Forensic Fashion
(c) 2006-present R. Macaraeg


>Costume Studies
>>1857 Masai moran

Subjectmoran warrior
Culture: Masai
Setting: tribal warfare, east Africa 19thc

Context (Event Photos, Period Sources)

* Peers ill. Ruggeri 2005 p5-7
"The Masai were unique among the tribes of East Africa in the fear that they inspired in Europeans, Arabs, and other Africans alike.  In the words of Charles New, who encountered them in the early 1870s, 'Physically they are a splendid people; and for energy, intrepidity and dash they are without their equals in Africa; but they are cruel and remorseless to the last degree.'  They had migrated into East Africa from the north about 300 years earlier, subjugating or driving out the earlier inhabitants of the region, and now occupied the prime grazing lands of the Kenya highlands, extending south into what is now Tanzania.
​    "[...]  By the beginning of the 19th century the main phase of Masai territorial expansion was over, but all the clans fought constantly against each other as well as their non-Masai neighbors.  In fact the people suffered far more casualties in these civil wars than in all their external campaigns put together.  The main motive for this warfare was cattle-raiding: according to Masai myth, God had originally given their people ownership of all the cattle in the world, so it followed that all the beasts now in the possession of others were descended from herds stolen from the Masai.  It was therefore not just a quick way of gaining wealth, but almost a religious duty, to try to get them back.  These raids affected almost the whole of East Africa to some extent, as far north as the country of the Turkana around Lake Rudolf and south to the borders of the Hehe kingdom beyond the Ruaha River."

* Diagram Group 2000 p134
"The nineteenth century was a period of increasingly frequent civil war among the Maasai. In particular, the Maasai 'proper' -- united for the first time under one leader, the laibon (prophet) Mbatiany -- were in conflict with the Laikipiak, an agricultural Maasai group.  This was followed by rinderpest (a cattle disease), smallpox, and cholera epidemics and famine during the 1880s and 1890s, which impoverished or killed thousands of Maasai.  These disasters sparked further civil wars."

* Peers ill. Ruggeri 2005 p10-11
"Like most of the related tribes of the northern part of East Africa, the Masai based their military organization on the age-set system.  The young men were initiated into these sets en masse, at a ceremony which was held about every seven years, so that an entire age group would go through the process together.  They were intitiated as moran, or warriors, in about their late teens.  Because herding the cattle on which they depended was not labour intensive and the work was easily performed by the young boys and older men, it was possible to spare the entire warrior age group from economically productive activity.  For the next 15 years or so they would form what was in effect a professional standing army, whose only employment was fighting."

* Spring 1993 p108
"Pastoralist transhumant societies in East Africa have been wrongly perceived as being inherently more aggressive than their sedentary neighbours, with the suggestion that the one function of the age-grading system among them was simply to produce an elite of young warriors whose sole purpose was to make war.  The Maasai in particular have suffered since the colonial period from the deliberate promotion of this myth with the aim of forcing them into a sedentary agriculturalist way of life and ending the practice of cattle raiding.  Their lands were expropriated, their rites and customs curtailed and whole clans were forcibly resettled on poor grazing land.  Meanwhile, the agricultural potential of their original homelands was exploited by settler farmers and their traditional African rivals.  The supposed ferocity and war-like propensity of the pastoral Maasai ... was used as an excuse for the pacification and 'liberation' of the region to make way for white rule."


* Peers ill. Ruggeri 2005 p42 [describingmoranin 1857]
"The moran grew their hair long, coated it with red ochre, and plaited it into pigtails -- usually one large one at the back and two or three smaller ones at the front.  The most common type of headdress was made from black and white ostrich feathers fixed into a leather oval which framed the warrior's face ... but a variety of other styles were also used."

* Wincza 1970 p97
"To-day one must use only the imagination to figure what the tribal wars looked like.  On one side the Wakamba warriors, painted according to their custom, adorned with feathers and armed with bows and poisoned arrows.  Facing them the el sirit of the Masai morans.  They were dressed in skin half cloaks reaching to their waist only, they had their bodies painted with red Ol karia and smeared with fat.  Some had hats made of lion skins, conical hats resembling a pointed busby.  Some had formidable two feet long ostrich feather head-dresses.  Those were supposed to mislead the enemies as to the number of the warriors facing them.  Shiny spears previously well greased were pointed towards the ranks of the Wakamba.  Shields covered the bodies of the morans and only their heads could be seen above the colourful wall of shields.  The powerful Ol alem, the sword, and the rugma, the club, were stuck into their belts." 


* Peers ill. Ruggeri 2005 p42 [describing moran in 1857]"Most Masai warriors wore only a short garment made of kid skin, which was normally worn tied over one shoulder.  When on the warpath, however, it was rolled up around the waist to keep the sword in place, and also in order not to impede the warrior's legs when running." 

* Fashion 2012 p455
"RUBEKA  Length of cotton cloth, usually red and often plaid, worn by the Maasai in East Africa; wrapped around the body like a cloak; also called shúkà."


* Peers ill. Ruggeri 2005 p42
"The moran were not allowed to carry bows or other missle weapons since it was thought that these would make them reluctant to fight at close quarters, but they frequently threw their clubs as they charged."

