The Zulu Kingdom was established around 1816 by the energetic and innovative leader Shaka Zulu, who initiated many reforms, including in the Army, and built up an empire that by 1825 covered 30,000 square kilometres, although at the cost of many thousands of lives. Shaka’s military reforms included new tactics and weapons, and made the Zulu warrior a formidable opponent for all the tribes of the region, including the white European settlers. Over the course of its history the empire saw much fighting, both internally and with outsiders, particularly with the Boers at battles such as Blood River in 1838. However it was the invasions by British forces in 1879, still well-known to the western public, that would effectively signal the end of the empire, although the tradition of the Zulu warrior would live on and indeed still does today.
The hobby can already boast several sets of Zulu warriors, including one from HaT themselves. What makes this one different is that it specifically depicts unmarried warriors, whereas the others have largely focused on married ones. In Zulu society a man was a youth, or insizwa, until he married, regardless of his age. As such he was part of his father’s household and had limited rights and responsibilities, and served in the king’s army in his allotted regiment. The king had to grant permission to marry, which he did to whole regiments at a time, at which point the man could leave the army and set up his own household (although he could still serve in the army if called). Thus to retain more of his forces a king might delay permission for a regiment to marry for many years, much to their frustration, but there is no truth to the myth that warriors had to prove themselves in battle before permission could be given, although that did help. Once permission was given, a warrior would marry and become an indoda, or simply a man, and he would wear the head-ring (isoCoco), a ring made of fibres interwoven with the hair and set with gum, which is what we see in the other sets. The warriors in this set do not have this ring, naturally, apart from the last figure, who is a married leader of the regiment anyway, as we shall see.
Apart from the head-ring the costume was no different between married and unmarried men, and while there were many differences between regiments when in full regalia, when in combat they mostly wore a loin cloth at the front and another covering the buttocks. The one covering the groin was often further decorated with twists of fur referred to as tails, which all these men have, although they have been incorrectly given the same at the back. Our last figure, clearly married and a senior officer, has a full kilt of such tails, which is fine. Apart from jewellery and strips of cow-tails round each leg these men are otherwise unclothed, although one has a European-type jacket, perhaps recently liberated from its former owner. Happily these men do not have the elements of regalia found in the Esci set, so apart from the rear tails the costume here is accurate.
The warriors carry a good assortment of weapons. The first two rows hold the short stabbing spear so associated with the Zulu, which is correctly being held under the arm. The middle figure in the second row has a ring hand for the pictured separate weapon, which is a classic HaT device as you can choose to make this either a stabbing spear or a throwing spear by simply cutting off whichever head you do not want – a good touch. The third row has a couple of men with a throwing spear, plus one armed with a knobkerry, a basic club with a heavy round end to maximise impact. The first two in the final row have rifles, which could have been purchased or taken from downed enemies, although as they look quite modern for 1879 they are likely to be captures. The last man shows he is the boss not just because of the full kilt or the extra ornamentation in his headdress, but by the axe he holds, which was more of a sign of rank than a weapon, but is correctly done here. In addition, many of the men carry further spears or knobkerries in their left hand along with the shield, which is excellent and an improvement on the sets that came before. Finally, the first spearman in the third row can have the spear head removed to leave him with a knobkerry.
Shields were very important to the Zulus. They used ones of different sizes for different occasions, and their colouring and patterns denoted both the regiment and to an extent the seniority of that regiment. All those here (apart from our officer figure) are of classic design and about 19mm in length, ignoring the central pole. This was the usual size for a war shield early on in the history of the empire, and was seen throughout its life, but by 1879 it was rare and a much smaller shield was carried by most, which would be about 14mm in our scale. So these work best for the early years rather than the final struggle with the British, and while they are of the correct shape, the thongs that secured the shield to the pole have here been engraved as raised blocks, which looks ugly and unconvincing. The shield of the chieftain is much smaller, and so much more acceptable for the later part of the period.
If the accuracy is good then the sculpting is a real let-down. As you can see, these are not great anatomically, with rather bloated bodies and limbs. Fingers and toes and quite vague, and the heads are really quite horrible and certainly nothing like the fine figure to be found on the box. Apart from the separate dual-purpose weapon, every man comes with weapon and shield attached, so there are no problems with assembly here, but of course this does mean there are compromises with the poses. The only man throwing a spear is doing so across the middle of his head – all but impossible in reality – and many of the men with the stabling spear are quite flat. The awkward way the man is firing the rifle may be authentic – Zulus knew how to use rifles and muskets, but were notoriously ineffective with them. We also did not care for the kneeling rifleman, who again has chosen to handle his rifle without putting down his shield. The chieftain is very good, but we were disappointed by the poses overall.
So accuracy is only compromised by the tails at the rear of these men (fairly easy to fix), and the weapon selection is good, particularly with the two figures that have a weapon that can be cut to make one of two possibilities. Poses are not that great, and tend to be flat in many cases, but the general look of these figures is not pleasing, with a chunky anatomy and virtually no creases or realism to the jacket being worn by one man. However there is absolutely no flash or excess plastic anywhere, which is impressive. We felt the sets by Esci and A Call To Arms were much better in terms of quality of sculpting and poses, and might not mix well with the figures here. However for many campaigns the Zulu Army was made up solely of unmarried men, so the need for this set is obvious, and if it does not do the job with much style or appeal then it does at least largely do the job.