By Jim Morando
You are probably aware that fur trappers on the US frontier traded all kinds of goods with the Indians. What is lesser known, is that the British did the same thing with the Zulu, Maasai and other African tribes before hostilities broke out with them in the late 1800’s.
The Zulu were particularly fond of heavy, sharp edged, upholstery tacks. Instead of using them on their La-Z -Boys, they hammered rows of these into their knobkerries (wooden war clubs) to make it easier for them to crack the skulls of their adversaries. These 24”-36” bulbous clubs were typically crafted from extremely dense, two-toned, leadwood root balls. A hundred years before palm swells became popular on sporting arms, they incorporated them onto their knobkerries to make sure they did not slip out of their hands after they got slick with blood in battle. As is true with every weapon, it is not what you have, but how you use it. A few years back we sold a knobkerrie without tacks on it that had 19 notches on the shaft which gives you an idea as to how skilled the Zulu were at CQB.
At the top of the wish list for the Maasai were “seme” (short sword) blanks. Think of this as their essential EDC item. While a moran (senior warrior) might leave his spear behind, his seme was always on his waist. Wilkinson, Sheffield and other premier British cutlery companies tooled up to supply this market. Historically, most of these short swords were sheathed in undyed leather, but when the Mau Mau uprising broke out in the 1950’s, the sheaths were dyed red, a tradition that continues to this day.
There are different theories as to why the British would arm what many saw as their future enemies. The most plausible explanation was to stop the wholesale pilfering of every piece of metal in the territory. Leaf springs were a common target for their iconic lion spears. As a testament to that, African Sporting Creations has in its possession an ancient lion spear that still possesses a small rectangular bracket that was probably connected to a wooden wagon or farm implement some 150 years ago.
The British influence can be seen on many different tribal pieces. Some British furniture of the day used a decorative barley twist on the support pillars and legs. The Maasai incorporated this spiral design onto the top shafts of their short, stout buffalo spears. That same design is also seen on the backs of their heavy shields crafted in the late 1800’s. The extra layer of leather behind the raised boss—put there to prevent the warrior’s knuckles from being broken by a knobkerrie blow—was often decorated with a pie crust edge.
Where do you find these items? Unfortunately, most of the really good tribal artifacts left Africa almost 100 years ago. Most of the products we source today come from museums, the UK and Australia. That is not to say there are not a few gems to be found in the US. In the early 1990’s we purchased two crates of tribal weapons from an Asheville, NC estate that were put in a basement in the 1920’s and never opened—no doubt the result of a wife with much poorer taste in home decorating than her sporting husband.
Editor’s note: Jim Morando is the founder of African Sporting Creations and offers a wide range of Colonial era, tribal weapons and hundreds of other safari inspired products not available anywhere else.