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Warrior guide - African

Warriors, in all their forms, are incredibly diverse in terms of how they fight battles, their weapons of choice, their training regimes, and so on. This can make for a great source of inspiration for your own fictional warriors or armies, no matter whether you're running a tabletop game, writing a book, or creating something else entirely. However, some warriors are often overlooked, which is a shame as they could offer the exact element you might be missing. So, in this series of guides I'll go over many of those warriors, as well as the well known ones, in an attempt to create a light, but fairly comprehensive collection of warriors found throughout our human history.

In this first part I'll cover many of the African warriors, but note that this list will by no means be comprehensive. Some warriors will be left out due to a lack of available information, some will be covered in future guides, and some might be either left out or merged with others due to their similarities. That being said, I definitely try to include as many as possible, and I'm always happy to learn more. So if I'm missing one you think should be part of this list, feel free to send me a message.

Note that I will focus mostly on warrior groups (armies, legions, tribes, etc.), not on individual, famous warriors (they'll be covered in future guides), and only on those from our more distant history (up to the start of the 20th century). More modern ones will be covered in a future guide.

Ajuran Sultanate

Active around:
- 13th - 17th century

Strengths and/or special features:
- Powerful navy
- Used mamlukes (slave soldiers)
- Built castles

The Ajuran Sultanate was an empire in what's now Somalia, which dominated the Indian Ocean trade, and were able to control the amount of water flowing through the Shebelle and Jubba rivers other nations depended on, allowing them to settle rather than be nomadic.

Ajuran armies were manned mostly by mamlukes, which are essentially slave soldiers. But they were equipped with a wide range of weapons, which were later strengthened by the additions of firearms and cannons thanks to the Ottoman empire. Thanks to its water supplies and their focus on building forts, castles, walls, and other strong structures, horses could also be raised within their lands, something many other African nations couldn't do.

Once the Portuguese and the Ajuran came into conflict, the Ajuran managed to defeat them after first losing Barawa, their wealthy trade city, which they later reconquered and rebuilt. Decades of tensions on the sea later, the Portuguese attempted to destroy Mogadishu, the richest city in Africa at the time, and they sent João de Sepúvelda, a very capable naval commander, to do the job with 30 large naval fleets. The Ajuran coastal guard spotted them, sent word out to naval commander Ahmed Dheere, who sent a counter naval expedition. They destroyed 24 of the Portuguese fleets, which also caused the death of João. The other 6 fleets continued, but were blown to pieces by the cannons of the Mogadishu towers.

Ancient Egyptians

Active around:
- 2181BC - 31 BC

Strengths and/or special features:
- Long lasting empire that withstood conflicts from many sides, often at the same time.
- Used chariots, like other powers at the time, but improved them.
- Military hierarchy and specific military units

The Ancient Egyptians' primary weapon was initially the bow and arrow. At first they used single-arched bows, but once they learned about the composite bow around 1500 BC, they quickly made this their main weapon of choice. It allowed them to fire at and kill enemies as far as 180 meters (600 ft.). Other than the bow, they mainly used short swords, spears and axes, and their armor, if any, consisted of nothing more than leather tunics.

A big change happened when the Egyptians learned of the chariot, which they then perfected to fit their needs. This, in combination with their bows and arrows, allowed for quick attacks from a distance.
More changes came during the later, New Kingdom periods. Improved bronze casting techniques led to better weapons and armor, and across their history, the Egyptians had more and more organized armies. They even had a great navy, complete with knowledge of naval maneuvers.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the Ancient Egyptians was their lack of innovation. The composite bow, the chariot, and many other changes in their military came from outside, rather than from within.


Active around:
- 1670-1957 (Is now Ghana)

Strengths and/or special features:
- At one point led by Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa
- Incredible bravery
- Fought guns and artillery with bows and spears

The Ashanti weren't particularly special as far as warrior abilities or developments go, but they were a brave and proud people who, at one point, controlled large parts of what is now Ghana and Ivory Coast. They initially fought with spears and bows, like most of Africa at the time, but they were one of the earlier adopters of firearms. This adoption came too late for many however, as the Anglo-Ashanti wars claimed many lives when the British Empire annexed the Ashanti territories, as well as during the wars that errupted as a result. The Ashanti could initially only fight back with bows and spears while the British had guns and artillery. Nevertheless, the Ashanti fought on and did well, in large thanks to Yaa Asantewaa who called upon the pride and bravery of her people to rally more troops and keep morale high. In the end the British were victorious, but only after having to increase their number of troops, and at the cost of a great number of casualties on both sides.


