An incredibly well preserved ‘ishilunga’ captured at the Battle of Ulundi in 1879
This distinctive ‘ishilunga’ was captured at the Battle of Ulundi, the final engagement of the Anglo-zulu War
The Anglo-zulu War of 1879 was arguably the most famous colonial conflict that the British Empire fought during the 19th century. The British attempt to annex Zululand in southern Africa was met with fierce resistance from Zulu warriors who fought tenaciously to preserve their independence. Although the Zulus possessed some firearms they were far less technologically equipped than the British. They largely used spears and shields along with clever tactics to inflict humiliating defeats on the British at the battles of Isandlwana, Intombe and Hlobane.
Isandlwana in particular was a huge victory for the Zulus where they killed over 1,300 Imperial troops and halted the first British invasion of Zululand. The British licked their wounds and returned to finally defeat the Zulus at their capital of Ulundi on 4 June 1879.
Among the items that were captured at Ulundi was this cowhide shield. Known as an ‘ishilunga’, the shield became a symbol of Zulu resistance. Although it was simple in design, the ishilunga contained complex information about its owner. The colours helped to identify warriors in battle and even their marital status. Warriors with formidable reputations had white shields with one or two spots while their inexperienced counterparts’ shields were black. Middle-ranked warriors would similarly have red and white shields. The patterning would also identify which ‘impi’ (regiment) the warrior fought with.
The pictured shield formed part of the symbolic spoils of Ulundi. Although less famous than the previous battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, Ulundi was a decisive British victory and a disaster for the Zulus. Their capital was burned, the Zulu king Cetshwayo was captured and Zululand was broken up into 13 British districts.
LEFT: This ishilunga may have belonged to a middle-ranking warrior with its white and red-brown pattern