Through the Lens of History 4 – Society of Spears II

13 September, 2009

Today is the ides of September.  Hope you are ready for some history:

Through the Lens of History: Using History for Better Gaming
Vision 4: Society of Spears II – The Zulus

In this issue we leave Europe and travel South to the Zulu Kingdom of Africa.  The Zulu Kingdom was built on conquest, tradition and ambition, combined to create a semi-militarized tribal state.  The Zulu Kingdom was organized to support the military and in return the military system supported the stability of the state.  The purpose of the Zulu Kingdom was to maintain itself and control the conquered tribes that comprised the Kingdom.

The Zulu army was highly successful in defeating other armies with the same technology level.  Ultimately the Zulus were, for all their bravery and discipline, unable to stand before the superior military technology of the British Empire.

Part I – The History

There were, and are, many tribes in the region of southern Africa that the Zulus’ were part of.  Like their neighbors, the Zulus raised cattle and crops, the men acted as herders while the women farmed.  Iron tools and weapons were made by a specialized caste of blacksmiths, to whom were attributed magical powers, from iron deposits that lay close to the surface.

The history of the formation of the Zulu Kingdom is shadowy as the Zulus were a preliterate culture, we only have stories though the first contact with European traders followed shortly after the establishment of Shaka’s kingdom.  We know that in the early 19th century Shaka succeeded in conquering many of the neighboring tribes and convinced others to ally with the Zulus making them the dominant power in their area.

The understanding is that Shaka did this by changing the rules of warfare.  Until he came along, tribal fights involved groups of warriors who danced and shouted and finally threw spears at each other.  Casualties were minimal and little was decided.  Such an inconclusive system had no appeal to the ruthless Shaka.

Shaka had his warriors equipped with heavier hide shields and short stabbing spears of his own design.  Shaka taught his Zulu warriors to close with their enemy, batter their opponent’s shield aside and finished them off with the spear.  The stabbing spear was called an iklwa after the sound it was said to make when withdraw from a deep thrust into the enemy.  Shaka also made his warriors discard their sandals and go barefoot, to toughen their feet and give them better footing in combat.

Shaka developed a combat formation called the beast’s horns (i’mpondo zankhomo).  It consisted of the front (isifuba or chest), two wings (the izimpondo or horns), and a reserve unit (the loins).  The chest met the enemy head on, the horns then swung out, enveloping the enemy force and cutting them to pieces.  Once the battle was joined the Zulu commander watched from the high ground and issued orders by hand signals or runners.  But the ability of a commander to control the battle once combat was joined was limited.

The Zulu culture had a great fear of witchcraft.  The people relied upon a group of diviners (or ‘witch-smellers’) known as isangoma to discover witches so that they could be destroyed.  These same isangoma also blessed the Zulu army before it went to war and purified it thereafter.  A Zulu warrior disemboweled any enemy he killed for the Zulus believed that the soul resided in the stomach and would not be freed to pass on unless let loose.  The victorious warrior was further supposed to wear some of the clothing of his defeated foe until a ritual cleansing could be performed.  This need for spiritual purification often made it difficult to keep Zulu armies in the field for long periods.

Shaka’s revolution in military tactics and technology quickly made the Zulus the supreme military and political power in the region.  This time of conquest lasted from roughly 1816-24 is known to the Zulus as mfecane, “the crushing”.  Shaka however, did not get to enjoy this success for long.  His half-brother, Dingane, assassinated Shaka in 1828 and took the kingship for himself.
Before his assassination, Shaka had managed to expand the Zulu kingdom, forcing other tribes to obey his rule and that of the Zulus.  The conquered tribes shared both culture and language with the Zulus, making their integration relatively easy, but tensions remained within the kingdom.  People, sometime entire tribes, fled beyond the lands claimed by the Zulu Kingdom.  Their exodus became a greater problem as European settlers claimed bordering lands and offered both protection and better rewards than service to the King.

The Zulu Kingdom was the Zulu family writ large.  As a son was bound to obey his father until he was married.  The same young man was likely to be called into the service of the King, who acted as father to the whole nation.  As long as the King withheld permission to marry, the young men were bound to stay and serve him.  When the Zulu King needed men, he would call all of the men of an age group, usually those born in a two-year block, and gather them into a regiment (ibutho, pl. amabutho) which would be given a name and hide shields that shared a distinctive pattern.  Since the army was drawn from men throughout the kingdom it prevented strong regional loyalty from undermining the army’s loyalty to the King.  Before being summoned to serve the King these warriors spent some time training in their local area as ‘cadets.’  This provided the basics of the military training which was intensified once they were mustered in an ibutho.  The Zulu equivalent of drill was ritual dance that taught them to maneuver in formation and work as a unit.