Active around:
- Up until the end of the 19th century

Strengths and/or special features:
- Used huge war canoes

Not a whole lot is known about the Ganda's origins or the Kingdom of Baganda's origins, but when it was discovered for the first time by Europeans, their accounts state the kingdom was strong and advanced, with a troop capability of over 125,000. How true those accounts are is perhaps debatable, but war canoes were definitely used, which is my biggest focus point for this section.

War canoes weren't unique to the Baganda, but they did have some of the biggest. Canoes over 20 meters long, carved from a single tree and capable of carrying over 100 men, as well as equipment like cooking hearths and storage compartments have been described, but even these weren't unique to Baganda either. These canoes proved efficient enough against colonialists, at least at first, as they were far more effective in the shallower in-land waters than colonial ships were.


Active around:
- 650 BC - 146 BC

Strengths and/or special features:
- Commanded by Hannibal Barca from 221BC
- Powerful navy
- Used war elephants

The Carthaginian army was one of the biggest of the ancient world, but bigger isn't always better. The main strength of the Carthaginian army was their navy, which was manned entirely by Carthaginian citizens. Its army, on the other hand, was manned by mercenaries. Mercenaries in this case means both those paid for their services, as well as armies sent from allies and dependencies as dictated by treaties.
The Carthaginians used a wide range of units from light to heavy troops, war elephants to chariots, as well as various siege engines.

The Carthaginians adapted and learned from their enemies, but didn't always do so for the better. For example, because they knew the Romans had far superior infantry, they would initially meet them on uneven terrain to try and diminish that advantage. However, this also meant their elephants and chariots weren't all that useful, which are the two elements that helped break up the Romans once they eventually figured this out.

Ultimately the Romans were the ones to end Carthage, both the city and the civilization. Despite Roman allies joining the Carthaginians after a few of their victories, the Romans proved too capable and took everything back and more.

Dahomey Amazons (also known as Mino, meaning "Our Mothers")

Active around:
- 1600-1894 (Is now Benin)

Strengths and/or special features:
- All-female regiment
- Also had a prominent role in the Grand Council
- Fought with guns

The Dahomey Amazons, as they were called by Europeans and other outsiders, were an all-female regiment in the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey. They were initially recruited by their king, Houegbadja, as a corps of elephant hunters, but later became bodyguards armed with muskets when Houegbadja's son, Agaja, reigned. Agaja then developed them further into a militia, who were used with success during the defeat of their neighboring kingdom of Savi.

The Dahomey Amazons called themselves Ahosi, meaning "King's Wives", but they were also referred to as Mino, meaning "Our Mothers". The Mino underwent rigorous training, which included learning to deal with pain and death. Their more aggressive traits were honed, and those part of the Mino were not allowed to have children or to get married.
They did have a high status in their society however, and often possessed some wealth. They even became part of the Grand Council, which gave them a great amount of influence over their kingdom.

According to some visitors, the Mino made up about a third of the army, with numbers going as high as 6000 Mino in total. Some accounts say each male soldier had a female counterpart though, but others say the Mino were under female command and worked more as a parallel unit to the army as a whole.


Active around:
- 19th & 20th century, but still exist today in Tanzania

Strengths and/or special features:
- Society revolved around the military to a large extent
- Managed to keep the Germans at bay for years at the end of the 19th century
- Fought guns with spears

Not a whole lot is known about the HeHe, most of what is known comes from German occupational forces at the end of the 19th century. Since the Germans and the HeHe were opposing forces, those sources should probably be taken with a grain of salt too. What is for sure though, is that the HeHe were a powerful force to be reckoned with.
Their eventual ruler, Mwkawa, was described by the historian, professor John Iliffe, as being "slender, sharply intelligent, brutal, and cruel with a praise-name of the madness of the year".

The HeHe ruled their lands through war, intimidation, and always with the prospect of conquering more and more. This eventually led to the Germans, who were keen on conquering parts of Africa themselves, to become their main enemies.
The Germans were far better organized and equipped, which some HeHe recognized. Those who did recognize the German supremacy were quickly destroyed in brutal ways by other HeHe though.

