When I went to school in South Africa, history was my least favorite subject -- all those dates I couldn't remember and names I couldn't pronounce, let alone spell. Buried in all those facts was one story that caught my attention: it was about a man, called Shaka, who had founded the Zulu nation. What intrigued me was that, starting in 1816, he had taken a miniscule tribe and grown it into a nation of a quarter of a million people, and conquered an empire larger than western Europe. He did this without being able to read or write, and without armor, horses, wagons, or firearms -- just with superbly fit athletes, each bearing a cowhide shield and one short spear.
My respect for the Zulus increased when, as an intern engineer, I worked with them two miles underground, in the South African gold mines. The Zulus invariably manned the heavy pneumatic drills; these men held the bone-jarring machines for hours, in cramped spaces, and in the heat and humidity of a sauna bath. Few others could do that job.
As I grew older, I became fascinated by military history and came to appreciate the true genius of Shaka. I marveled at his grasp of the elements of war, not just tactics and discipline, but espionage, speed, logistics, morale, communication, deception, and guerrilla warfare. Many historians believe he stands shoulder to shoulder with Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Rommel, and other military greats. Shaka's ability to unite warring clans into an enduring proud and fierce people, without any privileged class or ethnicity, is almost unique.
Most of the works about Shaka, including the popular Shaka Zulu miniseries, focus on his interaction with the white men. I resolved to tell the remarkable story of the early life of Shaka, and his genius in using the twists of fate to forge his Zulu empire long before he met a white man.
Would another book of events, dates, and places bring this story to life? Such a book overlooks the thoughts that drove the people to bring about those events. Historians largely agree that the actions of the players are influenced by their fears and desires. The fast-growing discipline of psychohistory further argues that those fears and desires are rooted in the childhood and personal relationships of the historical figures, just like the rest of us. I go along with this theory and this book is, in many ways, a study in psychohistory.
The book follows authoritative published sources as closely as possible, and I did not invent any character. What I did invent, however, were the thoughts and words of the characters; I also had to fill in gaps I found in the limited sources.
In effect, this work is a reconstruction much as those heard in courtrooms every day. Like the lawyers, I do not claim that my reconstruction is the absolute truth, only that it fits the known facts.
closed to less than 200 yards, the Buthelezis discerned the youthful bodies of the uFasimba in the front ranks.
A veteran Buthelezi exclaimed, “They cannot be older than my youngest brother!”
“Or my oldest son,” said another.
Each tough Buthelezi could bury an assegai in a tree trunk at 40 yards. Impatiently they waited to loose cloud upon cloud of the sharp javelins at the advancing bare bodies.
“They are all barefoot like herd-boys. Does anyone see their mothers?” a Buthelezi called to those behind him. “It must be time for their morning milk.”
The ranks burst out into raucous laughter.
A Buthelezi warrior ran forward several yards. “Go back to your bitch mothers, sons of sniveling curs!”
Another sprinted forward, stabbing a spear in the air and hurled more insults. The ranks of Zulus, now silent, kept coming.
At two spears’ throw -- about 100 yards -- Shaka barked, “Halt! Shields forward!”
The regimental commanders echoed the order, then the captains, and finally the platoon leaders.
“Halt! Shields forward!” shouted every warrior together. Each stamped his right foot on the next step. Order received and acknowledged.
The Zulu war cry turned to a hiss and their run increased to an all-out sprint. The Buthelezi veterans stood their ground. Gone, however, was their contemptuous ease.
The Buthelezis loosed a cloud of assegais. Up went the Zulu shields to block the iron points that then drummed deafening on the cowhide. Most assegais deflected off the Zulu shields; some penetrated and hung. But many found targets. A spear entered one man’s arm, another’s chest, and still another’s face. Zulus screamed and Zulus fell.
Gaps appeared in the wave of Zulu shields and warriors from the second rank instantly filled them.
