfare in this region was more of a ritual affair than a destructive endeavor. Warriors would meet at a predetermined location and fling spears and insults at one another but would rarely move in for close quarters fighting. This left the casualties very light, and it was almost unheard of for the winning side to follow up a victory by chasing down their opponents or sacking or conquering their land. Instead, battles would result in the transfer of a small amount of territory, or some cattle. But Shaka, who will be the central figure in the early part of our story, changed all this. He changed the weapons, the tactics, and perhaps most importantly, the philosophy of war in the region. He brought in close quarters combat, replacing the traditional long throwing spear with a shorter thrusting spear that was devastating when used in a melee. He developed a system of envelopment tactics known as the bullhorn formation, which I’ll explain in more detail later. And he changed war from a means of settling minor disputes to an activity of slaughter and conquest. So who was Shaka? Shaka was the eldest son of the leader of the Zulu people. But he was considered illegitimate, and so wasn’t named the heir to the Zulu kingdom. In fact his name, Shaka, means intestinal beetle, which was sort of the cover story for his mother’s untimely pregnancy. This becomes kind of hilarious when you realize that we in the West often call him Shaka Zulu, and since the word Zulu actually means heaven in the Zulu language, we’re basically calling him Intestinal Beetle Heaven, so enjoy that. Anyway, at the age of 7, because of his illegitimacy, Shaka was sent to live with his mother among the Elangeni, a neighboring tribe. From there he moved on to the Mtethwa, the most powerful tribe in the region, where he served as a warrior, first for a man named Jobe, and then for Jobe’s successor, a man named Dingiswayo. Dingiswayo took notice of Shaka’s unusual prowess as a close combat fighter, and when he discovered that Shaka was actually of Royal blood, put him in charge of an Ibuto, which you can basically think of as a regiment. And it’s here that Shaka really began to refine his tactics. The traditional Ibuto were armed with long throwing spears and while they practiced the use of their weapons, they didn’t do much in terms of practicing unit tactics. Generally, they would show up to the battlefield as more of a loose mob than a cohesive fighting unit. But Shaka began to experiment with this. He armed his men with the short stabbing spear and drilled them in a tactic that he called The Bullhorn. He’d split his men into three groups: the chest, the horns, and the loins. The chest would charge the enemy and pin them in hand-to-hand combat. Then the two branches of the horns, positioned to either side of the chest, would flank and envelop the pinned enemy. This whole time the loins would sit behind the lines acting as a rested reserve to be applied where needed. Interestingly it’s been said that Shaka would have these men sit with their backs to the fighting so they wouldn’t become panicked or charge over eagerly before he needed them. The brilliance of this system was that it was simple. Without much battlefield coordination, every man knew what he was supposed to do. If you’re in the chest you charge. If you’re in the horns you get around Their flank. The system’s simplicity meant that it could be applied in chaotic conditions without much of the signalling that was required by modern armies. With these deadly new weapons and tactics, Shaka became a force to be reckoned with, and when his father died he decided it was time to take his own. Shaka’s half-brother, the legitimate heir, took the Zulu throne. But with the help of Dingiswayo, Shaka quickly had him assassinated and simply moved in to take over the place. Dingiswayo was still the chief of the Zulus, so Shaka continued to serve him, but only a year later, Dingiswayo was killed by a man named Zwide, the ruler of the Ndwandwe. One of the most powerful tribes in the region. Shaka vowed vengeance for his leaders death and stepped in to fill the void Dingiswayo had left behind. Bringing the Mthetwa and with them many of the other local tribes under his control. Shaka’s vengeance and the war he was about to bring would lead to a period of unparalleled chaos and devestation. In Zulu, they call it the Mefecane, In English, we simply call it The Crushing. But before we delve into The Crushing, we should talk about why war here became genocide. And why the region was so primed to explode at the first signs of strife. A lot of it has to do with European influence, not because Europeans tried to cause it, in fact there were many Europeans who tried to help, but given how radically different, how wealthy, how technologically separated the Europeans were from the local population, their mere presence dramatically destabilized the region. As European trade increased, new crops were introduced, which led to a population increase, which in turn led to greater competition for land. Meanwhile, European ships would trade for cattle to resupply their food stores, which made cattle even more valuable and led to an increase in raiding. At the same time, European traders also came looking for ivory, and to get Ivory, you have to take down elephants. Which requires a large degree of coordination from a group of people. Which some have said led to the more coordinated and far more deadly tactics that Shaka was able to implement. To add to all of this, a drought caused the more water-hungry European crops to fail, which led to a famine. So the area, Natal, was already primed for disaster. Join us next week as we explore Shaka’s quest for vengeance, see his descent into madness, and witness the horrors of The Crushing.

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