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Node your homework.

This is a paper written for a class on the history of British colonization. Specifically, it is a review of Stephen Taylor's book Shaka's Children: A History of the Zulu People published by HarperCollins Publishers in 1995. The purpose of this paper was to read a book for the class and write a review of our findings, discussing the arguments of the book, possible biases of the author, how effective the author was in getting the message across, and so forth. In brief, I recommend this book. Go read it.

Yes, I know this is a really, really long writeup. It was designed to be a six to ten page paper. But I promise it's not difficult to read. You're supposed to read this and become interested in reading the book which is much longer. Trust me, you will learn something from reading this book.


Shaka's Children: A History of the Zulu People discusses the history of one of South Africa's most prominent ethnic groups from the very earliest times of South African settlement to the end of the twentieth century. It begins with the movement of various African tribes from the mountains to the north into the land now known as South Africa. In this early time of movement, there were frequent struggles between the various tribes for control of land, cattle, and power. The Zulu emerged from these struggles as a powerful kingdom, but they did not start as such.

It took the leadership of one strong man to bring the Zulu to prominence. Shaka Zulu, the illegitimate son of a Zulu chief and a common woman, would grow in power, cunning, and ruthlessness to build the first truly powerful Zulu kingdom. In addition, he would continue to exert influence on the Zulu people long after his death. Shaka set the precedent for a powerful central authority over the Zulus and instilled in the people an unconscious understanding of the authority of the king. Even to this day, a large portion of the Zulu recognize the authority of their king despite the relative unimportance of a monarchy within South Africa's new democracy. This is the first portion of the thesis of Shaka's Children - that one man could have such a lasting effect on the Zulus and on South Africa as a whole. The second portion of his thesis is that Shaka united the Zulu people under a uniform culture and language through his strong leadership.

Taylor's work starts by describing the migration of various African tribes from the more northern areas to South Africa. He explains the origins of many of the most important tribes, including the Zulu. The Zulu (along with several other tribes) trace their origins back to Malandela, a famous and well-respected man. However, the Zulu take their name from his second son. African society in these tribes was highly male-dominated and believed strongly in ancestor worship. The first son would inherit the power and lands of his father, while the later sons would either be expected to follow their elder or be killed for showing too much ambition. The Zulu tracing their lineage to the second son of the important chief was a sign of weakness and inferiority to the major tribes of the region. Indeed, they were known as "you who came from a dog's penis".

Shaka fit into this image of inferiority well. He was the bastard child of the relatively weak Senzangakona and Nandi. For a woman to become pregnant while unmarried was a disgrace and quite humiliating. Nandi was forced to leave with Shaka to another tribe. They moved between tribes quite frequently, with Shaka having to endure humiliation amongst other children wherever they went. His reputation as an illegitimate son (albeit that of a chief) followed to whichever tribe they went to. Out of this, Shaka found a new life in the military as a great warrior. His skills and fearlessness quickly earned him a command position. Upon the death of his father, Shaka was pronounced as his successor and assumed control of the tribe.

Taylor paints Shaka first as a lonely and perhaps even pathetic figure. He gives evidence of Shaka's torment by his peers as a child perhaps as a justification for the various brutal acts that Shaka would later be known for. We are shown how Shaka was born into disgrace, forced to move away to other villages, and was ostracized by other children. But when given the chance to fight, Shaka became known as a fearless warrior. The image of him as an illegitimate son gave way to that of a great and powerful fighter. He rose in power until he was able to assume control of his tribe. Shaka is often seen as merely a brutal tyrant, but Taylor attempts to show another side to the man and perhaps even give some justification for why he acted the way he did.

Once in power, Shaka immediately started to reshape his tribe to make it much more powerful. His first decisions were to form a standing army with several regiments and to use the assegai (the Zulu's primary weapon) as a sword instead of as a spear. Indeed, he promised that any man who lost his assegai would be put to death. Shaka laid the groundwork for close quarters combat - a decision that Taylor informs us would have repercussions during combat with the white population as the Zulus would charge into lines of gunmen in order to get to close quarters. Shaka used these new tactics to order attacks on several neighboring tribes, including burning buildings and slaughtering women and children to make his point. The motivation for attacking these tribes was not just for conquest, however. Shaka had a desire for revenge as these nearby tribes had been where he was tormented as a child, and he made them pay in blood.

