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The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation Under Shaka and Its Fall in the Zulu War of 1879
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The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation Under Shaka and Its Fall in the Zulu War of 1879

4.24  ·  Rating Details ·  694 Ratings  ·  61 Reviews
Filled with colorful characters, dramatic battles like Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift, and an inexorable narrative momentum, this unsurpassed history details the sixty-year existence of the world's mightiest African empire; from its brutal formation and zenith under the military genius Shaka , through its inevitable collision with white expansionism, to its dissolution unde ...more
Paperback, 655 pages
Published August 22nd 1998 by Da Capo Press (first published 1965)
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Aug 22, 2008 Matt rated it it was amazing
I first read The Washing of the Spears when I was twelve years old. I know this because the inscription in my battered, dog-eared, self-annotated copy reads: "1992 Nov. 18 day cast on (r) thumb, love mom". See, I had broken my thumb at recess, playing a variation of soccer in which you could catch the ball in your hands and either run with it or punt it. If you ran, you got tackled. It was an incredibly fun, incredibly violent mash-up of soccer, rugby, and football, and of course could never be ...more
'Aussie Rick'

I have a 1965 copy of this great book and I don't think that there has been a better account of the rise & fall of the Zulu nation. This is one of the best accounts of how the Zulu nation become one of the most feared in Africa under Shaka and how it fell to ruin under Cetshwayo during the war with England in 1879. A great read that has not aged in these 30 odd years. This book has been the standard that all others have been compared to since its publication. It's one of my all time favourit
Mar 28, 2009 Jason rated it really liked it
I am pleased to say, The Washing of the Spears long held reputation as a classic of military history is well earned. Morris was an American naval officer in the 40s and a CIA agent when he wrote this work of immense quality and deep scholarship. Of course, much of the material is dated, but that cannot detract from its accomplishment. To this day, many refer to it as the seminal work on the Anglo-Zulu Wars. No doubt, that is as much a tribute to the quality of the narrative prose as it is to th ...more
If you ever saw the 1964 film "Zulu" (with a very young Michael Caine) you'll remember the siege of Rorke's Drift--- a great set-piece of cinema. And a grand depiction of a battle. I saw the film long ago, and then sought out books on the Zulu Wars. "The Washing of the Spears", forty-odd years since it first appeared, is very much a classic. It's old-school writing: blood-and-thunder, individual bravery, grand scenes. And surprisingly sensitive and sympathetic to the Zulu, while still understand ...more
Jun 26, 2009 Michael rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: military, history
I don't know why, but I'm fascinated by the Zulus and their encounter with European civilization. The book's beginning and end are really strong, while the in-between plods.

The beginning details the arrival of the Zulus and the Europeans in southern Africa. The situation he describes is different than the standard colonization narrative. According to the author, the arrival in mass of the Bantu -- of which the Zulu were a small clan -- in what was to prove the southernmost reaches of Zululand wa
Apr 20, 2008 James rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Read earlier edition in the late 80s after visiting parents in Gaborone in 1983. The Zulu history written in James Mitchener's The Covenant and this book match, as well as the incident depicted in the films Zulu ( and Zulu Dawn ( It is rare that a historical event/period is portrayed so accurately in two books AND two movies. I recommend both books and films if anyone is interested in the Zulu wars. The television film Shaka Zulu> (http://qurl.c ...more
Stephen Hughes
Jul 27, 2012 Stephen Hughes rated it really liked it
If you only read one chapter of this book, make sure it's the one about the defense of Rorke's Drift. Awesome. then watch the movie Zulu.
I am having a really hard time in rating this book. First - I am not a fan of non-fiction books really so trying to judge this in comparison to other books (the main way I rate books if the rating doesn't immediately come to me) is not fair as my bases of comparison is fictional works. Second - I stopped reading this book for .... four months or so because it was so... *yawn*. So... yeah.

There are parts of this that are really good (although it is certainly not up to the same standard as other
Mar 30, 2014 Chris rated it really liked it
4.5 stars.

This book is a huge surprise. Written in the mid 1960s, it manages to maintain a careful and objective attitude towards both sides of a confused situation. Morris pulls no punches, in addressing either the Zulus or the British, and this equal opportunity critical analysis makes this a very impressive read.

