Thursday, February 12, 2015

Gqokli Hill 1818

The Mfecane

April, 1818

Zulus under Shaka, approximately 5,000 (including auxillary allies)
Ndwandwes under Nomahlanjana, approximately 12,000

Weather: Hot and dry.

Location: kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa,  28° 22' 23" S  31° 21' 15.77" E 
First Light:  05:53   Sunrise: 06:18   Sunset: 17:27  End of Twilight: 17:51
Moon Phase: 74%  Waning Gibbous  Moonrise: 20:40

(calculated for the location and date from U.S. Naval Observatory)

After having recently written articles on two of history's most UNobscure battles (Blenheim and Gettysburg), I decided to tack back to the original premise of this site and deal with one of the more obscure battles on the planet--in a completely different hemisphere, in fact. Of course, I'm sure it's not obscure at all to citizens of South Africa, and to the Zulu people in particular.

Gqokli Hill (in the Nguni language pronounced with a clicking noise in the back of your throat for the "Gq" phoneme--non-Nguni speakers may have trouble without gagging) was the first battle in which the upstart Shaka, the new CEO of the tiny clan of Zulus, was able to try out his wholly original military innovations on a living enemy....a soon-to-be not-living enemy.

In the history of the Zulu nation, Gqokli is probably as famous as Gettysburg or Waterloo to Americans and Europeans. The narrative I've based this article on is mostly from E.A. Ritter's biography of Shaka, much of that from A.T.Bryant's Olden Times in Zulu-land and Natal, which itself was compiled in the 1920s from personal interviews with old men whose fathers had fought with Shaka. Since Ritter's and Bryant's narratives come from a prehistoric (literally) period of history, the details should be taken with a grain of salt, much as the historical accuracy of the Iliad or The Bible might be.

In terms of the wider war in which Gqokli was one of the opening battles, the Mfecane ("The Crushing" ) was a brutal period in South African history from 1815 to about 1840. This period saw almost incessant warfare between Nguni clans and tribes, resulting in millions of deaths and complete depopulation of much of what is now Natal. In many ways it could be compared to the devastation in Europe during the Thirty Years War, and in terms of its utter savagery could, in our own time, be compared to the civil wars in central Africa from Rwanda up to Darfur. The prime instigators of the Mfecane were at first the Ndwandwe and subsequently the Zulu, who, at the date of Gqokli Hill, were a tiny clan but would soon grow to be the dominant military power in southeastern Africa.

Copyright 2015, Jeffery P. Berry Trust. All rights reserved. Unauthorized re-posting or use prohibited without permission.
Image protected by embedded Digimarc watermark.

Background: A Revolution in South African Warfare

Shaka was one of those military geniuses that come along seemingly randomly throughout history, without education or outside influence. Born Shaka kaSenzangakhona in 1787 as the illegitimate son of the king of the tiny Nguni clan of the Zulus, his name, which refers to a beetle thought to be the cause of false pregnancies, was given him as an insult to his mother, Nandi of the E-Langeni, by his father, Senzangakhona who denied his paternity. At the age of 29 Shaka had come to power through a military coup in a tiny clan of Nguni people, the Zulus, in south eastern South Africa in 1816, a minor vassal of the recently formed Mtetwa Paramountcy founded by the great and innovative Nguni king, Dingiswayo, Shaka's friend and sponsor.

Spending his early adult years in the army of Dingiswayo, Shaka had noticed that the traditional Nguni method of fighting seemed pointless: Two bands of warriors would line up on an agree-upon field and start hurling insults about each others' mothers until one side, not being able to stand it anymore, would run forward in ones, twos, and small groups, throwing their light spears (easily deflected by their shields).  It was the classic mode of prehistoric warfare, practiced until recent times by early human groups (and even now in remote parts of New Guinea). Casualties were usually light in such short wars, with one side conceding defeat and paying a number of cattle to the winner.

Shaka, for his part, like General Sherman, thought that the purpose of war should be the utter annihilation of the enemy. He felt that if you were going to go to war, you should go to war in such a way as to never have to fear that particular enemy again, or his heirs. And he had some ideas on how to turn his small band of Zulus into an irresistible army.

An Army of Ultra-Marathoners

One of Shaka's first innovations, according to Zulu oral tradition, was to get his warriors to discard their sandals and fight barefoot. Evidently, Nguni to that time had worn oxhide sandals and Shaka observed that it made them slow and clumsy, both on the march and in battle. So he discarded his own sandals and forced his men to do the same, toughening the soles of their feet by having them dance on "devil thorns" (inkunsana, Emex australis), executing any that winced--or so the legend went (see Ritter).

His doctrine of training also physically conditioned his troops rigorously, to the point where an entire army was supposed to be able to run 50 miles (80 km) in a day and fight a battle at the end. This daily distance is cited in Ritter's biography of Shaka, which, in spite of its thumpingly great storytelling, has to be taken with some eye-rolling. In actuality, the maximum distance, according to Ian Knight, was probably closer to 30 miles, as this was the reported maximum daily distance of the Zulu impis during the 1879 war.  And during that latter war, the normal daily range that impis would cover was more like 10-12 miles, with several rest days along the way. This puts the Zulu travel velocity more in line with foot soldiers everywhere.

Nevertheless, Shaka sought to create an army of highly conditioned fighters. Singing cadence helped the miles go by, too (see below on the use of dance and song in Zulu warfare). And their physical stamina gave them an edge in hand-to-hand combat, as well

Copyright 2015, Jeffery P. Berry Trust. All rights reserved. Unauthorized re-posting or use prohibited without permission. Image protected by embedded Digimarc watermark.

The iKlwa, Stabbing Assegai

It is also held by Zulu tradition that Shaka also redesigned the very weapons of his warriors to match his own philosophy of close combat. Where the traditional Nguni weapon had been the light throwing spear (or assegai, an Arabic, not a Nguni word), which could be defeated by the deft wielding of a large leather shield, Shaka reasoned that a more effective mode of combat would be to close with the enemy and stab him directly, making sure he was dead.

This photo was taken much later in the 19th century
(during or after the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War) but
illustrates what the soldiers of Shaka's time looked like.
The warrior on the left is from a "married" regiment
(recognized by his headring) and carries a small,
ceremonial shield used in dancing. The warrior on the
right is from a "bachelor" ibutho, with full regimental
regalia and full-size isiHlangu (war shield). 
The new design came from altering the dimensions of the throwing spear (or isiJula), by tripling the size of the leaf-shaped, iron blade and shortening and thickening the haft, effectively turning it into a kind of sword (where swords had been largely unused as weapons by Sub-Saharan armies). The result was something like the short gladius of the Roman legionary, though, with a longer haft, and better balanced for stabbing. The shafts of these weapons were also fitted with an knob at the base to help prevent the spear from slipping out of the wielder's bloody hands. While also called an assegai by most historians, the Zulu term for this very different weapon was the iKlwa, (plural amaKlwa) an onomatopoetic word imitating the grisly sucking sound it made when pulling it out of a body. Nasty.

The metal of the blades of amaklwa  were of soft iron, which made them easy to hone and keep honed to a razor edge. There were no knives, per se, among the Nguni, but the blades of their spears were so sharp that they were actually also used as razors and for skinning and butchering game.

The isiHlangu, War Shield

Another technical change Shaka was supposed to have made to his warriors' kit was in the traditional lozenged-shaped oxhide shield (the isiHlangu), which he had enlarged to cover the entire body (roughly 54" x 30"--137 x 76 cm), making it even more effective in deflecting the thrown spears of the enemy. He saw it to be used as another offensive weapon, to knocking an enemy off balance, in much the same way a Roman scutum worked. In later battles against enemies occupying high positions, he devised a Zulu version of the Roman testudo, having his troops lock shields overhead to assault high fortifications and defiles. It was a highly versatile piece of equipment. It could also be easily detached from its shaft and rolled to up to be carried, slung on the back on long marches.

War shields also served to designate different Zulu regiments, or amabutho (see amaButho System below). The oxhide patterns were color-coded uniformly within each regiment. Senior regiments (like the iziCwe) had all-white shields and junior, or younger regiments had darker, black, brown or mottled shields (such as the twenty-something uFasimba, which had all-black shields). In this way a regiment could be easily distinguished from a distance.

