Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Battle of Blood River 16 December 1838, and what it means today

In the early hours of the morning of 16 December 1838, a battle was fought between the Voortrekkers, under the leadership of Andries Pretorius, and the AmaZulu warriors near the Ncome (Buffalo) River. Dingane was the King of the Zulus at the time and most historians cite that his army was led by King Dingane’s generals Dambuza (Nzobo) and Ndlela kaSompisi.

The Great Trek and the advent of the Mfecane
The Great Trek (Afrikaans for "great organised migration") or the political disenchantment of Dutch-speaking farmers on the Eastern Cape frontier with British rule, led to more than 15 000 of these frontier farmers trekking in groups north-east into the interior of the region to escape British administration. Secondly, the advent of the Mfecane (IsiZulu for "the crushing") or Difaqane (Sesotho for "forced scattering or migration") in the 1820s which was the political and military upheaval with concomitant forced migration of the Nguni people in the eastern region, that marked the rise of the rule of Shaka over the AmaZulu.

Once beyond British influence, the Voortrekkers had to decide on the ultimate destination of the Great Trek; this was a source of differences of opinion. Voortrekker leader Potgieter believed that far North should be the ultimate destination. However, Mzilikazi’s Matabeles had to be expelled from the Western Transvaal (now North West Province) before a Voortrekker state could safely be established in the North. Therefore Piet Retief, Gert Maritz and Piet Uys considered the area depopulated by the mfecane, the attractive Natal Coastal plain.

Natal had been regarded as part of the British sphere of influence since the establishment of the first trading post in Port Natal in 1824, but the early English traders and hunters found themselves unable to secure a stable relationship with the then Zulu King Dingane after the assassination of Shaka (Dingane, 10 years previously, had murdered his half-brother, Shaka, to assume the chieftainship of the Zulu’s).

Numerous attempts were made by interested merchants in Cape Town and the Eastern Cape to pressurise the imperial government into taking a more active role but nothing was done until 1837 when, in the shadowof the Great Trek, London appointed independent missionary Allen Gardiner as Justice of the Peace. Gardiner had no funds, no military resources and no clear mandate, and the tiny English community, numbering no more than 40 males, threw their weight behind the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief when he reached Natal in October 1837.

Retief had to negotiate with the AmaZulu King Dingane over the ownership of land.

Sources cite that Retief paid a successful visit to the Zulu king at the beginning of November 1837, but sources differ greatly from this point on. Dingane supposedly declared that he was prepared to grant Retief an extensive area between the Tugela and the Umzimvubu as well as the Drakensberg, on condition that Retief restored to Dingane the cattle stolen from him by Sikonyela (the Tlokwa chief). Dingane felt that this would prove to him that Sikonyela and not the Voortrekkers had in fact stolen the cattle.

Some sources claim that Dingane also demanded rifles. With the wisdom of hindsight, it seems that Retief was incredibly naive in his dealings with Dingane. In his defence, it needs to be said that he was seeking no more from Dingane than Louis Trichardt had formerly received from the Xhosa king Hintsa, and that Dingane himself had made some sort of similar agreement with Gardiner in June 1835.

But Dingane already resented the presence of the handful of whites at Port Natal and never had any intention of allowing a large amount of heavily armed farmers to settle permanently in his immediate neighbourhood. So he set a murderous trap.

The murder of Piet Retief

As per the deal with Dingane, the Voortrekkers successfully obtained the cattle from Sikonyela and on 3 February 1838 Retief and his party reached the Zulu capital, Mgungundlovu, with the cattle. Retief surrendered the cattle but refused to hand over the horses and the guns he had taken from the Tlokwa.

This could have been the reason for Dingane’s suspicion of Retief, but other sources site additional reasons, one being that Dingane’s agents, who had accompanied Retief to supervise the return of the cattle, also may have reported that even before the land claim had been signed, Voortrekkers were streaming down the Drakensburg passes in large numbers. Despite the suspicions, Dingane supposedly put his mark on a land grant document sometime the next day.

On 6 February Dingane requested that Retief and his men visit his royal kraal without their guns to drink beer as a farewell gesture. It was strictly in accordance with Zulu protocol that nobody appeared armed before the King. Retief suspected no foul play and accepted the invitation. As soon as the Voortrekker's party was inside the royal kraal, Dingane gave the order and his regiments overpowered Retief and his men, and took them up to a hill to be killed.

