Page 377. " their first sighting of a Zulu impi "
King Shaka 1824
Public DomainKing Shaka 1824 - Credit: James King

An impi is a Zulu word for any armed body of men.  It originates in historic tribal warfare, where groups of armed men called impis battled one another.  The term if commonly associated with the rise of the Zulu nation under Shaka. 

Shaka was a gifted warrior and war strategist.  He introduced a number of innovations to the traditional Zulu fighting style, including use of a short stabbing spear, rather than the traditional throwing assegai, the use of a larger, stronger shield, and barefoot fighting to improve speed.  As King, he introduced a far more systematic and brutal approach to warfare, that quickly saw massive consolidation of Zulu power.  By the time of Shaka's assassination in 1828, the Zulu kingdom was the greatest power in southern Africa.

Zulu warrior
Public DomainZulu warrior - Credit: Sir Robert Baden-Powell
Impi warriors were trained as early as age six, joining the army first as porters, serving their fathers and brothers on campaigns. At the appropriate age they would become cadets, and enter formal training, until they were formally enlisted by the king. In wartime, the Zulu soldier went into battle minimally dressed, painting his upper body and face with chalk and red ochre.  Shaka’s warriors often wore elaborate plumes and cow tail regalia.

Any grouping of men on a mission could collectively be called an impi.  The size of the impi might range from 40 to 40,000, depending on the purpose of the mission and the number of soldiers available.  The Zulu impi at which defeated the British at Isandhlwana numbered 40,000 men. 

Zulu Warriors 1836
Public DomainZulu Warriors 1836 - Credit: Nathaniel Isaacs