Shaka Zulu (3)

Last time, I finished by mentioning how the regiments of the Zulu army were distinguished by differently coloured shields and the number of marks on them. Shields might be brown, white or black and might have black spots, brown spots, white spots or no spots at all. Here’s a display in a South African museum:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It occurred quite frequently that the Zulus would use the captured shields of their enemies as a ruse, causing confusion or even panic among the ranks of their adversaries. Chaka actually owned his own army’s warshields, the isihlangu, and they were handed out only in times of war. Men were punished for losing them.

Years later, when the Zulus were fighting the Boers,  Bongoza, a General in the Zulu army of King Dingane, even showed his men how to hide behind their shields and pretend to be grazing cattle.

Funnily enough, that was actually the only innovative idea that I came across that did not come from Chaka, the most brilliant military thinker ever in  sub-Saharan Africa. I found this coloured version of what is usually a black and white illustration of him on the internet:

Chaka was the one, for example, who changed his men’s diet, having them consume a fairly constant mixture of beef and cereal porridge. The existence of a new, fitter, stronger, army, would, of course, ultimately create more wars, but at the same time it would allow free access to further supplies of beef and cereals from the territories of the conquered tribes.

I don’t know if this dietary régime really did keep the Zulus leaner, fitter and more able to march long distances but that was the widely held belief among non-Zulus in Natal and Zululand in the 19th century. The problem, of course, was that the Zulus themselves left no written accounts and that all we have to go on are the accounts of one or two white traders such as Francis Farewell and Henry Fynn. And any books written by men who merely want to make money, of course, tend to exaggerate, just to make even more money.

For that reason, we shall never know for certain just how bloodthirsty and crazy Chaka was after his mother, Nandi, died on October 10th 1827. Did he really order every Zulu mother-to-be to be executed? Did he really seek out more than 7,000 people who were not sufficiently grief stricken and have them all killed? And even more crazily, did he really have every cow with a calf to be killed so that their offspring would all know exactly what it felt like when your mother died?

Only written records from an unbiased source can tell us such things. We are, for the same reason, still unsure about how far a Zulu regiment, an impi, could  run in a day. In 1879 the whites firmly believed that the answer to that question was FIFTY miles. It is even quoted in the film “Zulu”.

South African historian, John Laband, however, thought the idea was ridiculous. He gave 12 miles per day as the absolute maximum with only nine miles per day as the normal distance.
A very similar example would be the use of sandals by Zulu warriors. In the absence of written records, it has been handed down over the years that in order to toughen his warriors’ feet, Chaka had them stop wearing sandals and then any who refused were executed. Nowadays, we just don’t know if that is true or false.

Modern Zulus, especially the politicians, wear spotless, bright, white trainers. Their followers  frequently wear very brightly coloured jeans and carry golf umbrellas :

Some other aspects of bygone Zulu life we do know about through photographs. Across the world, many kings wear crowns. Zulu kings were slightly different and we have photographs from the nineteenth century to prove it. Here is King Cetshwayo:

He is wearing an “isiCoco”, an emblem of rank in pre-colonial days, meaning variously “the king”, “married man” or “warrior”, depending on the person wearing it. It was originally made from a mixture of beeswax, charcoal and snake skin, the latter being a symbol of African royalty and kingship. Warriors would wear leopard skin, because that was the animal they usually hunted. Nowadays, the isiCoco is made more easily, perhaps, by twisting a fibre ring into the hair. The ring has been covered in charcoal and gum and then polished with beeswax.

One final Zulu speciality weapon was the “knobkerrie”, a type of club with a large knob at one end. It can be thrown at the enemy like a javelin, or at animals while out hunting, or it can be used to club an enemy at close quarters. Sometimes it was used in stick fights as young boys practiced their combat techniques. In the Zulu language, it is called an “iwisa” and nowadays is not considered a weapon.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I have always been fascinated by the Zulus. As a little boy, I was an avid reader of books by H Rider Haggard. It began when “Allan Quartermain” was given to me as a Christmas present, and then I bought “King Solomon’s Mines” and “She” with my pocket money. I was entranced by the heroic Zulu warrior, Umslopogaas, who appears in “Allan Quartermain” and in its sequel “Nada the Lily” a book unique in the nineteenth century in that all of its characters are black. Absolutely remarkable for that era.

I even tried to learn some Zulu phrases, but I never really had the chance to use the phrase “Kill the white wizards” so I soon forgot it. In actual fact, the only one I do still remember is “Amba gachlé ” which means “Go in peace”. Not a bad phrase to be the only one you know.

