Armies of Ancient Africa

by Kahotep

Since modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) evolved in Africa, that ugly and universal human tradition known as war almost certainly has a longer history on that continent than anywhere else in the world. However, compared with the vast libraries of books about European and Asian warfare, relatively little has been written about African military traditions. Part of the problem is that, since the majority of pre-colonial African societies had no written language, most Africans did not describe their own militaries in writing the way Europeans and Asians did. However, there were exceptions to the rule of African pre-literacy. Some African cultures, such as those of West Africa and Ethiopia, adopted written scripts from Southwest Asians with whom they traded, while others, like the Egyptians and Nubians of the Nile Valley, created their own scripts. We therefore have relatively more knowledge about these civilizations' armies. That said, even those Africans who did not have written languages sometimes had their militaries described by European visitors and settlers, so some information exists about them as well.

Given Africa's cultural diversity, a complete, detailed survey of every African nation's army would require an encyclopedia series, so for the sake of concision, I will focus only on three of the continent's most famous historical cultures: the Egyptians, the Mandinka, and the Zulu.

The Egyptians

In the beginning, the ancient Egyptian army was primitive, at least in comparison with the armies of ancient Europe and Asia. No armor was worn by the common soldier, just the linen loincloth that was standard for Egyptian men. Only a cowhide shield protected him. Since early Egyptians had no knowledge of the horse, they also lacked cavalry. Further handicapping the Egyptians was a relative lack of discipline, since their warriors were usually conscripted commoners rather than trained professionals.

However, the ancient Egyptians did start out with a broad variety of weapons: spears, axes, daggers, clubs, cudgels, and simple bows. Of these, it was the bow that was the Egyptians' favorite weapon (the Nubians to the south were also fond of it, as their land was sometimes called "Land of the Bow"), for Egyptians typically began their attacks by showering their enemies with arrows. Only after these volleys had softened up the enemy would the Egyptian melee infantry charge.

The poor equipment and discipline of the nascent Egyptian army was no problem when fighting other Africans, but once confronted by the more technologically advanced armies of Southwest Asia, the Egyptians were forced to upgrade and reform their military. When the Asian Hyksos took control of the Nile Delta after the Middle Kingdom, they introduced a number of new technologies which the Egyptians would take advantage of once they drove the Hyksos out and began the New Kingdom.

Perhaps the most significant of these new technologies was the horse-driven chariot. However, the Egyptians did not simply adopt this new contraption in its initial form, instead modifying its design so that it was smaller and lighter and therefore more suitable to Egyptian terrain. In New Kingdom armies, chariots were each manned by two men, an archer of noble origin and a driver. If the archer ran out of arrows, he also had spears he could use in close combat. Charioteers were better armored than other Egyptian soldiers, wearing either scale armor or leather bands across the chest.

The New Kingdom also saw a change in military organization. No longer composed of conscripted peasants, the new Egyptian armies were professional in nature. Initiated with a haircut and subjected to rigorous training which included wrestling, knife-throwing, and stick-fighting, the new generation of Egyptian warriors experienced severe discipline in the form of thrashing from fellow recruits.

The New Kingdom militaries each had three to four main divisions, all named after Egyptian gods. There were also two big military corps, one for Egypt's northern provinces and another for its south. In all periods of Egyptian history, the supreme leader of the army was the Pharaoh or one of his relatives.

The Mandinka

The Mandinka of western Africa were the ethnic group responsible for founding the Mali Empire of the 13th to 15th centuries AD. This empire is most often noted for its wealth in gold as well as including Timbuktu, home to the world-famous Sankore University.

The Mandinka's ascension to power followed the collapse of the Ghana Empire in 1076. At this time, a number of small kingdoms such as Sosso, Diafanu, and Jolof filled in the power void left by Ghana. It was against these kingdoms that the early Mandinka fought to expand their territory.

When the Empire began under the Mansa (emperor) Sundjata Keita in the 13th century, the Mandinka army was divided into 16 clans, each led by an archer of noble status known as a ton-tigi ("quiver master"). Each ton-tigi commanded a unit of horsemen, also of elite status, who were armed with lances, sabers, and longswords and wore iron helmets and chain mail. The early Mandinka armies also had foot soldiers commanded by kele-koun ("war heads"); these were mostly bowmen who shot poisoned arrows, although spears and javelins were also used. Providing protection for the infantry were leather helmets and reed shields.

According to the Epic of Sundjata, which describes the Mandinka's defeat of Sosso at the Battle of Krina, Mandinka battle formations had cavalry in the center and infantry on the flanks. At its peak, the Empire's army numbered as much as 100,000 men, with 10,000 of those being horsemen.

After the 13th century, the Mandinka armies underwent reform for reasons not entirely understood. Two new kinds of elite Mandinka warrior arose, the farima ("brave man") and farimba ("great brave man"). Both were known as farari ("braves") and evolved from the ton-tigi commanders of the early empire.

An important member of the Mandinka court, the farima was a military leader and land-owning aristocrat whose main duty was to command cavalry from horseback, though the kele-koun leaders of the infantry also reported to him. In turn, the farima reported to the Mansa, who would reward him with special trousers and gold anklets.

