A Zande ‘Gbilija’ shield
Azande warriors were armed with throwing knifes, spears, swords and had to protect themselves with wicker shields like these. This example dates from around 1880 and is typical for its braided patterns which can be seen as high rank.
Democratic Republic Congo – Azande
The Azande is a large tribe within the Zande tribe region. The Azande district covers Sudan, Zaire and Congo. Their shields can be devided into three types;
– Type one: the ‘Gbilija’ which is mostly thin and woven closely was worn by the highest ranks and dignitaries behind the frontlines.
– Type two: the ‘Kube’ shields, worn by the warriors in the frontlines. These shields had striking colour patterns and thick woven wicker. The colour patterns on the shield helped the warriors distinguish friendly from enemy troops while fighting at night. Covering these patterns was strictly forbidden and was severely punished.
– Type three: The ‘Kpawangbwada’, the most simple type, made for the common man. Despite of its rather dull appearance, it was highly functional, strong and used by less important warriors during battle.
By the arrival of colonial forces, the Azande were losing many warriors, and because of the great pressure from Belgian, French and British forces moving from the North, South and West, they quickly had to lay down arms. Even later on the making and wearing of these shields was forbidden and since then they became scarce.
Zande warriors were locally hired because of their great military tact compared to other local tribes. Among those was the American Colonel Charles Chaillé Long, who spend his career in Africa after the American civil war. He led an expedition to the Azande in 1874 and wrote about them in his book ‘Central Africa: Naked truth from naked people‘.
Colonel C. Chaillé Long described how to fight the Yanbari. He released his Azande on them, as he quoted:
”I must confess that I have never seen a more perfect ideal of the warrior, not only in muscular display, but in the interface with which he flew rather than run – the right hand gripped the huge blade while holding bouclier (shield) close to squeezed from his side he met the enemy. He covered it with the miraculous speed of the deadly arrows, which his opponent stretched in vain on the broad shield, threw himself on him and cut and stabbed the defenseless yanbari. They burned at least 20 villages and then ate the enemy to death.”
A dignitary shield, known as ‘Gbilija’, very scarce and highly demanded among collectors. The shape is typical, rounded ends with protruding center and tips. The decoration of unblackened woven rattan is typical for the Azande and shows the importancy of the high ranked warrior who owned it. The back has a very complicated woven pattern which can be considered an artwork itself. Often throwing knifes were kept inside these shields.
Condition: Excellent condition despite of its age. Some rattan pieces around the rims are dried out due to the climate and are vulnerable. Further an old crack in the handle of the shield, not running through and can be considered as not disturbing. Cleaned from dust, but with fine patina remained.
Dimensions: 118 x 51cm
Provenance: A Belgium Colonial family, Bruxelles
– (Colonel C Chaillé Long. Central Africa: Naked Truths of Naked People 1876 p. 286 – 287)
– Study of Pitt Rivers Museum, University Oxford
– J. Elzen’s ‘Guba’ p.182-183 – p.188-189
– Shields Africa,Southeast Asia and Oceania from the collections of the Barbier-Mueller Museum.
– Royal Museum of Army and Military History Brussels ass. nr.507-699
– Brooklyn Museum ass.number: 22.857
– Bowers Museum California ass.number: 2003.60.9
– National Museum Copenhagen
– Colonial Museum Bruxelles
– Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford university
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