19th Century Zulu Regimental War Shields

It’s well-known that the amabutho – regiments - of the great Zulu kings carried war-shields in distinctive patterns, but it is less well-known how the system worked. These shields were not the property of individuals but rather of the state – they were cut from the hides of cattle in the national herds and stored in the great royal homesteads which served as regimental barracks; the warriors would muster here when they were assembled, and the shields would be issued to them for duty, to be returned after use. The great royal herds were sorted according to the colour of the animals’ hides so that matched herds could allocated to each ibutho for shields. Two shields – either the great isihlangu or the slightly smaller umbhumbulozu - were cut from each hide, one from either side, avoiding the shaggy hair down the ridge of the animal’s back.

When a new regiment first mustered it was usually issued with plain black or brown shields; shields only lasted a few years before they needed replacing, however, and this often occurred after a regiment had been deployed in action, when new shields were granted as a reward and as an outwardly visible sign of growing military experience. The pattern of the new issue was different, often with more white or with distinct spots, and during its active lifetime each regiment would receive four or five new shields, ending their service with predominantly white shields (black in Zulu culture had associations with youth and vigour whilst white was associated with age and seniority).

The Zulu had a meticulous appreciation of the many combinations of natural patterns on the hides of their cattle, and possessed a rich vocabulary to reflect it, and this was translated into the nomenclature of their shields. As a result, it is sometimes possible to identify which ibutho a surviving period shield belonged to by the colour – but there are some areas for caution! Whilst contemporary British accounts tended to describe regimental shield in simplistic terms – white spots on black, black spots on white – the Zulus themselves identified them not merely by the colour of the shield itself but rather by the pattern of animal from which it was taken. They tended to see no distinction between black and brown hides, for example – both were regarded as ‘dark’ - and cattle with a similar patterning might fall into the same category despite variations in tone which seemed jarring to outsiders.

Moreover, the Zulus recognised that, even within a particular pattern of hide, spots or flecks would not fall in the same place on either side of the hide, and that two shields from the same hide might look distinctly different. This in itself often confused outsiders, and as a result there are not only great gaps in our knowledge of particular patterns but also some confusion, particularly from British sources. There are suggestions, moreover, that the great epidemic of bovine pleuropneumonia (‘lungsickness’) which swept through Zululand in the 1870s reduced the ability of King Cetshwayo to provide sufficient matching hides from the royal herds and that some amabutho, like the uKhandempemvu, started out with one colour but had to be ‘topped up’ with hides of a different pattern. These might nonetheless have been uniform within individual companies of the regiment.

I’ve always been fascinated by the colour of regimental war-shields in 1879, and have been lucky enough to record many surviving examples.  Sometimes it is almost impossible to determine which shield a regiment belonged to – others, however, show a remarkable degree of uniformity for items made from a natural resource, with the shade of the base colour, and the positioning of spots, patches and flecks, being remarkably consistent. My research is on-going, and I hope to turn up many more authentic period shields in the years ahead, but anyone interested in the subject can read more in my book Anatomy of the Zulu Army.