The farimba was also a cavalry commander, but he also served as a provincial governor or deputy. One interesting difference between him and the farima was that while the farima was always a freeman, the farimba sometimes began as a slave. Indeed, it was actually common for Mansas to appoint slaves as farimbas to govern particularly wealthy provinces.

Even those slaves who were not farimbas participated in the Mandinka military during the Mali Empire's later days. Originally restricted to carrying equipment and tending their masters' horses, slaves eventually became full-fledged warriors who made up the majority of the infantry by the 15th century. Slave armies were particularly effective in threatening unfaithful governors.

Another characteristic of the late Mandinka army was its division into two corps, one for the Empire's northern provinces and one for the south, similar to the north-south division of the New Kingdom Egyptian armies. These corps not only conquered for the Empire, but they also protected foreign merchants from bandits.

The Zulu

Unlike the Egyptians, who had their own written language, or the Mandinka, who adopted Arabic for writing, the Zulu remained pre-literate. However, they did have a tradition of oral storytelling which has provided much useful information about their history and military organization.

Before the 19th century, the Zulu were just one of a number of minor Nguni-speaking tribes living in southern Africa. Like other Nguni peoples, the Zulu organized their young men into iNtangas (age groups). Each iNtanga was made up of fifty men and was led by an older man. Most of an iNtanga member’s life was spent guarding cattle, but all the iNtangas in the Zulu tribe also formed its military force. However, there was no formal military training.

Early Zulu fought with javelins and ball-tipped sticks called knobkerries. Like the Egyptians, the Zulu used cowhide for their protective shields, but wore no body armor. In the beginning, Zulu warriors fought independently of each other instead of acting in cohesive formations. War was used to settle quarrels, but not to destroy villages or wipe out other tribes.

Zulu warfare changed significantly with the ascension of Shaka to the Zulu throne in the early 19th century. The illegitimate son of the tribal chief before him, Shaka had a miserable childhood and grew up to be a cruel and genocidal despot who was ultimately assassinated. Though not a man anyone today should venerate as a hero, Shaka can be credited with being an effective military leader and reformer whose conquests raised the Zulu from the status of insignificant tribe to an empire.

One of Shaka's reforms was to introduce the idea of regimentation into Zulu warrior culture. No longer fighting as a chaotic mob of individuals, Zulu warriors were organized into age-based regiments, each with a distinctive headdress or jewelry. Shaka also saw to it that shields were made larger and color-coded, with regiments made of younger soldiers having more black on their shields than those with older members. To make his warriors faster and more sure-footed, Shaka ordered the discarding of traditional sandals and required his men to walk barefoot. Discipline also intensified under Shaka: a disgraced warrior could be executed.

Military tactics also changed under Shaka. Equipping his armies with short, stabbing spears in addition to the traditional javelins and knobkerries, Shaka made heavy use of heavy infantry shock tactics often compared with those of Ancient Greece. Zulu regiments were arranged into a formation shaped like a bull's head: there was a center line with reserves behind it along with two "horns". When a Zulu army in this bull formation attacked, the center line went against the enemy's front while the horns struck the flanks, therefore enveloping the enemy. These tactics were unknown to other tribes in southern Africa, making them vulnerable to Zulu conquest.

At the time of his death, Shaka could muster over 50,000 warriors, but despite these numbers and his new Zulu military's successes against other southern Africans, his Zulu Empire was short-lived thanks to European invaders later in the 19th century. Although the Zulu did win some battles against the British early in the Anglo-Zulu War (Isandhlwana being a famous example), ultimately they lost the War, due in large part to a lack of a clear strategic vision, tactical inflexibility, and a tendency to allow the British too much time to set up fortified strong points.

Comparisons and Contrasts

A common theme shared by Egyptian, Mandinka, and Zulu militaries was the particular importance of ranged weapons for foot soldiers. In Egyptian and Mandinka armies, the bow was preferred for the infantry, while the Zulu prior to Shaka used javelins. This African emphasis on ranged weaponry contrasts heavily with the preference for melee weapons that characterized ancient European warriors such as those of Greece, Rome and Gaul.

Of the three cultures examined here, the Zulu stand out for not making use of the horse, in contrast to Mandinka horsemen and Egyptian chariots (the uneven terrain of the Zulu country was not conducive to cavalry). However, Egyptians prior to the New Kingdom also did not use the horse, so an early Egyptian army would have been on similar footing to a Zulu army. The Egyptians also shared with the Zulu the use of cowhide for shields and a lack of body armor.

With iron chainmail and helmets, the Mandinka had the best armor of our three African militaries, in contrast to the scantily clad Egyptians and Zulu. The heavy importance of horsemen in Mandinka armies would have also given them an advantage even against New Kingdom Egyptian armies, since men directly on horseback can outrun and outmaneuver chariots. In addition, Mandinka archers utilized poison for their arrows, a trick unknown to Egyptian archers and Zulu javelineers. It is because of these advantages that I proclaim the Mandinka to have the strongest army of the three cultures I have surveyed.