After Shaka--who evidently had some degree of obsessive-compulsive disorder--the strict uniformity of shields, which also required the organization of regimental herds according to color, became much looser. Photographs of regiments in the late 19th century show a wide variety of shield patterns within a single unit.

A late 19th century photograph of members of a Zulu ibutho (probably as allies of the British, judging by the bell tents in the background). You can see in this photo that the uniformity of shield patterns had become lax by this period. Shaka, had he been in charge, would have ordered executions.

The Zulu soldier was trained to fight hand-to-hand, something entirely new to traditional African warfare. He disdained missile combat (though there are several later accounts of him using both a throwing spear, the isijula, and following up for close-in combat with his iklwa).  Charging in close, the soldier was practiced in using his shield to hook the enemy's shield to the left, then quickly stabbing the exposed left armpit with his iklwa for the killing blow, the whole combat taking a second or two. This was a martial arts maneuver that the Zulu soldier practiced until it was reflex, allowing him to methodically move through crowded enemy ranks like a killing machine.

Song & Dance as a Military Weapon

Another important part of Shaka's military innovation (though I can't find evidence prior to Ritter's book of this not being part of Nguni cultural tradition) was collective dancing. Analogous to cadenced marching in modern boot camps, the Zulu regiments used collective dancing and chanting at festivals to practice their unified action. As William McNeill, in his historical/anthropological study, Keeping Together in Time, points out, group dancing and cadence marching also create a psychological bond among the members of a group, fostering an esprit de corps. It's something that's almost instinctive in our species  as social beings. This psychological effect can be enjoyed and felt in being part of a "wave" or chant at a ball game today

But the Zulus took dancing and chanting instinctively further. Group action also has an intimidating effect on an enemy. Thousands of soldiers all stamping their feet in unison can make the ground shake, creating the effect of a gigantic monster about to eat you up. The Zulus delighted in demonstrating their unified discipline and making the ground shake. Whenever an order was sung out by an induna (officer of an impi), the entire formation would stamp their feet as one in reply.

The warriors also sang call-and-response chants in deep, basso profundo choral performances, which had the same bonding and intimidating purpose as the foot stamping. This choreographic/choral "weapon" went further with a practice called ingomane, or "shield rattling" (see this clip from the classic movie, Zulu, for a demonstration of ingomane). The warriors would use their big shields as drums and beat on them with the butts of their ikwla in a rising crescendo, which sounded like rolling thunder. One reads of Roman soldiers also doing this with their scuta. (In the second movie of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, there is a scene in which all of the Maori extras playing the orc army besieging Helm's Deep start a spontaneous, synchronized thumping with their pikes something that director Peter Jackson had reportedly not originally intended but left in because the effect was so bone-chilling--at least according to the extras features on the DVD.)

Finally, in the realm of theatrical performance as a psychological weapon, Shaka, in deploying his army, would have his regiments sit with their shields edge-on to the enemy, concealing their numbers from a distance. At a command, all would stand up in unison and flash their shields forward, suddenly revealing their true strength. As each ibutho (or regiment, see "Regimental System" below) was equipped with its own, distinctive shield color, this effect must have been dazzling. 

It must have been intensely gratifying to be part of a Zulu army (at least the singing and dancing part). And terrifying to face one.

In effect, these weapons and their corresponding martial arts training turned the Zulu into the southern African equivalent of a Roman legionary. And, like the Roman soldier of two millennia before, the Zulu soldier was disciplined in fighting in formations, usually five ranks deep with each file occupying about four feet of front. As in the Roman legion, the five ranks allowed for a battle system in which, as the front rank became tired, it could be smoothly replaced by the next rank, and so on, so that the entire formation could be kept fresh while keeping its cohesion. The wider distance between the files not only gave more room for the Zulu to use his close-in weapons effectively, but for the soldier in the rank behind him to come up and relieve him. The result was that the wild mobs of otherwise brave warriors who came against a Zulu impi found themselves chewed up in a tireless, human food processor.

Tactical Formation: The iMpondo Zankomo

Shaka also devised a battle formation called iMpondo Zankomo ("beast's horns") that was composed of four sections. He imagined his deployed army as a gigantic buffalo. The center section was called isiFuba, the "chest". This was back up by the uMuva, the "loins", who acted as a reserve to both support the "chest" and deliver the killing blow when the enemy was about to break. On either side of these two formations, were  iziMpondo, "horns," each  composed of one regiment. While the enemy's main mass was absorbed in its battle with the "chest", the "horns" would swing around both wings and behind, completely encircling him. By the time they had realized they were surrounded, the enemy would panic, try to escape, and the real slaughter would begin. This tactic, very much like that of Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BCE and the Athenians at Marathon in 490 BCE, was repeated again and again with relentless success by the Zulus for the next sixty-one years, until Isandhlwana in 1879.

Shaka also formed regiments of teenage boys, called izimDibi, who would accompany the army as logistical support, carrying sleeping mats, food, water, and medicine. These, as well as some female members of the warriors' families, would follow the impis until close to the battle area, feeding them and supplying them until just before they intended to go into battle, then making their way back home.

The amaButho or Regimental System

Nearly all Nguni clans organized their military establishments in a system of  fraternities called  amaButho, often called "regiments" by Western historians. In each iButho (singular), men of a certain age group (called an intanga) were enrolled in a tight-knit guild that barracked together in military kraals (amaKhanda) where they lived as long as their military service lasted, usually until middle age when they were granted permission to marry by their chief. Each ibutho had a poetic or evocative name (such as the izi-Cwe, or "Bushmen" or the uFasimba, "The Haze") and the esprit de corps was high, fostered by mutual competition among the regiments. I have seen where some writers (e.g. Wikipedia) have conflated the Zulu term impi with "regiments". But an impi was the general Nguni term for any group of armed men; could be a squad, a single ibutho, a brigade of them, or an entire army.
A lithograph made later in the century shows a review by Zulu King Mpande of his
amabutho, showing two regiments arrayed, identified by their different shield colors.
I like the demonstration of the dual use of the shield as a parasol.
Lithograph, George French Angas 1847

Of course, the Zulu conception of the amabutho system, while somewhat analogous to the regimental system of Western culture, or even of the legions of Rome, had itself no connection to those traditions. It was a wholly original feature of the isolated Nguni culture that had existed since anybody could remember. The term "regiment" had come from early English traders who had applied the European word to describe something that was only vaguely like it. Shaka himself had not invented the amabutho system--indeed, he started his own career as an ordinary soldier in one of Dingiswayo's amabutho, the izi-Cwe, which, after his lord and benefactor's death, he incorporated into the new Zulu army in 1817 as his "Old Guard" regiment.

But like European regiments of the same period, each Zulu ibutho was distinguished by a uniform. In the case of the Zulus, as we have mentioned, this was primarily represented in each ibutho's more or less uniform shields, made from oxhides that were all white, all black, or variations of mottled red, brown and black. Cattle, too, were organized in herds of homogenous colors to facilitate this shield manufacture for each ibutho. Each regiment was given a herd to tend, organized in a particular color pattern from which to make its shields. The war shields, as well as the cattle from which they were made, were all property of the king.

In addition to the uniform shields, each regiment also sported distinct bird feathers for the head dress, and specific patterns of ox tails for the "kilts" and neck adornments. Even patterns of beads and bone ornaments served to identify specific amabutho. However, most of these uniform details might be considered "full dress", for festivals and formal celebrations. On campaign and in battle, the soldiers went practically naked but for a leather loin covering (the umutsha), the better to cover distance and fight.

As of 1818, the date of Gqokli Hill, the Zulu army was composed of only seven amabutho, each of between 300 and 700 men. The Ndandwe army with Nomahlanjana had at least a dozen amabutho, each, according to Zulu oral history, counted upwards of 1,000 each. (see Order of Battle below). Since the Nguni people had no writing prior to 1850, or even a system of counting above twenty, these numbers are only speculative. One can only surmise that they were about the size of a European battalion or Roman cohort, which, when deployed at normal spacing (four feet apart in five-six ranks), was the maximum number of men that could hear the shouted orders of a commander.

Was Shaka a Military Genius?

