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An Impi is an isiZulu
Zulu language
Zulu is the language of the Zulu people with about 10 million speakers, the vast majority of whom live in South Africa. Zulu is the most widely spoken home language in South Africa as well as being understood by over 50% of the population...

 word for any armed body of men. However, in English it is often used to refer to a Zulu regiment
A regiment is a major tactical military unit, composed of variable numbers of batteries, squadrons or battalions, commanded by a colonel or lieutenant colonel...

, which is called an ibutho in Zulu
Zulu language
Zulu is the language of the Zulu people with about 10 million speakers, the vast majority of whom live in South Africa. Zulu is the most widely spoken home language in South Africa as well as being understood by over 50% of the population...

. Its beginnings lie far back in historic tribal warfare customs, where groups of armed men called impis battled. They were systematized radically by the Zulu king Shaka
Shaka kaSenzangakhona , also known as Shaka Zulu , was the most influential leader of the Zulu Kingdom....

, who was then only the exiled illegitimate son of king Senzangakona
Senzangakhona kaJama was a chief of the Zulu clan, succeeding his father Jama kaNdaba, and primarily notable as the father of Shaka Zulu.- Biography :...

, but already showing much prowess as a general
A general officer is an officer of high military rank, usually in the army, and in some nations, the air force. The term is widely used by many nations of the world, and when a country uses a different term, there is an equivalent title given....

 in the army of Mthethwa
Mthethwa could refer to the:* Mtetwa Paramountcy* Nathi Mthethwa, South African minister of police from 2008...

 king Dingiswayo
Dingiswayo was a Mtetwa chief, best known for his mentorship over a young Zulu general, Shaka Zulu, who rose to become the greatest of the Zulu kings.He was born Godongwana, son of Mthethwa chief Jobe...

 in the Mthethwa-Ndwandwe
The Ndwandwe clan are a subgroup of the Nguni people who populate sections of Southern Africa.The Ndwandwe, with the Mthethwa, were a significant power in present-day Zululand at the turn of the nineteenth century...

 war in the early 1810s.

Genesis of the impi

The Zulu impi is popularly identified with the ascent of T'chaka (also rendered Shaka), ruler of the relatively small Zulu tribe before its explosion across the landscape of southern Africa, but its earliest shape as a purposeful instrument of statecraft lies in the innovations of the Mwetha chieftain Dingiswayo, according to some historians (Morris 1965). These innovations in turn drew upon existing tribal customs, such as the iNtanga. This was an age grade traditions common among many of the Bantu peoples of the continent's southern region. Youths were organized into age groups, with each cohort responsible for certain duties and tribal ceremonies. Periodically, the older age grades were summoned to the kraals of sub-chieftains, or inDunes for consultations, assignments, and an induction ceremony that marked their transition from boys to full-fledged adults and warriors, the ukuButbwa. Kraal or settlement elders generally handled local disputes and issues. Above them were the inDunas, and above the inDunas stood the chief of a particular clan lineage or tribe. The indunas handled administrative matters for their chiefs - ranging from settlement of disputes, to the collection of taxes. In time of war, the inDunas supervised the fighting men in their areas, forming leadership of the military forces deployed for combat. The age grade iNtangas, under the guidance of the inDunas, formed the basis for the systematic regimental organization that would become known worldwide as the impi.

Limited nature of early tribal warfare

Militarily, warfare was mild among the Bantu prior to the rise of T'chaka, though it occurred frequently. Objectives were typically limited to such matters as recovering cattle, avenging some personal insult, or resolving disputes over segments of grazing land. Generally a loose mob, called an impi participated in these melee
Melee , generally refers to disorganized close combat involving a group of fighters. A melee ensues when groups become locked together in combat with no regard to group tactics or fighting as an organized unit; each participant fights as an individual....

s. There were no campaigns of extermination against the defeated. They simply moved on to other open spaces on the veldt, and equilibrium was restored. The bow and arrow were known but seldom used. Warfare, like the hunt, depended on skilled spearmen and trackers. The primary weapon was a thin 6-foot throwing spear, the assegai
An assegai or assagai is a pole weapon used for throwing or hurling, usually a light spear or javelin made of wood and pointed with iron.-Iklwa:...

