Azande Warfare


The reasons for this remarkable record of success against invaders armed with firearms are complex. Despite the lack of any overall political authority, the individual Azande chiefdoms tended to be well organized and tightly controlled. The larger ones at least consisted of a central ‘royal domain’ under the direct control of a king, plus a variable number of peripheral ‘provinces’ or clusters of villages, each ruled by a governor appointed by the sovereign. The governors allocated day-to-day responsibility for each section of their frontiers to a local headman, who established his headquarters in a spot along the border chosen for its strategic position. This would often form the nucleus of a fortified village inhabited by the headman’s retainers and relatives. Each kingdom was therefore demarcated and protected by a ring of these villages, outside which was an uninhabited buffer zone separating it from neighbouring kingdoms. It was one of the duties of the frontier villagers to patrol this no-man’s-land and report any suspicious activity to the king, which was no doubt one reason why foreign armies were never able to surprise the Azande in their own territory. According to Captain Guy Burrows, who campaigned in Azandeland in the 1890s, the villages were very different from the compact, stockaded type common among other tribes, but applied on a smaller scale the same defensive principles as the kingdoms themselves. The chief’s house would be on a small hill surrounded by scattered huts, with smaller groups of huts further away, usually situated behind a bend in the path so that they could not be seen from a distance. These outlying habitations served as sentry posts, and it was the responsibility of their occupiers to prevent the main village being taken by surprise.

Most of what is known about traditional fighting methods comes from the work of Evans-Pritchard, who in the 1920s was able to interview several surviving veterans of the great wars of the nineteenth century. He estimated that a large Azande kingdom might deploy up to 20,000 warriors. The professional core of such an army consisted of permanently embodied companies known as ‘aparanga’, recruited from unmarried youths, and ‘abakumba’, or married men. In normal circumstances each company varied in strength from around twenty to over a hundred, but in an emergency all the able-bodied men of the kingdom could be called up and attached to the existing companies, which might therefore be much larger when they actually took the field. Azande warfare was strongly influenced by the topography and vegetation of the country, which impeded the movement of large bodies of troops but provided ideal cover for ambushes. Evans-Pritchard’s informants emphasized the difference between raids, ‘basapu’, and full-scale campaigns, or ‘sungusungu vura’. Raids were directed at neighbouring settlements – usually, if not always, those of fellow Azande owing allegiance to a rival king – and followed a formal overall pattern.

Before any campaign was undertaken it was first necessary to consult the poison oracle or ‘benge’, in which, says Burrows, the Azande had ‘absolute and unshaken faith’. The procedure involved administering a certain poison to chickens, accompanied by statements along the lines of ‘If this bird lives the war will be successful’. It appears that the poison was highly variable in its effects, so the outcome was unpredictable enough to be taken as an indication of the views of the supernatural powers. Of course the potential for manipulation is obvious – for example by altering the dose or composition of the poison or using a chicken already known to be resistant – but nineteenth-century accounts are unanimous that the Azande genuinely believed in the oracle, so it is impossible to tell how far it was actually manipulated. There were certainly instances where chiefs followed the advice of ‘benge’ even when it might seem to have been against their interests. In 1870, for example, a slaving party accompanied by Georg Schweinfurth was saved from almost certain annihilation when a prince called Wando declined to support his allies in attacking it because the oracle was unfavourable.

Assuming that the result of this procedure was satisfactory, a war party would approach an enemy village in three or four separate units, two or three of which would be deployed in ambush along the path leading to their own village. The remaining warriors entered the target village quietly, under cover of darkness, and took up positions outside the doors of the huts. As dawn broke they would call out, challenging the men inside to come out and fight. Usually they did so, fearing that otherwise their assailants would set fire to their huts. Inevitably the defenders were at a disadvantage as they emerged into the open, and a few might be fatally speared. Most escaped with minor wounds and were not pursued, as the real aim of the raid was not to kill but to plunder. Internal Azande conflict was not always so innocuous, however, and chiefs were often deliberately murdered by political rivals during these affrays, or captured and later put to death. Discussing one family, the Nunga, Evans-Pritchard observes that during the late nineteenth century ‘hardly a prominent person died a natural death’.