Shaka in front of his amabutho
portrait by Capt. A. D. Shorey
Of course, the Nguni of southern Africa, were, by the beginning of the 19th century, still a relatively isolated Iron-Age culture. Shaka, being illiterate and undoubtedly unaware of Western military culture and technology (at least in 1818), created all of these innovations and tactics on his own. If he didn't actually invent the iklwa stabbing spear, or the logistical system, or the amabutho system, he certainly integrated them all beautifully into a war machine that could have taken on any elite force in the world (at least in the pre-gunpowder age). He was a military genius who came from very humble origins, seemingly out of nowhere. His was very much analogous to the careers of Julius Caesar, Attila, Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon--a type of leader the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov called "The Mule"; one that could not be predicted and did not leave an heir.

Studying his biography leads you to wonder what Shaka would have achieved had he had access to Western technology or outside military theories, which he certainly would have been more exposed to had he not been assassinated in 1828 at the relatively young age of 40. His "muleness" (i.e. his conceptual sterility) is evidenced not only in the fact that he left no (acknowledged) children as heirs, but that Zulu military practice remained extremely conservative after his reign, not evolving for the remaining era of Zulu power. The tactics and weapons (aside from begrudging adoption of obsolete muskets) remained unchanged up until the destruction of the Zulu nation in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Another example of success-induced failure, perhaps.

Shaka Confronts the Ndwandwe Threat

If Shaka had any influences, it was from his previous mentor and nKosi (king), Dingiswayo, who himself came from humble and ostracized roots to organize confederation of Nguni tribes into the powerful Mtetwa Paramountcy.  Dingiswayo was a military and diplomatic genius in his own right, ultimately pulling together some 30 previously warring tribes through a combination of military conquest and astute diplomacy. Shaka himself had started as a simple soldier in Dingiswayo's army, rising quickly through his own talents, ideas, and bravery to become a commander (induna ) of one of the Mtetwa regiments, the izi-Cwe, and a trusted and loyal advisor to the king. When Shaka's biological father, Senzangakhona, chief of the tiny Zulu clan, died in 1816, Dingiswayo helped Shaka take over the clan in a midnight coup-d'etat, lending him troops, and turning the other way while he had his half-brother (and rightful heir) Sigujana assassinated while the latter was taking a bath in a local stream. It helped that Shaka also had wide popular support among the Zulus themselves in this coup from other members of his family (Senzangakhona's) and the rank and file of the Zulu military.

I didn't say that Shaka was a saint, just a military and political genius.

In 1817, Shaka's patron, Dingiswayo, himself was assassinated through the treachery of Zwide, nKosi of the powerful Ndwandwe Paramountcy to the north of the Black Umfolozi River. Having lopped off its head (literally and figuratively) Zwide assumed that Dingiswayo's Mtetwa Paramountcy would break apart and he could gobble up its constituent clans one at a time through a combination of treachery, intimidation, and military conquest. He was now the dominant military and political power in the entire region.

But Shaka, in a frantic effort to confront what he saw as Zwide's inevitable genocide of his own small clan of Zulus, grew his army from about 400 warriors in 1816 to 4,500 in the year following Dingiswayo's death, all trained and armed in the new way. His recruits came from loyal Mtetwa veterans from all over Natal, men who had known and served with Shaka when he served Dingiswayo, and men who hated Zwide.

Shaka's first confrontation with Zwide finally came in April 1818 when his spies told him the Ndwandwe king was finally readying an invasion to wipe out the insignificant Zulus; to "eat them up" as the blood-thirsty Nguni saying went (though this was a jingoistic expression, not a literal promise of cannibalism). Zwide's mother, Ntombazi, kept a grisly "museum" in her hut of all of the heads of the chiefs that her son had had killed, with Dingiswayo's one of the most prized in the collection. Zwide intended to add Shaka's skull to her hobby. One wonders why she didn't just collect Hummel figurines like other grandmothers.

In anticipation of this invasion, the young Zulu chief evacuated the bulk of his people and their cattle to the safety of the Nkandla Forest in the southwest and mobilized all seven of his regiments into an impi of some 4,500. He also enlisted the aid of some neighboring allies, raising his total force to a little over 5,000. With these he set off to meet the Ndwandwe as they crossed the White Umfolozi River on the northern border of his little kingdom.

The First Day: The Fight at the River

Shaka had several days to prepare for Zwide's onslaught. The White Umfolozi was in flood from a recent rain and only fordable in two or three places. At those points he set guards of elite companies of his Zulus and some of his loyal allies, the Dlmaninis, Sokulus, and Sibuyas to watch for the approach of the enemy. Meanwhile he found a natural "fort" in a round hill with a flat top, Gqokli, about 250 feet (80 m) high and over a mile (2 km) south of the nearest water. For days he had his men strip the countryside bare of anything edible, while his regiments of teenaged izimdibi stocked the hilltop with water, beer, food, firewood, medicine, bandages and sleeping mats. It was a well-catered picnic. But Shaka was getting ready for a siege.

Within a few days the huge Ndwandwe army  under the command of Nomahlanjana, Zwide's eldest son and heir apparent, appeared on the north side of the main ford of the White Umfolozi (unlike Shaka, Zwide, as Paramount nKozi, did not lead his men in battle; that's what sons were for), and the local Zulu commander, Nqoboka, sent for Shaka. The king mustered his main impi on top of the Gqokli Hill and went off with his elite uFasimba regiment (about 700 men) to support Nqoboka's uKangela regiment at the ford. (See map at top of the article.)

To cross a swift, deep ford, warriors had to link arms and cross in a mass to keep
from being swept away. If the opposite side were defended, you can see how
vulnerable the front ranks would be.
Though the Nomahlanjana had as many as 12,000 men, the narrow ford allowed only a handful to cross abreast at a time (see illustration at left).  As Ndwandwe warriors tried to negotiate the deep channel in the center of the river, a few Zulus in the shallows on the south shore would bop them on the head with their amawisu (war clubs or "knobkerries", see Zulu Weapons illustration above) as they tried to climb up the slippery rocks. The defending Zulus were largely untouched by the thrown spears of the Ndwandwes struggling in the swift, deep water.  Shaka, observing from the south bank, was having a great time. He allowed his men to take turns going down to the water to join in the head-bashing fun. Over the course of the day, a few hundred of Nomahalanja's men were floating dead down the fast river and only a couple of dozen Zulus were slightly wounded.

By the afternoon, seeing that the main ford was impassable as long as it was defended, Nomahlanjana sent some of this regiments east and west to search for alternate fords. They found two, but these also were defended and faced the same problem. So by evening he called off the assault to await the dropping of the river.

About 17:00, as sunset approached, Nqoboka noticed that the river was indeed starting to drop and pointed out to Shaka that it would soon be passable in several places. Shaka told Nqoboka to hold off the enemy as long as possible and meet him back on Gqokli Hill after dark with the uKangela and uFasimba regiments. He hastened back to the hill to prepare his men for the main battle.

Shaka's Plans

Nqoboka returned with his troops after midnight, reporting that the river had dropped enough in so many places that the Ndwandwes were able to cross in force. Shaka thanked him (they had been best friends since they were fellow raw recruits in Dingiswayo's izi-Cwe regiment and he regarded Nqoboka as one of his most trusted commanders) and told him to rest the two regiments on the hilltop. Everyone was told to get plenty to eat and get out his sleeping mat (if you look at photos of the hill below, you can imagine how scratchy the ground must have been) and get plenty of rest for the next day.

Earlier in the evening Shaka had arranged four of his regiments, the uDambedlu, the amaWombe, the Jubingwanga, and the uKangela in a circle on the crest of the hill. They were arranged five ranks deep, with the rear four ranks set back from the first, out of sight from the foot of the hill. Each man occupied a front of about four feet (a little over a meter). In the center of this circle, Shaka placed his two "Guards" regiments, the uFasimba and the izi-Cwe in reserve. All were sleeping in ranks.

Before they tucked in, Shaka also instructed each regiment in person what he expected of them in the morning. They were not to throw spears back at the enemy. They were not to leave the ranks, even to individually attack the enemy. And, under no circumstances were they to chase the enemy down the hill when he broke and ran. It was a well-known Nguni tactic to feign retreat to get a defender to break his ranks to give chase and then to turn and annihilate him. Shaka could not afford that kind of indiscipline (though he would not have known it, this chasing after a fleeing enemy was the very thing that had lost the Saxons the Battle of Hastings in 1066). So he threatened death (after the battle, of course) to any man who broke ranks, even if he heroically killed many enemies. This was a battle of existence for the nation, and personal glory was not a luxury the nation could afford.