. Several were carried into combat. Defensive weapons included a light cowhide shield. Many battles were prearranged, with the clan warriors meeting at an assigned place and time, while women and children of the clan watched the festivities from some distance away. Ritualized taunts, single combats and tentative charges were the typical pattern. If the affair did not dissipate before, one side might find enough courage to mount a sustained attack, driving off their enemies. Casualties were usually light. The defeated clan might pay in lands or cattle and have captives to be ransomed, but extermination and mass casualties were rare. Tactics were rudimentary. Outside the ritual battles, the quick raid was the most frequent combat action, marked by burning kraals, seizure of captives, and the driving off of cattle. Pastoral herders and light agriculturalists, the Bantu did not usually build permanent fortifications to fend off enemies. A clan under threat simply packed their meager material possessions, rounded up their cattle and fled until the marauder
A marauder is a bandit, outlaw, raider or such like who moves about in roving fashion looking for plunder.Other uses of marauder, usually derived from the above include:in " Football"...

s were gone. If the marauders did not stay to permanently dispossess them of grazing areas, the fleeing clan might return to rebuild in a day or two. The genesis of the Zulu impi thus lies in tribal structures existing long before the coming of Europeans or the Shaka era.

Rise of Dingiswayo

In the early 19th century, a combination of factors began to change the customary pattern. These included rising populations, the growth of white settlement and slaving that dispossessed native peoples both at the Cape and in Portuguese Mozambique, and the rise of ambitious "new men." One such man, a warrior called Dingiswayo (the Troubled One) of the Mtetwa rose to prominence. Historians like Donald Morris hold that his political genius laid the basis for a relatively light hegemony. This was established through a combination of diplomacy and conquest, using not extermination or slavery, but strategic reconciliation and judicious force of arms. This hegemony reduced the frequent feuding and fighting among the small clans in the Metetwa's orbit, transferring ther energies to more centralized forces. Under Dingiswayo the age grades came to be regarded as military drafts, deployed more frequently to maintain the new order. It was from these small clans, including among them the eLangeni and the Zulu, that Shaka sprung.

Ascent and innovations of Shaka

Shaka proved himself to be one of Dingiswayo's most able warriors after the military call up of his age grade to serve in the Mthethwa forces. He fought with his iziCwe regiment wherever he was assigned during this early period, but from the beginning, Shaka's approach to battle did not fit the traditional mold. He began to implement his own individual methods and style, designing the famous short stabbing spear the iKlwa, a larger, stronger shield, and discarding the oxhide sandals that he felt slowed him down. These methods proved effective on a small scale, but Shaka himself was restrained by his overlord. His conception of warfare was far more extreme that the reconcilitory methods of Dingiswayo. He sought to bring combat to a swift and bloody decision, as opposed to duels of individual champions, scattered raids, or limited skirmishes where casualties were comparatively light. While his mentor and overlord Dingiswayo lived, Shakan methods were reined in, but the removal of this check gave the Zulu chieftain much broader scope. It was under his rule that a much more rigorous mode of tribal warfare came into being. This newer, brutal focus demanded changes in weapons, organisation and tactics.


Shaka is credited with introducing a new variant of the traditional weapon, discarding the long, spindly throwing spear and instituting a heavy-bladed, short-shafted stabbing spear. He is also said to have introduced a larger, heavier cowhide shield (isihlangu), and trained his forces to thus close with the enemy in more effective hand-to-hand combat. The throwing spear was not discarded, but standardised like the stabbing implement and carried as a missile weapon, typically discharged at the foe, before close contact. These weapons changes integrated with and facilitated an aggressive mobility and tactical organisation.

As weapons the Zulu warrior carried the iklwa stabbing spear (losing one could result in execution) and a club
Club (weapon)
A club is among the simplest of all weapons. A club is essentially a short staff, or stick, usually made of wood, and wielded as a weapon since prehistoric times....

 or cudgel known in Zulu as the iwisa, usually called the knobkerrie in English, for beating an enemy in the manner of a mace. He also carried a shield, which was the 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 [9.4 in]) tip was an invention of Shaka that superseded the older thrown ipapa
An assegai or assagai is a pole weapon used for throwing or hurling, usually a light spear or javelin made of wood and pointed with iron.-Iklwa:...

 (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. Close combat relied on co-ordinated use of the iklwa and shield. The warrior sought to get the left edge of his shield behind the right edge of his enemy's, so that he could pull the enemy's shield to the side thus opening him to a thrust with the iklwa deep into the abdomen or chest.


