Tag Archives: Zulu

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:

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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.

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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 :

 

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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.

 

 

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Shaka Zulu (1)

He was one of the greatest military commanders in history. He revolutionised warfare on his own continent. A huge statue of him now stands in the middle of a restaurant in London :

He was born in July 1787 and he was assassinated on September 22nd 1828. He was the King of the Zulus from 1816 to 1828. His name was Tshaka kaSenzangakhona but he was better known as “Shaka Zulu”.

His enemies said that he had a big nose, that he had two prominent front teeth and that he spoke as though “his tongue were too big for his mouth.” Many people said that he spoke with a speech impediment. He himself admitted that “Shaka himself was ugly, with a protruding forehead”.

We have no photographs, of course, in 1820. Just drawings or paintings:

Two British ivory traders, Francis Farewell and Henry Fynn, introduced other white men to Shaka in 1824. They were appalled by his cruelty to his enemies. At the same time, they could see his obvious leadership qualities, impressive self possession, great intelligence and a genuine sense of humour.

Shaka was tall. He was muscled. He was strong. His skin tone was dark brown. Petros Sibani, a current historian and tour guide of the Zulu battlefields, has given a sensible opinion about him. He said that there was no doubting that :

“Shaka was a cruel and ruthless man, but these were cruel and ruthless times”

Some historians have called him the Black Napoleon. Fans of the reggae sound system culture regularly chant his name:  “Shakalaka”:

Praise indeed.

As Shaka gradually earned the respect of the Zulu people, they became increasingly willing to adapt his ideas.

Shaka taught the Zulus that if they were to dominate the tribes around them, the most effective strategy was to beat them on the battlefield. Those surrounding tribes had to be conquered and their lands and cattle taken for the Zulus. Any prisoners were given the opportunity of joining his Zulu army.  In this way, the Zulu tribe increased in size extremely quickly and every Zulu soon developed the mindset of a true warrior.

On occasion, though, Chaka made use of other methods as well,  such as diplomatic ties and patronage. The chiefs of friendly tribes became his allies. These included Zihlandlo of the Mkhize, Jobe of the Sithole, and Mathubane of the Thuli. These three tribes were never beaten in battle by the Zulu. Instead Chaka won their hearts and minds by treating them well and repeatedly rewarding them for their loyalty to him.

Initially, the Zulus had fought with a long throwing assegai but to make them more successful, Chaka made radical changes to this traditional weapon. Here is the throwing assegai:

The Zulus had always carried a shield in the left hand. It was a piece of defensive armour designed to deflect enemy spears or assegais and the arrows fired by Hottentots and other non-Bantu peoples . It was often carried also during lion or leopard hunts as protection against such fierce animals. I think that this is the pre-Chaka defensive shield:

Boys would practice with their weapons in “stick fights” with other boys. This activity still exists nowadays:

Chaka would make changes to all of the traditional activities and weapons. He would transform the Zulus into a disciplined army, equipped with weapons that suited the sophisticated new tactics that he had taught them.

He re-organised the Zulu army from top to bottom and transformed it into a fearsome fighting force through a number of  tactical changes. These changes would permit the Zulus to fight against Europeans and, on occasion, to inflict heavy defeats, as happened here at the Battle of Isandlwana:

Next time, the new weapons and the new tactics in more detail, and some more very long Zulu words.

“Sobonana ngokuzayo !”

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