Nandi (c. 1760s–1827)

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Nandi (c. 1760s–1827)

Zulu queen. Born in the 1760s in what is now South Africa; died in 1827; married Zulu chief Senzangakhona (or Senzangakhoma), around 1787; children: at least one son, Shaka (born around 1787), Zulu chief.

Nandi, whose name means "a woman of high esteem," was born into the Langeni tribe in the mid-18th century, in what is now South Africa. Around 1787, she had an illicit affair with Senzangakhona, the chief of the Zulu tribe, and gave birth to Shaka, who would later become one of the greatest Zulu chiefs and African military leaders. Although Senzangakhona then married her, Nandi was condemned as a disgrace by the Zulu and the Langeni, both because of her pregnancy and because she and her husband were considered too closely related to be married. Abuse at the hands of the Zulu forced Nandi and Shaka to return to her tribe, only to be cast out once more during the famine of 1802. They then found refuge with the Mthethwa (Mtetwa) people, whose chief Dingiswayo was in the process of creating a powerful military state. Shaka proved to be a fearless warrior and rose through the ranks of the Mthethwa army, being named by Dingiswayo as his successor before Dingiswayo's assassination in 1817.

Senzangakhona died around 1815, and Shaka soon claimed the chieftainship of the Zulu by force. Nandi's close relationship with her son, who never married, gave her unheard-of power. Reputed to have been bad-tempered even before her misfortunes, she was called Ndlorukazi, "The Great She Elephant," and used her position to take revenge on her enemies. Under Shaka's rule, the Zulu became a powerful, even legendary, military force, some 40,000 strong; his establishment of all-female regiments has been attributed to the example set for him by his warrior-mother.

Nandi died in 1827. Shaka ordered a time of public mourning during which no crops could be planted, all milk was to be poured out, and all pregnant women killed. He ordered his mother's young handmaidens to be placed with her in the grave, and he set 12,000 soldiers to guard it for a year. Summary executions set off a massacre which claimed the lives of some 7,000 people in the course of a three-month period. The terror stopped when Mnkabayi , a close friend and sister-in-law of Nandi's, plotted a successful coup carried out by Shaka's half-brother Dingane (Dingaan), who assassinated Shaka and took over the chieftainship in 1828.


Lipschutz, Mark R., and R. Kent Rasmussen. Dictionary of African Historical Biography. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986.

Uglow, Jennifer S., comp. and ed. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1989.

Lisa Frick , freelance writer, Columbia, Missouri