Shaka's biggest problem was that even while he held a strong defensive position on top of the steep hill, and even though he had great confidence in the fighting prowess and discipline of his Zulus, and even though the Ndwandwe numbers had been reduced by a few hundred on the first day at the ford, he still faced an overwhelming force. And the Ndwandwes were known as ferocious fighters, even though they had not adopted the new methods and weapons of the Zulu, they still fought to kill.

But Shaka was counting on four factors in his favor:

1. Circular Formation on High Ground
While he was outnumbered, Shaka also understood that while his regiments perched on the crest, they would have the advantage in a fight. Not only would the enemy tire himself out climbing to fight, but his assegai would be thrown with less effect uphill. The superior numbers of the Ndwandwes, too, would work against them; as they closed in on the circular formation of the Zulus at the top, they would crowd each other, hampering their room to fight effectively. In a way, he was like a mamba in a hole; why don't you stick your hands in there and get him?

2. The Hot, Barren Landscape
The area around Gqokli was parched and stripped of any food. The dongas (stream beds) were dry and the nearest water was a mile to the northwest at the dropping river. Shaka's own men, however, were stocked with enough water and food to last them for a few days. He was counting on the attacking Ndwandwes growing hot and thirsty as they charged up the hill, growing quickly both physically and psychologically weaker.

3. Greed
Shaka devised a plan to draw off a significant chunk of Nomahlanjana's army by tempting him with an irresistible lure. Before dawn he had his regiment of Nokomendala ("the toothless ones", the oldest men in his army) and 200 of his young uFasimba to take the herd of cattle that the army had brought with them to a mountain about seven miles (10 km) south of Gqokli and there raise a lot of dust and commotion, herding the cows back and forth over the mountain to make it seem as though the entire Zulu herd and half his army were retreating that way. Cows were the most valuable commodity in the Nguni economy. He hoped that Nomahlanjana would be unable to resist such a prize and would reduce his own army by sending part of it in pursuit.

4. His New Fighting System
And finally, Shaka was confident in the discipline and training of his new army. With their new weapons, their tough conditioning, their Spartan-like discipline, and their esprit-de-corps, he thought he had an advantage in a one-on-one fight over the traditional fighting style of his enemy. This would, of course, be their first real test against the formidable Ndwandwes, but Shaka knew they would make them pay dearly. He was, nonetheless, eager to see his reforms in action.

As the sun came up, Shaka saw the land below him starting to crawl like ants, as the Ndwandwe army crossed the river and started to surround the hill. It would take a few hours for all of them to cross the river and get in position, but he had done everything he could think of to get ready.

Looking up to the summit of Gqokli Hill from its base. The ground would have been mostly open in 1818, owing to intensive cattle grazing. Today the site is a nature preserve so the scrub has grown thick and wild.  Photo: Ken Gillings, used by kind permission. Battlefields Route Association, kwaZulu Natal, SA

The Second Day

The Ndwandwe crown prince, Nomahlanjana, looking up at what he could see of the few Zulus spread out on top of Gqokli Hill, figured Shaka had taken a suicidally idiotic position. He also saw in the distance the dust of cattle and the scintillating spear points Zulus fleeing south. He reasoned, just as Shaka had bet he would, that half the Zulus had gone off with the whole of the clan's cattle, leaving a forlorn hope at Gqokli. So he made the first of his strategic mistakes: He dispatched a third of his army--four amabutho, about 4,000 men--to run after the retreating herd (now about seven miles to the south). Since cattle were the currency of the Nguni economy, his father, Zwide, would be so proud of him for such a bag. The traditional objectives of Nguni warfare had been the burning of an enemy's kraals and the capturing of his herds.

From his command post below the north slope of the hill, Nomahlanjana could only see the outermost ranks of Zulus on the crest and assumed that's all there were, about 1,000 men in a thin circle. He had no idea that the bulk of Shaka's force was hidden in the hollow on the summit, or that it was well-provisioned for long siege.  As his remaining amabutho (about 8,000 men) surrounded the hill in preparation for the assault, he was said to have made himself comfortable under a stand of mimosa trees to enjoy some beer with his brothers, and jocularly said, "This will be like slaughtering a lot of cattle in a kraal." Everybody laughed, I'm sure.

The situation about 09:00 on the 2nd day. The exact deployment of Shaka's amabutho ("regiments") is conjectural but based on the narrative provided by E.A. Ritter. I could not find the names of the Ndwandwe amabutho, except for the amaNkayiya, or "Guards Brigade". The White Umfolozi River is shown having dropped in the night (compare to map above from the day before). This map based on modern satellite imagery so it is hard to tell how much the streambed of the river might have changed in 200 years. Copyright 2015, Jeffery P. Berry Trust. All rights reserved. Unauthorized re-posting or use prohibited without permission. Image protected by embedded Digimarc watermark.

The eight remaining Ndwandwe regiments, including the elite amaNkayiya brigade, took up positions in depth around all sides of the hill. Shaka ordered his indunas (generals) to have their six small regiments get ready, but to remain silent. Shaka also made sure the subsequent four ranks and his reserve regiment of uFasimba and Kangela, all sat on their spears and back from the crest to conceal his true strength. To the Ndwandwes at the base of the hill, this is what made the Zulu force seem far smaller than it actually was.

About 09:00 Nomahlanjana gave the signal for the attack, and his whole army surged up the hill. Now a simple lesson in geometry became an inconvenient truth. As the 8,000 Ndwandwes charged upward in a constricting circle, they were more and more crowded as the diameter of their formation closed. Soon they were all crammed together, too tightly for efficient fighting, or even for throwing their spears. They stopped about 100 yards from the crest to sort themselves out. And here they began their own songs, taunting the manhood of the Zulus to send out their champions. They opened the battle in the time-honored tradition of Nguni (and most prehistoric) warfare, standing apart and insulting the enemy. I'm sure many flashed their backsides in the direction of the Zulu too. The Zulu remained impassive, not giving in to the infantile urge to taunt back.

View northwest from Shaka's position on the top of Gqokli Hill. In the distance is the bend in the White Mfolozi (see map)  where the Ndwandwes crossed. Again, as in the previous images, the ground today is covered in dense scrub as this is a nature preserve. Back in 1818 this landscape, overgrazed by cattle, would have been much more open, punctuated by an occasional copse of mimosa trees. How would you like to sleep on this ground?  Image used by kind persmission of Bill Davies Photography, © 2013 Bill Davies

Shaka allowed just one of his eager warriors to step forward to reply, one Manyosi of the Jubingqwanga ibutho. The first Ndwandwe champion rushed up the hill, hurling one, then two spears, which Manyosi dodged easily. The Zulu  champion then charged down on the man, wrenched the enemy's shield aside with his own, and sank his iklwa into the Ndwandwe's exposed armpit. Standing over his convulsing body, Manyosi shouted the Zulu war cry, "Nga-dla!" ("I have eaten!") and challenged anybody else. Another Ndwandwe came forward and suffered the same fate. After three quick "fights" like this, Manyosi strode back and forth taunting the Ndwandwes, asking if there was anybody else. Apparently there wasn't.

Now on Shaka's nod, the regimental indunas all shouted their commands and the Zulus all rose up as one, stamped their right feet once in unison to make the hill vibrate. They then began their ingomane (the shield drumming) and sang their basso-profundo war chant.

This song & dance display by the arrogant Zulus infuriated the Ndwandwes who all rushed upward at once in a confused mob. The Zulu champion, Manyosi, managed to just make it back to the ranks unhurt. As the Ndwandwes neared the top, their momentum began to slow and at about 25 yards (the range at which they'd have normally thrown their spears), the Zulu regiments all flashed their uniform shields forward. The shock of this display seems to have stopped the Ndwandwes in their tracks. Suddenly the Zulus looked far more numerous than before. And their unified movement was intimidating. The Ndwandwes were also packed together so tightly due to their overwhelming numbers trying to crowd into an ever-shrinking circle that few managed to throw their spears. The charge came to a halt.

