King of the Zulu Tribe, Shaka: Great Leader or Bloodthirsty Tyrant?

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  • Topic: Zulu, Shaka, Mfecane
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King of the Zulu Tribe, Shaka: Great Leader or Bloodthirsty Tyrant?

One of the most documented African tribes is that of the Zulu kingdom. The rise and fall of the Zulu kingdom, in one way or another, relates to the most famous leader of the Zulu Empire, Shaka. Shaka brought the Zulu tribe from the bottom to the top, and only until his assassination in 1828 did the Zulu kingdom see a downfall in power and organization. Based on facts presented in case studies, as well as observing theories of state formation, it will determined if Shaka’s reign of power was that of a great leader or a power hungry, bloodthirsty tyrant.

To get a better understanding of the Zulu kingdom under Shaka’s rule, we must first analyze the history of the Zulu tribe and the leaders who came before Shaka. The history of the Zulu kingdom begins with the reign of Dingiswayo, who was chief of the Mthethwa tribe. Dingiswayo became began his reign in 1808. During his term, chief Dingiswayo conquered surrounding chiefdoms in hopes to end the brutal fighting between these tribes and bring them everyone under one single government. To meet his goals, chief Dingiswayo first had to restructure the way his military operated. He restructured it in a way that brought smaller armies together into one large group. This accomplished two things vital in the growth of the Mthethwa and Zulu tribes in the process of forming the Zulu kingdom: First off, this made the military strong enough, relative to surrounding tribes, to conquer other tribes with militaristic tactics that were revolutionary for its time. Secondly, it broke down the family ties that previously had influence over the ideals instilled in the citizens of the chiefdoms.

The two products of revolutionizing the military would lay the base for what would be soon to come. To allow for expansion when dealing with people from different backgrounds, the separate ideals that held them together must be broken down and rebuilt up as one. Bringing the smaller armies into one large army with one common goal helped accomplish this. Instead of fighting for ones kin, men fought for chief Dingiswayo’s goal. This weakened territorial influence, which was the barrier that once held these chiefdoms apart. The weakened territorial influence, in turn, created a path for the rise of one centralized government to control and lead to the rise of the Zulu clan.

Taking a step back to look at the reasons that led to the internecine fighting between surrounding chiefdoms, it is best to analyze two theories that lead to the formation of states. Dr. Robert L. Carniero’s Circumscription theory and Elman Service’s theory on the institutionalization of centralized leadership are the two theories that can account for the reasoning behind chief Dingiswayo and, eventually, King Shaka’s actions as leaders. Carniero’s Circumscription theory can be best described as warfare leading to the creation of a state. The reasons to go to war, in the case of the rise of the Zulu kingdom are agricultural restrictions, resource concentration and population density pressure.

As a tribe of people grows over time due to reproduction, more agriculture land is needed to provide for the increase in population. When land is readily available there is no bloodshed, but when the need for more land becomes an issue a tribe is forced to go to war for its survival. The same goes for other resources. When resources, like food and water become rare, it forces tribes to go to war. This can be described (although an extreme and science fiction example) using the theory of alien invasions because the species exhausted all of the resources on their planet, they are forced to travel elsewhere. Lastly when the density of the population becomes too extreme to handle they are forced to expand the land claimed by the tribe. These reasons were some of the many causes of fighting between tribes that Dingiswayo looked to eliminate when expanding.

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