The Azande kept no livestock apart from chickens, so the booty consisted mostly of portable goods and the women and children, who were carried off as slaves or for ransom. Non-combatants were never killed deliberately, although there might be casualties if the raiders set fire to the huts and grain stores to cover their retreat. The attackers then fled as rapidly as they could along the trail leading to their own villages, which usually led through the tall, dense grass typical of the country in the rainy season. By this time their victims were rallying and were beginning to beat drums to summon help from friendly villages. As Azande villages were generally situated close together, reinforcements might start to arrive within a few minutes. The defending warriors then went in pursuit, and – being unencumbered by booty and captives – would catch up with the fleeing raiders fairly quickly. But meanwhile the first of the attackers’ ambushes was being prepared. Although the pursuers of course knew what to expect, their options were limited. The thick grass made it very difficult to manoeuvre off the established paths, and in any case it was a point of honour to come briefly to blows with at least the first ambush, so that their own ruler could not accuse them of cowardice. In the words of one of Evans-Pritchard’s informants:

The warriors in ambush trod down the grasses a few yards back from the path, parallel to, and at one side of it, so that they might have concealment and also room for movement. They crouched in this clearing with about six yards between man and man. The leader of the company was alone exposed. He stood in the middle of the path to observe the approach of the enemy and give the signal for attack, but on a curve in the path and at the tail of the ambush, so that the pursuers might be well into the ambush before they saw him . . . . The retreating raiders arrived at a trot at the point where the leader of the first ambush stood on the path and they passed under his raised arms, the last of them maybe running hard with the enemy in close pursuit. They continued through the second and third ambushes to where the prince was waiting. Here they were stopped by a man holding a spear across the path and shouting to them to halt as the prince was present. No one would retreat past him. Meanwhile when the first of the enemy, in hot pursuit of the raiders, was well into the first ambush its commander hurled a spear at him and gave a shout; and at once the warriors lying in wait began to hurl their spears.

If the ambushers inflicted enough casualties in the ensuing exchange of missiles, their opponents would turn back and the fighting would end there. Otherwise the men making up the first ambush would retreat, and draw the pursuers into the second ambush a little further back. At this point the pursuers usually contented themselves with a token skirmish before returning to their village.

A full-scale war between rival Azande kingdoms was conducted very differently. It involved more troops and was more thoroughly planned, but no attempt was made to achieve surprise. Schweinfurth witnessed a formal declaration of a war of this kind in the form of an ear of maize, a chicken feather and an arrow hung from a branch above a path. This, he says, was interpreted to mean that ‘whoever touched an ear of maize or laid his grasp upon a single fowl would assuredly be the victim of the arrow’. In fact the intention of the invading force was to provoke a pitched battle, which was fought according to traditional rules designed to minimize casualties. A battle always began late in the afternoon, so that the losing side could take advantage of darkness to slip away. Each side deployed with a centre and two wings, and the aim was to push back the enemy wings and threaten to envelop his centre. Burrows refers to a crescent formation like that of the Zulus. However, the victors were careful not to encircle their enemies completely, but always left a gap in their rear so that they could escape. The only eyewitness account of internal Azande combat by a European observer is given by the Italian explorer Carlo Piaggia, who confirms the impression of ritualized conflict involving little real bloodshed:

Only the men go to war, with a few women – the most daring, who do not wish to abandon their husbands and lovers. The others go and hide for fear of becoming the prey of their enemies, should they be victorious . . . . It is rare for the battles to last many hours, or for them to cause much carnage, because as soon as five or six men can be seen dead on the field the fighters run away full of trepidation, and their opponents claim victory. The latter, satisfied by their efforts after this skirmish, return calmly to their villages. (Evans-Pritchard)

