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What Is a Sjambok Made From?

Updated February 21, 2017

The infamous sjambok, or short whip -- the instrument that meted out punishment for slaves -- was carefully crafted from a single piece of thick animal hide. Though several species of big game provided materials for this brutal instrument, the most prized sjambok was cut from an African rhino. Scarcity of materials in more recent times has resulted in the substitution of modern but effective plastic.

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Known by several names, this weapon evolved from a short wooden rod -- the chambuk -- used to punish Indonesian slaves. The chambuk was replaced in the African trade by a short leather whip from three to five feet long. This whip was often named for the animal that provided the hide and was often known locally by different words for hippo -- another common source of thick leather. In South Africa's Afrikaans, it became the sjambok.


The preferred material for the sjambok was rhinoceros hide, but hippopotamus hide made a serviceable substitute. While giraffe or elephant leather was also sometimes used, in that case the proper term for the whip was litupa. The usual method of manufacture involved slicing a thick strip of skin from along the backbone of the animal. Often more than an inch thick at the handle end, the sjambok tapered to about 3/8 inches at the tip of the whip. During the drying process, the raw leather was rolled between heavy metal plates that shaped it into a round, tapered rod.

Elite Sjambok

The sjambok became the official weapon of punishment in many European colonial armies in Africa as well as the source of discipline in Africa's slave trade. Among the Belgian and Prussian officers of the day, the preferred sjambok was a weapon that was compared in strength and flexibility to steel and whalebone. This particularly cruel instrument was crafted from the stretched and dried sexual organ of a male rhino.


The sjambok became one of the riot control weapons of South African police during the apartheid years. Increased demand for the whip necessitated the substitution of hard but flexible black plastic for the traditional animal hide. Now illegal in South Africa, the sjambok still exists in both traditional and modern forms. Illegally this whip has been used for traditional punishments by tribal societies and for torture by criminal elements.

Modern Versions

Animal herdsmen in Africa still use the sjambok for herding cattle and other livestock. In the West it has been of interest to martial arts enthusiasts. Today the typical sjambok has a shape and length much the same as the traditional model. The handle is now Kraton, a synthetic with the same feel of leather, bonded to a core of polypropylene. The core and shaft are one piece of moulded flexible plastic.

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About the Author

James Young began writing in 1969 as a military journalist combat correspondent in Vietnam. Young's articles have been published in "Tai Chi Magazine," "Seattle Post-Intelligencer," Sonar 4 ezine, "Stars & Stripes" and "Fine Woodworking." He has worked as a foundryman, woodturner, electronics technician, herb farmer and woodcarver. Young graduated from North Seattle Community College with an associate degree in applied science and electronic technology.

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