Francis Owen, the missionary at Dingane’s kraal,who later described the scene in his diary, witnessed the murders from a distance.

It was the murder of Retief and his 67 men, as well as the land claim that ignited the war between the Voortrekkers and the Zulu’s. The mutilated corpses of the Retief party were discovered by a search party of trekkers who reported that a land deed, signed by Dingane, was found among the possessions of the dead men.

Distraught and temporarily without a leader the Voortrekkers entered the battle with the view that it was a desperate fight to ensure their survival against overwhelming odds, and to secure for themselves a place to settle, a home to call their own, free of the shackles of any lordship. They had treated the Zulu king appropriately, and had sought to fulfil Dingane

's conditions for entry to the Zulu kingdom in good faith. But the latter had behaved treacherously towards them (by murdering their leader) and therefore the defeat of the Zulu military was the only way they could guarantee their safety.

The Zulu participants saw things differently. It was clear to Dingane that the Voortrekkers were a people who had easily defeated and scattered the force of his old enemy, Mzilikazi, whose empire Dingane had repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, tried to conquer. Dingane and his advisors knew that the Voortrekkers would be a formidable enemy, and his tradition, like that of Shaka, was not to tolerate strong neighbours. Ndlela kaSompisi, the Commander-in-Chief, Dambuza kaSobadli and other councillors probably advised Dingane to resist the Voortrekkers.

The gathering of the warriors for the first fruits ceremonies at the end of December 1837 generated further pressure for a forceful solution. Dingane was therefore determined to take the Voortrekkers by surprise and to destroy them before they became more organised.

Dingane razes Port Natal to the ground

After killing Retief, Dingane's began planning to 'annihilate all Voortrekkers in Natal'. The plan was initially a success perhaps because the Voortrekkers at first disregarded the rumor that Retief had been murdered and consequently made no preparations to defend themselves.

In Dingane's armies first attack, Zulu warriors massacred some 500 more of Retief's followers, two-thirds of them women and children, half of them black. The battle took place during the early hours of 17 February. A surprise attack was launched on the unsuspecting trekker lagers on the Bloukrans and Bushman’s rivers. The Zulu seized 25 000 head of cattle and thousands more sheep and horses. The site of the attack was later renamed Weenen (‘weeping’).

The trekker leader Piet Uys fell with his men and his son Dirkie in battle a month later, while Hendrik Potgieter beat a retreat back to the highveld. Port Natal was razed to the ground, the surviving missionaries and traders escaping by ship.

But Dingane underestimated the number of Voortrekkers in Natal and the fervour with which the Voortrekkers would defend themselves once the intentions of the Zulu’s became clear to them.

Andries Pretorius and his men advance

After the fall of Port Natal Port Natal Andries Pretorius arrived from Graaff-Reinet. On 25 November 1838 Pretorius took over leadership as Commandant-General of the Voortrekkers in Natal. He immediately reorganised the Voortrekkers and started to prepare a retaliatory attack on the Zulu.

On Sunday, 9th December, Pretorius and his followers made a vow to God that in the case of victory; they would build a church to honour God and they would tell their children to observe a day of thanksgiving.

The Pretorius party crossed the Ncome (Buffalo) River, and on Saturday 15 December, they reached a tributary (Thukela). Their scouts reported that a large AmaZulu force was advancing (10 000-20 000 Zulu warriors). The Zulu army was led by Dingane’s generals Dambuza (Nzobo) and Ndlela kaSompisi. After the scouts had given the warning the Voortrekkers moved their wagons into a laager (circular formation) in the best strategical position possible, between a deep pool in the river and a donga (a large ditch). The Voortrekkers force consisted of 470 men. There were only two gaps in the laager and in each, a cannon was placed.

16 December 1838: The Battle

At dusk on the 15th December the Amazulu had already begun to circle the laager. A heavy mist surrounded the laager and only lifted in the early hours of the morning, this made visibility poor. At dawn on the 16th December 1838 the Zulu warriors, equipped with assegais and shields, swept towards the laager. To be able to use their assegais effectively they had to come as close as possible to the defenders.

