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Old 2nd May 2019, 04:17 AM   #1
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Default African sickle swords as effective weapons

Digging thru the archives (one such example here) , I've noted that there seems to be a perpetuation of the belief that the sickle swords of some African cultures were unwieldy, impractical weapons. I'm posting this to respectfully disagree.

Some months ago, I picked up the example pictured below. I believe this form is from the Azande and is sometimes called a mambele (although I see that term applied to disparate types). Having this in my hand, I was very struck how impractical it would be if trying to wield it as one would a typical saber/talwar/kilij/etc. Being sharp on the concave edge makes the striking dynamics unfamiliar and awkward (at least for one trained in European-based sport fencing).

However, I found that if one abandons trying to wield this as a typical sword, it reveals itself to be a lethally effective weapon. I know there is also the long held belief that the design is intended to wrap around shields and strike the opponent behind their defensive guard. This may be a slightly possible technique, but it makes more sense against an opponent who doesn't move their shield in response, stands still, and isn't trying to hit you back.

The most effective analogue to employing such a weapon, IMHO, is to treat it more like a war hammer or axe. If one orients their distance and striking angles to utilize the birds-head point as one would an axe head or hammer spike, and the effectiveness of this weapon become clear. The penetrating power would likely inflict much more damage than a slash from the edge. It is almost like a spear head that can be deployed by swinging it in an arc (think the gunstock clubs of N. American Natives that were often fitted with an iron spear point). Potentially deadlier than a sword or spear.

So, why did Africans invest so much steel into creating something that really only needed a few inches of metal mounted to a club? I think the primary reason was prestige. A sword was/is a difficult thing to produce. When one thinks of the various forms of currency that existed in Africa, the prestige of having a large piece of metal as your primary weapon would not be lost on the local cultures.

However, I propose there is a martial benefit, too. At the risk of being a bit too graphic, if one strikes an opponent with the spike of a war hammer, or an axe, or even on of the gunstock clubs described above, the business end will very likely get lodged and require some recovery time to extract and regain use of your weapon. While the person you struck would likely be incapacitated, you would be vulnerable to attack for the seconds needed to recover. For an unarmored (or very lightly armored) African warrior, this could be deadly.

With the shotel or mambele, if you land a blow with the point and it lodges in flesh, the sharpened concave edge allows the attacker to simply yank backward and, in grisly fashion, both quickly recover use of their offensive weapon, but also cause a more serious wound.

Having acquired this weapon, it has reaffirmed for me the belief that if we don't understand something, we probably don't have enough information. While I don't pretend that my limited understanding of the concepts I just espoused are at all authoritative, I do think such musings are warranted when so many folks seem to dismiss the usefulness of certain weapon forms simply because they are unfamiliar. There is a colonial hubris revealed in applying European techniques to non-European weapons and declaring these weapons to be impractical.

I'm happy to hear everyone's thoughts (even if to tell me this is all madness on my part )

So, here's some (sadly blurry) pics of my mambele (if there is another name I should call this, please advise). Also, a page from a fechtbuch depicting the only Black person I have seen in such texts. Probably not a mere coincidence that Paulus Hector Mair depicted him as part of the series of using a sickle in combat.
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Old 2nd May 2019, 09:03 PM   #2
Jim McDougall
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These are well thought out and well stated observations and most interesting looking back at the discussions linked. In looking back at some of the notes made by Burton in his 1884 "Book of the Sword", he described the shotel or Abyssinian sword as a pretty much useless 'gigantic sickle'. Well known as profoundly Anglocentric and a skilled swordsman, he noted "....such a weapon never belonged to a race of swordsmen" (p.163).

Turning to Christopher Spring, "African Arms & Armor" (1993) , the author describes the ',..western obsession with explaining form by function in the study of African weapons". Here he notes many forms of course and some of the notions and consternation created by writers centered on stories of native savagery and the variety of blades as exotic means of inflicting injury (p.84).

There is attention to the 'sickle' type swords such as the mambele of the Azande of northwest Zaire where J.Vansina ("Paths in the Rain Forests", 1990) describes them as being used to '...hook aside the shields of opponents to make way for fatal spear thrusts".
It seems that the 'shotel' (described by that term by Pearce, 1831) being noted in Spring (p.98) is also claimed to be for hooking over the shield, but having a deeply parabolic double edged blade.

