Shaka was born circa 1787, son of a minor Zulu chief, but his mother was an unranked woman, and Shaka was a humiliated and discredited child. Taking refuge with his mother in the court of the Zulu leader of the day, he grew up to become a great military leader. When the Zulu leader was murdered by a rival clan, Shaka assumed the throne.
Tragedy on a vast scale struck Southern Africa in the early 1800's. This event was named the "Mfecane" ('the crushing of people') by the Nguni, and the "Difaqane" ('the scattering of tribes') by the Sotho and Tswana. The Afrikaners and the British called the catastrophe "the Wars of Calamity". By 1825, two and half million starving, homeless people wandered about southern Africa looking for respite.
The causes of the Mfecane were many. Introduced from the Americas, corn (maize) flourished in the mild seasons of southern Africa. Not carefully managed, corn depleted the soil of nutrients. As the local population increased, they competed for more land to cultivate corn and to graze livestock. Starting in 1800, a long drought then made southern Africa inhospitable. Peoples moved in search of food, and fought for meager supplies. The Mfengu called the drought, "madlatule" ('eat what you can and say nothing').
During this period Shaka reorganized the Zulu into a military clan, and he soon made them into a force unchallenged in Southern African kingdoms. He introduced the shorter 'stabbing' spear that replaced the traditional long and awkward 'throwing' spear. On the battlefield, he developed the now-famous "horns of the bull" formation (a two-pronged attack). Conquering tribe after tribe, he assimilated all his conquests into the Zulu nation, making it swell with numbers and power, but also causing the displacement of thousands. His actions were partly responsible for spreading the Southern African tribes as far away as Mozambique.
Although he maintained a good relationship with the Europeans in Africa, including the Colonial authorities, he was disliked by other Africans, including his own people, who suffered under his long, cruel and debilitating rule of constant war.
After 10 years of unrelenting warfare that placed incredible strains on the Zulu nation, Shaka, always psychologically unstable and obsessively worried about being replaced by an heir, finally snapped into derangement after the death of his mother in 1828. He imposed a year of celibacy on his people and executed anyone who did not show enough grief at the death of his mother. He was murdered within the year by his half-brother, Dingane, who succeeded him as ruler.
Even though he created brutal conditions for his subjects, it was his legacy that created the powerful Zulu Kingdom and consolidated a nation and its pride.