Shaka sprinted, spear forward, six paces ahead of the amaWombe. Mgobozi taught them well , he thought as he smiled to himself.
A second volley. More Zulus fell and again the rank behind closed the gaps.
Terror filled the most sanguine Buthelezi. “Our assegais do nothing. The Zulus keep coming!” one shouted. “They are monsters ruled by evil spirits!”
Keyed up, Shayimpi barely felt the spasm of pain. He glanced down and saw the ugly red gash in his thigh. All his thoughts focused on a Buthelezi about to throw. I -- will -- get him.
Before the enemy could loose a third cloud, the Zulus were upon them. A thunderous crash as shields met shields.
Shayimpi was exhilarated. His every sense was alive as it had never been before. With the edge of his shield, he hooked that of his wide-eyed foe. Effortlessly he swept aside the enemy shield, exposing a naked torso. Shayimpi smelled the hot, fetid breath; smelled the man’s sweat of fear. The Zulu lunged forward. He thrust his Ixwa spear into the abdomen, up through the heart. Blood blurted from the man’s open mouth over the Zulu’s shield. Shayimpi used his Ixwa as he had practiced a thousand times. It was so easy.
“ Ngadla!” he yelled the Zulu killing cry.
out. Mothers sat in groups on reed mats, many nursing babies, others dishing caked corn porridge on wooden plates and drinking beer from gourds. With lively hand-waving, they debated the battle as if it were a game being played out below. “Kill those Zulus!” one shouted to their side.
A group of boys stood watching the action intently and excitedly they gestured toward the unfolding battle with their toy spears. A circle of young girls sitting nearby, played with their straw-filled dolls of animal fur while ignoring the battle.
The spectators did not comprehend the peril sweeping toward them.
* * * * *
Alongside Shayimpi, Noduze drove his Ixwa spear into the man before him. Swiftly he withdrew it from the collapsing torso. In a fluid motion, he leapt forward and swept aside the shield of the next man. Just as he plunged his Ixwa, an assegai struck his left shoulder and the shaft fell across the edge of his shield.
Stunned, Noduze looked up. Ahead he saw a thrower on a mound -- Pungashe’s “surprise.”
Pungashe had had his men pile numerous rock mounds to shoulder height, to counter those Zulus who survived the assegai volleys. Each mound was topped with flat stones, onto which leapt a hand-picked thrower with a cache of assegais.
Blood gushed over his sweat-covered torso. The third assegai entered his heart and he collapsed on his shield beside his victims.
From the corner of his eye, Shayimpi saw Noduze. Time almost stood still. In slow motion, Shayimpi saw the thrower launch the assegai and he watched the missile arc gracefully through the air. Then he saw the blood spurt as the point entered Noduze’s chest and his friend gradually collapse.
Horrified, Shayimpi turned to see another comrade suffer the same fate, and then another. Reality returned and he roared, “Follow me! Kill him!”
Shayimpi surged forward, teeth bared. His shield hooked that of the warrior before him, hooked it with a ferocity that ripped it from the man. He thrust his spear into the enemy with a force that drove it out the man’s back and blood spurted from the wound. Shayimpi took no notice. With a superhuman yank, he wrenched the blade free.
Buthelezi warriors ahead stared mesmerized. Shayimpi turned his spear into a sword. Razor-sharp, it sliced the next man’s abdomen from side to side. With a stricken cry, the foe pitched forward, his guts at his feet. Continuing the upward motion, the Zulu slit the throat of the man to the left. Veteran of a dozen battles, Shayimpi was a master who made every move count. With each collapsing man, he bellowed, “Ngadla!”
Shayimpi forged his way to the mound. Hearing his call, Zulus on either side formed a wedge to protect his flanks and the enemy withered before their rampage. The Buthelezi thrower, seeing the Zulu phalanx head for him, hurled one assegai after another. Shayimpi blocked each with his shield, while his Ixwa did its work. At last he reached the mound and up went his spear into the man’s groin. The thrower shrieked with pain as he buckled, then a half-dozen stabs from the Zulus ended him.
