Shaka Zulu and Great Man History

How do historians craft history? There is no simple or easy way to answer this question, as there is a near-infinite number of ways to interpret events in our past. However, there is a multitude of different historical perspectives that can be incredibly useful in framing how a historian views the past. One of these comes from the 19th-century historian Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle is famous (and infamous) for a number of his ideas, however, he is probably most famous for his theory of history. This is the Great Man Theory of History. This theory of history holds that most of history can be explained by the influence of great men or heroes as he terms them. They, with their cunning, superior intelligence, etc… shape the world around them to move history forward.

Needless to say, this theory of history has largely been discredited, with historians instead focusing on other theories less focused on individual rulers and thinkers, but instead on groups and systems as a whole. This seems reasonable. It does not matter how mighty or brilliant a ruler is, if the system they work in does not work or the people under them refuse to comply, then that’s all she wrote. However, there are some individuals in history that give one pause, because they seem to be the archetype for the Great Man Theory. One of these is the famous/infamous Shaka Zulu.

Born in 1787, Shaka Zulu arose from obscurity to become the overlord of his little piece of the world. This little piece of the world was the south-east of Africa, which at this point in time was composed of hundreds of different African kingdoms, clans, and tribes. Born into the rather insignificant Zulu kingdom, Shaka would soon make the name Zulu synonymous with power and resistance to colonialism.

Shaka’s real name was Sigidi kaSenzangakhona, so it should be obvious why we know him as Shaka. He was born of an apparently illicit love affair between his father Senzangakhona, chief of the Zulu, and his mother Nandi, a daughter of a Langeni chief. This affair went over like a lead balloon and after a brief sojourn in Senzangakhon’s court, Nandi was driven out. She, fortunately, found refuge with her people, the Langeni. However, Shaka would later be given to the Mthethwa chiefdom and became part of the court of their chief Dingiswayo, who welcomed this foreign boy into his court.

Shaka would make a name for himself on the battlefield in his early adulthood when he was drafted into the military of the Mthethwa tribe. Herein he discovered his latent talent for war and tactics and quickly rose up the ranks of the Mthethwa to become one of Dingiswayo’s commanders. After the death of his father, Shaka would receive permission and aid from Dingiswayo to seize the Zulu throne from his senior brother Sigujana. Shaka would achieve this goal and even carved up some more surrounding territory to add to the Zulu domain, including that of the Langeni. While his skill as a commander was proven, it still remained that Shaka was still the vassal of Dingiswayo.

This all changed around 1818 when the Mthethwa and the Ndwandwe went to war. Herein, Dingiswayo was captured by the Ndwandwe’s leader Zwide and later killed. According to some accounts, this might have been a bid on Shaka’s part to obtain the Mthethwa throne, but this is unconfirmed. What did occur is that Shaka immediately assumed control of the collapsing Mthethwa state after the death of their chief. Desiring to be rid of yet another rival, Zwide and his forces that same year invaded Shaka’s realm, but were subsequently routed, and the Ndwandwe were ultimately absorbed into the Zulu kingdom. There were no major rivals left in the area, so Shaka did what I guess a Shaka does and continued to conquer.

The result of these conquests is that the Zulu would now rule most of Natal and KwaZulu. With no major rivals, Shaka and his apparently unstoppable army would demand the submission of all of the surrounding chiefdoms. If they agreed, they were allowed to maintain local administrative control. If they did not, they were either annihilated wholesale or driven off their land. This resulted in a series of mass migrations from the region that resulted in perhaps as many as one million deaths, as entire people groups were forced from their homes and collided with other groups. The effects of these migrations were felt as far as the Zambezi River in modern-day Zimbabwe.

The Zulu Kingdom under Shaka would quickly morph into a Spartan-like military state. All young men would reside in military settlements completely separate from women until such a time as they had earned the right to marry. Unmarried women would receive much the same treatment. The cattle that the Kingdom’s economy was reliant upon were largely centralized by Shaka and his subordinates. In 1824, the British of the Cape Colony in the western part of South Africa would come into contact with the Zulu. Sensing an opportunity for trade and the potential of more and greater weapons Shaka allowed them to build Port Natal to conduct said trade.

Shaka was a cruel leader. Killing at the slightest provocation, his actions did not engender him to those around him. It is no wonder then that in 1828, a mere ten years after taking the Zulu throne, that he would be assassinated by his half-brothers and bodyguard. The system that Shaka had built was a rigid militaristic society so formidable that it would in later years go head to head with the might of the British Empire. While they would ultimately lose this engagement, the Zulu and their founder would go down in history as a symbol of African military prowess and strength.

The case of Shaka Zulu does give one pause. Here is a relative nobody (yes he was technically nobility, but that did not exactly benefit him to my mind due to his mixed blood and illegitimacy) who managed to create a military system that defeated the British for a time, who were at the height of their colonial power. Here was a guy so ruthless and frankly brilliant that he managed to transform the entirety of south-east Africa, displacing and eliminating entire people groups, all without the intervention of colonial powers. This set of events is not a common event. Yes, you will have great leaders within every group and population, but rarely one that is so transformative and, to be frank, deadly.

The reason for the mention of the lack of colonial intervention is that throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the power balance globally was affected dramatically by the presence of either Europeans themselves or by their technology, particularly weapons. New Zealand exploded in violence during the so-called Musket Wars (1807-37) between the various groups of Maori. As the name would belie, the introduction of firearms was a big component. The Comanche stampeded through most of West Texas during the late 18th century creating what some have referred to as Comanchura or the Comanche Empire. This was the result of them adopting the horse and becoming what could be quite reasonably argued the best light cavalrymen in the world at the time. Horses were not indigenous to the Americas.

Shaka did not rely on colonial intervention or really any of their technology, unlike the other examples listed. He modified existing weapons, tactics, and social structures to meet his ends. He was the revolution; revolution did not come to him. Perhaps it is time to reexamine the Great Man Theory of History. Not entirely, but it at least should not be sold down the river wholesale. The individual can make a significant impact on the world around them. Perhaps it is better to try to look at history in such a way as to measure the impact individuals, no matter their status, have on history and the world around them.


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