The Anatomy of the Zulu Army

The Anatomy of the Zulu Army

  • Author: Ian Knight
  • Publisher: Greenhill Books
  • Publish Date: 1995
  • ISBN: 1853672130
  • Price: 20.00

Review By : Elizabeth Hogan

In 1878, during the propaganda war in which he prepared the British Government in London for his coming invasion of Zululand, Sir Henry Bartle Frere famously described the Zulu army as ‘celibate man-destroying gladiators’. As a piece of political rhetoric, the phase was certainly powerful and evocative, and it has been instrumental in shaping the view of the Zulu army in popular history, fiction and cinema ever since.

 In this, perhaps his most scholarly work, Ian Knight seeks to explore the reality behind the dramatic imagery, and to understand something of the reality of the military system that inflicted such a notable reverse as Isandlwana upon the world super-power of the day. Conditioned by such descriptions, contemporary British observers struggled to fit the Zulu system into the mould of a conventional Western army, and as a result failed to understand its complex position within Zulu society and the framework of royal authority. In fact, Zulu ‘warriors’ were never full-time soldiers, but rather a part-time citizen militia, ordinary Zulu men who were required to give occasional service to the king through the age-regiments known as amabutho, but who returned to their homes when that service was discharged. Nor was that service purely military, for the amabutho served as the state police force and labour gang, and took part in national hunts and the important rituals that bound the kingdom together.

They were, moreover, crucial to the king’s authority, as service in the amabutho was the means by which the most powerful resource in the country – the manpower of its young men – was channelled away from the control of the regional chiefs, and placed directly under the control of the king. For this reason, if no other, the British demand, in the ultimatum of 1878, that the Zulu Army be disbanded, could never have been accepted by any Zulu king, for it effectively marked the end of his authority.

This is perhaps the definitive study of the way the Zulu army functioned. Knight examines its systems from the ground up – how young men were banded together as they became teenagers, how they attended royal homesteads to learn the rudiments of life in the regiments, how they were then formed into a regiment of their own. The experience of life in the great military homesteads – cramped and overcrowded during the annual musters, and fuelled with macho bravado which often exploded into stick-fights between rival regiments – is brilliantly evoked, and the national ceremonies in which the army took part are described in detail.

The crucial pre-combat rituals – without which no Zulu army considered itself equipped to face the enemy – are meticulously recounted, as are the mechanics of campaigning, from strategic plans to the order of march, the role and personalities of great commanders, battle tactics, and the grisly reality of killing, down to the medical treatment afforded the wounded by Zulu herbalists. Although the focus of the book is upon the war of 1879, it hearkens backwards, setting many practices within the context of the rise of the Zulu kingdom in King Shaka’s time, as well as forwards, looking to the influence the amabutho system had on the post-war resistance of the 1880s.

 Where possible, Knight allows participants and witnesses to speak for themselves, conjuring up the great days of the old Zulu kingdom with an intimacy that will appeal to even the general reader. For anyone interested in how the Zulu people faced the challenge of 1879, this book is essential reading.


Other comments on this book;


...Makes a valuable contribution to our understanding not only of the Zulu military system, but also of Zulu society as a whole during the pre-colonial and colonial periods ... It is a landmark in the study of the history of the Zulu kingdom and its military system, which was inextricably woven into the fabric of Zulu life. Its absorbing look at the history of the Zulu army and society makes it an indispensable asset to any historian or ordinary reader who wants to understand the dynamics of the Zulu kingdom and its military system from 1818 to 1879.

Sibongiseni Mkhize, Natalia

I expect this book to remain the standard work for some time ...

Soldiers of the Queen, the Journal of the Victorian Military Society


... one of his best.

Natal Witness

…a mesmerising read for those who like their history concentrated and straight.

The Economist                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Ian Knight deserves to be congratulated for the work he has done in bringing together … the results of a generation of scholarly writing on the Zulu army which went into battle to defend their homeland in 1879. He excels in summing up what it meant to be part of a regiment facing the British invaders. The photographs and illustrations are marvellous.

Professor Norman Etherington, University of Western Australia, ‘H-Net Reviews’



Tuesday 17th of January 2006 03:21:58 PM