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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Bowie Knives in Africa

Because the majority of 19th-century bowie knives were mass produced in Sheffield, England,  it is not surprising that they were exported to various parts of the British Empire, as well as the United States. In the course of my research I came across several references to the use of the bowie knife in colonial Africa.

From Recent British Battles on Land and Sea (1885), by James Grant:
As there was no regular cavalry in South Africa, two squadrons of mounted infantry were, early in December, posted at various points along the frontier. These men were mounted on South African horses, and at first carried the regulation infantry rifle and bayonet, but were afterwards armed with Swinburn-Martini carbines and bowie-knives, which they could fix to the muzzles.
Swinburn-Martini carbine with bowie-type bayonet

From later in the same book:
"Ah ! those red soldiers at Isandhlwana," many Zulus said, "how few they were, and how they fought! They fell like stones -- each man in his place." We are told that one tall man, a corporal of the 24th, slew four Zulus with his bayonet, which stuck for a moment in the throat of his last opponent, and then he was assegaied. The only blue-jacket in camp, a man of H.M.S. Active, was seen, with his back against a waggon wheel, keeping a crowd of Zulus at bay with his cutlass, till one crept behind and stabbed him to death between the spokes. A Natal Volunteer, who had been sick in hospital, was found dead with his back against a boulder near the hospital tent, with about a hundred fired cartridges about him, his revolver empty, and a bowie-knife crusted with blood in his hand.
From Reminiscences of a Frontier Armed & Mounted Police Officer in South Africa (1866), by Edward Wilson:
The uniform of the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police is simply elegant--a suit of tanned cord, and a light-brown, helmet made of leather. The fire-arms are of the very best, comprising a rifle (smooth-bore and rifle-barrel) and a Dean and Adams' revolver (Tranter's patent). The men are also armed with a bowie-knife.
Natal Frontier Armed and Mounted Police (1879)

In Abeokuta and the Cameroons Mountains (1863),  Richard Francis Burton describes various types of weapons he encountered in Africa:
Africans rarely, if ever, pay anything like a decent price for muskets. The process of firing is peculiar, the gun being either discharged from the hip, or held out at arm's length, with averted face, for good reason; the kick is that of an ass, and it would lay open even Deaf Burke's cheek. . . . Pistols are rarely worn; spears and bows and arrows are little used. Swords seem intended principally to hack and hew the wounded and dead. A few, especially Moslems, have straight, double-edged blades, with brass handles and leather scabbards, from which they are drawn with difficulty, and only Arabs use the scimitar or curved blade. Bowie knives have of late formed an article of importation, and are found handy.
I can't prove it, but I'd like to think that the "long, keen hunting knife" that Tarzan found in the effects left by his father, and which gave him the decisive edge over his jungle foes, was in fact a bowie knife.

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