The fast-moving host, like all military formations, needed supplies. These were provided by young boys, who were attached to a force and carried rations, cooking pots, sleeping mats, extra weapons and other material. Cattle were sometimes driven on the hoof as a movable larder. Again, such arrangements in the local context were probably nothing unusual. What was different was the systematisation and organisation, a pattern yielding major benefits when the Zulu were dispatched on raiding missions.

Age-grade regimental system

Age-grade groupings of various sorts were common in the Bantu tribal culture of the day, and indeed are still important in much of Africa. Age grade
Age grade
In sociology and anthropology, an age grade or age class is a form of social organization based on age, within a series of such categories, through which individuals pass over the course of their lives....

s were responsible for a variety of activities, from guarding the camp, to cattle herding, to certain rituals and ceremonies. It was customary in Zulu culture for young men to provide limited service to their local chiefs until they were married and recognised as official householders. Shaka manipulated this system, transferring the customary service period from the regional clan leaders to himself, strengthening his personal hegemony. Such groupings on the basis of age, did not constitute a permanent, paid military in the modern Western sense, nevertheless they did provide a stable basis for sustained armed mobilisation, much more so than ad hoc tribal levies or war parties.

Shaka organised the various age grades into regiments, and quartered them in special military kraals, with each regiment having its own distinctive names and insignia. Some historians argue that the large military establishment was a drain on the Zulu economy and necessitated continual raiding and expansion. This may be true since large numbers of the society's men were isolated from normal occupations, but whatever the resource impact, the regimental system clearly built on existing tribal cultural elements that could be adapted and shaped to fit an expansionist agenda.

After their 20th birthdays, young men would be sorted into formal ibutho (plural amabutho) or regiments. They would build their i=handa (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.

Mobility, training and insignia

Shaka discarded sandals to enable his warriors to run faster. Initially the move was unpopular, but those who objected were simply killed, a practice that quickly concentrated the minds of remaining personnel. Zulu tradition indicates that Shaka hardened the feet of his troops by having them stamp thorny tree and bush branches flat. Shaka drilled his troops frequently, implementing forced marches covering more than fifty miles a day. He also drilled the troops to carry out encirclement tactics (see below). Such mobility gave the Zulu a significant impact in their local region and beyond. Upkeep of the regimental system and training seems to have continued after Shaka's death, although Zulu defeats by the Boers, and growing encroachment by British colonists sharply curtailed raiding operations prior to the War of 1879. Morris (1965, 1982) records one such mission under King Mpande to give green warriors of the uThulwana regiment experience: a raid into Swaziland, dubbed "Fund' uThulwana" by the Zulu, or "Teach the uThulwana". It may have done some good, for some years later the uThulwana made their mark as one of the leading regiments that helped liquidate the British camp at Isandlwana
Battle of Isandlwana
The Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879 was the first major encounter in the Anglo-Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom...


Impi warriors were trained as early as age six, joining the army as udibi porters at first, being enrolled into same-age groups
Age set
In anthropology, an age set is a social category or corporate social group, consisting of people of similar age, who have a common identity, maintain close ties over a prolonged period, and together pass through a series of age-related statuses...

 (intanga). Until they were butad, Zulu boys accompanied their fathers and brothers on campaign as servants. Eventually, they would go to the nearest ikhanda to kleza (literally, "to drink directly from the udder"), at which time the boys would become inkwebane, 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.

In Shaka's day, warriors often wore elaborate plumes and cow tail regalia in battle, but by the Anglo-Zulu War
Anglo-Zulu War
The Anglo-Zulu War was fought in 1879 between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom.Following the imperialist scheme by which Lord Carnarvon had successfully brought about federation in Canada, it was thought that a similar plan might succeed with the various African kingdoms, tribal areas and...

 of 1879, many warriors wore only a loin cloth and a minimal form of headdress. The later period Zulu soldier went into battle relatively simply dressed, painting his upper body and face with chalk and red ochre, despite the popular conception of elaborately panoplied warriors. Each ibutho had a singular arrangement of headdress and other adornments, so that the Zulu army could be said to have had regimental uniforms; latterly the 'full-dress' was only worn on festive occasions. The men of senior regiments would wear, in addition to their other headdress, the head-ring denoting their married state. A gradation of shield colour was found, junior regiments having largely dark shields the more senior ones having shields with more light colouring; Shaka's personal regiment Fasimba (The Haze) having white shields with only a small patch of darker colour. This shield uniformity was facilitated by the custom of separating the king's cattle into herds based on their coat colours.