Covering the history of Natal and the Zulu nation from the 17th century until the end of the 19th century, this book is an exhaustive yet very engaging chronicle of a war started deli
Thomas Isern
Dec 31, 2014 Thomas Isern rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: world-history
Dated, but classic. It seems to hold high regard for being a page-turner, full of bloody action and human interest. It is, too, worthy of thoughtful reading by anyone interested in racial conflicts on colonial frontiers.

A half-century on, of course, The Washing of the Spears lacks some of the sensibilities and approaches of our oh-so-sophisticated twenty-first century. There is, for instance, once you get to the core conflict recounted in the book, no hint of Zulu agency. Zulus just swarm like b
Jeni Enjaian
Dec 06, 2012 Jeni Enjaian rated it liked it
A review from my old blog...

I give a warning at the beginning. This is a book for history nerds only. :D

While this book took me quite some time to read (because of the enormous length--614 pages--and because of Election Day interruptions) I enjoyed the book.

At the same time it was quite a chore to read. The only reason that the book seemed to make sense to me was because I took a class on the history of Africa and watched a video of the battle that took nearly three hundred pages to recount... o
Jun 26, 2012 Matt rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
This was an excellent book. It is divided into two parts, as mentioned in the title. The first part starts slow and is meticulously researched and details the history and evolution of the Zulu empire and the tribal politics associated with the successors to Shaka. The book picks up with the depiction of the Zulu War and the movements in each battle are thoroughly detailed and explained. I really enjoyed it, particularly the chapter on Rorke's Drift
Bryan Reed
Jun 16, 2009 Bryan Reed rated it it was amazing
I always love it when history books are page turners. Morris tells the entire story of the Zulus, from their unification under Shaka to the British invasion and finally their fall under Dinuzulu. Isandlwana and Roarke's Drift are covered in detail as is the entire campaign leading up to the Battle of Ulundi.
Feb 22, 2013 Mark rated it really liked it
An incrediably detailed and well researched account of the rise and fall of the Zulu Empire. Many chapters, especially the opening of the 1879 War where Morris focuses on individuals and narrates events from their perspective read like an adventure novel from the Victorian era. For me this book brought this period of history to life and I found the book a page turner.
Jonnie Enloe
Aug 21, 2011 Jonnie Enloe rated it it was amazing
you really cannot put this book down if this subject interests you at all. Read before the Boer War.
Sheds light on British history of oppression among "more ignorant" peoples of the world. The Zulu nation proves it's metal and is not defeated because of it's lack of command, tactics or bravery.
Oct 01, 2015 Jim marked it as unfinished
Shelves: war, history
I think I read the Shaka part of this in the 2000's.
Holly Haze
Jan 21, 2017 Holly Haze rated it liked it
This was a tough read for me. I'm not much for historical pieces but this book came highly recommended to me by someone quite special. So I went out of my comfort zone and instead of reading for pleasure, I read for basic knowledge. I don't regret that decision; however, I probably will stick with what I like best. With that being said, I did learn a lot. It's not that I was ignorant to other cultures and societies, but I will say I was naïve. It was really quite interesting to see how certain t ...more
Christopher Saunders
Despite the title this book is more a panoramic history of South Africa up to 1879, focusing on the Zulus, Boers and British about equally. Morris presents a staggering wealth of information, crafting a remarkable narrative with incredible scope and sociological detail. Morris provides incredibly vivid vignettes of his protagonists: Shaka, Cesthawayo, Colonel Durnford, Lord Chelmsford, France's Prince Imperial, etc. His digressive style allows for fascinating detours: discussion of Bishop Colens ...more
Feb 17, 2008 Bap rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Aug 04, 2013 M rated it it was amazing
Wow. This is the only book you'll ever need on the rise and fall of the Zulu nation. Incredibly well researched and a very in depth review of both sides of the conflict, the events leading up to the clash of two civilizations, and the aftermath. Each individual who plays a part gets their own little biography explaining how they got to southern Africa and how they came who they were. So much focus on the bit players will occasionally make you feel like your missing the forest for the trees, but ...more
Feb 10, 2017 David rated it really liked it
This is a well written and researched history of the Zulu Nation. I found it completely engrossing and difficult to put down.
This book was up and down for me. The parts that were good, were very good. But I actually had to put it down a few times because the lulls(to me) dragged on. I will say that I learned a lot. Shaka Zulu was not at all the person I thought him to be. I thought he was a hero of sorts... Far from it. But there was a lot of subject matter I just had no interest in. All in all... If I cut about 150 pages (it's 600+ pages of actual text) outta the book, I would have enjoyed it more. But I can see how ...more
Rogue Reader
Apr 02, 2011 Rogue Reader rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel-africa
The Washing of the Spears is a dense, deliberate read, so if you plan to read this book, schedule it well in advance. It took me about 3 months to read The Washing of the Spears - every day 40 or 60 pages at a time, with an atlas of the continent in hand. The tribal cultures of African peoples, the inevitable conflict among native peoples for scarce resources and then between native peoples and colonials, the unstopable progression of colonialism throughout South Africa was hypnotic. I'm sure th ...more
Dec 08, 2012 Riley rated it liked it
I was very impressed by this book when I first read it in the 1970s. In recent years I spent a month traveling around South Africa, and read the excellent Frontiers by Noel Mostert, and South Africa: a narrative history by Frank Welsh. I recently reread The Washing of the Spears, about 40 years later, and found it tough going. There is too much background and detailed unneeded early biography of many people in the story, and complex geographical description, with more, and more detailed, maps so ...more
Feb 08, 2013 Tiffany rated it really liked it
I had to read this book for my African History class, so I expected it to be horrible and boring, but it is actually really interesting! Morris goes into a lot of detail, so the book is really long, but it is not difficult to read at all. Much of the book is written almost like a novel, with all of the interesting bits expounded on and the boring stuff briefly mentioned. This is not a book that you have to really be into history to enjoy, and you don't have to be a highly educated reader either ...more
Dec 08, 2007 Nocheevo rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: the thin red line
Shelves: history, war
A dense brick sized tome covering the history of the zulu nation, from cattle rearers to the military reforms of Shaka and expansion until the clash with Victorian England. Its a thorough story in small print detail that highlights that colonial wars often had just as interesting political triggers as the clash of European nations.

