Ancients Zulu Army

Part Two: The rise of Shaka

[Dingiswayo] started by reorganising the army. In place of the undisciplined 'mobs' referred to by Shepstone, he instituted a regimental system (thus giving rise to the supposition that he was following an outside example). Young Mthethwa warriors were conscripted into regiments of a disciplined force - each regiment distinguished by its dress and the colour of its shields - and became part of what, in effect, was a standing army.

The regiments were made up of men of roughly the same age and, for youngsters, enrolment in a regiment served an initiatory purpose, similar to that of the circumcision schools which Dingiswayo abolished.

His conquests went much further than those of any other Nguni chieftain. And as his influence extended, so his army grew. Young men of the clans he overpowered were conscripted into the Mthehtwa age regiments and their traditional clan ties were consequently weakened: adherence to the regimental system gave rise to a new concept of loyalty.

Shaka's residence amoung the Mthethwa began before Dingiswayo assumed chieftainship. He therefore witnessed the inaugruration of this novel esperiment in Nguni military ... tactics. There was much to be learned from the remarkable achievements of Dingiswao and Shaka proved an apt pupil. Dingiswayo's innovations were to provide him with both the knoledge and the organisation he required to realise his own, more bloody ambitions.

As far as is known, Shaka was conscripted into the Mthethwa army when he was in his early twenties. He was then, by all accounts, a magnificent looking young man; six foot three, loose limbed and solidly muscled. Life as a herdboy had done much to develop his physique and his natural abilities: he had learned to handle an assegai, to track and tackle wild animals, to rely ons his wits. All this contributed to his rapid advancemnt as a warrior. He was recognised as a brave and resourceful leader and was soon promoted to command his regiment.

Not only his courage but his ingenuity singled him out as an exceptional soldier. He had his own ideas about how battles should be fought. To Dingiswayo's military reforms, he added some valuable innovations of his own.

He was quick to recognise the disadvantage of going into battle armed solely with the traditional throwing assegai. This longshafted spear, thrown from a distance, was useless in hand-to-hand combat; it was too flimsy to be used as a thrusting weapon and once it had been hurled a warrior was left defenceless. Shaka devised a new weapon: a short broad-bladed stabbing spear, which he called iKlwa - a unique word, said to be an onomatopoeic term imitating the sucking sound made when it was withdrawn from a body thrust. There were obvious advantages to be gained from such a weapon. Once the preliminary rain of flung assegais was over, the Mthethwa could charge their enemy and use their stabbing spears to deadly effect at close quarters.

Simple as this break with tradition appears, it required Shaka to initiate it. He also advocated relinquishing ox-hide sandals to ensure greater speed and mobility: a suggestion which is said to have met with opposition until its effectiveness was shown in battle.

Tradition has it htat Shaka demonstrated his new fighting methods in a clash with the Butelezi. The initial stages of this battled followed the usual pattern of inter-clan conflicts. Dingiswayo advanced a Mthethwa regiment to within a hundred yards of the Butelezi and then despatched a messenger to demand an immediate surrender. The Butelezi replied with a stream of shouted abuse. This was the traditional signal for outstanding warriors on either side to engage in single combat before the battle began in earnest. It was the accepted test of champions.

A Butelezi warrior quickly stepped forward with a challenge. He was answered by Shaka. To everyone's astonishment, Shaka strode towards the enemy ranks without stopping to hurl an assegai. He was a mere thirty-five yards from the Butelezi before his opponent, recovering from his surprise, flung the first spear. It glanced harmlessly off Shaka's shield. At that Shaka, tilting his shield so that he could see ahead, broke into a run. Deftly warding off a second spear with his shield, he continued his charge until he was close against the startled warrior. Instantly hooking his shield into his opponent's, he wrenched both shields to the left. With this one movement he was protecting himself from the last spear in his opponent's right hand and, at the same time, exposing the man's left armpit to the thrust of his stabbing spear. So powerful was this thrust that it passed through the warrior's heart and lung and burst out on the other side. As the man dropped, Shaka leaped over his body and rushed at the bewildered Butelezi alone. Only then did his own regiment realise what was happening. They joined in the charge. The Butelezi broke ranks and fled.

Taken from: ROBERTS, B. 1974. The Zulu Kings. Hamish Hamilton: London.