Certain adornments were awarded to individual warriors for conspicuous courage in action; these included a type of heavy brass arm-ring and an intricate necklace composed of interlocking wooden pegs.


The Zulu typically took the offensive, deploying in the well-known "buffalo horns" formation, called "impondo zenkomo" in the native Zulu tongue. It was composed of three elements:
  1. the "horns", or flanking right and left wing elements, to encircle and pin the enemy. Generally the "horns" were made up of younger, greener troops.
  2. the "chest" or central main force which delivered the coup de grace. The prime fighters made up the composition of the main force.
  3. the "loins" or reserves used to exploit success or reinforce elsewhere. Often these were older veterans. Sometimes these were positioned with their backs to the battle so as not to get unduly excited.

Encirclement tactics are nothing new in tribal warfare, and historians note that attempts to surround an enemy were not unknown even in the ritualised battles. The use of separate manoeuvre elements to support a stronger central group is also well known in pre-mechanised tribal warfare, as is the use of reserve echelons farther back. What was unique about the Zulu was the degree of organisation, consistency with which they used these tactics, and the speed at which they executed them. Developments and refinements may have taken place after Shaka's death, as witnessed by the use of larger groupings of regiments by the Zulu against the British in 1879. Missions, available manpower and enemies varied, but whether facing native spear, or European bullet, the impis generally fought in and adhered to the "classical" buffalo horns pattern.

Organisation and leadership of the Zulu forces

Regiments and corps. The Zulu forces were generally grouped into three levels: regiments, corps of several regiments, and "armies" or bigger formations, although the Zulu did not use these terms in the modern sense. Although size distinctions were taken account of, any grouping of men on a mission could collectively be called an impi, whether a raiding party of 100 or horde of 10,000. Numbers were not uniform but dependent on a variety of factors, including assignments by the king, or the manpower mustered by various clan chiefs or localities. A regiment might be 400 or 4000 men. These were grouped into corps that took their name from the military kraals where they were mustered, or sometimes the dominant regiment of that locality. There were 4 basic ranks: herdboy assistants, warriors, inDunas and higher ranked supremos for a particular mission.

Higher command and unit leadership. Leadership was not a complicated affair. An inDuna
InDuna is a Zulu title meaning advisor, great leader, ambassador, headman, or commander of group of warriors. It can also mean spokesperson or mediator as the izinDuna often acted as a bridge between the people and the king...

 guided each regiment, and he in turn answered to senior izinduna who controlled the corps grouping. Overall guidance of the host was furnished by elder izinduna usually with many years of experience. One or more of these elder chiefs might accompany a big force on an important mission, but there was no single "field marshal
Field Marshal
Field Marshal is a military rank. Traditionally, it is the highest military rank in an army.-Etymology:The origin of the rank of field marshal dates to the early Middle Ages, originally meaning the keeper of the king's horses , from the time of the early Frankish kings.-Usage and hierarchical...

" in supreme command of all Zulu forces. Regimental izinduna, like the non-coms of today's army, and yesterday's Roman Centurions, were extremely important to morale and discipline. This was shown during the battle of Isandhlwana. Blanketed by a hail of British bullets, rockets and artillery, the advance of the Zulu faltered. Echoing from the mountain, however, were the shouted cadences and fiery exhortations of their regimental izinduna, who reminded the warriors that their king did not send them to run away. Thus encouraged, the encircling regiments remained in place, maintaining continual pressure, until weakened British dispositions enabled the host to make a final surge forward. (See Morris ref below—"The Washing of the Spears").

Summary of the Shakan reforms

As noted above, Shaka was neither the originator of the impi, or the age grade structure, nor the concept of a bigger grouping than the small clan system. His major innovations were to blend these traditional elements in a new way, to systematize the approach to battle, and to standardize organization, methods and weapons, particularly in his adoption of the ilkwa - the Zulu thrusting spear, unique long-term regimental units, and the "buffalo horns" formation. Dingswayo's approach was of a loose federation of allies under his hegemony, combining to fight, each with their own contingents, under their own leaders. Shaka dispensed with this, insisting instead on a standardised organization and weapons package that swept away and replaced old clan allegiances with loyalty to himself. This uniform approach also encouraged the loyalty and identification of warriors with their own distinctive military regiments. In time, these warriors, from many conquered tribes and clans came to regard themselves as one nation- the Zulu. The Marian reforms
Marian reforms
The Marian reforms of 107 BC were a group of military reforms initiated by Gaius Marius, a statesman and general of the Roman republic.- Roman army before the Marian reforms :...