Far from being concerned, Shaka had been elated when his scouts had told him of these mounds. "Many of our men will die," he said. "But the Buthelezis will not leave the comfort of their mounds. They will stay where we want them!"
As Zulu Ixwas stabbed, sliced, and stabbed again, terror struck the Buthelezis. Never had they seen men butchered around them -- they had only hurled death from afar. The throwers on the mounds could not stop the Zulu tide. Eyes wide with panic, frontline Buthelezis ran back screaming, only to crash into the shields of their comrades behind them. Buthelezis tripped and fell. In their frenzy to escape, many tried to clamber over those behind them. Some turned and faced the Zulus, but their flimsy throwing assegais snapped on the tough Zulu shields, while their clubs just bounced. As the Buthelezis became compressed into one into another, few had space to even wield their weapons.
The Zulu spears were relentless. The men's shouts of jubilation mixed with Buthelezi screams of terror. Wounded and dying men shrieked and moaned, and the air was filled with the stench of sweat, urine, excrement, blood, and choking dust.
While the amaWombe fought the Buthelezis man-on-man, the uFasimba forming the Bull’s Horns sprinted up the hill on either side of Pungashe’s corps. The youths made no attempt to engage the enemy. Seeing the wave of black shields quickly overtake them, Buthelezis in the rear dropped their weapons and fled up the hill. Soon they backed into the spectators on the slope. Shrieking, the women leaped to their feet. Hysterical mothers and terrified children mingled with frantic men. Dolls and toy spears were crushed under their feet.
The Zulus continued their sprint up the slope on either side of the chaotic jumble. Easily their bare feet outpaced the sandal-shod fleeing warriors. When the uFasimba had passed the Buthelezi mass, the two horns converged. The one horn tip met the other and the jaws of the pincers closed.
Mgobozi led one horn. Over his shoulder, he barked, “Kill them now!”
Instantly the order was repeated and echoed back. Not losing a step, the uFasimba spun to face the enemy. Continuing their sprint, the young athletes attacked and their shields battered back the panic-stricken horde. The few flimsy Buthelezi assegais held in defense splintered against the advancing wall of Zulu shields.
Mgobozi watched with grim admiration as the uFasimba youths did what he had drilled them to do, day after day. Hefty Ixwa spears that had flashed in the noon sun flashed no longer as blood covered the shining blades.
One by one, the hysterical shrieks and the pleading screams were silenced. The deafening, heart-wrenching noise died down, until only the yells of men at the base of the hill remained.
Methodically the amaWombe fought their way up the hill. Shaka's red and blue head feathers could be seen waving in the thick of the melee. He cajoled, exhorted and incited the men with shouts of: "Follow me! Close that gap! Why are you waiting!"
Cries of "Ngadla" echoed as spear after spear claimed another victim. But the assegais from the emplacement throwers also took their toll. A Zulu fell to a spear in the chest and another collapsed with a point passed through his neck. The wounded Zulus who could fought on. One wrenched a spear from his shoulder and another pulled a blade from his arm.
Relentlessly the amaWombe pressed their attack, and their shields, spears and feathers blurred together. Swirling dust rose to obscure all.
Ignoring his wounds, a determined Zulu stabbed his way to an emplacement, with his raised, tilted shield blocking the assegais hurled at him. Grabbing the thrower's ankle, the incensed Zulu yanked him down. A thrust to the heart followed by two more took care of the Buthelezi. The Zulus cleared the mounds, one by one, and soon they were all bare.
From the Buthelezi rear, the Zulu "horns" now compressed the enemy. Dropping their weapons, they attempted surrender but this was ignored in Shaka's warfare. Shouting and imploring, Pungashe's men died where they stood.By early afternoon , no Buthelezi remained standing. Never again would battle with the Zulus be a game