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An impi is an isiZulu word for any armed body of men. However, in English it is often used to refer to a Zulu regiment, which is called an ibutho in Zulu. The first impis were formed by Zulu king Shaka, who was then only the exiled illegitimate son of king Senzangakona, but already showing much prowess as a general in the army of Mthethwa king Dingiswayo in the Mthethwa-Ndwandwe war in the early 1810s.

Youth

Impi warriors were trained as early as age six, joining the army as udibi porters at first, being enrolled into same-age groups (intanga). Until they were buta'd, Zulu boys accompanied their fathers and brothers on campaign as servants. Eventually, they would go to the nearest ikhanda to kleza (which literally means to drink directly from the udder), at which point they would become inkwebane, or cadets. They would spend their time training until they were formally enlisted by the king. They would challenge each other to stick fights, which had to be accepted on pain of dishonor.

Enlistment

After their 20th birthdays, young men would be sorted into formal ibutho (plural amabutho) or regiments. They would build their ikhanda (often referred to as a 'homestead', as it was basically a stockaded group of huts surrounding a corral for cattle), their gathering place when summoned for active service. Active service continued until a man married, a privilege only the king bestowed. The amabutho were recruited on the basis of age rather than regional or tribal origin. The reason for this was to enhance the centralised power of the Zulu king at the expense of clan and tribal leaders. They swore loyalty to the king of the Zulu nation.

Every ibutho was a thousand warriors strong and originally contained warriors from the same intanga, although this practice later changed as casualties suffered by the regiments made reinforcements necessary. Each ibutho had its own colour, which was used for shields, headdress and other ornaments. An impi - a force which contained several amabutho - was also accompanied by udibi, young boys who carried implements like cooking pots and sleeping mats and on occasion acted as scouts. Shaka insisted that troops wear no shoes—they could run faster and were not disabled by the loss of their sandals. Training for this was to stamp thorns into the ground with bare feet.

Service

In wartime, the Zulu soldier went into battle minimally dressed, painting his upper body and face with chalk and red ochre, despite the popular conception of elaborately panoplied warriors. In Shaka's day, warriors often wore elaborate plumes and cow tail regalia, but by the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, many warriors wore only loin cloth into battle. As weapons he carried the iklwa [2055] stabbing spear (losing one could result in execution) and knobkerrie (clubs or cudgels) for beating an enemy in the manner of a mace. He also carried shields, which were property of the king. The iklwa - so named because of the sucking sound it made when withdrawn from a human body - with its long (c. 25 cm) tip was an invention of Shaka that superseded the older thrown ipapa (so named because of the "pa-pa" sound it made as it flew through the air). It could theoretically be used both in melee and as a thrown weapon, but warriors were forbidden in Shaka's day from throwing it, which would disarm them and give their opponents something to throw back. Moreover, Shaka felt it discouraged warriors from closing into hand to hand combat. However, after the Zulus encountered the Boers and the British, who were armed with firearms, the Zulus re-introduced the ipapa in an effort to counter their enemies' firepower. By the time of Zulu War, king Cetshwayo also equipped them with muskets and they also used rifles captured from the British. However, many of their weapons were obsolete or in bad condition and not all warriors were well trained in their use.

Tactics

Shaka used impi with a modified encircling tactic known as impondo zankoma ('bull's horns'), which divided impi troops into four groups. The main group (isifuba, 'chest') would face the enemy, two wings (izimpondo, 'horns') on two sides of the enemy and then force them towards the center. The fourth party (usually composed of veterans) remained as a reserve. They travelled light, and carried their own food or foraged along the way. On a forced march, the Zulu could cover up to 50 miles a day. Tactics against their enemies (other African tribes, the Boers, and the British) were surprise and overwhelming force, rather than siege or long campaigns. During the Anglo-Zulu War, British commander Lord Chelmsford complained that they did not 'fight fair'.

Rudyard Kipling refers to them in his poem "Fuzzy-Wuzzy":

We took our chanst among the Khyber 'ills,
:The Boers knocked us silly at a mile,
The Burman give us Irriwady Chills,
:'An a Zulu Impi dished us up in style.


History

Against the Ndwandwe, numerically superior northern neighbours who invaded Zulu territory to suppress them, Shaka played hide-and-seek games, while laying waste to the land to prevent foraging. Shaka waited and only attacked when the Ndwandwe were divided or exhausted.

Impi were also famous for their custom known as 'washing of spears (in their enemy's blood)' in which they cut open the belly of dead (and allegedly sometimes still living ) opponents. The Zulus believed that this meant the release of the opponent's spirit so it could not haunt the killer.

Complex ceremonies surrounded battles, and great honours were bestowed upon the courageous in battle. Cowards were dishonoured and occasionally executed. Wounds were crudely serviced, but the Zulus had an unusual rate of recovery. Overall, the Zulu army was versatile and all but invincible against other African armies. However, they faced tougher and technologically deadlier opposition when confronted with the Boers, from around 1830 and later the British. Although Zulu impis under Dingane had some early success against the Trek Boers, they suffered a bloody defeat when attacking a fortified laager at the battle of Blood Rivermarker in 1838. Similarly, the Zulus scored a famous victory over the British at the battle of Isandlwanamarker in 1879, but ultimately were no match for the Martini-Henry rifles and Gatling machine guns used against them by the British troops.They suffered successive defeats at the Battle of Rorke's Driftmarker, battle of Kambulamarker, battle of Gingindlovumarker and the battle of Ulundimarker, which led to the destruction of the Zulu Kingdom.

Legacy

Impi have become synonymous with the Zulu nation in international popular culture. For instance, in the computer games Civilization III', Civilization IV: Warlords and Civilization: Revolution, the Impi is the unique unit for the Zulu faction with Shaka as their leader.

Impi is also the title of a very famous South Africa song by the band Juluka which has become something of an unofficial national anthem, especially at major international sports events and especially where the opponent is England.

References

  1. Isandlwana 1879: The Great Zulu Victory, by Ian Knight, Osprey: 2002, pp. 49, See also Donald Morris, The Washing of The Spears, Touchstone: 1965, p. 263-382
  2. Donald Morris, The Washing of the Spears, Touchstone: 1965, pp. 46-53


Bibliography

  • Ian Knight, Brave Men's Blood - the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879
  • Ian Knight, The Zulus
  • Ian Knight, 'Anatomy of the Zulu Army'
  • D.R. Morris, The Washing of the Spears


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