 of Rome in the military sphere are referenced by some writers as similar. While other ancient powers such as the Carthaginians maintained a patchwork of force types, and the legions retained such phalanx-style holdovers like the triarri, Marius implemented one consistent standardised approach for all the infantry. This enabled more disciplined formations and efficient execution of tactics over time against a variety of enemies. As one military historian notes:
Combined with Shaka's "buffalo horns" attack formation for surrounding and annihilating enemy forces, the Zulu combination of iklwa and shield--similar to the Roman legionaries' use of gladius and scutum--was devastating. By the time of Shaka's assassination in 1828, it had made the Zulu kingdom the greatest power in southern Africa and a force to be reckoned with, even against Britain's modern army in 1879.

The Impi in battle

The impi, in its Shakan form, is best known among Western readers from the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, particularly the famous Zulu victory at Isandhlwana, but its development was over 60 years in coming before that great clash. To understand the full scope of the impi's performance in battle, military historians of the Zulu typically look to its early operations against internal African enemies, not merely the British interlude. In terms of numbers, the operations of the impi would change- from the Western equivalent of small company and battalion size forces, to maneuvers in multi-divisional strength of between 10,000 and 40,000 men. The victory won by Zulu king Cetawasyo at Ndondakusuka, for example, two decades before the British invasion involved a deployment of 30,000 troops. These were sizeable formations in regional context but represented the bulk of prime Zulu fighting strength. Few impi-style formations were to routinely achieve this level of mobilization for a single battle. For example, at Cannae
Battle of Cannae
The Battle of Cannae was a major battle of the Second Punic War, which took place on August 2, 216 BC near the town of Cannae in Apulia in southeast Italy. The army of Carthage under Hannibal decisively defeated a numerically superior army of the Roman Republic under command of the consuls Lucius...

, the Romans
Roman Republic
The Roman Republic was the period of the ancient Roman civilization where the government operated as a republic. It began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, traditionally dated around 508 BC, and its replacement by a government headed by two consuls, elected annually by the citizens and...

 deployed 80,000 men, and generally could put tens of thousands more into smaller combat actions). The popular notion of countless attacking black spearmen is a distorted one. Manpower supplies on the continent were often limited. In the words of one historian: "The savage hordes of popular lore seldom materialized on African battlefields." This limited resource base would hurt the Zulu when they confronted technologically advanced world powers such as Britain. The advent of new weapons like firearms would also have a profound impact on the African battlefield, but as will be seen, the impi-style forces largely eschewed firearms, or used them in a minor way. Whether facing native spear or European bullet, impis largely fought as they had since the days of Shaka, from Zululand to Zimbabwe, and from Mozambique to Tanzania.

The starting period: Clash at Gqokli Hill

Upon his accession to power, Shaka was confronted by two potent threats, the Ndwandwes under Zwide, and the Qwabes. Both clans were twice as large as the Zulu. The first key test of the "new model" Shakan impis would be against the Ndwandwe, and the battle offers insight into both Shaka as a commander and the performance of his reorganized combat team. The Zulu king deployed his troops in a strong position on top of Gqokli Hill, using a deep depression on the summit to hide a large central reserve, while grouping his other warriors forward in defensive formation. Shaka also made a decoy gambit- sending the Zulu cattle off with a small escort, luring Zwide into splitting his force. The battle began in the early morning as the Ndwandwe, under Zwide's son Nomahlanjana, made a series of frontal attacks up the steep hill. Slowed by the incline, and armed only with traditional throwing spears, they were badly mauled by Shaka's men in close quarters fighting. By mid-afternoon, the Ndwandwe were exhausted and their force weakened further by small groups of men going off in search of water. Shaka however had cunningly positioned himself so that his troops had access to a small stream nearby. In the late afternoon the Ndwandwe made a final attack. Leaving a part of their army surrounding the bottom of the hill, they pushed a huge column up to the top, hoping to drive the Zulu down into the blocking forces below. Shaka waited until the column was almost at the top, then ordered his fresh reserves to make a flanking "horn" attack, sprinting down both sides of the hill to encircle and liquidate the ascending Ndwandwe. The rest of the enemy force, which could not clearly see what was happening on the summit was next attacked in another encircling maneuver that sent it fleeing. In its first major battle, the Shakan impi had pulled off a multiple envelopment. On the negative side, the Ndwandwe remnants had been able to withdraw intact, and all the Zulu cattle were captured. Shaka furthermore was forced eventually to recall and pull back the warriors to his kraal at kwaBulawayo. Nevertheless the impi had badly mauled an enemy force over twice its size, killing 5 of Zwide's sons in the process and succeeding in its first major test. A period of rebuilding now commenced and new recruits, either by conquest or alliance were incorporated into the growing Shakan force. Among the newcomers was one Mzilikaki, a small-time chieftain of the Kumalo, and a grandson of Zwide whose father had been killed by Zwide. Mzilikaki would eventually fall out with Shaka, and in fleeing, would extend the concept of the impi even further across the landscape of southern and eastern Africa.

