Shaka was the legendary South African king best known for uniting many warring tribes to establish the Zulu Empire in the early 1800s. His life has been immortalized many times in both TV shows and movies portrayed as a driven leader who attempted to band South African tribes together to fight against the Europeans bent on conquering their lands.
But in reality, the systemic colonization of South Africa only began 20+ years after his death and his kingdom sadly only lasted about 50 years. Born in 1787 in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Shaka's father, Senzangakhona, was the chief of the Zulus, while his devoted mother Nandi was from another clan. They were not considered married in their tribal customs, and mother and son were soon cast out since the son was illegitimate.
They sought refuge with the Mthethwa clan, led by a powerful chief named Dingiswayo where Shaka trained as a warrior. From a very young age, it was evident that Shaka was a born leader and would also become a fierce warrior. Not only was he strong, but also a strategic thinker and ruthless to his enemies.
While fighting for the Mthethwa Empire, Shaka developed advanced fighting methods, including designing better spears, organizing army ranks based on age and introducing the bullhorn battle formation. He worked his way up and was soon commanding the army.
When his father died in 1816, he became the Zulu king, executing anyone associated with his father's reign - siblings included.
Around the time he rose to power, the Zulus were not united. They were split up into different clans, controlling territories usually big enough to support themselves. There was a lot of infighting between these clans as each asserted dominance over the other. In April of 1818, Shaka and his Zulu warriors clashed with the Ndwandwe clan at the Battle of Gqokli Hill.
Despite being badly outnumbered, Shaka won through impressive battle tactics and strategy, paving the way for the Zulus to unite under him. They were now the most powerful kingdom in the region.
As the supreme Zulu leader, Shaka continued to build his army, conquering many other chiefdoms. However, though he was a strong leader, he was also extremely brutal, sometimes killing entire villages to send a message or murdering those who disobeyed his orders.
But things turned for the worse when Nandi, his mother, died. Shaka suffered a breakdown, forcing the kingdom to mourn her. He had all pregnant women - and their husbands - killed, had goats and cattle killed, struck down about 7000 people for "not mourning enough", and ordered that no new crops be planted and no milk used for a year. His people were on the verge of rebellion against his cruelty - that two of his brothers - assassinated him.
Shaka was an effective war leader but was also very cruel, violent and despotic, which ultimately led to his demise.
In the aftermath of his death in 1828, the Zulu kingdom changed rulers four more times, clashing with the Boers and finally fighting the British in the 6-month Anglo-Zulu War. Britain won, effectively ending the Zulu Kingdom after only 50 years.