King Shaka’s Warriors

Sketch of King Shaka from 1824 (found in Nathaniel Isaacs’ book ‘Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa,’ published in 1836)

Below is a description of King Shaka’s warriors. King Shaka is known for the military and social innovations he brought to the Zulu people unifying them into a formidable empire admired by some, and feared by others. What stands out is the great discipline of his warriors.  The Zulu army or Zulu impi was the most powerful war machine the British ever faced in Southern Africa.  The Zulu combat strategy was perfected by King Shaka himself, who added great organization and discipline to the traditional qualities of courage and mobility cultivated within African armies.  During the battle, the Zulu army would organize itself as an arc facing the adversary. This arrangement was known as the “bull horn” formation. At the center (known as the chest in Zulu) were found the most seasoned regiments; on the wings (or horns) were found the regiments of younger warriors.  The latter used their speed and agility to outflank the enemy by attacking him on the flanks while trying to encircle him, while the chest warriors engaged him in the front.  Behind the chest, and with their back turned so as to keep their calm, were the veteran regiments (also known as the kidneys) who will wait as reserves, intervening only to switch the battle to victory. Every man knew his place, moves, and maneuvers with extreme precision. Shaka’s methods reached their high point during the Zulu victory at Isandhlwana against the British forces in 1879.

Zulu warrior in 1913

Although Isaacs’ account below of his visit to Shaka’s palace is a biased view from a European who saw everything African, Black, as inferior, it is still good to note the number, the order of the troops, the strength of the king (who was not just complacent, but an active member of his troops), and much more. This also gives a better idea of the dressing of the warriors and girls, as well as the living structure in the kraal. This account can be found in N. Isaacs, Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa volume 1.

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Reception of the Zulus for Chaka from Isaacs’s book Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa. Descriptive of the Zulus, their manners, customs, with a sketch of Natal.

This morning three regiments of boys arrived to be reviewed. There appeared to be nearly 6000, all having black shields. The respective corps were distinguished by the shape and ornament of their caps. One regiment had them in the shape of Malay hats, with a peak on the crown about six inches high, and a bunch of feathers at the top. Another wore a turban made of otter-skin, having a crane’s feather or two on each side ; and the third wore small bunches of feathers over the whole head, made fast by means of small ties. Thus accoutred and distinguished, they entered the gate, ran up the kraal, halted in front of the palace, and saluted the king.

Zulu kraal near Umlazi in Natal 1849

One boy stepped in front and made a long harangue. When the orator had concluded, the whole of his comrades first shouted, and then commenced running over the kraal, trying to excel each other in feats of agility and gesture, regardless of order, regularity, or discipline. After this exhibition, which lasted three hours, a regiment of men arrived with white shields, having on them one or two black spots in the center; they saluted Shaka, then retired to put away their shields, and assembled again in one body to dance. They formed a half circle; the men in the center and the boys at the two extremities. The king placed himself in the middle of the space within the circle, and about 1500 girls stood opposite to the men three deep, in a straight line, and with great regularity. His majesty then commenced dancing, the warriors followed, and the girls kept time by singing, clapping their hands, and raising their bodies on their toes. The strange attitudes of the men exceeded anything I had seen before.

Zulu warrior in full regalia 1860: carrying the large isihlangu war shield. The upper body is covered in cow tails, the kilt is of spotted cat, genet or civet skin and the shins are decorated with cowtails. The elaborate headdress consists of a browband and face-framing flaps of leopard skin with another band of otter skin above. There are multiple ostrich feather plumes and a single upright crane’s feather.

The king was remarkable for his unequaled activity, and the surprising muscular powers he exhibited. He was decorated with a profusion of green and yellow glass beads. The girls had their share of ornaments, in addition too they had each of them four brass bangles round their necks, which kept them in an erect posture, and rendered them as immovable as the neck of a statue. This ceremony was performed with considerable regularity, from the king- giving, as it were, the time for every motion. Wherever he cast his eye, there was the greatest effort made, and nothing could exceed the exertion of the whole until sunset, when Shaka, accompanied by his girls, retired within the palace, and the warriors to their respective huts. Many, however, first went to the river and performed their evening ablutions.