In contrast, Piaggia continues, wars against ‘foreign tribes’ were far more ferocious. These, he says, ‘foster the thirst for “vendetta” so far as to make [the Azande] eat the flesh of their dead enemies. Piaggia was a witness to one of these wars, from which comes their reputation for being cannibals.’ Whether the Azande were really habitual cannibals is uncertain. The whole subject remains controversial in anthropological circles, but there is a great deal of evidence that cannibalism did occur among the rainforest tribes further south. Among the Azande this passage is the nearest we have to a first-hand report. However, Piaggia does not explicitly say here that he witnessed acts of cannibalism, merely that he knows how the accusation arose. A few years later Schweinfurth heard the A-Banga, who were relatives and allies of the Azande, taunting Sudanese invaders with ‘the repeated shout, “To the cauldron with the Turks!” rising to the eager climax, “Meat! Meat!”’ Perhaps the closest we can get to the truth is to say that the Azande may have eaten human flesh occasionally as an act of revenge, but that cannibalism was not an established part of their culture. They were no doubt happy to foster their reputation as a psychological weapon against their enemies, especially the Arabs, who for religious reasons attached great importance to the burial of their dead intact.

Against Arabs and Europeans the Azande went to war with the same ruthless attitude as Piaggia describes in their conflicts with other outsiders, in combination with the skirmishing skills learned in their internal conflicts. Several commentators describe their desperate courage and their willingness to accept heavy casualties. In the words of Guy Burrows:

Their courage and pluck are admirable; their contempt for death is supreme. They will stand a fire that is dropping them by dozens, charging time after time until absolutely compelled to retire. Coming upon seven or eight men armed with rifles, they will throw away their own arms and rush their opponents, though they may lose twenty or thirty men in the attempt, knowing that ultimately the rifles will be theirs.

The men interviewed by Evans-Pritchard also provided much fascinating detail on exactly how Azande weaponry was used, and the minor tactics which were employed when two hostile forces clashed at close range:

A battle consisted of individual combats between warriors on either side all along the line and at short range, usually only a few yards separating the combatants, for the spear had to pierce a man’s shield before it could pierce the man . . . . The Zande shield, however, protected two-thirds of the body, and when a man crouched behind it, as he did if a spear or knife was aimed high, his body was fully covered. If the missile came at him low, he jumped into the air with remarkable agility to let it pass under him . . . men have demonstrated to me with old shields or ones I had made for me, how they moved in fighting, and it was a most impressive display in the art of self-defence, in the movements of the body to give the fullest protection of the shield, and in the manipulation of the shield to take the spear or throwing-knife obliquely.

The skirmishing fights typical of internal Azande wars were always accompanied by the shouting of challenges and the names of the kings and princes commanding the various contingents. According to Schweinfurth the fighting would be interrupted by long intervals during which men would climb to the tops of ant-hills and exchange insults. He describes the large basketwork shields of the Azande as ‘so light that they do not in the least impede the combatants in their wild leaps’, and goes on to praise the skill and agility of their users in a much-quoted passage:

Nowhere, in any part of Africa, have I ever come across a people that in every attitude and every motion exhibited so thorough a mastery over all circumstances of war or of the chase as these Niam-niam – other nations in comparison seemed to me to fall short in the perfect ease – I might almost say, in the dramatic grace – that characterized their every movement.

The so-called throwing knife was a characteristic weapon of the region north of the Congo rainforest, from the Sudan in the east to northern Nigeria in the west. It took many different forms, not all of which were suitable for use as missiles, and in many places ‘throwing knives’ seem to have been used for ritual or magical purposes, as status symbols or as currency, rather than as weapons. Among the Azande, however, the multi-bladed knife or kpinga was certainly an effective weapon of war. Nineteenth-century explorers were unfamiliar with this type of artefact, and often had difficulty in describing it for a European readership. Hence Petherick, writing in 1858, refers to ‘singularly-formed iron projectiles, resembling a boomerang of rather a circular form, bearing on their peripheries several sharp projections’ (Petherick, Egypt, 1861). In his report to the Royal Geographical Society in 1860 he also mentions an ‘iron boomerang’ which was designed to return to the thrower’s hand, but this rather unlikely story is probably a misinterpretation based on the visual analogy with the well-known Australian weapon. Schweinfurth calls these throwing weapons ‘trumbashes’, and explains that ‘the trumbash of the Niam-niam consists ordinarily of several limbs of iron, with pointed prongs and sharp edges’. Fortunately we also have detailed drawings by Schweinfurth and others, as well as surviving artefacts in museums, which enable us to reconstruct their appearance accurately.