The period of consolidation: the Zulu impi and its variants

In this period Shaka's power grew, defeating several powerful local rivals and creating a vast monolith that was the most powerful nation in its region.

Shaka's success was to spawn several offshoots of the impi-style formation. Chief among these was the Matebele, under Mzilkhazi and the Shangaan, under the redoubtable Shoshangane. The greatest expansion of the impi outside the Zululand/Zimbabwe area however was to come in East Africa, where bands of Ngoni fighting men, conquered large swathes of territory, using the methods first laid down by Shaka.

The first challenge of Europe: African impi versus the Boer Commando

The impi clashed with another tactical system introduced by European settlers: the horse-gun system of the Boer Commando
Boer Commando
The Boer commando was the basic unit of organisation of the militia of the Boer people of South Africa. The term came into English usage during the Second Boer War.-History:...

. This conflict is often popularly conceived of in terms of the wellknown battles between Zulu King Dingane and the Boers, most notably at the Battle of Blood River
Battle of Blood River
The Battle of Blood River, so called due to the colour of water in the Ncome River turning red with blood, was fought between 470 Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius, and an estimated 10,000–15,000 Zulu attackers on the bank of the Ncome River on 16 December 1838, in what is today KwaZulu-Natal,...

. As will be seen however, this tells only part of the story. The impi was to clash with the mobile commando on the open fields of the high veldt in a series of epic confrontations, in which each force both suffered defeat and enjoyed victory, and both sides acquitted themselves well.

The second challenge of Europe: African impi versus the British Empire

Over 40,000 strong, well motivated and supremely confident, the Zulu were a formidable force on their own home ground, despite the almost total lack of modern weaponry. Their greatest assets were their morale, unit leadership, mobility and numbers. Tactically the Zulu acquitted themselves well in at least 3 encounters, Isandhlwana, Hlobane and the smaller Intombi action. Their stealthy approach march, camouflage and noise discipline at Isandhlwana, while not perfect, put them within excellent striking distance of their opponents, where they were able to exploit weaknesses in the camp layout. At Hlobane they caught a British column on the move rather than in the usual fortified position, partially cutting off its retreat and forcing it to withdraw.

Strategically (and perhaps understandably in their own traditional tribal context) they lacked any clear vision of fighting their most challenging war, aside from smashing the three British columns by the weight and speed of their regiments. Despite the Isandhlwana victory, tactically there were major problems as well. They rigidly and predictably applied their three-pronged "buffalo horns" attack, paradoxically their greatest strength, but also their greatest weakness when facing concentrated firepower. The Zulu failed to make use of their superior mobility by attacking the British rear area such as Natal or in interdicting vulnerable British supply lines. However, an important consideration, which King Cetshwayo appreciated, was that there was a clear difference between defending one's territory, and encroaching on another, regardless of the fact that they are at war with the holder of that land. The King realised that peace would be impossible if a real invasion of Natal was launched, and that it would only provoke a more concerted effort on the part of the British against them. The attack on Rorke's Drift, in Natal, was an opportunist raid, as opposed to a real invasion. When they did, they achieved some success, such as the liquidation of a supply detachment at the Intombi River. A more expansive mobile strategy might have cut British communications and brought their lumbering advance to a halt, bottling up the redcoats in scattered strongpoints while the impis ran rampant between them. Just such a scenario developed with the No. 1 British column, which was penned up static and immobile in garrison for over two months at Eshowe.

