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.
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.
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.
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.
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.