Stylistically this is an old school history book, full of names and facts without much flare which can make some sections cumbersome if the reader isn't in the mood.
Sam Fleming
It's almost impossible to review this book except to say that this is dense. This book packs in more information for the word count than any book I've read before or since. It sits somewhere in a heavy lump in the depths of my memory and lurches a bit every time "Zulu" comes on the TV.

As a history of the period, I can't imagine anything more thorough. This is not, however, light bedtime reading. I could only manage a bit at a time, then had to take a break to digest it before tackling the next s
Feb 14, 2008 Michael rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: history buffs
As the title says, describes how Shaka forged a nation out of the soup of Bantu tribes in Southern Africa.

Great descriptions of the catastrophic battle of Isandlwana and the defense Rourke's Drift. In the former, 20,000 Zulus overwhelmed a British force of about 550 regulars and the same number of native and European levies. In the latter, 139 British soldiers held off 4-5000 Zulu warriors.

Well-written but covers several decades and one sometimes loses track of who is who.
Jan 20, 2013 Manny rated it it was amazing
Shelves: general-history
One of the best accounts of European Imperialism in Africa. Along with "King Leopold's Ghost", it exposes how disastrous the ideal of Social Darwinism was on the treatment of native Africans. Morris's account describes in detail all sides of the events in the history of the Zulu nation. Historically well researched, the story flows with fascinating personalities and riveting descriptions of conflicts and dilemmas. A must read for African and military historians.
A very detailed and definitive history of the Zulu war. It's an extraordinarily long and challenging read, but a valuable one for anyone interested in history, specifically of the Zulu's, and early Southern Africa. The details of Zulu customs and living, as well as the personal stories of those involved in the war, were personal highlights of the book, and what kept me reading this enormous story.
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Born 11 November, 1924, to S. Fred and Vera D. Morris of New York City. Graduated Horace Mann School for Boys, 1942 and US Naval Academy, 1948. Active naval service from 1942 until 1956; retired as Lieutenant Commander. CIA field officer in Soviet counterespionage from 1956 until 1972 in Berlin, Paris, Kinshasa and Vietnam. Houston resident since 1972; Houston Post foreign affairs columnist from 1 ...more
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