* Spring 2003 p119
"The Maasai make a number of different types of club as do their neighbours the Kikuyu.  The majority are made of hard wood and are carried tucked into the frames of warriors' shields for use as missiles before engaging in hand to hand combat.  A rhinceros club, olkuma, was carried by the Speaker, the democratically elected spokesman of the moran, while a round-headed club of blackened wood was carried by important elders as a symbol of office.  ...[O]lder style Maasai clubs consisted of a spherical head of hard wood into which the haft was inserted by means of a sphecially drilled hole.  More recent examples are carved from a single piece of wood or horn."


* Peers ill. Ruggeri 2005 p42
"The traditional war spear was about 51/2 feet long, and consisted of a short wooden handle and a broad, heavy iron blade.  The exact shape of the blade varied from one clan to another: according to Thomson, the northern Masai used longer, narrower blades, while the southern clans preferred a broader pattern."

* Peers ill. Ruggeri 2005 p12 caption
"[...]  The spear associated with the Masai in more recent times is of a different type, with a much longer, narrower blade, which was probably borrowed from the neighboring Chaga of Mount Kilimanjaro.  The transition to this new design took place around the end of the 19th century."

* Spring 1993 p111
"The elegant war spear of the Maasai moran must rank among the most distinctive of all traditional African weaponry, with its long, narrow blade and almost equally long counterbalancing metal butt, both being socketed and glued onto a short wooden grip.  Yet this type of spear appears to be of relatively recent manufacture.  Until the last few decades of the nineteenth century moran carried a spear with a much shorter but broader blade with a long wooden shaft and short, socketed butt or 'shoe', similar in stile to the weapon, engerebbe, carried by Maasai elders of today.  Within a short space of time the long-bladed spear was adopted not only by the Maasai moran, but also in very similar styles by the young men of warrior status among the neighbouring peoples both of Nilotic origin ... and of Bantu ....  [...]  One possible reason for the morphological transformation may lie in the sudden influx of slave and ivory traders into the region dring the nineteenth century.  These traders bartered considerable quantitites of metal wire and other goods in exchange for safe passage through Maasai territory, access to waterholes and assistance with their activities.  The long spear blades may then have been an indication of the increased prosperity which this trade brought to the Maasai and other peoples of the region."

* Spring 1993 p113
"The 'black spear', or eremet sero, of the senior moran is the same as that of the junior warriors in most respects, except that the wooden grip is of prestigious ebony.  Another source suggests that the name 'black spear' is derived from the unpolished blades of eremet sero on which the iron scale has been deliberately preserved."

* Wilkinson 1978 p135
"Spears were almost universal throughout the [African] continent and there were great variations in size and shape.  One of the best known was that used by the Masai of East Africa.  It had a very short, central, wooden shaft, a long tapering ferrule and blade which was like that of a sword, long and with the sides virtually parallel but swelling slightly just above the socket.  The length of the blade was supposed to reflect the importance of the owner."


* Peers ill. Ruggeri 2005 p42
"Shields varied in size between about 3ft and 5ft tall.  They were made of buffalo hide, which is much thicker and tougher than ordinary cow hide, and must have made formidable weapons in their own right when used to knock an enemy off balance before finishing him with a spear thrust."

* Benitez & Barbier 2000 p118
"The Maasai called their shield designs sirata and attached descriptive design names distinguishing one age group from another."

* Feest 1980 p90 f101
"The leather shields used by the Masai of Kenya and Tanzania were painted according to a complex system of symbolic signs indicating status, age class, local group, fighting unit, kinship group and former military achievements.  A vertical wooden bar, with a carved handle, and a wrapped wooden rim strengten the shield."


* Spring 2003 p113
"Swords are not commonly found amongst the peoples of the more northerly regions of Eastern Africa [...;] [h]owever, taking as a model the classical Maasai sword, ol alem, with its red leather sheath and spare, elegant blade flaring slightly toward the tip, weapons of a broadly similar type are found in a wide belt of Eastern Africa from the Victoria-Nyanza in the west to the Swahili coast in the east."

*Peers ill. Ruggeri 2005 p42
"Swords were usually about 18ins to 2ft in length, and were often manufactured by grinding down old European machete blades.  The blade generally widened out toward the tip into a 'spoon' shape, although the extent varied considerably."

* Wilkinson 1978 p135
"The Masai ... carried long-bladed swords with a very simple grip and virtually no guard for the hand."

* Stone 1934 p547
"SEME. [...]  The sword of the Masai of East Africa.  It has a well forged, heavy, double-edged blade widening towards the point, and with a strong central rib.  The hilt is small, ringed and without a guard.  It is usually about twenty inches long, though sometimes much longer, and is carried in a rawhide scabbard hung from a cord around the neck." [reference omitted]

*Coe, Connolly, Harding, Harris, Larocca, Richardson, North, Spring, & Wilkinson 1993 p206 (Christopher Spring, "African hilt weapons" p204-217)
"The Maasai, ... who apparently hold their blacksmiths in particular disdain, nonetheless look upon their swords and spears as their most precious possessions after their cattle."