Shaka , also spelled Chaka or Tshaka (born c. 1787—died Sept. 22, 1828), Zulu chief (1816–28), founder of Southern Africa’s Zulu Empire. He is credited with creating a fighting force that devastated the entire region. His life is the subject of numerous colourful and exaggerated stories, many of which are debated by historians.
Shaka was the son of Senzangakona, chieftain of the Zulu, and Nandi, an orphaned princess of the neighbouring Langeni clan. Because his parents belonged to the same clan, their marriage violated Zulu custom, and the stigma of this extended to the child. The couple separated when Shaka was six, and Nandi took her son back to the Langeni, where he passed a fatherless boyhood among a people who despised his mother. In 1802 the Langeni drove Nandi out, and she finally found shelter with the Dletsheni, a subclan of the powerful Mthethwa. When Shaka was 23, Dingiswayo, the Mthethwa paramount chieftain, called up Shaka’s Dletsheni age group for military service. For the next six years, he served with brilliance as a warrior of the Mthethwa Empire.
Senzangakona died in 1816, and Dingiswayo released Shaka from service and sent him to take over the Zulu, which at this time probably numbered fewer than 1,500, occupying an area on the White Umfolozi River. They were among the smallest of the more than 800 Eastern Nguni–Bantu clans, but from the day of Shaka’s arrival they commenced their march to greatness. Shaka ruled with an iron hand from the outset, meting out instant death for the slightest opposition.
His first act was to reorganize the army. Like all the clans, the Zulu were armed with oxhide shields and spindly throwing spears. Battles were little more than brief and relatively bloodless clashes in which the outnumbered side prudently gave way before extensive casualties occurred. Shaka first rearmed his men with long-bladed, short-hafted stabbing assegais, which forced them to fight at close quarters. He then instituted the regimental system based on age groups, quartered at separate