While the HeHe did possess a few guns, they favored their spears. It brought them a unity that strengthened their army as a whole, as anybody could join them and be part of their glory.

The biggest military achievement was defeating a superior Germany. A commander Zelewski led an expedition and was given the go-ahead to attack and conquer HeHe lands. He had with him 13 Europeans, 320 Askaris (African mercenary), 170 porters, machine guns and field artillery. The HeHe numbered in the several 100's at least, but the total amount of HeHe at the time across their lands were in the thousands.
While the Germans did manage to burn down a few villages, scare of the HeHe that resided their with a few gun shots, and kill 3 tribal warriors, they eventually met a large group of waiting HeHe. In an attempt to scare them off like they did during the previous encounters, a German officer shot a bird. The HeHe charged, the Askaris fired shots, but, due to a long reload time, their rifles were useless against a large amount of warriors.
After a chaotic battle, the Germans eventually retreated. They came back eventually, but it took years before they conquered the region, and it wasn't until 1898 that relative peace was brought to the region.

Impi (Zulu Warrior)

Active around:
- Peaked around the mid 19th century, but still exist today.

Strengths and/or special features:
- Went from ritualistic combat to savage, coordinated warfare under king Shaka
- Used psychological warfare
- Trained from an early age, as young as 6 years old

The rise and fall of the Impi, at least the highly successful ones, happened relatively quickly. While the term Impi was used for any tribal warfare fighters, it wasn't until Shaka was able to implement changes that things really took off for the Impi.
Before Shaka, battles were usually fought relatively ritualistically. A place and time were arranged, the men fought while the women and children watched, not many people got injured or died, and the losers paid cattle or land or something else. But in the 19th century some men became more ambitious, populations were rising steadily, and ritualistic battles just didn't do anymore.

Shaka was one of those men who, after having been restrained in how much he could change as a subordinate, was able to drastically change how wars were fought in his corner of the world. Shaka introduced new weapons in the form of a shorter, close quarter spear and larger shields, he utilized encircling techniques, discarded sandals so they could run faster, drilled his warriors extensively and from a young age, and organized his army in a more structured way. None of these are particularly new in the world and existed in Africa at the time as well, but the combination of everything proved very successful.
On a side note, the discarding of sandals wasn't a popular idea, but those who disagreed were killed, so opinions obviously changed quickly.

The impi's downfall was, somewhat ironically, their refusal to change their way of fighting. The successes of Shaka's methods were mostly against other African warriors, but once European colonists came with firearms, their methods of charing in large groups just made them easy targets.


Active around:
- 1390-1857 (sovereign), but still exist today.

Strengths and/or special features:
- Specialized soldiers
- Used logistics and battle formations
- Used allied forces

The Kingdom of Kongo was a very successful kingdom with a well organized military compared to many other nations in Africa. While their army was initially made up mostly of volunteers, they had many specialized fighters and a core of dedicated soldiers for any given time. For example, they had specialized scouting units who could run with and keep up with horses, they had lighter and heavier units, which mostly translated to those who would dodge incoming spears and arrows, and those who had shields and defensive weapons.

Battle formations and maneuvers were also used, as well as allies who would fight in their own style to maximize their potential. A battle was often initiated with a rush of strong and brave warriors, who would fire a few arrows while closing in the distance, before switching to close quarters combat and weapons. Meanwhile, with these first rushers keeping the enemy busy, other formations would try to outflank the enemy army and strike their vulnerable positions.

After 1600, a draft was also implemented, but not all draftees would fight. Those who didn't carry a weapon would instead carry supplies, many women were part of this too.
But despite their relatively good organization, their main weapon was the bow and arrow, which ultimately played parts in their loss against European colonists, their metal armor eventually proved too strong an opponent.

Photo by Walther Dobbertin


Active around:
- Peaked during the mid 19th century, but they still exist today

Strengths and/or special features:
- Feared for their reputation
- Fought with spears, shields and, most noticeably, throwing clubs.

