A warrior of the people

22nd August 1997 at 01:00
To most of the world's filmgoers his image remains one of a ruthless and bloodthirsty tyrant, but to the Zulus who will gather next month to commemorate his death, nothing could be further from the truth.

Next month at least 7,000 Zulus in traditional tribal costume will dance and sing around the grave of King Shaka, who founded the Zulu empire in eastern South Africa in the early 19th century. And 210 years after his birth, they can now take heart from the fact that an attempt is being made to alter the infamous image of their most famous leader.

The bid comes as descendants of British soldiers and Zulu warriors who fought bitterly at Rorke's Drift start working towards a new friendship. In the needy province of KwaZulu-Natal - a remote region 200 miles south of Johannesburg where the British slaughtered 350 Zulus - descendants of the two armies are working on a number of projects to improve life for the community.

Historian and author Ian Knight is carrying out fresh research to try to bring the more generous aspects of Shaka's nature to light. The research is being sponsored by the millionaire zookeeper John Aspinall.

In Britain many students cover the Zulu War as part of their course on 19th-century British history; the national curriculum also has an optional study of the British Empire, which includes the Zulu War.

"There are a number of A-level courses which allow students to do a personal study, and boys often pick the Zulu War if they've seen the film [Zulu]," says Sean Lang, honorary secretary of the Historical Association and head of Hills Road sixth-form college in Cambridge.

"The problem is that what we have is very much a white view, which is seen in terms of Britain's history, with glamour attached to it through the film.

"But we have no understanding of Zulu history and no idea of the impact on them of the whites. We need someone to produce material from a Zulu point of view."

This is what Mr Knight intends to do from his base between Mozambique and Durban, where the kingdom was situated.

"The Zulu kingdom emerged under King Shaka, who united a network of smaller groups through a mixture of military force and diplomacy," says Mr Knight.

"British adventurers arrived in 1824 to trade with Shaka, and much of the imagery we associate with the Zulus has been shaped by the impressions of these men, who portrayed him as a fierce monster.

"By presenting Shaka's regime as illegitimate and monstrous they excused their own misdeeds and helped to justify British intervention."

Shaka is well-known for having created Africa's first centralised army and setting up an efficient central control of the kingdoms he conquered. But what Mr Knight has discovered is that he was seen as a generous leader by those he conquered.

Mr Knight says: "On my last trip to Africa I spoke to a man from the Buthelezi chiefdom whose ancestors were conquered by Shaka in 1817. He spoke of this event proudly as though it was the moment when the Buthelezis became part of a larger, more significant kingdom, still keeping a sense of their own identity but within a wider world."

From recent interviews with Zulus in Africa, Knight has discovered that Shaka's image goes far beyond that of a physical power. In his homeland, Shaka was seen as a guiding spiritual force.

"Shaka was considered to be the prime example of a man who followed the Ubuntu philosophy of life. This philosophy was an all-embracing communal way of life which demanded hospitality to strangers and care of older relatives within the family unit."

His conquests were often put down to his achievement of "Itonya" - supernatural ascendancy over the enemy on the eve of the battle. If one side captured an object which was of ritual importance to the other, it could be used to work magic over them and achieve victory.

Shaka had these objects bound together with a grass rope which was believed to have the power to bind the nation together. So spiritual was he that his descendants believe he was on the verge of becoming a "sangoma" - a diviner in touch with the spirit world.

In hunting, Shaka was regarded as the first game conservationist. Although keen on hunting, he managed Zululand's game reserves carefully and never over-hunted one area.

"In Western literature Shaka has often been portrayed as a psychotic, unable to form normal human relationships, " says Mr Knight.

"In Zulu society, however, he is remembered as a warrior with an accessibility to ordinary people, for his friendships with his fellow warriors and for his generosity in distributing rewards after battle.

"The British tended to view the war between British interests and the Zulu kingdom as inevitable. What underpins this is the idea that the Zulu kingdom was anachronistic, while the settler economy was progressive - and progress is defined in terms of the spread of European economic models and religious values.

"This was a view that would cause severe bloodshed and untold misery for the Zulu people."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today