The Zulu Iklwa: Evidence of an African Military Revolution in the Nineteenth Century

“Revolutionary Material Culture Series”

This series examines the Age of Revolutions through its material markers, reminding us that materials themselves reflected and shaped political cultures around the revolutionary Atlantic and World.

By Jacob Ivey

In 2016, the History Channel’s competitive weapon manufacturing reality show “Forged in Fire” included a final segment that instructed contestants to construct a “Zulu iklwa,” or short stabbing-spear made famous by the Zulu king Shaka kaSenzangakhona, known popularly as “Shaka Zulu.” Beyond questionable visual representations, including an illustration that was described as Shaka but was actually of his nephew Utilmuni,[1] the short stabbing spear of the Zulu was offered as part of the military genius of Shaka, highlighting an often repeated, entrenched narrative in our understanding of the history of the Zulu people. This narrative, facilitated by European and African sources since the death of the Zulu king in 1828, claims that Shaka, through ruthlessness, treachery, and military innovations, forged with his iklwa a kingdom that became the source of Zulu nationalism and ethnic identity for the next two centuries. One cannot help but read a similar dramatic narrative in the recent Black Panther film, which also features a weapon similar to the iklwa prominently. Shaka remains a figure of myth, legend, and misinterpretation, with numerous books and films depicting the rise of the “Black Napoleon.” However, “Shaka’s spear” offers an example of how one object can come to represent not only the individual but also the sweeping changes that he ushered in during a period of revolution.

Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 8.58.27 AM
Left: “Zulu warrior,” The Lure of Africa, 1917. Center: Image from History Channel’s Forged in Fire, season 3, episode 10. Right: Image of Chadwick Boseman holding iklwa in Black Panther (2018).

The Zulu, an Nguni-speaking ethnic group, were one of a wide range of “clans” in what is today KwaZulu-Natal in the Republic of South Africa. By 1818, Shaka had consolidated this group along with the much larger Mthethwa under Dingiswayo to create the Zulu nation. The Zulu kingdom under Shaka experienced a military revolution during this consolidation in the early nineteenth century that triggered a wide expansion of Zulu power. The cause of this revolution has been widely attributed to the implementation of new military tactics, including the famous “bull’s horns” of envelopment, the banning of sandals to toughen the feet, the regimental association with specific cow hide patterns and warrior’s shields, and a diet of beef and cereal porridge, which meant capturing more cattle and grain supplies. Shaka’s short-stabbing umkhonto, a spear sometimes also known as assegai or iklwa, was perhaps the most iconic of these military innovations. This weapon, designed for close quarters combat and used with devastating effects across the eastern portions of Southern Africa, became the visual representation of this military revolution, with Shaka, in turn, becoming a “Black Napoleon,” leading Zulu warriors with amaiklwa in hand, and cutting a bloody swath through all who opposed him. While an oversimplification, this military revolution did have a fundamental impact on the region, and created an entrenched narrative in the minds of many Europeans of the brutal “wars of Shaka” (sometimes called the mfecane), which were facilitated by the iklwa.[2]

The history of the iklwa reveals the oft-violent, cultural transformation associated with Shaka’s revolution within the Zulu kingdom. Shaka was not the sole inventor of the nineteenth-century Zulu military revolution. Despite popular discourse, Shaka did not fashion the short-stabbing spear on his own, nor was he the first to make use of this weapon. More likely, Shaka learned of its use from the regiments of his cousin Makhedama, who grew up with Shaka during the exile of his youth.[3] Before this, soldiers would typically use different kinds of spears, including an isijula for the attack, and the iklwa against fleeing enemies. By the time of Shaka’s rise to power, the iklwa was associated with a tactic called “stabbing the ibece melon,” because it involved stabbing fleeing warriors in the back.[4] While Shaka’s warfare was defined by a greater level of swift violence—including instructions to his impi (or regiment) to “‘Let no one remain alive,’…every soul was to be killed, even a child being nursed on the back”[5]—Shaka’s contributions lay in organization and control, and not the reinvention of military technology. The iklwa, in turn, would remain only one of many tools of warfare used by the Zulu for at least another generation, despite the emergence of “Shaka’s” military breakthrough.[6]

Shaka did not invent this weapon, nor was he the first to use it. Why, then, does it remain largely associated with him? Shaka dominated the nineteenth-century Zulu imagination, but he left no written records of his actions or innovations. The majority of early information about Shaka came from Francis Farwell and Henry Francis Fynn, two fortune seekers who established the first British outpost at Port Natal. These two men were amongst the first Europeans to interact with the Zulu king, and both left a written legacy that has been foundational for our historical understanding of Shaka. But despite their proximity to the Zulu king, Farwell and Fynn were not the most reliable of narrators. Farwell was not a loyal representative of the crown as he claimed, Fynn was no benevolent physician, and neither were the romantic adventurers they have sometimes been depicted as in literature and film. Instead, they were part of an exhibition that was never given permission by the Cape Colony’s governor to make contact with the Zulu kingdom, despite Farwell assertions that he was an envoy for King George IV.  The Diary of Henry Francis Fynn, first published in 1950 as an authentic account of the life of the man who met Shaka, has been dismissed by some as fabrication or fiction, written years after Shaka’s death, and informed by the Fynn’s bias as “lower-middle-class Englishmen of the early nineteenth century seeking adventure and fortune in Africa.”[7] Historians even critique the accounts of Shaka that appear in the James Stuart Archive from Africans who were eyewitnesses to (or at least contemporaries of) the Zulu king’s reign as designed to accentuate the brutality and violence of the rise of the Zulu kingdom.[8] This has only been exacerbated by popular presentations of Shaka, such as the widely rebroadcasted mini-series Shaka Zulu (1986), with the iklwa literally “stabbing” through Shaka’s name in the title graphic.

