The Postcolonial Wood Badge Story

Wood Badge beads

Adult Scouting leaders world-wide take part in a training program called Wood Badge. Baden-Powell (B-P), the founder of Scouting, hosted the first Wood Badge course in 1919. Every nation in the World Organization of the Scout Movement today recognizes Wood Badge training.

B-P’s first adult leader course was called a “scoutmaster training course.” When the course was finished, the participants asked B-P for a token to mark their achievement. B-P hadn’t thought about it, but he came across a necklace of wooden beads he acquired as a war prize during his military career. He gave beads to the participants. This gave the course its name: Wood Badge.

The beads have a story of their own.

The necklace and beads come from the Zulu kingdom of southeastern Africa, also called Zululand. The land area is comparable to the country of Belarus or the US state of Minnesota: about 80,000 square miles (208,000 square km).

Zululand was united politically and militarily by King Shaka in the early 19th century. Specially carved wooden beads, assembled into bracelets and necklaces, were highly prized honors conferred on royalty and on outstanding soldiers.

Each row was the distinguishing mark of some great heroic deed, and the wearer had received them from Shaka’s own hand.

report of Charles Rawden Maclean, 1825
Map of the Zulu kingdom, 1879

The kingdom remained united and independent for most of the 19th century. Its southern frontier, South Africa, was originally colonized by the Dutch, but became a British colony in 1814. Zululand preserved its territory from encroachment by European colonists with occasional wars and land negotiations on its frontier.

Dinzulu became King of Zululand in 1884, at age 15. A few years later, a local British official precipitated a war by demanding disarmament of Dinzulu’s military forces. British colonial military units were roundly beaten when they tried to enforce the order.

Additional British troops were sent to turn the tide. The new British units applied military pressure successfully to Dinzulu’s troops, pushing them out of their strongholds.

Baden-Powell was a captain in the British Army unit that overran Dinzulu’s personal stronghold. In his hurry to leave, Dinzulu had abandoned his impressive 12-foot necklace of honorary wooden beads. B-P took it as a war prize.

That is the source of the first Wood Badge beads.


A couple decades ago, I was serving as a district chairman, and I had just attended Wood Badge. As emcee of the annual district dinner, I felt obliged to say a few remarks before a Wood Badge beading ceremony. I mentioned the source of the beads, but I used the same words to talk about British and Zulu leaders, soldiers, and military decorations. There were no “chiefs” or “warriors” on either side. Afterwards, an elderly Wood Badge course director suggested I never do that again.


More discussions of the Anglo-Zulu War

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