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The Assegai
Alan
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Joined: 30 Aug 2005
Posts: 1326
Location: Wales
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I have always wondered why Shaka designed/introduced the assegai. I know the tactical reasons, for use in close-quarter combat in combination with the shield. I'm not sure why he didn't use something like a Roman style sword which I would have imagined would give better stability in handling at the same time compact enough for the uise intended. Swords were obviously around at the time to have been seen. Would it be that the throwing spear was just modified to the new method of use? Did they lack the skills to forge such a weapon? Who would know what was in Shaka's mind? Maybe he never thought of it.

I'm afraid that I've not had the courage to venture into any of my books on the history of the Zulu because the names would just floor me.

Just wondered.

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Keith Smith


Joined: 30 Aug 2005
Posts: 540
Location: Northern NSW, Australia
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Alan

You might try to acquire a fairly recent work by Dan Wylie called Myth of Iron, which debunks many of the Shaka myths with firm evidence. One of these relates to the use of the short stabbing spear. I quote one passage from his notes, in the James Stuart Archive, Vol. V, p. 66:

The using of only one assegai began with Makedama when he came from his mother's place (among the Xulu). He said 'People are afraid. Are people like buck that they should be stabbed at a distance? They must come to close quarters and so have only one assegai.'


It's possible that the short Roman sword was not adopted by Africans simply because iron was in short supply and of relatively poor quality. The iKlwa, on the other hand, was simply a development of the iKhonto.

(Nor did Shaka 'invent' the amaButho.)

I hope that helps.

KIS
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Peter Ewart


Joined: 31 Aug 2005
Posts: 1797
Location: Near Canterbury, Kent, England.
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Alan

You wouldn't be floored by the Zulu names. Just mumble the unfamiliar (or unpronounceable!) Zulu terms to yourself and read on. As long as you grasp everything else, and recognise and remember the difficult words and their meanings each time you encounter them, it won't matter if your rendition of the Zulu words themselves is less than perfect - whose isn't? (Well, Keith & PBQ aren't bad but I'm sure most of us struggle and mis-pronounce many words).

As Keith has suggested, I'd recommend anything by Dan Wylie (published articles in journals as well as M o I) and Carolyn Hamilton (Terrific Majesty plus published papers) but, of the two, Wylie for the actual history of the Shaka period. Their bibliographies are also helpful. Stuart's JSA is indispensable for locating competing accounts by the Zulu of their own history. The 5 vols don't come cheap but are worth it. Or, before that, try Magema Fuze's The Black People & Whence They Came for the Shaka period among others. The main thing is to consign Ritter to the bin.

If whoever designed the iKlwa had seen a sword he might have thought of a short version of that, but who had seen one of those by, say, 1820? It might have seemed more obvious to shorten their own existing weapon if a shorter, stabbing weapon was required. As far as smithying skills were concerned, it seems there was certainly no problem there.

Peter
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Sawubona


Joined: 09 Nov 2005
Posts: 1179
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I sometimes leap into these rather learned discussions with some trepidation, but here's my two bits anyway. Sword manufacture is something of an art for the smith involved, some of the cruder examples not withstanding (the "munitions grade" weapons of North-Eastern Africa come to mind as examples--the Kaskara and Shotels of the less than wealthy warriors). The steel has to be strong and somewhat flexible yet take and hold an edge and that's a combination of traits difficult to achieve. Then there are elements of design including balance and power without introducing too much weight. And is it a point sword like a rapier or an edge sword like a claymore? The latter is certainly a far easier weapon to produce, but the Zulu didn't use edge weapons-- they stabbed. Yadda, yadda, but my drift is that one can't just beat a proper sword out of any old lump of iron or steel.

An assegai resembles a weapon with which any Bantu (sorry) warrior would be familiar. After all, it's just an oddly designed throwing spear. Their hand to hand fighting tradition-- limited before Shaka's time-- was with stabbing weapons, not slashing weapons. If they wanted to swing something dangerous, they've always had the iwiza (knobkerrie).

I don't think the Zulu had the available ore or metallurgy to make a halfway decent sword nor would they have had any interest in using one if they did. And frankly, if one were to take away a legionnaire's lorica and pilum, I think a Zulu warrior would be more than his match on the sand in the Colosseum.
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Alan
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Joined: 30 Aug 2005
Posts: 1326
Location: Wales
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Thanks to all. I will try to read up more on the subject. In any event, I would have thought that a weapon which both stabbed and cut would be possible.

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Sawubona


Joined: 09 Nov 2005
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Swordsmiths have been working on that conundrum for several hundred years, Alan-- a sword that could both stab and cut with equal facility. They never found it. So most "fighting traditions" have gone with either one or the other. Yet for some reason the Victorian British, arguably some of the finest steel workers in the world at the time and certainly capable of producing the nonpareil arme blanche , never could seem to decide the best way to use a sword and consequently never able to design and manufacture a sword that could it.

Given more time, Capt. Louis Nolan might have had serious influence on British sword design, manufacture and use , but he had the misfortune to die at Balaclava with so many of the rest of The Light Brigade. His is still a name worth dropping in serious sword conversations though.
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The Assegai
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