The Zulu are a tribe that makes up the largest Ethnic group in South Africa. Their history is one of migration, expansion and conquest, which they achieved with lightning speed under the rule of Shaka the great, perhaps one of the greatest military strategists in African tribal history. Shaka consolidated his empire by developing a unique fighting style, that shared many similarities with the tactics of the Ancient Romans. By utilizing short stabbing spears that could be applied en masse, the Zulu conquered a wide swath of Southern Africa, and forged an empire that would certainly had continued it’s expansion had the colonial powers not invaded in the later 19th century. The unique history and warfare of the Zulu are an important part of their cultural identity, and played an important role in their eventual succession to the leadership of South Africa in the modern era.
The Zulu belong to the larger Nguni linguistic group whose origin is lost in an oral tradition that precedes recorded history. The Nguni are divided into two large segments, North and South. The Xhosa, Pondo and Thembu of the Eastern Cape, (formerly Transkei) are major representatives of the South Nguni, while the Zulu, the Swazi of Swaziland and the Ndbele (in the present provinces of Gauteng and Mpumalanga) are of the Northern Nguni. The Zulu people have a distinct culture that distinguishes them from other ethnic groups. During each year they hold ceremonies that revive their culture and tradition. These ceremonies include, among others, the Heritage Day, which is held to celebrate the life of Shaka Zulu, the most powerful king and creator of the Zulu nation. What also distinguishes the Zulu people is the traditional dress of women, which mostly includes beadwork. Men’s traditional clothing consists mainly of cowhide that is used to cover the bottom front and back. Traditionally, women and men walk barefooted when they wear these clothes.
The Nguni are believed to have been one of three large African migrant groups whose tradition of horticulture and cattle breeding combine the major cultural attributes of West, Central and North East Africa, from where they are held to have moved along separate routes to Southern Africa. The Nguni, followed an inland course via the headwaters of the Zambesi where contact with San hunters produced the “click” sounds that characterize their languages today. Moving southwards to the most northerly bend of the Limpopo River which marks the boundary between South Africa and Zimbabwe, the Nguni are supposed to have split into separate migrations, moving in different stages into what is now KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Province (formerly known as the Transkei).
Some of those who settled in northern KwaZulu-Natal doubled back into what is now Swaziland, while those who first entered the Transkei were the forebears of the Pondo. The last to leave the Limpopo settled for a while in what is now the south-eastern region of the Mpumalanga province, then moved on in easy stages into central KwaZulu-Natal. Finding the north-east and north-west already occupied, two smaller groups moved on. One of these, finding the coastal regions of the south settled by the Pondo, kept to the inland high ground, to become the Xhosa. The other of the two smaller groups found a home as the coastal neighbours of the Pondo to become the Thembu of today. The final Nguni migration populated the heart of KwaZulu-Natal where the small and unimportant Zulu clan was later to succeed the Ndwandwe and Mthetwa empires respectively in the north-west and north-east. Under their famous chief, Shaka, they became the rulers of KwaZulu-Natal from the Tugela River in the south to the border of Mozambique in the north. Shaka was assassinated in 1828 by his half-brother, Dingane. A long line of descendants link these historic figures with the current royal house headed by King Goodwill Zwelethini.
Ancestral spirits are important in Zulu religious life. Offerings and sacrifices are made to the ancestors for protection, good health, and happiness. Ancestral spirits come back to the world in the form of dreams, illnesses, and sometimes snakes. It is believed that many misfortunes, sometimes even death, are the result of angry spirits. Zulu sangomas are diviners who have the ability to read such spirits and foresee what they bid of humans.
In order to appeal to the spirit world, a diviner (sangoma) must invoke the ancestors through divination processes to determine the problem. Then, a herbalist (inyanga) prepares a mixture to be consumed (muthi) in order to influence the ancestors. As such, diviners and herbalists play an important part in the daily lives of the Zulu people. However, a distinction is made between white muthi (umuthi omhlope), which has positive effects, such as healing or the prevention or reversal of misfortune, and black muthi (umuthi omnyama), which can bring illness or death to others, or ill-gotten wealth to the user.  Users of black muthi are considered witches, and shunned by society.
“Great nation of Zulu,
You have shown courage against a superior enemy.
The nations that spoke of you with contempt are chilled by your songs.
Kings and princes shiver in their little thrones.
Enemies flee to hide in the mountain caves.”
