Shaka Zulu is undoubtedly the most famous African royal in recorded history. He was regarded as a fierce and bloodthirsty ruler. His militarism contributed to the murder of nearly a million people.
Shaka's early life was not always pleasant. He was the illegitimate son of the chief of a small Zulu clan. His mother Nandi was ostracized in her tribe (the eLangeni) for having suffered an intense illness (probably an intestinal beetle) and for having a failed marriage.
Shaka grew up fatherless and was often ridiculed by his peers which nurtured his bitterness. He would despise the eLangeni all his life.
From the age of 23 until 30, Shaka served as a Mtetwa warrior. The brutal and intense fighting agreed with him immensely and Shaka found in it a way to deal with his pent up frustrations. At 6'3" tall, he had amazing natural ability as well. Legend has is that he killed a leopard with his bare hands as a teen. His intensity on the battlefield caught the attention of Dingiswayo, the Mtetwa chieftain. Dingiswayo saw the potential in Shaka and made him leader of the army. When Senzangakona, the Zulu chief, died, Shaka ascended to the throne.
Shaka worked hard to condition the Zulu warriors. He expected each of them to be able to perform as well as he. He killed any of the warriors that showed weakness and even demanded that the unmarried ones become celibate. The first clan he attacked was the eLangeri—he spared only the individuals who were kind to him and his mother. He went on to attack and dominate several other tribes. In his lifetime he amassed a harem of over 1,200 women. Fearing that a son would someday overtake him, he abstained from actual intercourse with them.
By 1817, the size of Zulu-controlled territories had quadrupled. The Zulus under Shaka appeared unstoppable.
In 1824 Shaka was stabbed while returning from a trip to see his ailing father. His body was taken to a nearby encampment and he was treated by Europeans. In return for the favor, Shaka signed over certain lands to them not realizing what it meant. The Europeans aided Shaka in many of his battles, including battles against the South Africans.
After the death of his mother, Shaka started to go downhill. In his grief he ordered 7,000 men to be killed for not showing "proper" grief and then forced his warriors to starve themselves in reverence to his departed mum. On Sept 22, 1828 his male relatives stabbed him to death à la Julius Caesar.
Shaka ruled the Zulus for a total of about 12 years.
Sources: Shaka Zulu by EA Ritter; www.kwazulunatal.co.za; Ency Africana