  • Reading accounts of the Zulu style of warfare, it is tempting to think about how psychology and even biological display were so integral to it. All of the synchronized dance, the chants, the drumming and the audio-visual presentation recall similar behavioral displays by birds, elephants, hippos, buffalos, lions, and any territorial species. I'm sure, the Zulus--and all Nguni people--were intimately aware of how this behavioral biology played a part in the world around them. Whether they were conscious of it in their own behavior is conjectural on my part. But, as close as they were to nature in their pastoral culture, they had to be. Also, in their poetic and metaphor-rich language, they often referred to people as animals, Shaka as "The Great Elephant," for instance. But I'm rambling. Back to the battle...

Seeing the hesitation in the Ndwandwe line, Shaka now ordered a counter-attack. He ran around the inner circumference of his defensive circle to give the order to each of the four outward-facing regiments. In a wave the first two ranks of each regiment charged down on the packed Ndwandwe and began butchering them with their amaklwa. The Ndwandwes, ferocious warriors themselves but unable to fight back in their crowded pack, slowly gave way until their ranks were able to open up sufficiently to give themselves some room. After ten minutes of this one-sided slaughter, both sides gradually pulled back from each other for a breather. Nomahlanjana observing from below, was exasperated with the ill-coordinated attack of his regiments and took the opportunity to order a general retreat to the foot of the hill to regroup. He needed to consider the unanticipated problem all the crowding had caused.

Instead of pursuing the Ndwandwes, as a more indisciplined army would have done, the Zulus stopped and came back up to the crest, where the two ranks who had been engaged retired to the rear of their own regiments to rest and get a drink, making the rear ranks now the front. On their way back up they collected all of the thrown Ndwandwe assegai and their own wounded. Those Zulu wounded who were too far gone were "mercifully" dispatched. And all of the Ndwandwe dead and wounded were disemboweled (the Nguni believed that a man killed would haunt the killer unless his soul was released by disemboweling his corpse).

The u-dibi boys cared for the more seriously wounded Zulus in the center of the summit. Here is where the previous days' stocking up of water, food, bark bandages, and medicine started to pay off. It was not only a hot day in southern Africa then, but fighting itself created a terrible thirst.

The Ndwandwes were not so fortunate. They had no formal logistical system as the Zulus and their men only had the gourds of beer and water they were able to bring with them. Slowly, in ones and twos at first, Nomahlanjana's men began to sneak off to the northwest, back to the river a mile away, to get a drink. Many took their own sweet time in coming back.

The first engagement, while short, caused something like 1,000 casualties among the Ndwandwes. The Zulus' casualties were not nearly so numerous, but there were a few.

The Second Ndwandwe Charge

Nomahlanjana and his indunas, seeing the fiasco of the first, clumsy, all-out attack, devised a new tactic. One-half of his regiments would remain in reserve at the foot of the hill while every odd one would spread out and charge in checkerboard fashion, giving themselves enough fighting room once at the top. Once this first wave tired, they could retire and be replaced by the rested, second echelon of regiments.

This second attack saw the Ndwandwes arrive close to the crest with plenty of elbow room to throw their assegais. The sky was filled with hurled spears as rank after rank came up and threw. None of these volleys seemed to do much damage to the Zulus, though, who had crouched down behind their big war shields, letting the light spears rattle off of them. Soon each of the Ndwandwes had thrown all but their last spear (which they kept for hand-to-hand fighting). In a normal, "civilized" way of Nguni war, the enemy should have courteously thrown their own spears, with both sides exchanging ammunition all afternoon. But the Zulus were selfish: They didn't return the Ndwandwes' assegais and didn't share their own.

After the Ndwandwe spear volleys had petered out and the attackers stood panting and waiting downhill, Shaka ordered another counter attack with his next two fresh ranks. These fell on the Ndwandwes with blood lust and for five, frantic minutes a thousand individual duals took place. In this fight the training, new weapons, and discipline of the Zulus told. Outnumbered, the Zulus lost a little over 300 men, but the Ndwandwes lost close to another 1,000. Nomahlanjana had already lost a quarter of his 8,000 man army in two short combats. And his parched men were starting to duck off to the river in greater numbers.

The Third Charge

It was now just past noon. Nomahlanjana had another conference with his indunas. The second charge hadn't worked. They all now decided to instruct the warriors to not throw their spears but to close with the Zulus for direct, hand-to-hand combat, as the Zulus themselves did, at least the first ranks. The second ranks were to hold back a little and look for opportunities to throw their assegais through the gaps created by the melee.

But in this third charge, Shaka didn't give the Ndwandwes a chance to execute their clever tactic. He had his next two rested ranks charge down the hill and smash into the advancing first line of the enemy (letting gravity be their ally), pushing them back on the subsequent ranks so they were again jumbled together and could not throw their spears. After the usual five minutes of huffing and stabbing, both sides pulled apart again. After a rest, Nomahlanjana ordered a fourth charge, trying the same tactic, but it, too, was repulsed in the same way. The Nwandwes were suffering heavily by midafternoon.

Even though the Zulus were taking a greater toll on the Ndwandwes, they themselves were suffering their own casualties. Shaka had lost, at this point, as many as a third of the men in his four outer regiments. Wisely, though, he hadn't committed his central reserve, the uFasimba and izi-Cwe, yet. These were still fully rested (and hydrated) and lying in wait in the hollow on the crest of the hill.

From his vantage Nomahlanjana noticed that the Zulu ranks were thinning, but was unaware of the reserve; as far as he could see, the only Zulus on the hill were those dwindling four regiments. Though his army was taking heavy casualties and tiring, he sensed the few Zulus that he could see were on the verge of collapse.

The Ndwandwes were not only losing more men in stand-up combat, more and more were ducking off to quench their thirst at the distant river. And they weren't coming back. Nomahlanjana was becoming increasingly furious at the incompetence of his regiments, which, though ferocious fighters, were not nearly so disciplined as Shaka's. In this battle we can see the difference between what one could consider a warrior and a soldier. The Ndwandwes were warriors. The Zulus were soldiers. And this battle was not like slaughtering cattle in a kraal, as the Ndwandwe crown prince had predicted that morning. Nomahlanjana still had superiority in numbers, but the ratio was dwindling. He had to devise a new plan. He called his indunas together again under the shade of his headquarters mimosa tree.

The view southeast from Gqokli Hill. The White Umfolozi can be seen about three miles in the distance. One can see why Shaka picked this site for his battle. Image by kind permission of Ken Gillings of the Battlefields Route Assoc., kwaZulu-Natal, SA.

Shaka was grateful for these periodic conferences that Nomahlanjana was convening. It gave his men time to rest, get a drink, and dress their wounds. It also meant more time for the Ndwandwes to parch under the hot sun, and for more of them to skulk off to the north to quench their thirst. He walked over to the south end of the hilltop and looked anxiously in the direction of the "bait" cattle he had sent out that morning. He had arranged for a certain smoke signal to be lit by the escort detachment when and if the pursuing four regiments of Ndwandwes caught up with and captured the cattle. This would mean they were on their way back. There was no signal yet. But it was only a matter of time.

The Fourth Charge

The war council that the Ndwandwe convened came up with a clever plan. Nomahlanjana passed the word along that after an initial assault up the hill by four of his regiments, they were to feign a panicked flight down the hill. This would, he reasoned, draw the Zulus down in a "victorious" pursuit, where his remaining four regiments would fall on them and slaughter them in their disorder. This was just the thing that Shaka had warned his men against the night before, under the threat of death. And it almost worked. Just as a similar break in discipline had been the undoing of the Anglo-Saxon army at Hastings. (Though I'm reasonably certain that was not on the African prince's mind in 1818.)

The fourth charge commenced once the Ndwandwes got within a spear's throw (25 yards) of the Zulu lines, they turned and "fled" down the hill, holding their shields against their backs. In spite of their discipline, the Zulu regiments pursued them, just as Nomahlanjana had hoped. Because of their conditioning and the fact that they were barefoot, they outstripped the sandaled Ndwandwes and inflicted terrible carnage on them, such that the first line of the enemy collided with the "ambushing" second line and all of them began to run.

But Shaka was seething. There would be executions for this direct disobedience. But he also noticed that his regiments were inflicting terrible slaughter on the Ndwandwes and that, in spite of their intemperate rush, had managed to maintain their order. At the bottom of the hill the regimental indunas and company officers had managed to stop the pursuit and were ordering the men to run back up to the hilltop, keeping in formation, which they all did. The Ndwandwes were rallying at the bottom but didn't try to counter-counter-attack.

