Harvard African Studies


Show Summary

Chaka maintained a standing army of from 12,000 to 15,000 warriors. Each regiment was stationed in a military kraal, or ekanda. The regiment contained from 600 to 800 or 1,000 men; that at Dingaan’s capital, Umkunginglov (Umkungindhlovu), for example, was about 900 strong. This regiment differed from others in that it was largely made up of "chiefs of smaller towns bearing the appellation of indoona or umnum-zana ("head of a village)"; and "it is evidently with a political view of state surveillance," writes Gardiner, "that the most influential of these are formed into this description of bodyguard, and that all in rotation are obliged to appear and reside for some time in the capital, where they become not only hostages for the good conduct of those dependent upon them, but are thereby prevented from plotting any scheme for the subversion of the existing government." Whereas this regiment may have consisted of veterans alone, and whereas we know that there were others constituted entirely of young warriors, it appears that the typical Zulu regiment of the active army was made up of the two classes in conjunction. The young warriors, moreover, were of two kinds: those who, like the veterans, wore the characteristic Zulu headring, and the "boy," as those who lacked it were named in contradistinction to the "men" who had it. In addition there were associated with each regiment children who had not yet entered the army.

The veterans were distinguished from the young warriors by the color of their shields. The former had white shields with black spots down the center; the shields of the latter were black. The way in which the regiments were recruited will indicate most clearly how the classes came to be thus related to one another within the regiments. The following is the story as it was told to Bishop Colenso by two Zulu soldiers: "The boys when they think themselves big enough to enlist—say from sixteen to eighteen years old—collect at the military kraals, each going to that to which his father belongs, and there they stay, milking the cows into their mouths. This is a sign that they wish to be enlisted, and when the izinnceku(king’s officers) of the military kraals see that a good many of such boys have collected, one of them reports the fact to the king, who then gives permission for the boys to be brought before him. There is no penalty for those who do not join, although, of course, they are not thought much of. Such men [as do not enlist] may marry whenever they please, and they put on the headring by permission of the head man of their kraal. . . . If, however, a man has once enlisted, and at some future time fails to appear when his regiment is called together for any purpose, it will then be inquired, ’What has become of him?’ And if he cannot give a good reason for his absence he may perhaps be killed by his regiment, but not by the king. A man who has enlisted also may not marry until the king gives leave to his regiment."

On a general mobilization the regiments were formed into three army corps. In each army corps there were regiments of veterans and of young warriors, and, in addition, regiments of a third class of soldiers which we must consider next.

"The middle warriors," says Isaacs, "or those that have wives, form distinct regiments, and are called ’inferiors.’" They were distinguished by having red shields. It may be that their name was Umkundas, or more correctly, amagundane, which means "mice," and is a term of contempt. They constituted the reserves and were apparently, at least under Dingaan, as numerous as the veterans and young warriors combined. . . .

"From their youth," writes Isaacs, the warriors were "excluded from all intercourse with the common people," and "passed their days in celibacy." . . . When they were infants, and unable to do much more than toddle, the bigger lads who had already begun to serve with the regiment "molested and beat" the little boys wherever they found them until they also nearly all "joined these young tyrants." Once they had indicated their intention of becoming soldiers they became the recruiting sergeants in turn. They watched the king’s cattle, milked the cows, and carried baggage, while the regiment was in the ekanda. While at home they consorted, doubtless, with one another, and fagged their juniors. At puberty, or somewhat later, they were enrolled among the young warriors. Either then, or later when they had distinguished themselves in battle, they had their heads shaved at the king’s orders and were required by the king to assume the "men’s" crown-ring. As young warriors they spent months of every year in the ekanda, practicing war dances, and other months on the long weary marches that led across the wilderness to the country of enemies or subjects who had cattle. Many of them were, of course, killed, or died of hunger or thirst on these expeditions. Many of them were executed by the king’s orders as cowards or conspirators. But those who survived drove on each return cow after cow into their cattle kraals—their share of the spoils of war. Every year, in December, they went up to the king’s ekanda for the Feast of First Fruits, when a great round of dancing culminated in a review of all the soldiers—"a trial of skill," in which one regiment was pitted against another. Thus five, or ten, or twenty years passed. They had long since become veterans, and had taken part in turns at the capital in the king’s bodyguard. White shields with black spots down the center have been given out to them from the royal arsenals instead of the black shields which they had borne as young warriors. They have not been allowed to marry. While in quarters in the civil villages they may have had sexual intercourse practically at pleasure with the unmarried girls and with wives who were nursing children; but they may not have had children of their own. A soldier must be a bachelor. He must not be enervated by matrimony and softened by family ties. At last came the time when as a reward for distinguished service in war rendered by the individual soldier or by his whole regiment, "the Great Elephant," as Chaka was called, announced at the Feast of First Fruits that a soldier, or his whole regiment, as the case might be, was to marry. The brides might be designated at the same time, and to disobey was to die. Or perhaps it was simply the advance of years which, while unfitting him for soldiering, won him permission to marry. "You are like an old woman now," said Chaka to a warrior who had dislocated his thigh, "I must find a husband for you." Thenceforth there were no more gatherings in the ekanda for him. His life was now lived in his own kraal with the women and little children. He took as many wives as he could afford and begot a numerous progeny, if the misfortune of sterility—a frequent concomitant of polygamy—did not befall him. In that case some young warrior would probably do the begetting for him. For he was now one of the class of inferiors, or "mice." He was, of course, liable for military service, but not in the first line. Still, at least under Chaka, the call to arms came with great frequency. . . .