The Battle of Isandlwana: the Day the British Lost the War to the Zulus

The Battle of Isandlwana
The Battle of Isandlwana

Today, I will tell you about the Battle of Isandlwana, the battle where the mighty Great Britain lost to African warriors… Yes you heard me right: Great Britain lost to Zulu warriors in South Africa on 22 January 1879The battle of Isandlwana remains the single greatest defeat of the British army at the hands of a native army.  This occurred in KwaZulu-Natal, where approximately 22,000 Zulu warriors defeated a contingent of approximately 1,350 British and Native troops (notice… the real number for the native forces cannot be found anywhere) in one of the first engagements of the Anglo-Zulu war.  The Zulu force was under King Cetshwayo, a nephew of King Shaka Zulu.

Zulu King Cetshwayo, ca 1879
Zulu King Cetshwayo, ca 1879

The Battle of Isandlwana is a battle of pride as it reminds us that our ancestors did not quietly accept colonization, and were not easily defeated.  They fought, and even defeated the European colonizers, as is the case for Cetshwayo’s forces.  The battle was a decisive victory for the Zulus and caused the defeat of the first British invasion of Zululand.  For the first time, the British Army suffered its worst defeat against a technologically inferior indigenous force.  Isandlwana resulted in the British taking a much more aggressive approach in the Anglo–Zulu War, leading to a heavily reinforced second invasion and the destruction of King Cetshwayo’s hopes of a negotiated peace.

A depiction of the Battle of Isandlwana, taken from the London News
A depiction of the Battle of Isandlwana, taken from the London News

The Zulus were equipped mainly with the traditional assegai (iklwa) iron spears and cow-hide shields.  The British and colonial troops were armed with the state-of-the-art Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle and two 7 pounder artillery pieces as well as a rocket battery.  He he he…  Despite a vast disadvantage in weapons technology, the numerically superior Zulus commanded by inDunas (Princes) Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza and Mavumengwana kaNdlela Ntuli ultimately overwhelmed the British, killing over 1,300 troops, including all those out on the forward firing line.   The Zulu army wiped six (6) companies of the 24th regiment as well as volunteers from the Natal province and Basotho auxiliaries under Colonel Durnford.  The Zulu army suffered around a thousand killed.

Zulu warriors at Isandlwana, 1879
Zulu warriors at Isandlwana, 1879

The primary reason for the Zulu victory is that the Zulus, unlike the British, kept their main fighting force concentratedFurther, they made a very successful effort to conceal the advance and location of their force until they were within a few hours’ striking distance of their enemy.  See… my ancestors were military geniuses too!!  Created by King Shaka, the Zulu army or Zulu impi was the most powerful war machine the British ever faced in Southern Africa.  The combat strategy was perfected by King Shaka himself, who added great organization and discipline to the traditional qualities of courage and mobility cultivated within African armies.  During the battle, the Zulu army would organize itself as an arc facing the adversary.  At the center (known as the chest in Zulu) were found the most seasoned regiments; on the wings (or horns) were found the regiments of younger warriors.  The latter used their speed and agility to outflank the enemy by attacking him on the flanks while trying to encircle him, while the chest warriors engaged him in the front.  Behind the chest, and with their back turned so as to keep their calm, were the veteran regiments (also known as the kidneys) who will wait as reserves, intervening only to switch the battle to victory.  Every man knew his place, moves, and maneuvers with extreme precision.

A Zulu regiment attacking at Isandlwana (C. Fripp)
A Zulu regiment attacking at Isandlwana (C. Fripp)

Finally, when the location of the main Zulu Impi was discovered by British scouts, the Zulus, without hesitation, immediately advanced and attacked, achieving tactical surprise.  This tactical surprise prevented the British, although they now had some warning of a Zulu advance, from concentrating their central column.  The Zulus had outmanoeuvred Chelmsford, and their victory at Isandlwana was a decisive defeat of the British invasion that forced the main British force to retreat out of Zululand until a far larger British army could be shipped to South Africa for a second invasion.  During this battle, there was also a solar eclipse; this however did not stop the warriors from fighting.

I have to admit that I was quite proud to learn about the battle of Isandlwana, the battle the British lost to technologically inferior Zulus warriors (so it is said).  I just think that, on that day, the Zulus despite not having the technological advantage, had the strategic advantage.  They were well-trained, well-prepared, and they were also fighting for their land.  To learn more about the Battle of Isandlwana, please check out Military history which debunked some of the myths about the battle, British Battles, and this article on the BBC.