The Zulu also allowed their opponents too much time to set up fortified strongpoints, assaulting well defended camps and positions with painful losses. A policy of attacking the redcoats while they were strung out on the move, or crossing difficult obstacles like rivers, might have yielded more satisfactory results. For example, four miles past the Ineyzane River, after the British had comfortably crossed, and after they had spent a day consolidating their advance, the Zulu finally launched a typical "buffalo horn" encirclement attack that was seen off with withering fire from not only breach-loading
Breech-loading weapon
A breech-loading weapon is a firearm in which the cartridge or shell is inserted or loaded into a chamber integral to the rear portion of a barrel....

The Martini-Henry was a breech-loading single-shot lever-actuated rifle adopted by the British, combining an action worked on by Friedrich von Martini , with the rifled barrel designed by Scotsman Alexander Henry...

 rifles, but 7-pounder artillery and Gatling guns. In fairness, the Zulu commanders could not conjure regiments out of thin air at the optimum time and place. They too needed time to marshal, supply and position their forces, and sort out final assignments to the three-prongs of attack. Still, the Battle of Hlobane Mountain offers just a glimpse of an alternative mobile scenario, where the manoeuviing Zulu "horns" cut off and drove back Buller's column when it was dangerously strung out on the mountain.

Command and control

Command and control of the impis was problematic at times. Indeed, the Zulu attacks on the British strongpoints at Rorke's Drift and at Kambula, (both bloody defeats) seemed to have been carried out by over-enthusiastic leaders and warriors despite contrary orders of the Zulu King, Cetshwayo. Popular film reenactments display a grizzled izinduna directing the host from a promontory with elegant sweeps of the hand. This might have happened during the initial marshaling of forces from a jump off point, or the deployment of reserves, but once the great encircling sweep of frenzied warriors in the "horns" and "chest" was in motion, the izinduna could not generally exercise detailed control.

Handling of reserve forces

Although the "loins" or reserves were on hand to theoretically correct or adjust an unfavorable situation, a shattered attack could make the reserves irrelevant. Against the Boers at Blood River, massed gunfire broke the back of the Zulu assault, and the Boers were later able to mount a cavalry sweep in counterattack that became a turkey shoot against fleeing Zulu remnants. Perhaps the Zulu threw everything forward and had little left. In similar manner, after exhausting themselves against British firepower at Kambula and Ulindi, few of the Zulu reserves were available to do anything constructive, although the tribal warriors still remained dangerous at the guerrilla level when scattered. At Isandhlwana however, the "classical" Zulu system struck gold, and after liquidating the British position, it was a relatively fresh reserve force that swept down on Rorke's Drift.

Use of modern arms

The Zulu had greater numbers than their opponents, but greater numbers massed together simply presented yet more lucrative, easy shooting in the age of modern firearms and artillery. African tribes that fought in smaller guerrilla detachments typically held out against European invaders for a much longer time, as witnessed by the 7-year resistance of the Lobi
The Lobi are an ethnic group that originated in what is today Ghana. Starting around 1770 many of the Lobi migrated into southern Burkina Faso and later into Côte d'Ivoire. Currently the group consists of around 160,000 people...

 against the French in West Africa, or the operations of the Berbers in Algeria
Algeria , officially the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria , also formally referred to as the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria, is a country in the Maghreb region of Northwest Africa with Algiers as its capital.In terms of land area, it is the largest country in Africa and the Arab...

 against the French.

When the Zulu did acquire firearms, most notably captured stocks after the great victory at Isandhlwana, they lacked training and used them ineffectively, consistently firing high to give the bullets "strength." Adaption to firearms was well within Zulu capabilities and knowledge. Southern Africa, including the areas near Natal was teeming with bands like the Griquas who had learned to use guns. Indeed one such group not only mastered the way of the gun, but became proficient horsemen as well, skills that helped build the Basotho
The ancestors of the Sotho people have lived in southern Africa since around the fifth century. The Sotho nation emerged from the accomplished diplomacy of Moshoeshoe I who gathered together disparate clans of Sotho–Tswana origin that had dispersed across southern Africa in the early 19th century...

 tribe, in what is now the nation of Lesotho
Lesotho , officially the Kingdom of Lesotho, is a landlocked country and enclave, surrounded by the Republic of South Africa. It is just over in size with a population of approximately 2,067,000. Its capital and largest city is Maseru. Lesotho is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. The name...