Some of Shaka's most profound effects on the Zulus are overshadowed by his ruthlessness and military conquests, both of which are already well known. He united his tribe along with his conquests in culture, religion, and language. This laid the foundation of a single Zulu people who could survive his reign, though this was probably not Shaka's primary objective. As he conquered his rivals, men from each would be incorporated into the standing army. He broke the power of tribal chiefs under his control and assumed those powers that he had stripped from them. For example, local chiefs were no longer allowed to enlist their own warriors, sit as judges, or oversee their harvest celebrations. They became mere figureheads, with Shaka as the one central authority. Taylor gives a detailed explanation of Shaka's rise both as a political and religious ruler of the Zulu.

As Taylor says, "A broadly based society could be achieved only through breaking down the customs and taboos particular to individual clans." He elaborates on this sentence, explaining how Shaka took his favorite customs of certain tribes and extended them to the entire Zulu population. He united the tribes through a common language and even created new customs when it benefited his nation-building purpose. Further, Shaka put an end to much of the free expression of sexuality by the people. Indeed, the men in the military were not allowed to marry until they were distinguished in combat nor have sex except for very infrequent occasions. This was designed to foster kinship among the military, which was a crucial part of Shaka's empire.

Under Shaka's rule, the people of various tribes were bound - a point which Taylor spends much time discussing. While the people may have despised some of his more brutal methods (especially those towards the end of his reign), they did accept his strong central leadership. His most important legacy was that he united many different tribes under a common language and culture and instilled in the people a strong desire for a powerful monarch.

Taylor argues that Shaka was a bloody ruler but also performed very well in the role. He argues that he was a great ruler, a quality his immediate successors lacked. This was especially important with the encroachment of the white man into Zululand. This lack of a strong king was to be one of the biggest factors in the downfall of the Zulu and their subjugation under the white men. Later rulers kept the bloodthirsty aspects of Shaka but lacked the vision to keep the people truly united. However, Shaka continued to influence his people even after his death. This legacy of a desire for strong leadership continued within the Zulu people.

Eventually, the Zulu were defeated in a series of battles with British troops. A discussion of these battles is beyond the scope of this paper. It is sufficient to say that they were defeated by superior weaponry, tactics, and numbers. The Zulu were not good marksmen with guns and did not know their true range. So the British were able to destroy large armies with relatively small numbers of troops. This was coupled with a series of crucial tactical errors by the Zulu army and defiance of the king's orders. Despite being defeated by the British army, the Zulu strived to maintain the cultural independence and authority that had been instilled in them during Shaka's powerful rule.

Taylor's thesis as to the influence of Shaka on Zulu history is supported in this post-defeat time as well. With the rise in power of the British, the Zulu kings became less and less important. Both the British and the Boers used their military superiority to subjugate all the native tribes. They occasionally used native rivalries to their advantage, throwing their support behind a challenger to the king in order to overthrow the ruler. Such is the case with the reigning king Dingane and his challenger Mpande, who escaped to the protection of the Boers during internal fighting. Some time later, he arrived back in Zululand with the support of the Boers and took hold of the kingdom.

The Europeans also used the chiefs under the king as a way to disrupt the central authority. They would make alliances with various chiefs, use rivalries between tribes to weaken them, and so forth. Further, colonial regulations took power from the king and either redistributed it to the chiefs or assigned it to white surrogate rulers. By strengthening both themselves and the tribal chiefs, they stripped the king of power and made him more of a figurehead. The king no longer held political or cultural power over the Zulu. However, Taylor explains that some vestige of loyalty to the king remained in the people. Despite his weak position, he could still command respect from the people would might still be roused to obey his orders. Taylor's hypothesis is that the people are still bound to the king by some loyalty instilled in their ancestors by Shaka. This powerful ruler from generations passed so effectively ruled his people that their descendants would still look to the king for leadership when he was in no position to offer it.

Evidence of this hypothesis is produced. Even as Zululand was being divided up by the Europeans, the Zulu people still retained their loyalty to King Dinuzulu. He was exiled for just over nine years for an incident involving the puppet ruler Zibhebhu. During this time, large tracts of Zululand were being given over to white settlers for cultivation or grazing. Relatively little of their powerful culture remained. The king's position was so weakened that he was no longer recognized as king of the Zulus (a status that would continue to be withheld from Shaka's heirs until 1952) and was even given a stipend by the colonial government. Unrest during his rule were carried out in his name, though Dinuzulu publically decried them in order to remain in the favor of the British. Effectively, the Zulu nation was continuing to stay loyal to its king even though the Zulu were no longer in control of the country.