The Maasai people originated from the lower Nile Valley, but migrated to what is now Tanzania during the 17th and 18th century. During their migration and settlement, they conquered large amounts of lands. Unfortunately, due to severe droughts and outbreaks of diseases among people and lifestock alike, many Maasai died at the end of the 19th century, and this was also the time European colonialists started to expand their reach in Africa. Thanks to treaties in 1904 and 1911, the Maasai lost 60 percent of their land under relatively peaceful circumstances, but their land was never returned to them.

At their peak, however, the Maasai were feared and known for their use of orinka, a type of throwing club. It's shaped a little like a pipe, but the round end is obviously not hollow, but solid wood instead. They could accurately hit a target from 100 meters (330 ft) away.

Mandinka (during the Mali Empire)

Active around:
- 1230-1610

Strengths and/or special features:
- Early adopters of iron
- Organized, hierarchal military backed by a wealthy government

The Mali Empire was an incredibly wealthy and successful empire in West Africa. It was also a major trade hub, it contained three huge gold mines, and Mansa Musa, the leader during the peak of the Mali Kingdom, taxed everything that went in and out of the country, which was primarily gold, copper and salt.

The military was well organized and is similar to the feudal system of the Middle Ages. The army was divided into 2 parts: the North and South. They were lead by 2 men who were part of 16 men in total, called the ton-ta-jon-ta-ni-woro (16 slave carriers of quiver), who were elite cavalry commanders. They in turn commanded farari (meaning "brave men"), who in turn had infantry officers below them, who in turn led free troops and slaves alike.

The entire army, which was said to consist of 100,000 men (10,000 of whom were cavalry) at one point, were able to mobilise quickly and effectively to defend the empire's borders. This was often done with the help of river clans, who would use war canoes to transport troops along the waterways.

The strength of the Mandinka obviously came from their numbers and wealth. Their wealth and early adoption of iron allowed them to be superior in terms of weaponry, which varied widely. Their main weapon was definitely the bow and arrow though. They often used poison-tipped arrows, as well as flaming arrows for siege battles.


Active around:
- 1850-1905, but they still exist today in Nandi County, Kenya.

Strengths and/or special features:
- Adapted fairly easily to new circumstances.
- Use of sneaky tactics
- History full of betrayal

The story of the Nandi is quite an ironic one. During the 1850s the Nandi people first encountered Arab caravans. Regardless of the intentions of the Arabs, the Nandi often raided these caravans as they were easy targets full of goods from the coastal regions. The Arabs did have firearms however, but this didn't prove all that difficult to overcome. The Nandi would simply rush them in numbers, drop themselves to the ground when the Arabs fired at the them, and then continue to rush while the Arabs took too long to reload their weapons.

The Arabs tried all sorts of techniques to make peace with the Nandi, but the Nandi would abuse this trust to lure the Arabs out. Inviting them to trade, escorting them down the wrong path under the guise of safe passage, and other tactics were used by the Nandi to lure the Arabs into a false sense of security, only so they could ambush the Arabs during the night. Eventually the Arabs set up fortified stations, which, after also humiliating the Nandi in several ways, brought relative stability. The Nandi eventually had enough of this of course, and charged an Arab fort. The Arabs, somehow without bullets, were defeated and gave up on the Nandi region.

Not too much further into the future came the British colonists. Their conflict was hostile from 1890 onward, after a period of relative peace, or at the very least very little encounters.
The irony of the Nandi's story comes in at the end of this conflict. Col. Richard Meinertzhagen called for a peace meeting with the leader of the Nandi, Koitalel Arap Samoei. With 21 others, Koitalel met Richard and extended his hand to meet Richard's when they met. As soon as he did, Richard's men shot Koitalel. Before this happened, Koitalel had been warned extending his hand would show he was the leader, but the Nandi were too cocky thanks to their successes against the Arabs and neighbouring tribes, which made them believe they'd overcome these British invaders as well.


Active around:
- 2500 BC - 640 AD

Strengths and/or special features:
- Renowned archers
- Used horses, chariots and elephants
- Fast horses

The Kingdom of Kush in Nubia started out in what today is Sudan and South Sudan, but the earliest mentions of the Nubian region date back to 2500 BC. It wasn't the Kingdom of Kush back then, but Nubian territories were definitely explored and conquered during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2050 BC - 1710 BC), and the Egyptians quickly referred to these lands as Ta-Seti, meaning "Land of the Bow".

