When discussing the most bone-crushingly badass military empires of Sub-Saharan Africa, there is really only one word that comes to mind – Zulu. Of all the myriad tribal leaders, tyrannical despots, and vicious totalitarian warlords that have exerted their will across this war-torn region from pre-history until the modern day, no power-hungry madman has been able to surpass the ass-kicking legacy of the Zulu Empire and its fearsome ability to carve out a mighty empire one impaled corpse at a time. The utterly-fearless warriors of this 19th century powerhouse made a name for themselves by ferociously charging lance-first into combat anywhere they could find it, massacring their foes with machetes and spears, and even sticking it to the world's most advanced European powers when they came around for a heavyweight title match of badassitude. Of all the Zulu leaders who commanded the Empire during this period, one man stands sack-and-shoulders above the rest when it comes to unrivaled badassitude – the infamous Shaka Zulu. The military mastermind behind the Zulu Empire, and one of the most hardcore tyrants who ever lived.
For a mighty Zulu Chieftain who would go on to expand his tribe's numbers from a mere 1,500 people to a 250,000-strong Empire spanning over two million square miles, Shaka's origin story was actually a little less than epic. Far from face-planting the planet at Warp Factor 5 along with a few thousand chunks of the Planet Krypton, Shaka was born to human parents in 1787, the illegitimate son of a minor Zulu chief and his fiancée – a woman who, by the way, the chief hadn't actually had sex with yet. The promiscuous bride-to-be blamed her pregnancy on some kind of Virgin Mary-style immaculate conception or some shit, but nobody really bought that excuse. The unwanted kid was named Shaka, which of course is derived from the Zulu term iShaka. While you'd think it would have been humiliating enough to be named after something that sounds like something Steve Jobs would come up with in response to the Shake Weight, it's actually the Zulu term for a particular type of intestinal parasite, which is somehow even less flattering. It's like being named Dysentery Jones or Hookworm Jackson. Other fun nicknames for young Shaka included "the bastard", and "the one with no father". He and his mother were exiled from their tribe, and forced to live as outcasts, which sucked everyones' asses on fire.
SHAKA: wtf this sux
Being named after a microbe gave Shaka a sort-of "Boy Named Sue" complex, and he ended up spending most of his youth pummeling the fuck out of any neighborhood kids that talked shit about his name, his bastard-ness, or his mother's honor. His ability to re-arrange the bone structure of his enemies' faces with little more than a clenched fist and a whole lot of pent-up rage soon earned young Shaka a place of honor as a Zulu Warrior in the service of the chief, where he could put his destructiveness to good use against the enemies of his people. In his time in the army, Shaka learned tactics, strategy, and how to effectively kill the largest number of people in the shortest number of time, which is kind of useful if you're into that sort of thing. Shaka showed so much aptitude for destruction, in fact, that after the death of Shaka's father the Zulu king appointed Shaka war chief of his tribe.
Shaka Zulu's first act as war chief was to dispatch his warriors to kill the fuck out of anyone who ever talked shit about him or his mom, mostly because those guys were bastards and Shaka didn't really want a bunch of dickheads serving in his army anyways. He then went on to completely revamp the way the Zulu fought war. You see, up until this point in history, Sub-Saharan African warfare was pretty much one of the most retarded things ever. Two groups of warriors would basically just line up fifty feet apart from each other, shout insults about the sexual practices of their enemies' women, throw a couple javelins, and then run away screaming about how awesome they were. Shaka, being a man of extreme skull-crushing violence, decided that war would be a shitload more effective if people actually died from it. So, to that end, he threw away the "cowardly" javelins and replaced them with big, heavy, fuck-off spears called assegai. Then, to further optimize his warriors' effectiveness in close-quarters combat, he redesigned the Zulu shield, making it bigger, more durable, and actually useful.
After equipping his army with more practical implements of eye-stabbing awesomeness, Shaka then went to work making his men a thoroughly balls-out as possible. He organized them into regiments and formations, made them run barefoot 50 miles a day through the savannah, and taught them techniques for using their shield to hook and pull the enemy's shield and expose the guy's ribs for a totally bitchin' shank to the ribs. During his brutal, intense training in the Art of Badass, any man under his command who showed pain, complained, or dropped his weapon was executed on the spot as a coward.
With this redesigned army of badass warriors under his command, Shaka Zulu then went on a rampage of aorta-piercing destruction across Sub-Saharan Africa. His radical formations would charge into battle, fighting with a ferocity never before seen on the Savannah, and his warriors massacred any punks dumbshit enough to stand in his path. No one could stop him. When a rival tribe was appropriately bitch-ified by Shaka, he would give the vanquished douchebags two options – join the Zulu and renounce their native tribe, or receive a catastrophic puncture wound to the brain. Most of his victims took the significantly more appealing option, and, as a result, Shaka Zulu is one of the few military commanders from history who finished a war with a bigger army than he had when he started. When he had assumed control over the entire Zulu nation after the death of the King in 1817, Shaka ruled over 350 warriors and 1,500 citizens. At the time of his death ten years later, he led 40,000 warriors, 250,000 citizens, and claimed two million square miles of territory for his people – arguably the most powerful African empire since Ancient Egypt.
Shaka was, first and foremost, a military asskicker. He preferred to charge head-first into battle at the front of his men, decked out in a presumably-awesome-looking uniform made from blue monkey fur (!), and was always more comfortable fighting a war than administrating over the mundane bullshit of a kingdom. So, as a ruler, he was kind of a psychotic lunatic. Sure, he made diplomatic contact with the British and established some trade routes, but this guy generally preferred mass executions and public witch burnings (he claimed he could "smell" witches) to anything resembling agrarian reform or due process under the law. Perhaps the best demonstration of this is how Shaka completely flipped his shit after his mom died – the distraught ruler ordered a three-month period of mourning for all the Zulu people, in which no one was allowed to eat anything. Then he killed some cows so that the calves would know what it was like to lose a mother, and went around executing 7,000 people who "didn't look sad enough".
As you can probably imagine, this sort of behavior doesn't win you a whole lot of popular support, and in 1828 Shaka was murdered to death by his brothers, who dumped his body in an unmarked grave and buried him under a bunch of heavy-ass rocks. Despite his inglorious end at the sharp end of a bro-sassin's knife, Shaka Zulu had already established one of the most dominant Sub-Saharan African kingdoms in history. His successors would continue implementing the military tactics he designed, further expanded the borders of the Zulu Empire, and would even win a major battle against the British Empire at Isandlwana fifty years later.
Cawthorne, Nigel. Military Commanders. Enchanted Lion, 2004.
Kagan, Neil. National Geographic Concise History of the World. National Geographic, 2006.
Lanning, Michael Lee and James F. Dunnigan. The Military 100. Citadel, 2002.
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