Taken from Zulu epic poem, Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic of Emperor Shaka, translated by Mazisi Kunene, drawing on a number of Zulu oral historians. The young warrior Shaka became leader of the Zulus (the people of the heavens) in 1816. An extraordinary leader, he quickly built up his tribe until it was the most powerful in South Africa. For nearly twenty years during the 1820s and 1830s there was war and destruction in the central plateau. For the Zulus it was the Mfecane, or “crushing.” The Zulus aggressively attacked and defeated other tribes in their area.
Their success was due to Shaka’s military brilliance and ferocity. He organized his society for warfare and developed an effective style of fighting that involved the use of short stabbing spears. As his power grew, he appears to have become mentally unstable. He increasingly ordered the deaths of his men for no apparent reason. Finally he was assassinated in 1828 by two of his half-brothers. This period of warfare between the tribes, the Difaqane, left the Africans weaker than before and more vulnerable to continual demand of the Europeans for more land.
H.F. Fynn described the aftermath of one of Shaka’s battles in 1824
“The remnant of the enemy’s army sought shelter in a nearby wood from which they were soon driven. Then began the slaughter of the women and children. They were all put to death….Early next morning Shaka arrived and each regiment, previous to its inspection by him, had picked out its ‘cowards’ and put them to death. Many of these, no doubt forfeited their lives because their chiefs were in fear that, if they did not condemn some as being guilty, they would incur the resentment of Shaka…”
Conflict between the Zulu and the British and Dutch continued. During the 1870s, the British were looking for a pretext to completely defeat the Zulu In 1878 they got it. The wife of Sihayo, a Zulu chief, fled with her lover into British territory. Sihayo’s sons crossed the frontier into Natal and killed her. The British ordered the Zulu to disband their army and predictably the Zulu chief, Cetshwayo, refused. On this pretext the British army marched into Zululand. The Zulu, with vastly inferior weapons, killed 1500 British and defeated the army at Isandhlwana. It was a remarkable achievement, and the greatest victory ever won by Africans against Europeans in sub-Saharan Africa.
The British reinforced their troops, however, and eventually defeated the Zulu at the Battle of Ulundi in 1789. The Zulu king ordered his warriors to stop fighting, since his people were starving. The British divided Zululand into 13 smaller states. This encouraged disputes between the chiefs and eventually there was civil war. In 1887 the British made Zululand a colony.
“At this moment the Zulu power is…a menace to the peace of South Africa…yet what other results can be looked for from a savage people, whose men are trained in youth to look upon working for wages and the ordinary labor necessary to advance the progress of a peaceful country to be degrading…and to consider the taking of a human life as the most fitting occupation for a man?” – Sir T. Shepstone, 1878, before the war
“Mpande did you no wrong, and I have done you no wrong, therefore you must have some other object in view in invading my land. It cannot be because of Sihayo’s sons. The English have just crowned me. How is it that they crown me in the morning and dethrone me in the afternoon?” – Zulu Chief Cetshwayo in exile after defeat.
Zulus carried a heavy broad bladed stabbing spear with an 18 inch blade nearly 2 inches wide (in some respects a similar to the Roman Gladius) this had a 30 inch wooden shaft and a throwing spear with a 7 inch blade on a 3ft shaft. Despite the popular image the Zulus also used guns, often Napoleonic weapons bought from traders but also Martini Henry rifles looted from the British troops especially after Isandlwana, in fact as many as 60% of Zulu warriors had access to firearms by the time of Rorkes Drift. This said they did lack training and good quality powder for these weapons. The warriors were highly disciplined and organised with each regiments having companies and their own Izinduna or officers and a clear chain of command. With no baggage train unlike an European Army of the time they could travel fast and were highly mobile able to cover around 20 miles in a day and fight at the end of it or twice that distance in an emergency. The Zulus normally used a fighting Buffalo formation or Beasts Horns where a strong central body of troops was supported by two flanks or ‘horns’ of lighter faster troops who would outflank and surround the enemy cutting off any escape. This formation worked well against their tribal enemies and against the British at Isandhlwana but was limited and dangerous if the Zulus failed to breach the firepower of a European Army.