The Nubians and Kushite alike were renowned for their archers by more than just the Egyptians, but the Egyptians used the Nubians in their armies to great effect. However, at one point in time the Kingdom of Kush took control of Egypt, which saw the rule of Kushite pharaohs for over 70 years during Egypts 25th dynasty, before being conquered again.

Nubians were also a huge hurdle for Arabs and the spread of Islam. For the first 6 centuries AD, Muslim forces were always kept at bay by the Nubian arrows, but would ultimately manage to conquer Egypt in 642. The Nubian cavalry was also largely to thank for this, as, despite the quality of the Muslim horses, the Nubian horse riders could outrun them.


Active around:
- 1820-1918

Strengths and/or special features:
- Irregular army consisting of mercenaries.

The term ruga-ruga dates back to when there was a Nyamwezi-chieftain, named Mirambo, who had taken control of parts of Southeast Africa during the time when trade and slavery became more and more prominent as non-African colonists reached further and further into Africa. Mirambo took control of his region with the help of armed followers, who called themselves ruga-ruga, who in reality were mostly orphaned teenagers armed with firearms Mirambo had gained through his trade caravans.

Ruga-ruga was later used as a term to describe all similar armed forces, who were essentially mercenaries of some sorts. They often consisted of former slaves, former porters, and anybody else without a home or purpose in life.

Unlike the askari, who were usually part of the actual army they were hired by, the ruga-ruga were usually irregular, meaning they were more of a side unit. They were used by western colonial forces and African forces alike, and often also trained by whoever hired them. So there was a lot of variation among those who might be referred to as ruga-ruga as well.


Active around:
- 1779-1879, but the Xhosa people still exist today.

Strengths and/or special features:
- Managed to keep European settlers at bay for 100 years

The Xhosa of the mid to late 17th century had established themselves well in South Africa, and, despite inner conflicts and conflicts with neighbors, lived in relative peace. The Dutch were the first Europeans to encounter the Xhosa when they sought to take more and more land after their initial construction of a trade port. The first war happened in 1779, which was a relatively small dispute over alleged cattle theft, but it did mark the start of a conflict that would last 100 years.

While the Xhosa don't stand out as warriors in terms of their use of weaponry, tactics, or other attributes, their 100 year war with the Dutch, the Brits, and at times even with themselves does reflect their tenacity and endurance.
They fought mostly with bows and arrows, as well as spears and shields, but later used firearms as well.

Throughout their 100 years of conflict they fought the Dutch, their Zulu neighbors, the Brits, themselves at times, and they had various results of success and failure. Their biggest downfall was perhaps their own belief. A young prophetess named Nongqawuse foretold the Xhosa's ancestors would return from the dead to drive away the Europeans, and they would bring with them countless animals, food and clothing, as well as give back youth to the elderly. But the dead would only do this if the Xhosa gave up all their means of sustenance. At first nobody believed her, but one chief did begin killing his cattle and burning his crops, which led to others following him. The ancestors didn't come, and famine and disease struck soon after. This gave the colonists the upper hand, but the conflict would last for 20 more years, albeit with moments of relative peace.

Zande Warrior

Active around:
- Peaked around the 19th century, but still exist today.

Strengths and/or special features:
- Experienced in battle due to constant conquests
- Used psychological warfare
- Believed in witchcraft

The Azande, which is the plural of Zande in their language, are a people in what is today South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Azande means "people who possess much land", which was definitely true at their peak. Part of their success lies with their constant conquests, which were in turn fueled by how a king was succeeded. After a king died, his sons would fight over the right to reign. The losers would often seek out control of neighboring lands, and so the reach of the Azande grew and grew.

The Azande didn't wear armor, and they fought with rounded shields, spears and curved swords, all of which usually had iron parts, but their most standout feature was the way they used psychological warfare to intimidate their enemies. Besides the brutal ways they would finish off their opponents, like throwing their curved swords at the legs of those who ran away before stabbing them in their guts to finish them off, the Azande warriors also supposedly sharpened their teeth to fuel the idea that they were cannibals. Whether they truly were cannibals is debatable, but colonists did refer to the Azande as Niam-Niam, which is both an onomatopoeia and a Dinka word meaning "great eaters", which supposedly referred to their cannibalistic traits as well.

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