The two most important Bantu practices underlying the military system we have been considering are, I believe, the folk dance and the puberty rites.

. . . The military exercises of the Zulus consisted of a charge en masse, which, by dividing and going to either side of a specified point, formed a semicircle; and a dance in this horseshoe formation, with individual soldiers performing mimic combats before the king in the center. Now this semicircle, used in the Zulu guba (or imikuba), or performance of war songs, the Zulu gila, or war dance, and the Zulu mukhumbi (or umkumbi), or battle line, was the invariable formation of the South African folk dance. By adapting to his needs the movements of the dance the Zulu drill master, whoever he was, found a way of being thorough without being unpopular; for dancing seems to have been the black man’s highest art; and it was at once sufficiently individual and concerted to serve, with modifications, both for the muscular development of the soldier and for the acquisition of the line and company movements that lie at the root of all military evolutions. The origin in dancing accounts for the tempo of Zulu drill; there was nothing adagio about it. Without their passion for dancing it is incredible that any tribe of savages would have submitted to the laborious training of the Zulus.

[The deferring of puberty rites is frequently said to have been due to Chaka] but the fact that he himself was uncircumcised, that he was begotten by an uncircumcised father, and that the Fengoes, whom he drove from Natal and scattered south and east among the neighboring tribes, were also uncircumcised, leads us to conclude that the prohibition was earlier than Chaka’s reign. And, in fact, H. F. Fynn, one of the first group of Europeans to travel in Zululand, who learned its language, and who interrogated Chaka about its past, tells us definitely that it was Chaka’s predecessor, Dingiswayo, who "ordered the rite to be deferred until he should have brought under his dominion all [Kaffir nations] within his reach. Owing to this circumstance, circumcision fell into disuse among all the Eastern tribes, and the omission of the ceremony extended to all who acknowledged his authority." . . .

Of Dingiswagyo Fynn says further: "He assumed a despotic power hitherto unknown: he divided his followers into regiments, distinguishing each by name and by the color of their shields. He introduced war dresses of a most imposing appearance to be worn by his chief men and warriors. . . . He declared war on all the neighboring tribes, assigning as his reason that he wished to do away with the incessant quarrels that occurred amongst the tribes, because no supreme head was over them to say who was right or who was wrong; a state of things that could not have been the design of Umvela, the first of the human race." On the other hand, it is claimed by some writers that it was Chaka who instituted the regiments, whereas earlier they had "charged in a mass, and without observing any orderly arrangement." This, however, is apparently incorrect; for Sir Theophilus Shepstone, who carefully studied native traditions, agrees entirely with Fynn. Of Dingiswayo he says: "He learned [while in exile] the strength of standing armies, the value of discipline and training, as compared with the mobs, called armies, in his own country. He had heard of or seen bodies of civilized soldiers. He had ascertained that they were divided into regiments and companies, with regularly appointed officers, and he thought that all soldiers were bachelors. . . . He formed all the young men into regiments, with commands in due subordination to each other, and very soon he had a formidable regular force at his command."

So much for Dingiswayo. The military innovations of Chaka were apparently two: first, the unification, in a single system, of the warriors and their ekandas belonging to various tribes, which had submitted, indeed, to Dingiswayo and imitated his institution of a trained standing army, but which ceased to be autonomous states and existed as military units of a central power only under Chaka; second, the substitution of a single spear for the stock of darts hitherto used. . . .