The Final Charge: Shaka springs his trap.

The Zulu king looked south again and now, at last, saw the dreaded smoke signal that the 4,000 Ndwandwes were heading back with the bait cattle and would be back to Gqokli within three hours. He had only that time to annihilate the remainder of Nomahlanjana's army.

But in the meantime, he had to exercise some discipline. While he was proud and relieved at the fighting prowess of his regiments, and their maintenance of formation and discipline, they had still disobeyed his direct orders in chasing after the enemy, risking not just the entire battle, but the extinction of the Zulu people. If the enemy's ploy had worked, he and his entire nation would be exterminated. He couldn't execute all of his brave but disobedient men. But there had to be some punishment.

So he came up, spontaneously, with the "forlorn hope" solution. In Dutch armies of the 16th century--themselves fighting for their lives against an overwhelming enemy--when there was indiscipline warranting death, the perpetrators were "condemned" to take a position far in advance of the main line, a "forlorn hope" (from the Dutch, verloren hoop, for "lost band").  Any who survived would be allowed to live and rejoin their regiment.

Shaka, undoubtedly unaware of this other military culture's precedent, creatively had each company commander select a single warrior to stand a spear's throw in front of the line and be the first to receive the next enemy charge, allowing them to die heroically like warriors, and take as many of the Ndwandwes with them as they could. This would not only serve to exercise the stern discipline that Shaka demanded, but would go far to inspire and honor the bravery of his troops. It was a deft solution.

But the next charge would be different again. Shaka's indunas pointed out that there was mass movement at the base of the hill. Nomahlanjana was pulling most of his regiments together at the north side and organizing them as one gigantic column, 20 files wide and perhaps 75 or more ranks deep. The Ndwandwe idea was to stop trying to overwhelm the Zulu circle from every side (which was playing to the strength of Shaka's position), but to make a huge battering ram of people to punch a hole into the heart of the Zulu ring. Nomahlanjana had lost as much as one-third of his army of 8,000 to combat by this stage, and probably as many as that again to desertion by thirsty troops. That left him with a little more than 2,700 left. But these were the toughest ones. And, from his vantage, it looked like the Zulus had only 5-600 men left. So, with 1,500 men in his assault column in this northern quarter he still figured he had a 3:1 advantage. The remaining 1,200 warriors would occupy and pin the rest of the Zulus from the south (see map below).

This plan would have probably worked had the prince been right in his estimation of Zulu strength.  In spite of his losses and tactical setbacks all day, Nomahlanjana reasoned that Shaka was on the verge of collapse with his own losses. Surely, he thought, trapped up on that  hot, dry hill, the Zulus were suffering from thirst and fatigue as much as his own men. He was so sure of it this time that the prince, himself, as well as his four brothers, decided to join this final charge personally.

As the phalanx was assembling, Shaka was overjoyed. To him, Nomahlanjana was playing right into what would become the Zulu's signature tactic, the impondo zankomo, the "beasts horns" (see above). He had been keeping his "Guards" brigade (about 1,000 of his finest) out of sight and resting until now. Now was the moment to unleash them. He kept a thin line at the south side of his position. the "loins", to check the Nwandwes massed on the south. He massed 500 of his amaWombe regiment on the north to meet the assault as the "chest" (the isiFuba). Meanwhile, the two fresh, elite regiments, the uFasimba ("The Haze") and the izi-Cwe (the ironically named "Toothless Ones") as well as the uKangela and uDlambedlu regiments, would sweep around the flanks of the enemy column, enveloping its sides and rear, the "horns"(the iziMpondo). And the butchery would begin.

Thinking he's about to administer the coup-de-grace, Nomahlanjana masses most of his remaining forces into a gigantic shock column to the north. As this mass reaches the top of the hill, Shaka unleashes his fresh reserves to sweep around both flanks of the Ndwandwes in a double-envelopment, executing the signature impondu zakonda tactic. Copyright 2015, Jeffery P. Berry Trust. All rights reserved. Unauthorized re-posting or use prohibited without permission. Image protected by embedded Digimarc watermark.

Shaka's tactic worked just as advertised. Nomahlanjana, confident in his shrewd plan of overwhelming force at a single point (something Napoleon himself would have endorsed), he and his brothers ran with his giant mob straight up the north side of the hill right into the trap. Just as the front collided with the "chest" of the Zulu formation, the two horns swarmed out of nowhere and attacked the Ndwandwe column from all sides.

It was a South African Cannae. Just like at that Punic battle in which Hannibal surrounded and butchered the hemmed-in Roman legions, Shaka's smaller army slaughtered the hemmed-in Ndwandwes, most of whom were unable, in their press, to defend themselves. Resistance didn't last long, and while some fought valiantly, there was less and less room for them to fight and nowhere to run. Moreover, most of the Zulus at this stage of the battle were fresh (and had had plenty of water to drink--probably beer as well), while the Ndwandwes, having fought all day in the hot sun without a drink, were at the end of their stamina. Not one Ndwandwe survived, including Prince Nomahlanjana and all four of his brothers (not to worry, though, his father, King Zwide, had plenty more sons where those came from). As the Zulu oral tradition colorfully described it, the vultures were darkening the sky.

Are we done? Not yet.

The remaining 1,200 Ndwandwes on the southern side of the hill had not seen the disaster on the northern slope. They undoubtedly heard the fighting but probably assumed it was the slaughter of the Zulus by their own amaNakayiya elite brigage and not the other way around.

The slaughter winding down, Shaka sent his uFasimba and izi-Cwe regiments northwest toward the White Umfolozi to mop up the hundreds of Ndwandes who had wandered off in search of water. Meanwhile he took the remainder of the other regiments (amaWombe,  uDlambedlu, and uKangela) to attack the southern wing of Ndwandwes before the relief force of 4,000 showed up from the south, forming the three regiments into another impondo sankomo. He left his sixth regiment, the Jubingwanga, on the hilltop as a reserve.

Seeing this new threat forming on his flanks, and sensing that things hadn't gone well in the north, the commander of the remaining Ndwandwes on the southern flank ordered a running retreat in the direction of the four regiments coming up from their cattle raid. He had a 200 yard head start, but it didn't take long for the Zulus (faster runners with their thorn-toughened bare feet) to catch up with him and force him into a fighting withdrawal. After a little time, the returning 4,000 came into view with the rustled cattle.  Shaka broke off the pursuit and headed toward his main kraal to the southwest. He had given instructions for his other regiments, the ones chasing down the Ndwandwes scattered long the Umfolozi river, to rally there for a final defense, anticipating that the surviving Ndwandwes would try to burn it.

At this point, Ritter, in his narrative of the battle, claims that the action moved to the Zulu home kraal as the remaining Ndwandwes rallied and trotted over to destroy it. In his account, another heroic battle took place in front of Shaka's hut that same afternoon, resulting in the ultimate defeat of the Ndwandwe army there. While he makes it seem as though this happened later that day (already a long day of battle), given the fact that the kraal was some 40 miles (64 km) to the southeast, this seems highly unlikely. More probably, the main battle that day ended with the destruction of Nomahlanjana and the amaNkayiya on the slopes of Gqokli. Since there were still some thousands of Ndwandwe in various sized bands roaming around the area, it is more believable that these continued to rustle cattle and burn kraals for some days while they were harassed by small bands of Zulus using guerrilla tactics.

Shaka was relieved that he had dodged a bullet (or, in this case, an assegai) this time, but it was a close-run thing. The Ndwandwes had lost around 7,500 in the battle, or almost two-thirds of their invading army, as well as their heir-apparent and four other princes. The Zulu casualties were lighter (about 2,000, with 1,500 dead and 500 seriously wounded) but this still constituted almost half of Shaka's tiny army. They had also lost several hundred head of cattle but had managed to save about three-quarters of the national herd by prudently hiding them south in the Nakandla Forest. 

Shaka had only barely won the first battle in what would prove to be a long and bloody war with the Ndwandwes. Zwide, with his large confederation of tribes and many allies was still the most formidable military power in southeastern Africa, and he would undoubtedly redouble his efforts to exterminate Shaka and all his people in the following campaign. He had lost five of his oldest sons, and 7,500 of his bravest warriors (including nearly all of his "immortals" the amaNkayiya). But he still had large reserves and client tribes to draw on for the next battle. The Zulus were not out of the woods yet.

