The organization of the Zulu army was profoundly different to its professional British counterpart, a part-time citizen militia, the means by which a nation of herdsmen came together periodically in national service. At the heart of the system were guilds known as amabutho (sing. ibutho). The amabutho were a means of exercising central control over the most productive element in the group – its young men – and prior to the emergence of the Zulu kingdom in the 1820s, each chiefdom had raised its own amabutho.
Every two or three years, young men who had reached their late teens since the previous call up were gathered together at the royal homestead and formed into a unit. They were given a regimental name, told to wear a specific uniform of feathers and furs on ceremonial occasions, and older men were appointed as officers over them.
These units then served as the chiefdom’s labour gang, police force, hunting-parties, and army. Although housed in special settlements while assembled, there was no infrastructure to support them for extended periods, and it was usual for them to disperse and return to their homes when they had performed their appointed tasks.
Even in 1879, the Zulu army was seldom mobilised for more than two or three weeks at a time. With the rise of the Zulu kings, individual chiefdoms within the kingdom ceased to raise their own amabutho, and the right to do so became the prerogative of the king. The amabutho of 1879 numbered hundreds or even thousands of men apiece, and were quartered when mustered in large royal homesteads known as amakhanda –‘heads’, meaning of royal authority. A robust military ethic prevailed among them, they were jealous of their honours and distinctions, and scuffles between
amabutho were common.
The king supplied cattle from the royal herds – matched by the colour of their hides – from
which uniformed war-shields were made; but each man provided his own striking weapons. The long-bladed, thick hafted
stabbing spear of King Shaka’s day remained the favourite, although by 1879 many men had also obtained obsolete firearms, which were imported into the country in large numbers by white traders.
The common age of the members of each ibutho encouraged a strong sense of belonging, and the obligation to serve
continued into old age. Nevertheless, the burden fell more heavily on younger men who had not yet married and assumed dependents of their own. Marriage was an important rite of passage within Zulu society, since it marked the point at which a man left his father’s homestead and established one of his own. As a result, the Zulu kings assumed the right to dictate when the men of an ibutho were allowed to marry, often delaying permission until the men were in their mid- 30s, so as to maximise the period of direct service.
Once married, Zulu men marked the shift in status by binding a ring of fibre and gum in their hair. Although they
continued to recognise allegiance to their ibutho, married men were only required to assemble for national ceremonies
or in times of war. Most of the men who fought at Isandlwana were young and unmarried; the older, married men formed the reserve on the day of the battle, and it was they who went on to attack Rorke’s Drift.
Since there was no organised supply system – an army on the march lived off the land – the Zulus were committed to a concept of short campaigns with decisive battles, which had prevailed since Shaka’s time. Their favourite battlefield tactic – possibly invented by King Shaka himself – was an encircling formation known as ‘the horns of the bull’, in which fast-moving flanking parties, ‘the horns’, swept out to surround the enemy and pin it in place for an attack by a strong central body known as ‘the chest’. It was a tactic designed to bring large numbers of men swiftly and efficiently into combat, and reflected the Zulu dependence on close quarter stabbing weapons.
It was a dependence that made the Zulu army acutely vulnerable to the fire-power of a concentrated enemy – and while it had proved devastatingly effective against the scattered garrison at Isandlwana, its limitations were highlighted that same day by the Zulus’ inability to overcome the entrenched garrison at Rorke’s Drift. It is the tragedy of the Zulu people that the British were quick to spot that lesson and, in the later battles of the war, profit by it.