Episode 3: Shaka Zulu: Africa’s Greatest Commander?

Shaka Zulu (c. 1787–1828) was the most powerful king in southern Africa during the pre-colonial period. He forged a polity that would become the largest in the region through the ruthless use of his reorganised and loyal army.

Initially regarded as an upstart, Shaka managed to impose himself as a regional ruler. Invaded by a powerful neighbouring tribe, he organised the collective defence of the Zulus and other tribes, reorganising the militia and drawing on indigenous traditions, without any European influences. He then turned to crushing the surrounding chiefdoms with the utmost brutality, leaving a trail of massacres and destruction in his wake. Operating with only 5,000 to 10,000 warriors at any given time, Shaka – like Napoleon – prevailed not through the introduction of new technologies, but through innovative ways of training and employing his army.

Professor John Laband is the world-leading expert on Zulu history. A graduate of the University of Natal and Cambridge, he is Professor Emeritus of History at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada. He joins Beatrice and Paul for this episode.

Recommend reading

Laband, John: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation (1997).

Laband, John: Kingdom in Crisis: the Zulu Response to the British Invasion of 1879 (2007),

Laband, John: The Atlas of the Later Zulu Wars 1883–1888 (2001)

Laband, John: The Assassination of King Shaka (2017)

Laband, John: The Eight Zulu Kings from Shaka to Goodwill Zwelithini (2018, reprinted in 2021)


Paul O’Neill

Senior Research Fellow

Military Sciences

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Beatrice Heuser

Senior Associate Fellow

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