Assessment of Gqokli Hill

The battle was to be the first field test of Shaka's new army and his system of combat. And it passed quite respectably. Fighting off a force two-and-a-half times the size for two long, hot days, the Zulus had inflicted almost four times as many casualties--a ten-to-one combat efficiency ratio. Everything had gone well for the Zulus; their discipline, training, weapons, tactics, logistics, and strategic position. Of course, they nonetheless suffered severe losses for such a small tribe, and not a small loss of wealth in the stolen cattle. But, for the most part, their kraals were as yet untouched, their families safe, their tactical cohesion sound, and, most important, their confidence in their own martial superiority greatly boosted. This latter was to prove a powerful asset as Shaka cast about for allies and recruits to join his army, which he knew he would need to do quickly to be ready for the next invasion.

Shaka further demonstrated his genius of generalship in the way he handled his army. By selecting the little, but steep, hill to defend, he was able to maximize his force by occupying the central position. He could reinforce threatened sides of his battle-circle almost instantaneously, while Nomahlanjana was often out of touch with most of his regiments surrounding the hill. This was the classic advantage of the central position taught in most military colleges, from which Shaka might have received an honorary degree.

Applying simple geometry, Shaka was also able to neutralize the overwhelming numbers of the enemy as the Ndwandwes tried to cram into the ever tightening circle. This was the same equalizing tactic that had allowed the 300 Spartans to hold off the hundreds of thousands in Xerxes' army at Thermopylae 2298 years earlier, and 6,000 English to defeat 12,000 French at Agincourt 403 years before: Force the enemy to come at you in a constricted space. It is an old, reliable tactic; what you could call the Badger-in-a-Hole Defense.

But Gqokli was a brief respite in the longer war of national existence. Shaka had to scramble furiously to not only build his army back up to its original strength, he had to surpass that. He spent the next several months in diplomacy to bring other clans into the Zulu sphere, and organize and teach them his new way of fighting. Fortunately, though he had been feared, Zwide's reputation was so reviled that many of the clans of the former Mtetwa Paramountcy saw their only hope of survival in not just allying with Shaka, but joining his army and identifying themselves as part of a greater Zulu kingdom. As so often is the case with cruel tyrants, Zwide's strategy of terror turned out to be his worst weakness and the greatest recruiting tool of his enemies.

By May the following year (1819) the Zulu army had swelled to around 10,000 in eleven amabutho. But Zwide reinvaded with 18,000 under his best general yet, Shoshangane. The result in the second campaign was the same--a Ndwandwe defeat, but the details of it were different. Eventually, Zwide was utterly crushed and while he himself escaped (only to be treacherously murdered by a former ally; a fitting example of bad karma). His nation was absorbed into the growing Zulu empire. And his bloodthirsty mother was executed by Shaka in a particularly ghastly way by locking her in her own skull "museum" with a ravenous hyena, that ate her a little at a time...alive. I'll bet she wished she'd collected Hummel instead.

Shaka was an inspiring and brilliant military commander, and a shrewd politician, but he was also a sadistic and homicidal despot on the same scale as Caligula, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi. And ten years later, he suffered the same fate as those dictators, killed by his own people.

War Game Considerations

1. An Ancient Battle
It should be readily apparent to the casual reader (though, if you've waded this far, you certainly aren't "casual") that though this battle was fought after the Napoleonic Wars, it was, in essence, a pre-gunpower battle. Firearms were known to the Nguni (from their trading with the Portuguese in Mozambique), but not used in combat at this date. Shaka, seeing a demonstration of a musket a few years later by his new English friends from the trading post at Port Natal (modern Durban), was not impressed. He saw that, with the effective range of a contemporary smoothbore musket (such as the Brown Bess) and the slow reload time, a barefooted Zulu impi could overwhelm a force armed with muskets in seconds.

To play Gqokli as a war game, it would probably be most appropriate, then, to adopt an existing set of Ancient Warfare rules. I have no preferences. There are quite a few options. But they should serve aptly.

2. Combat Efficiency
I have compared the Zulu warriors to Romans, both in their armament and tactics. For the purposes of unit rating, or combat efficiency, they would also probably rate the same as legionaries in terms of training, discipline, and morale. Or to Macedonian pezhetairoi, the elite infantry of Alexander's army.

The Ndwandwes, while brave and ferocious warriors themselves, were essentially traditional Nguni in their combat efficiency, not having changed their method of warfare in hundreds of years.  If you would use roman legionary ratings for the Zulus (without the body armor, of course), you might rate the Ndwandwes as Gauls, Britons, Dalmatians or some other "barbarian" foe of the Romans. They would, in short, be fierce but undisciplined; easy to break but also easy to rally.

3. Weapons
The Zulus were armed, so we've been told, with primarily hand-to-hand combat weapons; their iklwa (short stabbing assegai) giving them an advantage in close combat. While later Zulu armies seemed to have returned to carrying the light throwing assegai along with their amaklwa (similar to the way Roman legionaries were armed both with two throwing spears, or pila, and their short stabbing sword, or gladius), it seems that Shaka was insistent that there be no throwing weapons at the enemy. So the Zulus had no missile weapons at Gqokli.

The Ndwandwe, on the other hand, went into battle with three throwing spears (they apparently had not adopted the ikwla). They would throw two in succession for shock (at a range of about 25 yards) and use the last in close-combat, in a similar way that the classical Greeks used their spears in phalanx. Some may also have been armed with amawisa (clubs), as this was an old Nguni weapon, but it would have been a personal preference on the part of each warrior.

In a war game of Gqokli, then, the Zulu side should have no missile capability, while the Ndwandwe side should have a range of about 25-30 meters and a total ammunition supply of two (three, but once the third volley is thrown, the unit would be defenseless). In hand-to-hand (or melee) rounds, though, the Zulus would have an advantage in striking power with their iklwa over the lighter izijula.

4. Organization
The amabutho system was fairly well-developed all over Nguni culture by this date, and had been in place many generations. So the impis of both sides would have been organized as regiments (see Order of Battle below). There were no records or formal size of amabutho. They could be anywhere from a couple of hundred warriors to 2,500. For the purposes of this narrative, I have used Ritter's estimate that the Zulu regiments were approximately 700 and the Ndwandwe amabutho about 1,000 each. In reality, the establishments were probably all over the scale. And the gamer is invited to vary the relative strengths at whim or through some randomizing algorithm.

The system was fairly sophisticated for a pre-literate, pre-technological people. Amabutho were subdivided into companies, or amaviyo (iviyo singular). There were not set numbers of amaviyo in each regiment (which could also vary greatly in strength), but they could be detached and were trained to operate independently under "company" officers. For the purposes of war gaming this battle, the scale was such that it could be thought of as a battalion-sized battle, with the smallest units being amaviyo.

Organization went upward, too. Amabutho were also "brigaded" in twos, called uphalane, (sometimes fours, as with the Ndwandwes) who trained together and developed a "friendly" (if sometimes rough) rivalry.

5. Fatigue
The hot, dry weather played a critical role in the outcome of Gqokli, As we have seen, the Zulus were amply supplied on their hilltop "fort" with both water, food, and first aid supplies, while the Ndwandwes had not been so well-provisioned. The need for water became vital as the day wore on and the more indisciplined Ndwandwes were detaching themselves to go back up to the Umfolozi, the nearest water.

In whatever war game system you use, account should be taken in for the hot weather for fatigue. But the availability of provisions (or just water) should also be allowed to refresh units.

6. Formation Density
Because warriors bunched too closely together could not throw their spears or fight effectively in the Nguni style of combat (this was not Greek phalanx warfare but closer to Roman cohort formations), stacking or maximum density rules should be in place for a war game. This proved to be a decisive hindrance to the Ndwandwes, nullifying their numerical superiority.

7. How can the Ndwandwes win?
All of the tactical cards seem to be stacked against the Ndwandwes at Gqokli; they were not as disciplined as the Zulus, they had inferior hand-to-hand combat weapons, they were constrained by topography, and they were thirsty. They were probably cranky, too. But there is a method that I see would have allowed Nomahlanjana to use his superior numbers to wear down the Zulus on the hill. Instead of splitting his force to go off on a cattle raid to the south, he could have retained his entire force in echelon around the hill, sending them up in sequential waves, and allowing each wave to rest after the assault. This is something he tried in a half-hearted way during his third charge (see above), but he never gave it enough of a chance to work as a battle of attrition (nor did he or his subordinate indunas manage it very well).

