Article of the month: June

A Comparative analysis of battle of Littlebig Horn and Isandlwana: Similarities between American Indians and Zulu

Article of the month

Modern re-enactment of battles of Little Big Horn and Isandlwana:
Upper image: Lt. Col. Custer in the heat of battle (photo credit: James Woodcock, Billings Gazette)
Lower image: British infantrymen by the Dundee Diehards (photo credit: Bongani Motaung, Northern Natal Courier)

Let us consider first some of the sociological similarities between the American Plains Indians and the Zulus. Both groups were semi-nomadic peoples whose way of life required large areas of grazing land; in the case of the Indian, for the vast herds of bison which were hunted from horseback, and in the case of the Zulu, for the cattle herds. Farming was certainly not a major factor for either group because of the migratory pattern of existence forced upon them by the bison and cattle. The high level of mobility in warfare found in the Plains Indians and the Zulus was a direct result of their continual movement with the herds.

The Plains Indian and Zulu societies were both male-dominated with the women being relegated to the position of labour force for all menial tasks as well as for child-bearing. In each society the ideal was the strong young hunter-warrior whose prowess in war overcame all foes and whose skill in the hunt never failed to bring back a kill. Besides fighting and hunting, the males' only duties were to participate in certain religious and 'state' rituals from which women were usually barred. In essence, the Zulu and the American Indian had developed a quasi-military society focused on the citizen-soldier and based on a Spartan life and superb physical conditioning. As a result of this, they had each managed to establish themselves as the single dominant power in their respective areas before the arrival of the white man.

Although the Zulu fought as a light infantryman and the Cheyenne and Sioux as light cavalry, there are many parallels between their respective weaponry and techniques. The basic armament of the Zulu impis was the stabbing spear. They also used knobkerries, axes and throwing spears and had a few guns. There was a larger variety in weaponry available to the North American Indians, but none of it was really superior to that of the Zulu. The Plains tribes had tomahawks, knives, war clubs and lances for hand to hand combat and bows, throwing spears and some rifles for longer range work. The arms of the two groups were essentially equivalent, the major difference being the bow and arrow. This is not so great a consideration, however, when one remembers the very short range at which the Zulus and the Indians liked to fight. Both groups were advocates of close contact with the enemy and would rather hack their man down at about arm's length than shoot him at a few hundred yards' distance. One noteworthy point of difference is that while both groups had rifles, the average Zulu was not a particularly good shot and the Plains Indian tended to be a very accurate marksman.

In spite of the inflated reputation various medicine-men, notably Sitting Bull, now enjoy, neither they nor the witch-doctors and soothsayers attached to the impis had any more influence in military matters than modern army chaplains. They blessed weapons, consecrated the day of the battle and generally helped to keep up the morale of the warriors. Certain medical duties also fell on them in that they were frequently called upon to dispense potions (of unknown benefit) for various purposes. Other than the potions, gyrations and chants supplied by the medicine-men or witch-doctors, the medical services among the Zulus and the Indians were exactly the same: none at all. Wounded men were expected to make their way unaided back to their homes, unless they were fortunate enough to encounter friends, and to recover or die, depending on the severity of their wounds and their own strength and resilience. In the years following the Indian Wars of the American West and the Zulu Wars in South Africa, white men were continually amazed at the terrible wounds which their enemies had managed to survive without any real therapy or medicaments. For those who were obviously too seriously hurt to move or be moved there was but one solution, mercy killing. The Zulu usually employed a swift thrust under the armpit for this purpose while the custom among the Indians was to stab directly into the heart with the man's own knife.

To the white man, one of the most horrible and repugnant aspects of fighting these savages was their ritual mutilation of their enemies. The scalpings and disembowelments carried out by the Indians and the Zulus had common roots. In each case, besides ensuring that the foeman was dead, the purpose was to prevent the dead man's spirit from returning to haunt his slayer. To the Sioux and Cheyenne there was the additional attraction of having the scalp as a ready-made trophy of much the same status as German helmets and Lugers and Japanese Samurai swords were during the Second World War. In addition, it provided a count of defeated opponents like the notches on a gunfighter's revolver.

The Americans and the British evolved the same sort of strategy for dealing with their very similar problems. They decided to invade the lands occupied by their adversaries in three columns which were to converge on what they believed to be the location of the enemy's main forces. The British columns moved in from the north-west, the west and the south. The forces of the U.S. Army attacked from the north-east, the north and the south. The directions from which these invasions were launched reflect the direction of movement of the expansion of the white man into native territories. Because of the limited transport resources of that time and the rough nature of the ground, the communications among the various columns of the two white armies were, of necessity, extremely limited. Close co-operation and mutual support in the case of any trouble were impossible until the area of convergence was reached. In both expeditions, the reconnaissance was poor to useless and the knowledge of their respective enemies was practically nil. This lack of information resulted in a gross underestimation of the fighting ability and strength of the savages on the part of the Europeans which was, in each case, to have tragic consequences.

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