The Voortrekkers were equipped with far superior weaponry and responded to the Zulu advancement with musket and cannon fire. Eyewitnesses and writers differ slightly on the exact details of the battle, but at dawn when the first Zulu attack began, the firing was apparently so heavy that the Zulu warriors could not be seen through the smoke.

The main shortcoming of the Voortrekkers' weapons was the lengthy reloading times. The first Zulu attack had scarcely been repulsed when a second was launched, this time the Zulu warriors almost reached the laager. Meanwhile hundreds of warriors were hiding in the donga. S arel Cilliers and 80 others attacked them during a short lull in the fighting. When the Zulu’s, who had withdrawn about 50 yards from the laager, failed to launch a third attack, Pretorius sent some men to draw them out to seal the victory.

Pretorius’ cavalry met with determined resistance from the Zulu warriors, and it was only after a third sortie that the Zulu’s were put to flight, pursued by the Voortrekkers. At midday the pursuit was called off.

More than 3000 corpses were counted around the laager.

Only 3 Voortrekkers (including Pretorius himself) were wounded, none were killed. The Ncome River became red with the blood of the slain. Hence the battle became known as the battle of "Blood of Blood River".

After this defeat, the Zulu kingdom never really recovered. Dingane's half-brother Mpande allied with Pretorius to defeat Dingane, who was eventually killed by the Swazi as he tried to regroup further north.

The Aftermath of the Battle
The fate of Natalia

After the defeat of Dingane, the Kingdom of the AmaZulu was hurled into political strife. Mpande was open to the demands for land by the Voortrekkers and Andries Pretorius recognised him as King of the AmaZulu andas an ally.

In March 1839 the Voortrekkers declared the republic of Natalia at Pietermaritzburg, and Pretorius established his farm on the site of the future Edenvale. But the Afrikaner population of Natalia never numbered more than 6 000, including women and children, and its economy fell into the same speculative trap as its British counterparts, none proving more energetic in this respect than Commandant Gert Rudolph who claimed 40 farms totalling 250 000 acres.

In 1840 Cape Governor Napier sent a force of 250 men to Port Natal to make good Britain's historical claims to Natal. In the initial skirmish the British suffered serious losses. But once reinforcements arrived, the Voortrekkers put up little further resistance. Natal was annexed to the Cape in May 1844, and elevated to the status of a Crown Colony in December 1845.

The Day of the Vow

For the greater part of the twentieth century 16 December had been observed as a public holiday, with Afrikaans-speakers attending special church services or visiting the Voortrekker Monument. Until the National Party came into power in 1948, this day was observed as Dingane's Day. In 1952 Dingane's Day officially became the Day of the Covenant or the Day of the Vow.

Even to this day, Afrikaners (also known as Boers, who are decendants of the old Voortrekkers) commemorate this day, viewing the 'ritual' not only as a fulfillment of their duties, but also as a renewal of the covenant of 1838. History repeats itself, as the Boers are in the same situation they were in during 1838. The gruesome torture, rape and murder of Boer men, women and babies are commonplace in South Africa. Violent crimes are not only a plague in the country, but also in metropolitan areas. South Africa is ranked as the country with both the highest murder rate and rape rate in the world.

The Boers are indeed in the same position they were in in 1838.

(Ed.'s note: I am battling to find a drawing or painting of the murder of Piet Retief and company, but these are as scarce as hen's teeth and I can't find one of a suitable quality to reproduce here.

Can any of you out there help out? You have my e-mail address. Dankie by voorbaat!)

4 Opinion(s):

Dachshund said...

Sorry this is such a heavy post, but it's traditional, like eating hot turkey, roast potatoes and mince pies at Christmas, even though you'd prefer something lighter.

Anonymous said...

Nothing wrong with this post. It is excellent.

AMB said...

Thank you for paying tribute to this historical event. No matter how the ANC want to forget SA's real history, they can't deny the facts. The Boer's fought for SA and now we have surrendered and are being systematically wiped out. Our forefathers must be turning in their graves because of what de Klerk et al have done to this country. There were other routes they could have taken, but to hand over the country to a bunch of marxist terrorists is unforgivable.


Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.