Though I could find no account of the Ndwandwes possessing as efficient a logistical system as the Zulus' corps of izindibi (the "caddy" boys), there should be nothing in a war game rulebook that would prevent a player from setting up a more organized system of resupplying the front line with water from the Umfolozi. If playing a battalion sized game, individual companies (amaviyo) could be detached to bring water to the parent amabutho from the river. This would serve to limit the attrition from fatigue and indiscipline. Since this was not evidently a standard practice in Nguni warfare up to this time, one could either roll a die to see if it would be allowed, or that both sides might agree on it, in the interest of academic research, of course.

A strategic way in which the Ndwandwes could win would be to avoid attacking Shaka on his hilltop entirely, but instead going after the main Zulu kraal and heading toward the Nklanda Forest in search of the Zulu herds (their main treasure). This might have drawn Shaka off of his defensive position and into the open. But this would be for a strategic level (vs a miniature or tactical) game.

8. Deception
One of Shaka's tactics was deception. He sent off a third of his cattle and 700 of his warriors to the south to tempt and draw off Nomahlanjana, who thought only a small rear guard (and not the entire Zulu impi) was on top of the hill. The trouble with  most war games is that both players can see all the forces on the board (or table) at once. How to simulate this all-important tool of deception?

One idea would be to employ hidden or false marker pieces. The forces on the top of Gqokli hill could be hidden by any number of markers, some of which are false. The same technique could be used with any decoys used to draw off the Ndwandwe player. Deception markers could also be deployed along the White Umfolozi river on the first day to fool both sides about movement and defense.

There are any number of tried and tested simulation techniques for deception. But as this was a key feature of Gqokli Hill (and could mean the difference between survival and annhilation to the Zulu side), they should be incorporated into a game of the battle.

9. Drifts: Crossing the White Umfolozi
On the first day, the fords (known as "drifts" in South Africa) across the White Umfozoli were well-defended by the Zulus and their allies, preventing the Ndwandwes from crossing. That the river fell that night could not have been predicted with great certainty, since the source of the water was coming from rains in the Drakenburg range far to the west, and to my knowledge, the Nguni did not have weather apps on their smartphones in 1818.  This uncertainty made the action in defending and crossing the river a dicey thing. With the fluctuating bed of the river, too, the crossing points could not have been known without reconnaisance. The defending Zulus didn't have the manpower to guard the whole length of the river.

So, for a wargame that includes action on the first day of Gqokli Hill, a system should be employed to randomly test where crossing points existed. Either a roll of dice upon a unit "testing the waters", or markers placed along the river face down, with most being blank and, say, two or three with "Drift" printed on them.

Each player would have to scout the river from his side with actual (not decoy) units to turn and examine the underside of each "drift" marker. Once found, he would keep the knowledge to himself until he set defending or crossing units to cross them. The use of decoy (false) units could also be employed in crossing and defending, as well.

Since the falling of the river was not predicted, a randomizing test could also be used for each turn to see if the water level drops. This would force the Zulu player to have to hustle and beat back to the Gqokli before the Ndwandwes crossed in force.

Order of Battle

The following orders of battle were put together based on Ritter's narrative of the battle. There were, obviously, no regimental records or parade states. Strengths are conjectural based on total reported strengths of the two armies. Ndwandwe regimental names were unknown to me.

amaButho STR Ranks Equipment
Shaka 5,000    
amaButho (Regiments)      
Ngomane --"Guards" Brigade 1,200    
uFasimba (The Haze) 500 5 iKlwa
iziCwe (Bushmen) 700 5 iKlwa
Nqoboka --Belebele Brigade 1,400    
amaWombe (Single Clash) 700 5 iKlwa
uKangela (Look Out) 700 5 iKlwa
Nzobo -- isim-Pohlo Brigade 1,400    
uDlambedlu (Wild Men) 700 5 iKlwa
Jubingqwanga (Shorn Head Rings) 700 5 iKlwa
Allies covering river 300    
Sokulus, Dlaminis, Sibuyas (allies) 300 5 isiJula
(brigade with cattle) 700    
uFasimba / det 200 5 iKlwa
Nokomendala 500 5 iKlwa
Nomahlanjana 12,000    
amaNkayiya Brigade 4,000    
ibutho 1 1,000 5 isiJula
ibutho 2 1,000 5 isiJula
ibutho 3 1,000 5 isiJula
ibutho 4 1,000 5 isiJula
2nd Brigade 4,000    
ibutho 5 1,000 5 isiJula
ibutho 6 1,000 5 isiJula
ibutho 7 1,000 5 isiJula
ibutho 8 1,000 5 isiJula
dispatched to chase Zulu cattle 4,000    
ibutho 9 1,000 5 isiJula
ibutho 10 1,000 5 isiJula
ibutho 11 1,000 5 isiJula
ibutho 12 1,000 5 isiJula


For the bulk of this post, I relied on E.A. Ritter's Shaka Zulu. Though first published in 1955, it relied on Zulu oral tradition and accounts handed down to another author, A.T.Bryant, who knew people who knew Shaka. Ian Knight's thin but excellent book on the Zulu military was also useful for corroboration of weapons, organization, and tactics.  Since the narrative and details of Gqokli is literally "prehistoric" we should probably take it with a pinch of salt, much as we'd take descriptions of Biblical or Homeric battles. But even in our own times, descriptions of battles and events that have been recorded have also been imbued with mythic dimensions that may have had thin relation to what actually happened. In that context, Gqokli Hill could be ranked--at least to the Zulu people--as Washington's crossing of the Delaware. There's how it actually happened versus how we collectively imagine it. I've attempted to describe it in terms of how it probably happened.

Bryant, A.T., Olden Times in Zululand and Natal, 1929, Green & Co.

Ferrill, Arther, The Origins of War: From the Stone Age to Alexander the Great, 1985, Thames & Hudson, Ltd., London,  ISBN 0-500-25093-6

Knight, Ian, Zulu 1816-1906, 1995, Osprey Publishing, Warrior Series #14, ISBN 978-1-85532-474-9

Laband, John, The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation, Arms & Armor Press, ISBN 978-1 85409-421-6

McNeill, William H., Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, 1997, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674502302

Morris, Donald R., The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation, 1965, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-671-63108-X

Ritter, E.A., Shaka Zulu: The Rise of the Zulu Empire, 1955, G.P.Putnam, Library of Congress Number 57-6735 

Roberts, Brian, The Zulu Kings: A Major Reassessment of  Zulu History, 1974, Charles Scribner, ISBN 684-14042-4

Online References:

South African Military History

Wikipedia: Impi

Other References:

I also want to thank Bill and Peter Davies, as well as Ken Gillings of the Battlefields Route Association of kwa-Zulu Natal, for their kind and generous advice on this subject, and access to their rare photography from the actual site of Gqokli Hill, which is now an ecologically protected zone in Natal.

For a demonstration of how the Zulus actually looked and fought, I can recommend the two famous films by Cy Enfield, Zulu (1964) and Zulu Dawn (1979), which, using hundreds of Zulu historical re-enactors and Zulu technical advisors, show how the Zulus probably looked, fought, marched, danced, and sounded in the 19th century. The films are about the 1879 Anglo-Zulu war but they are also probably a good reference for how Shaka's army might have fought. The first movie also has a marvelous demonstration of Zulu call-and-response war chants and the ingomane, or shield rattling, which the impis used to boost their own morale and intimidate the enemy.

Another very useful video reference is the 1986 TV series (produced for South African television), Shaka Zulu, available on DVD and some streaming services (like Netflix). The series, admittedly, does have lots of bad acting (especially by some of the English actors), tedious editing, and cringe-worthy music, but it also has several sequences in which the details of Zulu fighting technique and weapons are meticulously demonstrated. It also seems quite good for describing Zulu costume and cultural details, though I'm sure true experts in these details (which I am not) would probably protest. The landscape is spectacular, being shot in Zulu-Natal. And the actor playing the great Dingiswayo, Simon Sabela, also happened to have been one of the technical advisors, actors, and choreographers of Cy Enfield's earlier movies.