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  • Writer's pictureGareth Williams

Shaka Zulu

When I was a boy, my father had some popular history books about the rise and fall of the Zulu empire in southern Africa. They had exciting action-packed covers. I struggled with the language but the stories stayed with me.

At university, I had the opportunity to study the history of southern Africa and jumped at the chance. My supervisor was John Iliffe, a giant of the field. We got on like a house on fire, even though I was an average student. Why? Because we both loved those popular histories by Peter Becker and E.A. Ritter.

As the head of history at St Helen's in Abingdon, I was able to include some South African history on the GCSE syllabus. We did coursework on the Fall of Apartheid. I was able to astonish my pupils by showing them the newspaper front pages of the first truly democratic elections in that country's history. Why were they amazed? Because I had bought the newspaper myself! In truth, that history was only a decade old.

So there is a thread running through my life linking me to the history of the tip of the African continent. In my book, Needing Napoleon (unless someone out there suggests a better title!), the characters find themselves in southern Africa. In the sequel - working title Saving Shaka - they encounter the man who forged an empire whose effects were felt across almost 2,500 miles of Africa!

His story reads like a Boy's Own adventure. Born to a chief, he is disowned and ostracised. But he grows into a fine and intelligent warrior in the service of another chief. He sees the flaws in the existing military weapons and tactics. Once he becomes a tributary chief, he revolutionises them and it is only a matter of time before his influence grows.

He raises his obscure little clan up to dominate the region in and around Natal in modern-day South Africa. There are tensions created by his military system and a number of breakaway groups led by former Zulu commanders spread their weapons and tactics far and wide.

In truth, it is messy and disruptive if you are not a Zulu. No wonder so many tribes flocked to join Shaka's empire. For those who did not were likely to be conquered. In another blog, I will discuss the inherent problems with the military society Shaka created. But I will end today with this thought, he started with nothing but within a few years of becoming a minor chief, he had revolutionised the structure of his society and overseen a remarkable expansion from a clan of a few hundred to an empire with a standing army of 40,000 - that's half the size off the current regular army in the UK!

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