The rise of the Zulu empire under its warlike king Shaka (r.1816 -28) sent shock waves throughout southern Africa, triggering mass migrations of refugee peoples. Known as the Mfecane (`to be weak from hunger’), these upheavals completely rearranged the pattern of settlement in southern Africa and left vast areas depopulated. The Zulu belong to the Nguni, the most southerly branch of the Bantu-speaking peoples. As a result of the Mfecane the Nguni are now widespread throughout southern Africa, inhabiting Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, Tanzania and South Africa.
However, in the late 18th century their homeland lay between the Drakensberg Mountains and the Indian Ocean in the KwaZulu—Natal and Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa. Cattle-herding pastoralists, the Nguni were divided into dozens of clans, one of which was the Zulu. The Zulu originated in the late 17th century under a chieftain called Mandalela, who settled with a small band of followers on lands along the White Umfolozi River in northern Natal. The Zulu took their name — in their own language amaZulu, meaning ‘People of the Heavens’ — from Zulu, their second chief.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the Zulu came under the domination of Dingiswayo (c.1780-1818), the chief of the powerful Mthethwa clan. Dingiswayo had built up the power of his clan by attacking neighbouring clans and forcing them to pay tribute in the form of cattle, as well as obliging them to send an annual levy of warriors to fight in his army It was as a conscript soldier in Dingiswayo’s army that Shaka first came to prominence. Born around 1787, Shaka was the illegitimate son of the Zulu chief Senzangakona ka Jama (c.1762-1816). After an unpromising childhood, Shaka grew up to be a tall, powerfully built man with a genuine love of batlle. Impressed by his abilities, Dingiswayo appointed him chief of the Zulus in 1816, following the death of his father. Dingiswayo gave Shaka free rein to assert his authority over neighbouring clans provided he got a cut of the spoils. Within a year Shaka had increased the size of the Zulu army from 350 to 2000. When Dingiswayo was killed by the rival Ndwandwe clan in 1818, Shaka took over leadership of the Mthethwa. The following year he defeated the Ndwandwe and extended his rule over most of northern Natal. The size of Shaka’s army increased tenfold as warriors flocked to share in his success.
A different mode of warfare
The secret of Shaka’s success was a new style of fighting. Traditionally, the Bantu peoples fought at long range using throwing assegais and had little formal military organization. Shaka developed new and deadly close-quarters fighting techniques using stabbing assegais. Fierce discipline and drill were used to train warriors to use devastatingly effective encircling tactics. He also introduced a regimental system to act as a focus for his warriors’ loyalty and fighting spirit. Shaka also brought a new ruthlessness to warfare. Not content with submission and tribute, Shaka set out to destroy his enemies and victory in battle was followed by the massacre of men, women and children alike. It was an approach to war that was calculated to spread terror. Many clans rushed to submit to Shaka before he attacked them, while those that resisted and lost had to flee for their lives. However, southern Africa was densely populated so that one clan could not move without first dislodging another. Refugee Nguni clans migrated north and west (the British Cape Colony blocked clans fleeing south), setting the neighbouring Sotho and Shona peoples in motion too. Having won power, Shaka found that he dared not let his army stand idle for fear that it would dissolve. This forced Shaka to adopt a policy of permanent warfare. Throughout the 1820s, Zulu plundering raids spread the chaos ever wider.
The first to flee were the Ngwanene. Weakened after a defeat by the Zulu 1817, they were evicted from their lands by the Ndwandwes. The homeless Ngwanene attacked their neighbours, the Hlubi who in their turn fled across the Drakensbergs and descended on the unsuspecting Sotho peoples in the basin of the Vaal river. The Ngwanene had no chance to settle on the lands of the Hlubi before Shaka attacked them again, forcing them too to flee across the Drakensbergs. The displaced Nguni clans plundered their way through the Sotho lands, scattering clans in all directions, leaving their own trails of death and destruction behind them as they sought new homelands.
New chiefdoms emerge
Many of these refugee clans united under the leadership of a formidable woman chieftain called Mantatisi. By 1823 she had accumulated a disorganized horde of 50,000 followers. Moving constantly to find grazing for its thousands of cattle, the horde migrated aimlessly southwest towards the Cape Colony. Hundreds of refugees died from a lack of food and water. Mantatisi’s horde was finally turned back by the Griquas (or Bastaards), a mixed-race people descended from Afrikaner settlers and the Khoikhoi. As the horde retreated north, it gradually broke up as more and more refugees died or fell behind out of exhaustion. Around the same time the Hlubi and Ngwanene accidentally blundered into one another, and in a five-day battle the Hlubi were annihilated. The Ngwanene then headed southeast, close to the borders of Cape Colony, where a British force destroyed them in 1828 after mistaking them for an invading Zulu army.
By the late 1820s the survivors of the Mfecane were beginning to coalesce to form new clans and chiefdoms. The most successful of these was created by a minor Sotho called Moshoeshoe (1786-1870). Displaced by Mantatisi’s horde, Moshoeshoe led his clan to safety at Thaba Bosiu (`the Mountain of the Night’), an easily defended plateau in the Drakensberg Mountains. Other refugees from the Mfecane followed, seeking Moshoeshoe’s protection. By copying their military tactics Moshoeshoe was able to defeat attacks by the Zulus and expand his territories in the Drakensbergs to create the kingdom of Lesotho. Faced with Boer aggression, Moshoeshoe agreed to his kingdom becoming a British protectorate in 1869: it regained its independence in 1966. A second kingdom to emerge from the chaos of the Mftcane was Swaziland, founded in 1820 by the Emalengeni people who migrated out of Natal to escape from Shaka. Their chief, Sobhuza (c.1780-1836), fended off Zulu attacks by adopting their military system, which also allowed him to extend his rule over neighbouring Nguni and Sotho clans.
Another nation created at this time was the Shangane (also known as the Gaza empire). This was founded by Soshangane, one of the few Ndwandwe leaders to escape Shaka’s vengeance, who migrated north with a small band of followers and conquered the Tonga people of southern Mozambique. Towards the end of his reign Shaka quarrelled with one of his generals, Mzilikaze (1790-1868), who took his regiment north into Transvaal, founding the Ndebele nation. Driven out of Transvaal by the Afrikaners, the Ndebele headed further north, crossing the Limpopo River into southern Zimbabwe in 1838, where they destroyed the kingdom of the Rozwi, a Shona people. The region where the Ndebele finally settled is known as Matabeleland, and they remain the largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe after the Shona. A Sotho clan, the Kololo, migrated even further north, conquering the Lozi of Zambia around 1840.
Shaka eventually alienated the Zulu by his increasingly tyrannical rule and in 1828 he was murdered by his half-brother Dingane (c.1795-1840), who ended the constant warfare. By this time anything up to two million people had died from the ravages of war and starvation. In Natal, the land was empty of human habitation for over 100 miles (160 km) south of the Zulu border on the Tugela River. Across the Drakensberg Mountains, the devastation was even more complete. Thousands of square miles from the Orange River to the Limpopo River 600 miles (960 km) to the northeast were almost completely depopulated. This created a vacuum that opened the way for Europeans to extend their domination throughout the whole of southern Africa from the 1840s onwards.
From ‘The Great Migrations’ by John Haywood