Assegai from South Africa. Collector not known. Purchased by the Museum from Ipswich Museum in 1966.
The Zulu produced at least 20 different types of spear. Perhaps the best known of these is the assegai, which was also used by several other Nguni groups in Southern Africa. It was a throwing spear (javelin) as can be seen from the narrow, leaf-shaped blade and long, slender tapering shaft. The conventional assegai, such as this one, is light and around 1.8m long (as tall as a man). In the hand of a skilled thrower, its range was 60-70m. Several assegai were carried in the left hand, behind the shield, and thrown one by one, prior to charging.
As the Zulu nation expanded, the warrior-leader Shaka (c.1787-1828) ordered all assegai be returned to the smiths to be melted down and re-forged into a new type of stabbing spear, iklwa, which had a shorter shaft and broader, more triangular blade. Under Shaka's successor, Dingaan, the throwing spear was reinstated and ultimately the two types of spear were used together in combat to good effect.
The composition of these weapons, added to the warrior's skill in using them, helped the Zulu become a potent military force; Zulu iron usually contained significant quantities of charcoal from the smelting process, so the finished blades possessed some steel-like qualities in terms of durability, resistance to rust, and the ability to keep a hard edge or point.