More evidence of the continuing influence of the Zulu king is presented during the introduction of apartheid. By this time, the Europeans had seriously begun to influence and control the Zulu tribal system and made the king almost completely powerless. The unrecognized ruler was Cyprian, who was not particularly effective in the face of the challenges of apartheid. His first major battle was over the Bantu Authorities Act, which sought to move all black people back to their supposed homelands where they would be ruled by a chief who were to be paid by the colonial government. Cyprian originally stepped out in opposition to this act but changed his mind two years later. One would imagine there would be public outrage at the king's decision. However, Taylor notes that the chief Lutuli did not agree with the decision to support the act but would never outright attack Cyprian. Once again, the king retains some measure of power over the Zulu people even as his real power was marginalized.

Despite all the evidence Taylor presents in support of his thesis of the powerful influence of the Zulu kings, he is less successful in explaining how Shaka united the various tribes of South Africa into a true nation. Shaka did unite many tribes under the Zulu name which would temporarily become the most powerful tribe in the area before being defeated by the British. However, the tribes had difficulty acting as one after his death. The tribes lost much of their power during Shaka's reign but gained it back during subsequent British rule. In many instances, the acts which moved tribes around brought feuding tribes to the same lands and rekindled old rivalries.

These tribal rivalries were most prominent during the African nationalism movements of the twentieth century. Chief among these were the African National Congress and the more militant Inkatha. These two movements would come into open conflict with each other many times as the Inkatha attacked the ANC for not being radical enough in their reform attempts. Often times, warring tribes would align with different groups and bring their rivalries with them. Uniting the various tribes together to mutually combat the oppression of the whites proved extremely difficult. One reason is that the South African government got involved in these intertribal conflicts and even took sides in the ANC-Inkatha battles as benefited them.

Taylor explains the difficulties facing the black movements through this quotation by King Goodwill: "How could we face the problem here, when we are enemies among ourselves?" Indeed, the tribes of South Africa spent much of their time fighting among themselves instead of uniting to confront the common enemy - apartheid. It is in the twentieth century that Taylor's argument for a united Zulu people breaks down. The heavy factionalism which consumed all the tribes of South Africa allowed for more and more racist legislation to be passed, despite the best efforts of movements like the ANC.

Eventually, international pressure would bring down the era of apartheid and usher in truly democratic elections. However, tribal differences once again appeared as the ANC and Inkatha both worked to swing the elections in their favor. Around these elections, Taylor argues for a revival of the traditional system of Zulu government. King Goodwill rose in influence as the ANC attempted to gain his support for the elections. ANC leader Nelson Mandela wrote to him with the respect due to a king, showing once again the power that the Zulu kings continued to have over the people.

The final argument presented is that the tribal differences which have existed throughout Africa for hundreds of years will continue to be present and make nationalist efforts very difficult. The people of Africa have always strongly identified with a particular tribe and, with this tribe, a particular culture, language, and religion. Although Shaka had some brief success uniting tribes under one culture, his gains were given back in the years following his death. As the ANC-Inkatha situation showed, the tribal influences are still very much alive within South Africa. Achieving a democracy in South Africa was hampered by these tribal conflicts, as other nationalist efforts will most likely continue to be.

I believe this book quite effectively proved its thesis of the powerful influence of Shaka even down to modern day. Stephen Taylor presented much evidence as to the power that Shaka wielded over his people and how he was able to use force and diplomacy equally well to unite many of the tribes in South Africa. He explained how the Zulu king continued in power over the people and tribal chiefs even as the king was stripped of much of his power by the white settlers until he was not much more than a puppet or figurehead. Under the white system of rule, the Zulu king had very little real political power, but the chiefs and people had an almost unconscious loyalty to him. This is part of the real legacy of Shaka and I feel that Taylor made this portion of his thesis.

Further, Taylor explained how the powerful Zulu tribe started out as a relatively marginal tribe but gained power through conquest under Shaka's rule. The conquest also brought the common language and cultural element to all the tribes. Shaka would impose cultural restrictions on the tribes and include elements he liked throughout the kingdom. South Africa has quite frequently been seen as a fractured society with the two white groups and dozens of black tribes, all of which in conflict with each other. South Africa started out with a very large number of competing native tribes and eventually had the element of competing European groups as well. However, the Zulu tribe brought many of these competing groups together under culture and language. I think this is the weaker point of Taylor's thesis. Despite the powerful uniting force of Shaka's conquest, the years of turmoil and political unrest seem to attest that the black tribes are still not functioning as one group.

Overall, I think Taylor's book was very effective in explaining the history of the Zulu and the effects of the European invasion into South Africa, as well as his thesis. I learned a lot from this book, especially the real extent of the turmoil in South Africa and how sweeping the effects of the Europeans had been. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in South Africa in general or the history of the Zulu in particular.

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