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
. 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
in the Mthethwa-Ndwandwe
war in the early 1810s.
Impi warriors were trained as early as age six, joining the army as udibi
porters at first, being enrolled into same-age groups
). Until they were buta
'd, Zulu boys accompanied their fathers and brothers on campaign as servants. Eventually, they would go to the nearest ikhanda
(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.
On being formally formed into regiments -ibutho
) after their 20th birthday, they would build their ikhanda
(often referred to as a 'homestead', and it was basically a stockaded group of huts surrounding a corral for cattle) which would be where they would come when mustered for active service. They would have to come for this muster until they married, which was a privilege 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 (this practice later changed as casualties suffered by the regiments made reinforcements necessary). Each ibutho had its own colors in colored 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.
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
stabbing spear (losing one could result in execution) and knobkerrie
or cudgels) for beating an enemy in the manner of a mace
. He also carried shields, which were property of the king. The iklwa with its long (c. 25cm) tip was an invention of Shaka that superseded the older thrown assegai
(it was so named because of the sucking sound it made when withdrawn from a human body). 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 throwing spear 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 warriors were usually badly trained in their use.
Shaka used impis with a modified encircling tactic - impondo zankoma
('bull's horns'); Impi troops would divide 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 the veterans) remained as a reserve. They travelled light, and carried their own food or foraged along the way. The image of the Zulu warrior who could "run fifty miles and fight a battle at the end of it" is not at all true, but the barefooted Zulu warrior was swift, and could cover perhaps 25 miles a day. Thus 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'.
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 'washing of spears (in their enemy's blood)' in which they cut open the belly of killed (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 River in 1838. Similarly, the Zulus scored a famous victory over the British at the battle of Isandlwana 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 Drift, battle of Kambula, battle of Gingindlovu and the battle of Ulundi, which led to the destruction of the Zulu Kingdom.
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.
In the computer games Civilization 3, Civilization 4: Warlords and Civilization: Revolution, the Impi is the unique unit for the Zulu.
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.
- Ian Knight, Brave Men's Blood - the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879
- Ian Knight, The Zulus
- D.R. Morris, The Washing of the Spears