Join Date: Dec 2004
Location: Route 66
Interesting elucidation, which does make a good point, although I am not sure who or where the notion of Shaka's imperial success being based on weapon(s) came from. As far as I have understood, the success of the Zulu nation militarily was enhanced through Shaka's attention to organization and tactics and the proper use of the weapons already extant.
The assegai (iklwa) was a shorter stabbing spear which Shaka insisted be used in contact combat over the use of throwing spears (which were still used but only prior to direct attack). The shield was of course known, but improved by Shaka by being made larger and used tactically in a more combative manner (hooking opponent shield aside for fatal assegai thrust).
While Shaka was long gone by the time of Isandlwana (1879), Cetshwayo the Zulu king effectively carried forth the methods and battle order of Shaka, though finally defeated.
There have been many perceptions of 'exotic' weaponry in European view, but certainly as pointed out, many 'unusual' in appearance have proven to be quite deadly in instances of actual use. Obviously the kukri has been proven incredibly so of course through the almost legendary exploits of the Gurkhas, and the kora, kampilan and keris have been deemed effective as well.
In actuality, the question of actual use combatively of many weapons which are seen as unwieldy, and ineffective when gauged by either western or other perspectives is not likely to be 100% accurate. It is well known that many of these African edged weapons are indeed used ceremonially, and perhaps these versions derive from forms which were indeed used combatively in some less exaggerated or embellished form.
However, it is also the case that many such edged weapons forms have become relatively inert traditionally held arms, such as bearing swords, dress and parade swords, and ceremonial accoutrements.
While these types of weapons are not considered battle worthy in many cases, virtually any weapon can become one of opportunity or necessity in the right circumstances. Even the much contended Omani dance sa'if was noted as being 'razor sharp' , yet with its relatively flimsy blade, would render it hopelessly uncombative, but could certainly badly wound if the situation warranted.
In another discussion I mentioned the Kabyle flyssa of Algerian Berber regions, and that its long, terribly balanced blade with needle point, has never been accurately accounted as far as its actual use. The open hilt without guard offers little in supporting use of this blade in a thrust, nor can this seemingly be used in a swinging cut for slashing. Obviously those of this form smaller (they are in range of sizes) may be more effective, but most of length seem unlikely for combat use. Still, as noted, the deadly prospects of sharp blade and needle point as well as hefty blade weight could be seen as possibly usable as a weapon.
I think it is necessary to consider these many types of African edged weapons pretty much individually rather than with a broad brush. There are some that are most surely ceremonial alone, but it would be interesting to look into their source or symbolism in learning if earlier actual weapons influenced their use.
Returning to the native tribes of Africa and their warfare, I agree that their systems of conflict were based more on intertribal 'negotiation' and limited contest rather than pitched battles and war. As well noted, tribes were allied confederations in many cases or smaller groups, all maintaining a degree of autonomy. One of the primary goals in many cases in addition to situations of internecine dispute was captive taking, which led into the commerce of slaving. Outright killing in battle was not conducive to these goals obviously, so aside from limited combat in raids, or other incidental cases, there was not a need for heavily armed forces. This may be why the spear was traditionally the primary weapon of African tribal peoples where these other edged weapon forms came into being in more recent times through the many outside influences.
Att: Zulu tribesman with 'assegai' from "The Lure of Africa" C.H. Patton