Zulu knobkerries at a museum in Hluhluwe

Zulu knobkerries are wooden clubs with a knob on one end. Together with assegais (throwing spears), they are the symbols of the Zulu nation in South Africa. These two weapons are part of the South African Coat of Arms, introduced in April 2000. Similar versions of such sticks with or without a knob on one end are commonly used in many countries. In Eastern Africa, they are called Rundu. Irish have got a very similar version to a knobkerrie and call them ‘shillelagh’. Americans call them rabbit sticks; for Australians, these are throwing sticks. Knobkerries in various versions are also widely used in all other Nguni nations, like Ndebele, Tsonga, Sotho, and others. However, this article concentrates on Zulu knobkerries, as presented at the Ilala Weavers Museum.

Knobkerrie collection at Ilala Weavers Museum at Hluhluwe, KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa

Functions of a Zulu knobkerrie

Representational function

Initiated Zulu men are allowed to carry a knobkerrie as a kind of status symbol. And in modern times, the Inkatha Freedom Party- as a right-wing Zulu organization – promoted its use at demonstrations for Zulu interests. Knobkerries, shields, and assegais represent the fighting style and success of former king Shaka Zulu.

Walking stick

Based on the representational function, longer knobkerries with a more suitable handle for holding the stick were developed and commonly used by older men. As ‘status sticks’, they are often decorated with either beads or carved ornamentally.

Weapon fur hunting small game and for self-defense

Young Zulu hunters near Hlobane, KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa

Young Zulu men in rural areas like to go hunting in small parties and with lots of dogs. Target animals are Rock Dassies (Procavia capensis) and Cape Porcupines (Hystrix africaeaustralis). And for dispatching these animals, they are using knobkerries.

Executioners tool

Copyright: Daily Mail Online

The ’Daily Mail Online’, published in January 2014, shows Zulu weapons used at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879. On the left side of the picture is a knobkerrie with a very short handle used for smashing the cranium of enemy soldiers. The other two versions of knobkerries in the middle are status sticks for representation.

Knobkerrie collection at ‘Ilala Weavers Museum’

The Sutton family has been trading Zulu handcrafts since the early 1970s and has collected original Zulu knobkerries over this period. They present these to the public at their ‘Ilala Weaver Museum’ at Hluhluwe. The museum is more of a sales showroom of fine original handcrafts but contains a variety of museum-grade artifacts, one of which is the Knobkerrie collection. For a link to this museum, see here.

I asked the attendant if it would be possible to take photos of these knobkerries and measure them. She agreed, and the results are shown in the following table. Knobkerrie numbers were counted from left to right of the photos.

Measurement table of Knobkerrie collection

Pic.: Measurements of original Zulu knobkerries at Ilala Weavers Museum, Hluhluwe, KwaZulu-Natal, South-Africa

As can be seen in the table, Zulu knobkerries, for representation purposes, have got a total length of about 74cm (2.4ft), got a knob diameter of about 5,5cm (2.2’’), and a shaft diameter is normally 2cm (0.8’’).

Knobkerries used as walking sticks are longer – about 1m (3.2ft) long – and have the same shaft diameter. And knobkerries for hunting and self-defense are on average 82cm (2.7ft) long and got the same shaft diameters, but got a heavier knob, which is on average 7,2cm (2.8’’) wide.

Considerable differences from these three applications are Zulu knobkerries for clubbing/executing enemies. They are max. 60cm (1.97ft) long, but got a stronger handle and a big, hefty knob. In our example, it has a diameter of 10,5cm (4.1’’).

Lessons learned about Zulu knobkerries at Ilala Weavers Museum at Hluhluwe:

  • Short, stumpy knobkerries with a heavy knob were used for executions.
  • Long, slender ones, often decorated intrinsically, are used as walking sticks or for representation purposes.
  • Representation- or status sticks are often carved or decorated with glass beads.
  • Knobkerries as a work tool for hunting or self-defense are typically about 82cm (2.7ft) long, got a knob with abt. 7,2cm (2.8’’) diameter and handle thickness of 2cm (0.8’’).

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