Origin of the Wood Badge Beads

September 10th, 2014

In 1919, 12 years after he founded the Scout Movement, Baden-Powell ran a series of training courses for scout leaders at a campsite named Gilwell Park.  The courses taught the basic principles of Scouting along with key woodcraft and camping skills.  At the completion of the training the Scout Leaders were each given a "Wood Badge" which Baden-Powell made by knotting two of Dinuzulu's beads onto a leather bootlace.  According to scouting lore, the beads had been taken from the Zulu Chief Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo by Baden-Powell when he put down Dinuzulu's insurrection against English rule in Africa in 1888.  Although Baden-Powell was unable to catch Dinuzulu he did manage to acquire what—according to Scouting lore—is commonly held to be his "iziQu."

Dinuzulu was known to have worn a four meter long "iziQu" about his neck—a necklace made of thousands of small South African Acacia yellow wood beads strung on a leather thong.  This wood has a soft central pith, which makes it easy for a rawhide lace to be threaded through from end-to-end and this is how the 1,000 beads were arranged.  The beads themselves varied in size from tiny emblems to others 4 inches in length.  The necklace was considered sacred by the Zulu, being a badge conferred upon royalty and warriors for their courage in battle.  The necklace, passed down from generation to generation, was considered sacred and was closely guarded.

Doubt is cast upon the fact that the beads in Baden-Powell's possession were those that belonged to Dinuzulu, however.  Baden-Powell's own letters and diaries at the time, for example, record him removing beads from a dead African girl, with no mention of Dinuzulu ever made.

After the Second World War the scouting lore surrounding the "Wood Badge" started to cause embarrassment.  To have stolen a Zulu ruler's sacred property was thought underhanded and unpleasant, as the English might say, as was the idea of the founder and Chief Scout of the worldwide brotherhood being the principal culprit in the matter.  So it became policy within the Movement to claim that Baden-Powell had been given the necklace by Dinuzulu.  "This Change," wrote the Deputy Chief Scout in 1959, "was made first in The Gilwell Book and gradually in all our literature."

Other biographers of Baden-Powell, such as William Hillcourt, repeat Baden-Powell's 1919 telling of the story, albeit Hillcourt leaves the reader with the implication that the beads might have belonged Dinuzulu, when he states that in one of the captured Zulu forts Baden-Powell found a number of weapons and trinkets left behind, among them a long string of quaintly carved wooden beads such as only a chief would have worn.  "There was," as Hillcourt writes, "no doubt in his mind [Baden-Powell] that this had been Dinuzulu's own hide-out."

I guess you have to decide for yourself where the truth lies.

Good night, gentlemen.

Note: Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo was the king of the Zulu nation from 1884 until his death in 1913.  He and Baden-Powell did eventually meet and that meeting formed the basis for another of scouting's great stories.  That is a tale for another time!