the zulu -- 5/14/19

Today's selection -- from Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard. In Africa in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the greatest native foes of European settlers such as the Boers and the British were the Zulus:

"As fierce as they were, however, the Xhosa (Bantu) would not become the Boers', and later England's, bitterest rivals in Africa. That distinc­tion belonged to the Zulu. An insignificant offshoot of the Nguni, a Bantu group that had migrated east while the Xhosa continued south, the tribe at first numbered no more than two hundred people. What transformed the Zulu into not just a powerful tribe but argu­ably the most storied group of people ever to live in southern Africa was the irresistible and terrifying rise of a single man -- a young war­rior named Shaka.

"In many ways, Shaka both created the Zulu Nation and nearly destroyed it. Although he rose to power as an effective and merciless warrior, it was Shaka's skill as a military tactician that would trans­form the Zulu tribe. He completely reorganized the army, instituting a regimental system that separated soldiers by age and assigned them kraals, or villages, in which they were forced to live celibate lives. He is credited with creating the famous 'bull horn' battle formation, in which the enemy is trapped by the chest of the bull, the principal force; the horns, the secondary unit, circle in on them from both sides; and the loins, a reserve force stationed behind the chest, with their backs to the battle, ensure that no one escapes with his life.

"Shaka also redesigned the most essential Zulu weapon, the assegai, turning the fragile throwing spear into a much heavier thrusting stick, with a broad blade and shortened haft. The new weapon quickly became known as an iKlwa, in imitation of the suck­ing sound it made as it was pulled from a body. After impaling his enemies on an iKlwa, Shaka, gorged with blood and victory, would shout, 'Ngadla!' -- 'I have eaten!'

1824 European artist's impression of Shaka with a long throwing assegai and heavy shield. 

More than changing how the Zulu fought, Shaka changed who they were. Fear was his principal weapon, and he used it not just against his enemies, but against his own people. He trained his war­riors in brutality, forcing them to dance barefoot over thorns, drill from dawn to dusk until they literally dropped from exhaustion, and walk more than fifty miles in a single day. He ordered men to be executed because they had sneezed in front of him or because he didn't like the way they looked.

"So complete was Shaka's control over his people that, although the death he meted out was often lingering and always as excruciat­ing as his imagination allowed, few of his victims tried to escape their horrible fate. 'No fetters or cords are ever employed to bind the victim,' recalled a Briton who, as a boy, had witnessed Zulu execu­tions while on African hunting trips with his father, 'He is left at liberty to run for his life or to stand and meet his doom .... Many stand and meet their fare with a degree of firmness that could hardly be imagined.'

"Shaka was finally assassinated in 1828, stabbed to death by his half brothers who used iKlwas, the weapon of his own creation, to put an end to his reign of terror. Although he had ruled the Zulu for only twelve years, the mark Shaka left on the tribe was as indelible as those of history's most legendary leaders, from Genghis Khan to Napoleon to, one day, Churchill himself. For the Boers, as for anyone who clashed with the Zulu, Shaka's impact on the tribe could be felt long after his death.

The British too had fought the Zulu, and had come so close to defeat that a stunned Queen Victoria had demanded to know, 'Who are these Zulus?' "



Candice Millard


Hero of the Empire


Anchor Books, a division of Random House


Copyright 2016 by Candice Millard


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