Shaka Zulu (2)

Last time, I introduced you to Shaka kaSenzangakhona (1787–1828). The Black Napoleon. The greatest military commander in African history. The man who revolutionised warfare on the veldt of Zululand. Shaka, or indeed, Chaka. Either spelling is apparently acceptable.

Chaka was no fool. As the Romans had realised two thousand years previously, he soon worked out that the throwing assegai could be thrown straight back at you. He favoured the “iklwa” or ixwa” which he supposedly invented himself. This was “a short stabbing spear with a long, broad, and sword-like, spearhead.” It had a shaft around two feet long, and a blade one foot in length. Here it is:

The longer spear was not abandoned, but it became a one use weapon which the Zulus would throw in unison at an enemy formation before moving in to attack with the iklwa.

Chaka also favoured the use of a particular shield, the “isihlangu”, which means which means “to brush aside”. Here is one from the internet, which dates from 1879:

In an online shop, their reproduction isihlangu shields measure 38″ by 22″, with a wooden shaft of 48″ which protrudes five inches above and below the shield. As I have learnt, most Zulu artifacts are quite variable.

Chaka taught his warriors to use the isihlangu shield in their hand-to-hand attacks. They hooked the left hand side of their shield under the edge of the opponent’s shield, then spun him sideways to leave his rib cage exposed. The “iklwa” was then inserted between the ribs and into the heart for a death blow. In actual fact, the iklwa acquired its name from the sound it made when you pulled it out of the wound it has made.

Chaka also persuaded his men to fight in formation rather than just charging off, like the beginning of a serious disturbance in a pub car park. He taught them the “bull’s horns” formation and they practiced it in times of peace, so that when war came, they were better organised than they had ever been. Here it is:

I borrowed the diagram from this webpage, although I am proud to say that the Zulu phrases were the only things I didn’t know, having been a huge Zulus fan from a very early age. The enemy are the weedy white rectangle at the top of the diagram. The Zulu for “bull’s horns” by the way, is “impondo zankomo”. Anyway, the warriors in No 1, the “isifuba” charge forward like a group of middle aged women in the first minute of a reduced-to-clear designer handbag sale.  They engage the enemy, isihlangu shields in action and the sound of the iklwa absolutely deafening. Meanwhile, the horns, No 2, the “izimpondo”, move forward quickly and stealthily and encircle the sides and back of the enemy force. If needed, the reserves, the “umava”, the bull’s loins, No 3, wait in case they are needed. Traditionally, they always faced backwards, away  from the battle and looking to the rear, so that they didn’t get over-excited, and then lose their discipline and rush off too soon to join the party. In actual fact, the most frequently occurring time to employ the “umava”, was if the enemy managed to break out of the Zulu encirclement.

All of this manoeuvring could be done because the Zulus had their army divided into regiments. The British in 1879 faced an army of 20,000 men. Their overall commander was Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza with subordinate commanders called Vumindaba kaNthati and Mavumengwana kaNdlela.

The Right Horn was made up of the uDududu and uNokenke regiments, with part of the uNodwengu corps (3,000-4,000 warriors).

The Chest comprised the umCijo, uKhandampevu and uThulwana regiments and part of the uNodwengu corps (7,000-9,000 warriors).

The Left Horn of the bull included the inGobamakhosi, uMbonambi and uVe regiments (5,000-6,000 warriors).

And finally, the Loins, who were the reserves and stood with their backs to the battle were the Undi corps and the uDloko regiment (4,000-5,000 warriors).

The regiments could be distinguished by the colours of the isihlangu shields, and the different numbers and groupings of the marks on them:

Next time we’ll look at some of the other interesting things that the Zulus got up to.




Filed under Africa, History, military

20 responses to “Shaka Zulu (2)

    • It certainly is. So many people do not realise that Africa, just like Europe, had its kings and empires, and that African history can be just as complex-and interesting-as anybody else’s.

  1. I am enjoying reading this series about Shaka Zulu. Never knew this stuff.

    • No, we tend to neglect African history, although there were many huge empires and great kingdoms in the so-called “Dark Continent”. You can see what I mean if you just google “African empires before slavery”. Some of these places seem to have traded with King Solomon, who seems to have bought goods that must have come from Africa south of the Sahara, particularly the east coast of the continent.
      Chaka himself was featured in quite a good TV mini-series a few years ago called “Shaka Zulu”. I just had a look on Amazon and “Shaka Zulu : The Complete Collection” seemed to be the best bet. If that interests you, you will need to be very careful to buy something that will play in the USA which is a different region to Europe (unless, of course, your player is region free).

  2. The death blow sounds extremely painful and terrifying. I was reminded of the military formations in the Mahabharata.
    Military Formations in Mahabharata –…

    • Thank you very much for that. The second link doesn’t seem to work but the first one does, and I found it fascinating to see how many different formations they had.
      So often, European nations are so very proud of their own histories of kings and empires, when there were armies in Asia, especially, who operated with a sophistication way in advance of theirs. And the most amazing thing is that they did that all this the best part of a thousand years before the most advanced periods of the European Middle Ages.

    • Thank you.The English have always had a great admiration for the Zulus, and in much wider terms, I have always thought that if English schools did just a little history of the great empires of Black Africa, then there would be a lot more respect for their achievements.
      Chaka was a great emperor who ruled a large empire in what is now South Africa, and it is a pity that most people have never heard of his achievements beyond film and television.

  3. For what we perceive as almost ‘backward’ these tribesmen were incredibly skilled in warfare and knew how to handle the enemy. Another very interesting post John.

    • Thank you for those kind words. The Zulus certainly knew how to handle the enemy, and even used a method which had been hugely effective for Genghis Khan himself. That was to offer opponents the choice of “Join us as allies or die”. Faced with 20,000 Zulus, or a quarter of a million Mongols, that was outstandingly effective as a strategy. In many cases, violence did not ever have to be used.
      That may have been one of the earliest examples of “making an offer you cannot refuse”, which is used by the Mafia even nowadays.

  4. I wonder if any of the Zulu tactics were learned by the British and then incorporated for use during WW1?

    • As far as I know, I don’t think that the British used any Zulu tactics. In the trench warfare phase of the war, the British tactics were virtually non-existent. There would be a bombardment of the trenches to be attacked,for anything up to a week. This was on occasion so loud that it could be heard in London. Then the bombardment would stop and the men would wait a few minutes and then go over the top. In the case of the Battle of the Somme, the men would walk calmly across no-man’s-land to the German trenches where, in theory, everybody was already dead.
      I don’t think any self respecting Zulu would even call those various actions “tactics”!

    • It is absolutely brilliant! How could soldiers possibly be down in the dumps if they were drinking beer for a couple of hours a day?
      If the enemy was a decent chap you could even ask him over for a couple of glasses and see how he felt about a regular truce at weekends for beer, burgers and sport on TV.
      The Royal Navy used to give everybody the “rum ration” every day. This was a generous little glass of rum for every man, in the late evening, I think.
      Apparently, many of the current Russian troops are reported to be drunk and perhaps the Ukrainians should explore this avenue, perhaps leaving an abandoned vodka truck,full of bottles, for them every now and again.

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