The ibutho would be the soldiers’ family for as long as the King choose to maintain it, they trained, worked, lived and fought together.  The bonds forged by this experience were very strong.  The members of the ibutho would often use the name of the regiment rather than their family name when they returned home.

The regiments were supported by the King and stationed around the kingdom in self-contained fortified garrison towns (ikhanda) placed in strategic locations.  Morale and loyalty were high.  The warriors knew that they were part of a victorious tradition and that they would be well rewarded for their service by the King.

Ibutho remained in existence until the King gave the men permission to marry, leading to large numbers of marriages as the ibutho disbanded and it members returned home to start their own families.  The King usually kept each ibutho bound to him for as long as feasible, which ten or twelve years, for they served as his army, his police force and as labor for royal projects.

The King was advised by the ibandla, a council of the major tribal leaders.  The power of the ibandla was inversely proportionate to that of the King.  Under Shaka it was filled with his puppets, but later kings had to balance their actions against the rising power of the ibandla.  The Zulu King maintained support through use of his army and the giving of gifts, such as cattle, and patronage.  Zulus measured wealth in the ownership of cattle and the King owned more cattle and goods than anyone else, but he had a vast network of people to reward and maintain.

The Zulu Kingdom and system dominated its region of southern Africa until the Europeans arrived.  The Dutch, and later English, settlers and their firearms proved difficult for the Zulus to deal with.  Early conflicts with the Boer settlers showed the Zulus how effective firearms could be and the Zulu never developed an effective counter to them, though the Zulus tried both throwing spears and purchasing muskets and rifles for themselves.  The firearms the Zulu had were often outdated and ill-maintained.  Further, the Zulus never had proper training in the use of firearms, while a few Zulus were known as crack shots most were indifferent as best.

The Zulu Kingdom met its end at the hands of the British Empire.  The British Administrator in southern Africa issued an ultimatum to the Zulu King Cetshwayo following a series of minor border incidents.  Cetshwayo refused the ultimatum and prepared to defend his kingdom against the British.  The first British advance was caught by the main Zulu army and destroyed at Isandlwana.  1,250 British and native troops were caught by surprise and unable to effectively deploy their superior firepower before they were overrun and slaughtered.  But even this victory cost the Zulu army a thousand dead.  With few exceptions the remainder of the war showed how vulnerable massed infantry was to gunfire, Zulu losses were terrible but they fought bravely until the end.  After the war the British broke the Zulu Kingdom back into smaller tribal groupings who promptly began warring with each other.

Today there are over six million Zulus in South Africa and they still have a King who traces his lineage back to Shaka’s family.  The memories of their proud warrior past remain a source of national pride.

Part II- Breaking it apart and putting it back together

The rise of the Zulu kingdom can be used as a model for the systematic conquest of a tribal society by one of their own.  The introduction of new weaponry and a new tactical system can vastly change the balance of power in a semi-closed system such as most tribal structures.
An analog to the Zulu Kingdom could easily be used as an enemy power for a campaign, but it might be even more interesting to use them as a neutral power who must be convinced to ally with the character’s homeland.  This would require the characters to prove their value to the King while avoiding the dangers of tribal politics and charges of witchcraft (and the plots of enemy nations as well).

Supplemental d20 Material:

In OGL terms, a typical Zulu warrior would be armed with an iklwa (treat as a short sword) and unarmored except for a heavy hide shield, in some periods they would be armed with throwing spears (treat as javelins).  Their weapon focus and specialization, if chosen, will usually be in the iklwa.  Other suggested feats for a Zulu warrior: Endurance, Run, Toughness.  They spent a great deal of time in the bush, so levels in both Ranger and Fighter are appropriate for elite Zulu warriors.

New Feat

Ibutho Veteran [General]
You have been trained to serve your king as a member of an ibutho.  This training makes you hardy and ready for war.

Prerequisites: Growing up in a Zulu-type culture and having undergone training to serve in an ibutho, Strength 10, Constitution 12.

Benefit: You gain a +1 bonus to Perform (dance) and Survival checks.  You receive a +1 bonus to Fortitude saves and on all checks relating to running and long distance travel.  When wearing your national costume, you receive a +2 circumstance bonus to Intimidate checks.  You receive a +1 morale bonus to saves against Fear effects, this bonus is raised to +3 if you know you are being watched by other members of your ibutho.

Special: Usually this feat can only be chosen at 1st level and only by a Fighter or Ranger (or similar class).

Note: Astute reader may have noticed that we jumped from part 2 to part 4 of the Lens.  We will be seeing part 3 in December as it covers winter festivals.

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