Here’s Umslopogaas :



Filed under Africa, History, Humour, Literature, military, Politics

25 responses to “Shaka Zulu (3)

  1. Great stuff John. I too had those Rider Haggard books. I imagine that an “isiCoco” can make it difficult to wash your hair!

    • Thank you, you’re very kind. I think that the Zulus were probably too tough to wash their hair, although judging by the photograph of King Cetshwayo, he could have washed his hair with his finger or maybe even with his toothbrush.

  2. A wonderful glimpse into a piece of British history of which I know very little, and am now wanting to learn a great deal more. Thank you, John!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. I really do think that it would be a good idea if both British and American schools were to include a little African history in their syllabuses. I’ve just taken a quick look at…..
      and it’s quite amazing how many empires and kingdoms they had. I’m sure that a lot of kids would benefit from knowing a little about them.

  3. GP

    I also don’t know if the stories are true, but I do remember as a kid that the warning yell “ZULU” was supposed to instill fear in the hearts of men.

  4. Some childhood fascinations remain with us for life 🙂

    • They certainly do, and I can still remember how excited I was to open each book by Rider Haggard.
      There were no people of colour in our little village and hardly any in the neighbouring town. As children, we had no idea of racial prejudice, so I automatically treated the black characters in the books as the equals of the white ones, and, if it had been possible, the Zulu warrior, Umslopogaas, would have been first on my list of guests for my birthday party.

  5. Fascinating as always John. These warriors were made of stern stuff!

    • Thank you for your kind words. The Zulus certainly were a tough lot. I have always wondered, though, if they were as tough as the Gurkhas. Here’s a tale of their reputation in the Falklands
      How those politicians could refuse them leave to settle in England after they had served our country, God only knows. I was so delighted when that decision was reversed.

      • The Gurkhas certainly do have a reputation of being tough cookies and not to be messed with. I lived near Dover for a while and often came across them in the streets, they look a mean bunch even out of uniform. The way they were treated by the British government was certainly appalling, considering they fought for the very country refusing to let them stay!

  6. H.J. for avian101

    Did you see the movie, Zulu? some years ago, a British film. It fascinated me! Thanks, John. 🙂

    • Yes, it’s one of my favourite films, and even better, it is based fairly faithfully on real events. I bought the new remastered Blu-ray recently . It was issued to mark the 50th anniversary of the film, which, incidentally, launched the career of Sir Michel Cane. .

  7. Thank God we do not have a written record of Chaka’s order of such a massacre, At least we hope that he would not do such a thing. But we cannot be sure. In the story of Lord Krishna, it had been foretold to his uncle, Kamsa, that the eighth child of his sister would be the cause for his death. The baby Krishna is taken to safety. Kamsa is angry and he orders the killing of every new born child in his kingdom.

    • The idea of a ruler who orders the killing of babies is obviously deep in the psyche of Man. In the New Testament, the Three Wise Men, all astrologers, all kings, arrive at the court of King Herod the Great because they have seen in the stars that a king is born in Israel (=Jesus). Herod is worried that he will lose the throne to this newcomer,so he orders the massacre of all the new born babies in the country. This measure fails because Jesus’ parents take him to Egypt until it is all over.
      Here are some ideas about the Three Wise Men…….

      And the massacre of the babies is here….

      One of the Three Wise Men is Gaspar, the king of India.

  8. Fascinating, John. Zulu is my most watched film. I don’t find that 50 miles in a day too far fetched

  9. Thank you for your kind words, Derrick. I agree with you about the fifty miles. A fair few people in the East Midlands have appeared on our local news for running marathons on several consecutive days, or for running two, or even three, on just one day. There was even one who managed two marathons a day for several days. And it’s not as if the Zulus were burdened with the equipment of a World War 1 soldier, which weighed somewhere between 50 and 100 pounds.

  10. Thank you for sharing wonderful story about the Zulu!!.. brings back the time when I watched the movie “Zulu’, not only showed the tenacity of the Zulu warrior but the courage of the British soldier… although a different setting and circumstances, somewhat reminds me of the Alamo…

    Until we meet again..
    May your troubles be less
    Your blessings be more
    And nothing but happiness
    Come through your door
    (Irish Saying)

    • Yes there are connections between the two,although they are separated by thousands of miles and a good forty or so years. The great thing about Zulu was the way that both sides had so much respect and admiration for each other. I don’t think somehow that that is going to happen in the Ukraine!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.