While Spring notes that there is some sort of data available in certain cases of explaining the forms of some African weapons, he notes that the problem with the hooked shield idea is that the warrior would have to drop his own shield to make the spear thrust while also using the sword. I am not sure if the handles in the shield would allow the forearm to hold the shield as well as spear etc.

Still, many of the other analysis of other forms, become almost fanciful in some cases. The most likely explanation for many of the weapons look to the potential as parade weapons and prestige oriented.

It seems that each form must evaluated individually to come to reliable theories, and there will be variations in accord with different tribes who share similar forms.

Excellent topic!
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Old 2nd May 2019, 10:00 PM   #3
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I can't say there is anything I can add here that would really provoke much discourse, but I completely agree with your observations. Just because a sword can't be used in the same way as an olympic fencing foil doesn't make it an "unwieldy ceremonial status-symbol" or whatever. I also like your observation on colonial hubris; I think that's actually the best way of describing the thought process that has resulted in the weapons of entire cultures being deemed as purely ceremonial.

I agree with Jim though that absolutely some forms were for status or parade, however I think most of these "parade forms" are pretty obvious. IMO there's a pretty clear difference between what the intentions behind a standard mambele and say, some kind of abstract, sculptural konda sword were.
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Old 2nd May 2019, 10:54 PM   #4
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Well said Nihl, and the situation with many ceremonial, parade and bearing weapons can at many times be quite obvious, especially with those with abstract character as you have noted.
In many cases however, there are traditional circumstances, such as with the Tuareg and their well known takouba. Though these swords which were historically used as intended are still likely worthy as weapons, but actually as worn in modern times they remain traditional accoutrements . They are of course subordinate to the firearms which have become the weapon of choice.

In much of African tribal history, the primary weapon has always been the spear (as seen with the observations of shield 'hooking' to facilitate spear thrust). However with outside influences, particularly colonial of course, varying types of swords and edged weapons became notably present. In the Congo for example, the native interpretations of Portuguese rapiers were there. Naturally they had no concept of the swordsmanship used with the originals, so of course prestige was the case. An obvious example to be sure, but just to express the kinds of circumstances possibly at hand.
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Old 3rd May 2019, 05:19 PM   #5
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Generally, most of the Sub-Saharan Africa did not have a concept of a " state". Their societal unit was a tribe, and those do not wage serious wars. They might have minor territorial disputes or personal squabbles that were decided in semi- ritual manner, with a lot of dancing, occasional hurling a javelin or two and ending with a couple of scratches, mutual singing and triumphal return to their villages. The purpose was not mass killing, but just an imitation of confrontation with minimal casualties. These occasions did not need special weapons. This is likely why Central African weapons were semi-artistic and woefully inadequate for serious organized fighting.
See examples:

General trends of African swords are nicely summarized in that article:

"Knives, axes, currency blades and spears, most made of forged iron, attest to the skills in metal of the blacksmiths of many traditional African peoples. Most exhibit an inventive variety of form and workmanship far beyond what was functionally necessary. Some functioned as weapons. Many , however, were solely for ceremonial or ritual use, or displayed for prestige or status. The largest selections also served as currency, with forms made in the style of weapons, but not functional."

I can imagine 3 events that introduced changes in this : Islamic influence ( slavetrader parties, mostly to the East); European colonization and trade ( see mass presence of firearms in the Kingdom of Dahomey, an important source of slave trading to the West); and the most astonishing one, - Chaka. He converted the nation of Zulu into a real state, with organized military, development of battle order and conversion of a javelin into a stabbing spear-sword. Conduct of Real War required serious killing and truly effective bladed weapons.
If anybody here can recall additional factors, please feel free to add them to the list.
All of the above circumstances resulted in virtual disappearance of old fanciful and engineeringly incompetent swords and streamlining them into deadly fighting implements, true implements of Real War.
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Old 3rd May 2019, 06:15 PM   #6
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Shaka effectively reinvented the Roman legion and the gladius. He steamrollered over all the dancing posers of the surrounding tribes, At least until he and his descendants came up against the muskets of the europeans.

I posted this earlier: The video referenced appears applicable to the posts above.
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