The object of [Chaka’s] wars was first and foremost the subjugation of his immediate neighbors and the extirpation of the more remote; with the essential consequence that their cattle became his, their girls entered his issigordlo, their boys came to add to the population and number of his ekandas. The tribes nearest to the danger moved back out of reach of his arm and crowded and warred down their neighbors, so that the repercussion of his thrusts was felt as far north as Lakes Nyassa and Tanganyika, and as far south as Cape Town. Those that could not escape he plundered and harried unmercifully, so that eventually he surrounded his enlarged nation with a wide depopulated tract as a sort of protecting ringwall. In this work the assegai was the first instrument, famine the decisive one. It is estimated that a million souls perished in his reign from either the one or the other. Once the cattle were carried off and the crops destroyed, bands of cannibals formed in the wilderness and continued the work of destruction. . . .

Of course, like all Bantus, the Zulus had their war medicines which, if properly administered, deflected assegais from their course, or made "bullets flatten against the body." But Chaka believed, like the Prussians, that the fear of possible death on advancing could only be outweighed by the fear of certain death on flinching, and he forced his soldiers to strive to outdo each other by requiring that after every battle "cowards" should be executed. . . . The rigor of the whole regime—the rule that the warrior who returned without his spear must die; that after every battle the officers must designate for death "cowards" whether there were any or not; that no provisions for the return march should be taken when an expedition started; that troops who withdrew in face of an enemy forfeited their lives; that old men who could not fight should be put out of the way; that soldiers should endure the most acute pain, such as having their bare arms burned with a burning glass, without flinching; that they must execute every order, were it even to catch a lion unarmed, to cross the Tugela in flood time, or to put to death their own sons or brothers, without manifesting the slightest sign of hesitation—this atrocious code reveals the spirit of the masterful and relentless Chaka, rather than the comparatively gentle Dingiswavo.

Very few of the battles fought by the Zulus against native armies are known to us in any detail. Among these few we may put the unsuccessful attack of Chaka’s army on Sotschangana near Inhambane in 1828; the defeat of Umbulazi by his brother Cetshwayo at the Tugela in 1856; the struggle between Moselekatze and the Bamangwato in 1862; and—the earliest of the group, which we describe in the words of an eyewitness, Fynn—the defeat of Sikunyana, king of the Endwandwe, by Chaka in 1824. The campaign began, from Fynn’s point of view at least, with a quick march of sixty miles to Nobamba, "the general rendezvous of the forces." There they rested two days. Then after dispatching spies, the whole army advanced "in separate divisions and by different routes." It consisted of about 50,000 persons, including the boys who drove the cattle on which the army lived while on the way, and some women who carried beer, corn, and milk, and who returned when these supplies were exhausted. For two days they marched, and again they rested for two days, and they repeated the march and the rest during the following four days. Then, on being rejoined by the spies, they proceeded to a great forest near which the enemy was awaiting their arrival, and on the next morning joined battle. "Being a stranger to their mode of attack," continues Fynn, "I determined to ascend the mountain and be a spectator of passing events. . . . On the upper part [of an immense mountain] there was a rocky eminence, near the summit of which the enemy had collected all his forces, surrounding their cattle; and above them the women and children of the nation in a body. They were sitting down awaiting the attack. Chaka’s forces marched slowly and with much caution, in regiments, each regiment divided into companies, till within twenty yards of the enemy, when they made a halt. Although Chaka’s troops had taken up a position so near, the enemy seemed disinclined to move, till Jacob had fired at them three times. The first and second shots seemed to make no impression on them, for they only hissed, and cried in reply ’That is a dog.’ At the third shot, both parties, with a tumultous yell, clashed together, and continued stabbing each other for about three minutes, when both fell back a few paces. Seeing their losses about equal, both armies raised a cry, and this was followed by another rush, and they continued closely engaged about twice as long as in the first onset, when both parties again drew off. But the enemy’s loss had now been the more severe. This urged the Zulus to a final charge. The shrieks now became terrific. The remnant of the enemy’s army sought shelter in an adjoining wood, out of which they were soon driven. Then began a slaughter of the women and children. They were all put to death. The cattle, being taken by different regiments, were driven to the kraal lately occupied by Sikunyana. The battle, from the commencement to the close, did not last more than an hour and a half. The numbers of the hostile tribe, including women and children, could not have been less than 40,000. The number of cattle taken was estimated at 60,000. . . . Early next morning Chaka arrived, and each regiment previous to its inspection by him had picked out its ’cowards’ and put them to death."1

1Ferguson, W.S.n/an/an/an/a, "The Zulus and the Spartans: A Comparison of Their Military Systems," , 2: 198–227, passim (rearranged).


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Harvard African Studies

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Harvard African Studies

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: "Harvard African Studies," Harvard African Studies in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WUF9ATI61YCPRUM.

MLA: . "Harvard African Studies." Harvard African Studies, Vol. 2, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WUF9ATI61YCPRUM.

Harvard: , 'Harvard African Studies' in Harvard African Studies. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WUF9ATI61YCPRUM.