Despite Shaka’s assassination in 1828, the weapon he is credited with creating would continue to be a staple of the Zulu nation throughout the nineteenth century. Even after his death, his praise song celebrated “The voracious one of Senzangakhona [Shaka], Spear that is red even on the handle.”[9] The weapon would be outlawed within city limits in the British Colony of Natal in the 1860s, and would achieve a level of infamy after the Zulu victory at Isandlwana in 1879 when over seven hundred British regulars were wiped out by a Zulu force of over ten thousand, most equipped with the iklwa and shield. And emphasis on this weapon continued well into the 20th century. In the early 1990s, for example, during the violence that rocked KwaZulu-Natal, a member of the Inkatha Freedom Party claimed that, “The Zulu Nation is born out of Shaka’s spear.”[10] Yet the spear’s continued association with Shaka highlights one of the major problems with an attempt to associate a tangible object with the military transformation that took place in South Africa in the early nineteenth century. A single spear did not create the Zulu kingdom, just as the tactics which made it infamous did not come from a single source. Instead, the iklwa presents an opportunity to highlight the vibrant complexity and transforming narrative that allowed Shaka to become one of the most famous Africans in history, and allows historians to examine and reexamine his role in the emergence of this African kingdom during the Age of Revolutions.


Jacob Ivey is Assistant Professor of History at the Florida Institute of Technology. His research centers largely on the British Colony of Natal, South Africa, most notably European and African systems of state control and defense during the colony’s formative period. He is currently working on a history of anti-apartheid movements in Central Florida. He tweets @IveyHistorian

Title image: Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill (24th Regiment) dying to save the Queen’s Colours. An Incident at the Battle of Isandlwana.

Further Readings:

Carolyn Hamilton, Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Dan Wylie, Myth of Iron: Shaka in History (Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2006).

Endnotes:

[1] Though it is worth mentioning that the possibility of even this being true has been called into question, providing even more complexity in our visual understanding of the Zulu during this period. See Sandra Klopper, “A Man of Splendid Appearance: Angas’s Utimuni, Nephew of Chaka the Late Zulu King,” African Studies 53, no. 2 (January 1, 1994): 1–24, https://doi.org/10.1080/00020189408707799.

[2] The mfecane is a historiographic concept that points to the period of massive political, social, and economic change that occurred in the region of Natal, Zululand, and the surrounding areas during the 1820s. The cause of this change can be linked directly to the rise of the Zulu nation under Shaka. For more on the origins of the term mfecane, see J.D. Omer-Cooper, The Zulu Aftermath: A Nineteenth-Century Revolution in Bantu Africa (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969). At the very center of the mfecane argument is the concept that it was an autonomous event that occurred outside of European influence. J.D. Omer-Cooper provided the basis for the mfecane thesis, which became a staple of the historiography of nineteenth-century South Africa. Julian Cobbing and John Wright are the main proponents of the opposing view, claiming the mfecane is an apartheid myth created by liberal historians to legitimize racial inequality in South Africa. For more on this debate, see John Wright, “Political Mythology and the Making of Natal’s Mfecane,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 23, no. 2 (1989), 272-291. And J.D. Omer-Cooper, “Has the Mfecane a Future? A Response to the Cobbing Critique,” Journal of Southern African Studies 19, no. 2 (June 1993), 273-294.

[3] Wylie has argued that although the source of this assertion comes from Ngidi (later interviewed for The James Stuart Archives), “certainly many others were using it, too.” See Dan Wylie, Myth of Iron: Shaka in History (Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2006), 126, 536; C. de B. Webb and J. B. Wright, eds., The James Stuart Archive Vol. 1: Of Recorded Oral Evidence Relating to the History of the Zulu and Neighbouring Peoples (Pietermaritzburg: University Of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 1976), 66.

[4] Wylie, Myth of Iron, 217.

[5] C. de B. Webb and J. B. Wright, eds., The James Stuart Archive Vol. 3: Of Recorded Oral Evidence Relating to the History of the Zulu and Neighbouring Peoples (Pietermaritzburg: University Of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 1982), 87.

[6] Wylie has even argued that the close quarter tactics of the stabbing-spear were still being used in conjunction with an artillery like barrage of thrown assegais well into the reign of Dingane, Shaka’s successor. See Wylie, Myth of Iron, 217.

[7] Carolyn Hamilton, Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 177.

[8] For more on the complexities of this issue, See John Wright, “Making the James Stuart Archive,” History in Africa 23 (January 1, 1996): 333–50; Benedict Carton, “Fount of Deep Culture: Legacies of the James Stuart Archive in South African Historiography,” History in Africa; Piscataway 30 (2003): 87–106.

[9] Part of the praise song “Shaka” from Izibongo: Zulu Praise-Poems collected by James Stuart, quoted in John Laband, “‘Fighting Stick of Thunder’: Firearms and the Zulu Kingdom: The Cultural Ambiguities of Transferring Weapons Technology,” War & Society 33, no. 4 (October 1, 2014): 231, https://doi.org/10.1179/0729247314Z.00000000040.

[10] Weekly Mail, Aug. 30-Sep. 5, 1991.

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