Evans-Pritchard says of the kpinga that ‘when correctly thrown, one of its several blades was certain to strike the objective squarely, and the sight of the blades circling towards one in the air must have been frightening’. He did not, however, believe that it would have been a particularly effective weapon against a warrior armed with a shield, as the multiple blades would dissipate the impact on the shield and the spinning motion cause it to bounce off. By contrast the early twentieth-century anthropologist Emil Torday speculated, in his account of the Kuba or Bushongo kingdom of southern Congo (which he believed had been founded by an offshoot of the Azande), that throwing knives might have given the newcomers a decisive advantage in battle: ‘all of a sudden, some objects, glistening in the sun as if they were thunderbolts, come whirling with a weird hum through the air. The enemy warriors raise their shields; the shining mystery strikes it, rebounds into the air and returns to the attack; it smites the warrior behind his defence with its cruel blades.’ Torday’s theory of the Azande origin of the Kuba is discounted nowadays, and consequently this passage is usually dismissed as a product of his fertile imagination. But tests carried out with reproduction throwing knives tend to confirm his assessment of their capabilities. In one such test, staged for the Ancient Discoveries television series, the missile did indeed bounce off the top edge of a shield attached to a dummy, but its momentum carried it forward to strike the target in the middle of the forehead with enough force to embed it several inches deep. The psychological impact of the ‘weird hum’, magnified several hundred times as an Azande regiment threw its weapons in unison, may also have been a significant factor.

The amount of metal as well as the skilled craftsmanship required to make a kpinga made it a valuable piece of equipment, and these weapons were usually the property of the ruler, stored in royal arsenals and issued only to regular troops for specific campaigns. Evans-Pritchard was told that before a man hurled a throwing knife he would shout a warning that he was going to do so, because men did not want to risk being accused of throwing them away in panic. Spears seem to have been far more common, and receive far more mentions in battle accounts than throwing knives. In fact Burrows, writing of the 1890s, refers exclusively to spears and shields as ‘the national Azande weapons’. He adds that a single broad-bladed stabbing spear was the usual weapon of the western principalities, while further east lighter throwing spears were favoured, with each man carrying between four and six. Schweinfurth’s symbolic arrow notwithstanding, the Azande did not use bows, which they regarded with contempt as ‘Pygmy weapons’.

In 1858 John Petherick had found that the Azande were completely unfamiliar with firearms, and reacted with terror when he demonstrated his gun by shooting a vulture: ‘before the bird touched the ground, the crowd was prostrate and grovelling in the dust, as if every man of them had been shot’. But they quickly recovered from the shock, and by the time Schweinfurth arrived in 1870 most of the important rulers had at least a small bodyguard of musketeers. Evans-Pritchard’s informants described four different types of gun. The first were muzzle-loading smoothbore flintlocks or ‘biada’, in widespread use among the Arabs in the 1860s and usually acquired from them by trade or capture. Alongside these were ‘orumoturu’, also muzzle-loaders, but using percussion caps rather than flints for ignition. In the mid-1870s the Remington breechloader or ‘sipapoi’ began to make an appearance. This was the standard infantry weapon of the Egyptian army, and was supplied by the Egyptians to friendly princes such as Zemio. Finally there was the ‘abeni’ or Albini. This was a variant of the Snider breech-loader used by the Belgian King Leopold’s Congo Free State forces from the late 1880s, and was captured in large numbers as well as being supplied by the Belgians to friendly princes.

The Remington was invariably the weapon of choice among the Azande, however, partly no doubt because its unique ‘rolling block’ action made it difficult for inexperienced users to burst or jam it. By the 1890s some Azande chiefs even maintained regular units of riflemen, dressed, armed and drilled in European style. The Belgian Lieutenant de Ryhove described Rafai’s small standing army as wearing ‘startling’ white uniforms, and carrying brightly polished rifles (Levering Lewis). He expressed his astonishment that ‘After having encountered so many naked people with heads dressed with plumes, bodies covered with tattoos and rigged out with bizarre or grotesque accoutrements, I was able to see people clothed, armed, disciplined, and manoeuvring with military correctness in the sunshine – and in the very heart of Africa.’ Unfortunately no detailed description of the appearance of such units seems to have survived, but it is likely from the description that the men seen by de Ryhove had been outfitted in surplus Egyptian army equipment.


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