Zulu Modernity

British imperialism was at the fore-front of the European ‘carve-up’ of Africa.  In 1843, much of what was formerly the western edge of the Zulu Kingdom (then ruled by Zulu King Mpande (1798-1872) was annexed to form the north-eastern section of the ‘new’ British colony of Natal – which had been taken by the British from earlier Dutch (Boer) settlers.  Even before this time, during the lifetime of Shaka Zulu (1787-1828) – the founder of the Zulu Kingdom – and his successor king Dingane (1795-1840), British and Dutch imperialists had been continuously encroaching on Zululand, and threatening the Zulu people with military retaliation, should the resistance to the White presence become too strong.  However, despite treaties recognising the Zulu Kingdom east of the Buffalo River, the British army crossed into Zululand, in three columns on January, 1879.  One British column was obliterated by the Zulus at the Battle of Islandlwana (with its remainder – commanded by Lord Chelmsford – which was not present at the battle, beating a hasty retreat), whilst another column was bogged down for months (at Eshowe). The third column was militarily prevented from achieving its objectives by Zulu tenacity and good planning, and was forced to withdrew.  Battles raged for around seven months, with the Zulus winning many battles, or preventing the British from achieving localised successes.  However, despite possessing an army of around 35,000 at full strength, the Zulus were suffered an attrition rate of warriors that could not be easily replaced.  As their main weapons were a cowhide shield, short stabbing spear, and battle hammer, the Zulu warriors relied upon physical fitness and psychological aggression to close with the enemy across no man’s lands.  Obviously, when fighting a modern industrialised army like one the British possessed, this charge across no man’s land often resulted in a high casualty rate, due to canon, mortar, machine gun and quick breech-loading rifle fire.  However, once the Zulu warriors had traversed this dangerous space and closed to hand to hand combat, their martial arts training often proved decisive against the conventional bayonet. The Zulu king Cetshwayo (1826-1884) led the Zulu people through this disastrous encounter with Western imperialism, and despite the Zulu armies fighting with great fighting spirit, bravery, certainty and self-belief, the crushing defeat they suffered at the hands of the British at the Battle of Ulundi (which occurred on the 4th of July, 1979), put an end to the Zulu Kingdom as an independent nation, and effectively brought to an end, to organised African military resistance to White imperialism on the African Continent.

Due to its highly aggressive tribal expansionism (which incorporated many non-Zulu tribes into the Zulu Nation), and the development of a form of strategic and tactical warfare premised upon the Zulu armies forming for battle in the ‘horns of the buffalo’ formation, the Zulus were able to defeat all (African) local opposition, and for hundreds of years hold their own against encroaching European colonisation, despite a lack of modern weaponry.  Shaka Zulu – a man who surely must be described as a military genius, devised a very effective form of defensive and aggressive martial arts, whereby a warrior, armed with a cowhide shield (of various colours to denote rank and regiment), a short stabbing spear, and a battle hammer, trained to defend himself in all four directions, manoeuvring the shield to block and parry an opponent’s arms and legs, whilst thrusting the spear into the openings made.  The short stabbing speak was generally held in the right hand (although men of considerable high rank, often carried the spear in their left hand as a mark of status).  The cowhide shield was carried on the left fore-arm, whilst the battle hammer was held in the left hand.  When the shield was swung left and right, up and down, the left hand could always (and simultaneously) deliver a skull-crushing blow with the battle hammer.  As the Zulus always fought on the attack (like the ancient Celts of Europe), running vast distances was a very important part of their physical fitness and conditioning regime.  Zulus warriors ran everywhere, often carrying heavyweights on their arms to build strength.  This allowed Zulu armies to traverse the hilly terrain (in bare foot) of Southern Africa, deploy quickly into formation, and attack without losing momentum, or stopping for rest.  However, the Zulu army was more of a militia than a professional standing military formation, with ordinary Zulu warriors actually performing the tasks associated with farming and cow herding during peacetime.  Every so often, regiments would be called-up for training, or to fight a battle.  All Zulu men had to get up early and practice their martial skills (taught to them by their fathers), before going to work in the fields.  During formal military training at regimental level, ordinary individual Zulu warriors were taught how to apply these skills collectively in a single unit.  Young men were not allowed to marry until given permission by the Zulu king, and that was usually only after they had been involved in a proper battle, and had experience the blood-shed of war.  This meant that marriages between men and women only occurred en masse, and only then at rare intervals.  This convention created the situation of regiments being premised upon age – with many newly married couples creating off-spring at the sametime.  These children would grow-up as training partners, and would be soldiers in the same regiment.

Warfare, however, was not just merely mechanical process for the Zulu people (despite the obvious presence and exercise of African logic and reason evident in Zulu planning), but was also a deeply spiritual and religious affair, which saw Zulu men ritualistically ‘purified’ by the tribal shaman not only as a teenager (when he became a ‘man’ who could officially ‘fight’ to earn himself a wife), but also before embarking upon regimental training, or when going off to battle.  These rituals transitioned a man from being a farmer in civilian life, to being a Zulu warrior in military life.  This ‘spell’ would only be broken after the battle, and ordinary life re-asserted itself.  Part of this process involved the imbibing of certain ‘medicines’ to enhance vision, numb pain, prevent tiredness and assist aggression.  Often major battles, such as those against the Dutch and the British, would physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually exhaust these men (providing they survived the conflict), and they would return to their kraals exhausted and shattered, where they had to ‘rest’ for months before such an individual and collective effort could be mounted again.  It seems that Shaka Zulu ushered in a distinctly ‘African’ form of modernity that was tribal based, but which changed how that structure functioned in the world.  This is interesting because the Zulu example offers a different African model of modernity to that of the European version, although both were destined to clash.  The point is that the Zulu Kingdom could have defeated the British forces and expelled them from Zululand in 1879.

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