January 22, 1879 is the legendary “Day of the Zulu,” when more than twenty thousand Zulu warriors nearly wiped out the forces of the invading British army — even the sun was on the side of the Zulu Nation. A partial solar eclipse during the battle obscured the view of the redcoats, making it difficult for them to see the attacking Zulu warriors. But the Zulu triumph on that day was no freak victory: it came about through a combination of superior battle strategy and fierce weapons, aided by potent traditional medicine.
The battle took place in the shadow of a sandstone outcrop called Isandlwana, where the British forces were camped. Isandlwana turned out to be an ideal location for the Zulu to perform their famous “horns of the bull” encircling maneuver. In the technique, developed in the early 1800s by the Zulu king Shaka, one central body of experienced troops makes a frontal attack, while the youngest and fittest warriors simultaneously sneak around the left and right sides of the enemy forces, catching them off-guard and trapping them. Zulu chiefs, stationed on high ground, but out of sight of the enemy, coordinate the attack with hand signals. A key element of the method is to use the topography to conceal troop movements. At Isandlwana, for example, hills and tall grasses provided cover to the advancing warriors. “Isandlwana is the classic example of the technique used to perfection,” says Zulu historian Ian Knight. “The British had been told about it, but it is clear that they were not prepared.”
Once the Zulu warriors had set upon the British forces, they were able to engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat. A number of seemingly simple yet deadly weapons filled their arsenal. The most devastating was the iklwa, or stabbing spear, which is said to be named for the sound it makes as it is drawn from a body. According to legend, the iklwa was developed by Shaka, who wanted his warriors to engage their enemies at close range, and not simply toss their long spears from a distance, leaving them unarmed. The iklwa had a long, wide flat blade, about 14 to 18 inches long, attached to a staff. The entire spear was three-and-a-half to four feet long, and was thrust into the enemy with an underhanded motion, to maximize the force of the blow.
Warriors also carried an iwisa, or knobkerrie — a stick with a round knob at the end, about four inches or so in diameter, all intricately carved from a single piece of wood. Zulu craftsmen used the hardest possible woods for the weapon. The best was iron wood, a dark, almost black, heavy wood, which produced an elegant, vicious weapon. “If you can dissociate what they were used for, they are quite interesting and attractive artifacts,” says Knight. Like the stabbing spear, the iwisa was a close-quarter weapon. “You’d sort of try and knock the other guy’s brains out with it,” Knight says. “There was nothing very sophisticated about it.”
Zulu warriors also wielded shields, which they used both to protect themselves and as an offensive weapon. They were trained to hook the shield behind their enemy’s shield, and push it out of the way, which exposed the foe’s body to attack. In addition, some warriors still carried long throwing spears; others had European firearms, like old flintlock muskets, “but they weren’t very skilled in using them, and had to use poor powder and homemade bullets,” Knight says. Chiefs often carried axes with triangular-shaped blades, “although these were more of a symbol of status,” Knight adds.
The Zulu might never have vanquished the British at Isandlwana without the help of traditional Zulu medicines. Some scholars have suggested that Zulu pharmacopoeia provided more of a psychological boost than any real physiological effect. But recent scientific studies show that the medicines contained some very potent drugs. For example, warriors were given a cannabis (marijuana)-based snuff to take during battle. Analysis of the snuff has revealed that it contained extremely high levels of THC, a powerful hallucinogen, and yet no detectable levels of the chemicals that cause the sedative effects of marijuana.
Also in the Zulu war medicine chest: the bulb of a flower in the Amaryllis family, called Boophane disticha, or the Bushman Poison Bulb. Studies have shown that the bulb — which was also used by southern Africans to help mummify bodies — contains buphanidrine, an alkaloid, like codeine and morphine (although it is not related to them) with hallucinogenic and pain-killing properties. According to botanist Ben-Erik van Wyk of Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg, South Africa, the dosage of buphanidrine necessary to reduce pain is very close to the toxic dose, “but in a very experienced traditional healer’s hands it should be safe. They usually assess the strength of a bulb by testing it on themselves.”
In addition, warriors sometimes ingested a hallucinogenic mushroom containing a toxin called muscimol. The chemical, present in fly agaric — a mushroom that can attract and kill flies — is said to induce a state of expanded perception in those who ingest it. Warriors who consumed those mushrooms, researchers speculate, might have been utterly without fear, believing themselves impervious to British bullets.
Despite all these possibilities, one thing is certain, the Zulu army inflicted one of the greatest defeats on a western army in African history, and they will forever be remembered for the day the took the field in the battle of Isandlwana.