. In addition, numerous European renegades or adventurers (both Boer
Boer is the Dutch and Afrikaans word for farmer, which came to denote the descendants of the Dutch-speaking settlers of the eastern Cape frontier in Southern Africa during the 18th century, as well as those who left the Cape Colony during the 19th century to settle in the Orange Free State,...

 and non-Boer) skilled in firearms were known to the Zulu. Some had even led detachments for the Zulu kings on military missions.

The Zulu thus had clear scope and opportunity to master and adapt the new weaponry. They also had already experienced defeat against the Boers, by concentrated firearms. They had had at least four decades to adjust their tactics to this new threat. A well-drilled corps of gunmen or grenadiers, or a battery of artillery operated by European mercenaries for example, might have provided much needed covering fire as the regiments manoeuvred into position.

No such adjustments were on hand when they faced the redcoats. Immensely proud of their system, and failing to learn from their earlier defeats, they persisted in "human wave" attacks against well defended European positions where massed firepower devastated their ranks. The ministrations of Zulu witch doctor, and the bravery of individual regiments were ultimately of little use against the volleys of modern rifles, Gatling gun
Gatling gun
The Gatling gun is one of the best known early rapid-fire weapons and a forerunner of the modern machine gun. It is well known for its use by the Union forces during the American Civil War in the 1860s, which was the first time it was employed in combat...

s and artillery at the Ineyzane River, Rorke's Drift, Kambula, Gingingdlovu and finally Ulindi.

A tough challenge

Undoubtedly, Cetshwayo and his war leaders faced a tough and extremely daunting task - overcoming the challenge of concentrated rifled, machine gun (Gatling gun), and artillery fire on the battlefield. It was one that also taxed European military leaders, as the carnage of the American Civil War and the later Boer War attests. Nevertheless, Shaka's successors could argue that within the context of their experience and knowledge, they had done the best they could, following his classical template, which had advanced the Zulu from a small, obscure tribe to a respectable regional power known for its fierce warriors.

Demise of the Impi

The demise of the impi finally came about with the success of European colonization of Africa- first in southern Africa by the British, and finally in East Africa as German colonialists defeated the last of the impi-style formations under Mkawawa, chief of the Hehe of Tanzania. The Boers, another major challenger to the impi also saw defeat by imperial forces, in the Boer War
Boer War
The Boer Wars were two wars fought between the British Empire and the two independent Boer republics, the Oranje Vrijstaat and the Republiek van Transvaal ....

 of 1902. In its relatively brief history the impi inspired anger, scorn (During the Anglo-Zulu War
Anglo-Zulu War
The Anglo-Zulu War was fought in 1879 between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom.Following the imperialist scheme by which Lord Carnarvon had successfully brought about federation in Canada, it was thought that a similar plan might succeed with the various African kingdoms, tribal areas and...

, British commander Lord Chelmsford complained that they did not 'fight fair'), and even a grudging admiration by its opponents, epitomized in Kipling's 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.

Today the impi lives on in popular lore and culture, even in the West. While the term "impi" has become synonymous with the Zulu nation in international popular culture
Popular culture
Popular culture is the totality of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images and other phenomena that are deemed preferred per an informal consensus within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the...

, it appears in various computer games such as
Civilization III
Civilization III
Sid Meier's Civilization III, commonly shortened to Civ III or Civ 3, is the third installment of the Sid Meier's Civilization turn-based strategy computer game series. It was preceded by Civilization II and followed by Civilization IV. The game offers very sophisticated gameplay in terms of both...

, Civilization IV: Warlords
Civilization IV: Warlords
Civilization IV: Warlords is the first official expansion pack of the critically acclaimed turn-based strategy video game Civilization IV.-Features:Warlords added many new features to the original game...

and Civilization: Revolution, where the Impi is the unique unit for the Zulu faction with Shaka as their leader and also as an appearance as unique unit of the Bantu nation in Rise of Nation (Zulus are among many tribes who make up the Bantu people) . 'Impi' is also the title of a very famous South Africa song by Johnny Clegg and the band Juluka
Juluka was a South African music band formed in 1969 by Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu. Juluka means "sweat", and was the name of a bull owned by Mchunu.-Career:...

which has become something of an unofficial national anthem, especially at major international sports events and especially when the opponent is England.

External links