On January 22, 1879 -- the legendary "Day of the Zulu," when more than twenty thousand Zulu warriors nearly wiped out the forces of the invading British army -- even the sun was on the side of the
Zulu Nation. A partial solar eclipse during the battle obscured the view of the redcoats, making it difficult for them to see the attacking Zulu warriors. But the Zulu triumph on that day was no freak victory: it came about through a combination of superior battle strategy and fierce weapons, aided by potent traditional medicine.
The battle took place in the shadow of a sandstone outcrop called Isandlwana, where the British forces were camped. Isandlwana turned out to be an ideal location for the Zulu to perform their famous "horns of the bull" encircling maneuver. In the technique, developed in the early 1800s by the Zulu king Shaka, one central body of experienced troops makes a frontal attack, while the youngest and fittest warriors simultaneously sneak around the left and right sides of the enemy forces, catching them off-guard and trapping them. Zulu chiefs, stationed on high ground, but out of sight of the enemy, coordinate the attack with hand signals. A key element of the method is to use the topography to conceal troop movements. At Isandlwana, for example, hills and tall grasses provided cover to the advancing warriors. "Isandlwana is the classic example of the technique used to perfection," says Zulu historian Ian Knight. "The British had been told about it, but it is clear that they were not prepared."
Once the Zulu warriors had set upon the British forces, they were able to engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat. A number of seemingly simple yet deadly weapons filled their arsenal. The most devastating was the iklwa, or stabbing spear, which is said to be named for the sound it makes as it is drawn from a body. According to legend, the iklwa was developed by Shaka, who wanted his warriors to engage their enemies at close range, and not simply toss their long spears from a distance, leaving them unarmed. The iklwa had a long, wide flat blade, about 14 to 18 inches long, attached to a staff. The entire spear was three-and-a-half to four feet long, and was thrust into the enemy with an underhanded motion, to maximize the force of the blow.
Warriors also carried an iwisa, or knobkerrie -- a stick with a round knob at the end, about four inches or so in diameter, all intricately carved from a single piece of wood. Zulu craftsmen used the hardest possible woods for the weapon. The best was iron wood, a dark, almost black, heavy wood, which produced an elegant, vicious weapon. "If you can dissociate what they were used for, they are quite interesting and attractive artifacts," says Knight. Like the stabbing spear, the iwisa was a close-quarter weapon. "You'd sort of try and knock the other guy's brains out with it," Knight says. "There was nothing very sophisticated about it."
Zulu warriors also wielded shields, which they used both to protect themselves and as an offensive weapon. They were trained to hook the shield behind their enemy's shield, and push it out of the way, which exposed the foe's body to attack. In addition, some warriors still carried long throwing spears; others had European firearms, like old flintlock muskets, "but they weren't very skilled in using them, and had to use poor powder and homemade bullets," Knight says. Chiefs often carried axes with triangular-shaped blades, "although these were more of a symbol of status," Knight adds.
Of course, the Zulu might never have vanquished the British at Isandlwana without the help of traditional Zulu medicines. Some scholars have suggested that Zulu pharmacopoeia provided more of a psychological boost than any real physiological effect. But recent scientific studies show that the medicines contained some very potent drugs. For example, warriors were given a cannabis (marijuana)-based snuff to take during battle. Analysis of the snuff has revealed that it contained extremely high levels of THC, a powerful hallucinogen, and yet no detectable levels of the chemicals that cause the sedative effects of marijuana.
Also in the Zulu war medicine chest: the bulb of a flower in the Amaryllis family, called Boophane disticha, or the Bushman Poison Bulb. Studies have shown that the bulb -- which was also used by southern Africans to help mummify bodies -- contains buphanidrine, an alkaloid, like codeine and morphine (although it is not related to them) with hallucinogenic and pain-killing properties. According to botanist Ben-Erik van Wyk of Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg, South Africa, the dosage of buphanidrine necessary to reduce pain is very close to the toxic dose, "but in a very experienced traditional healer's hands it should be safe. They usually assess the strength of a bulb by testing it on themselves."
In addition, warriors sometimes ingested a hallucinogenic mushroom containing a toxin called muscimol. The chemical, present in fly agaric -- a mushroom that can attract and kill flies -- is said to induce a state of expanded perception in those who ingest it. Warriors who consumed those mushrooms, researchers speculate, might have been utterly without fear, believing themselves impervious to British bullets.