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The battle of Blood River was fought on the 16th December 1838 between a force of Boers under the command of Andries Pretorius and an army of AmaZulu warriors led by Ndlela kaSompisi, at a location close to the Ncome River in Natal 1 in southern Africa. As the river became red with blood after the battle, the Ncome River was christened by the Boers as 'Bloedrivier' but to the AmaZulu the battle is known as Impi yaseNcome.

The Background

In the year 1652 the Dutch established a shipping station at the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa which eventually grew into the Cape Colony. However as a result of the Napoleonic Wars the British had seized control of the Cape Colony by 1806, as they wanted control of the Cape of Good Hope for the same reasons as the Dutch; in order to be able to control the trade routes to India.

The largely Dutch settlers at the Cape were not particularly happy about this change of government and there were a number of revolts against British rule during the early years of the nineteenth century. In particular the Afrikaner speaking settlers, believed that the British were too lenient with the natives and were unhappy about the extension of political rights to non-Europeans. The last straw came in 1834 when the British decided to abolish slavery throughout their empire.

Therefore between the years 1835 and 1837 thousands of frontier farmers, known as Boers, migrated to the African interior in order to escape British rule and set up their own homelands. The Great Trek, as it became known resulted in thousands of Boers or Voortrekkers pouring across the Orange and Vaal rivers, seeking to carve out new farms and settlements. They were perhaps fortunate that much of the interior had been depopulated as a result of the aggressive expansionism of the AmaZulu kingdom under Shaka in the 1820s, a process known as the mfecane or difaqane2.

In 1837 one group of Boers led by Piet Retief crossed the Drakensberg mountains into AmaZulu territory and were keen to negotiate with their king Dingane, who had overthrown Shaka in 1828, for the purchase of the land between the Thukela and Umzimvubu rivers in return for cattle and rifles. On the 6th February 1838 the two sides met at the AmaZulu capital of uMgungundhlovu. The Boers delivered the cattle but not the firearms. Presumably this displeased Dingane as Piet Retief and 101 other Boers were promptly slaughtered 3. Dingane launched further attacks against Boer settlements, now apparently eager to drive the Boers out of Natal for good.

On the 9th December 1838 Andries Pretorius, was appointed Commandant-General of the Boer forces and proceeded to organise a retaliatory expedition against the AmaZulu. Pretorius swore on oath to God that his people would observe a day of thanksgiving in return for victory over the enemy. 4

On the 15th December Pretorius and his men reached the Ncome river and received the news that a large AmaZulu force had been sighted. Pretorius decided to form a laager west of the Ncome river and arranged his sixty-four covered wagons into a D shape. Here the river protected one flank whilst on the opposite flank there was a fourteen foot deep donga or erosion channel that afforded similar protection. The proximity of a marshy hippo pool and the Gelato Kopje also served to impede any attack on his position.

The Boers numbered 464 whilst the size of the AmaZulu army has variously been estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000 warriors. Despite the disparity in numbers the Boers did have certain advantages; they were armed with guns, if not necessarily the most up-to-date of firearms, and they also had with them two 2.5 inch muzzle loading cannons. The AmaZulu had spears.

The Battle of Blood River

There are reasonably detailed accounts of the battle in existence but it is sufficient to say that the AmaZulu launched a series of repeated charges at the Boer laager, all of which failed to get anywhere near the enemy lines, as they were shot down in their hundreds. This process continued until Pretorius had sufficient confidence to send out a force of mounted men to attack the AmaZulu lines and at the third attempt succeeded in dividing the AmaZulu army after which they fled the battlefield.

The strength of the Boer defensive position matched with their superior fire power proved to be the deciding factors in the battle. The end result was some 3,000 to 3,500 dead AmaZulu and only three slightly wounded Boers.

The Consequences of Blood River

Defeat spelt the end for Dingane's rule over the Kingdom of the AmaZulu. He was soon challenged by his half-brother Mpande and Dingane was eventually driven into exile in Swaziland where he was killed in 1840. Andries Pretorius proclaimed the foundation of the Natal Republic and declared Mpande a vassal of his new republic. However the Boer Natal Republic proved to be shortlived. Whereas the British were relatively relaxed about the establishment of Boer republics in the interior, Natal was a different matter and in 1843 the British annexed Natal much to the disgust of the Boer settlers. Indeed defeat at Blood River and the subsequent loss of Natal marked the beginning of the end of the AmaZulu Kingdom; it was eventually conquered and annexed to Natal by the British in 1878.

There was, of course, nothing particularly remarkable about the Boer victory at Blood River; it was only one of a number of similar victories where a small group of Europeans armed with guns were able to overcome seemingly overwhelming odds and defeat large numbers of African natives armed only with shields and spears. The Boers however regarded the victory not as a product of superior military technology but rather as a sign from God. In particular, Blood River was seen as tangible evidence of the bargain that they had made with God; in return for their faith they had been granted dominion over southern Africa. 5

The 16th December became a day of celebration throughout the Boer community known as 'Dingaan's Day', "the proudest in our history"6 as one Boer politician later put it. It became one of the key historical events that defined later Afrikaner nationalist identity and achieved an almost mythological importance, supporting their belief in their supremacy over the African natives and used as a justification for the later policy of Apartheid.

Dingaan's Day was proclaimed a public holiday when the Union of South Africa came into being in 1910 and continued to be celebrated under that name until 1952 when it became known as the 'Day of the Covenant', and later from 1980 onwards as the 'Day of the Vow'. Of course the new multi-racial South Africa pays little heed to such things but the 16th December remains a national holiday, renamed since 1995 as the 'Day of Reconciliation'.

Two memorials have been erected near to the site of the battle. The first was the Voortrekker Monument, consisting of a fort of cast-bronze wagons, specifically celebrating the Boer victory and erected on the site of Pretorius' laager. The second the Ncome Monument was inaugurated in December 1998 by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, to commemorate the amaZulu dead and is sited across the river from the Voortrekker monument.


NOTES

1 Now part of the South Africa province of KwaZulu-Natal
2 Mfecane is the IsiZulu for 'the crushing' and difaqane the Sesotho for 'forced scattering or migration'
3 DejaMorgana adds that "I don't think the reason Dingane had Retief and his people killed at uMgungundlovu was because of the guns. There was much more to it than that. Retief had already backed Dingane into a corner, threatened him in several ways and was already notorious for cheating and tricking leaders like Sekonyela. So Dingane was pretty frightened and had at that point (not so wisely) already signed away a lot of territory to Retief. He was trapped and casting about for any way to get out of this hasty agreement, and I think he believed that he could do so by killing Retief on a rather flimsy pretext."
4The covenant took the form of a prayer by Sarel Cilliers, who asked God to grant them a victory over the AmaZulu, in return for which they promised to build a church in His name and that they would forever celebrate the day with thanksgiving.
5 According to Anton Ehlers "the Battle of Blood River/Ncome, its physical monu­mental manifestation and its annual commemoration on December 16 were key components in the mythological legitimisation of Afrikaner nationalism and its apartheid manifestation in the 20th century. This battle was an important element in the master narrative of the Afrikaners as God’s holy chosen people with a mission to christianise and civilise a barbaric country given to them by God."
6F.W. Reitz former President of the Orange Free State in his A Century of Wrong


SOURCES

  • Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War (weidenfield and Nicholson, 1997)
  • Anton Ehlers, Apartheid Mythology and Symbolism. Desegregated and reinvented in the service of nation building in the new South Africa : The covenant and the battle of Blood River/Ncome http://www2.univ-reunion.fr/~ageof/text/74c21e88-617.html
  • The Battle of Blood River at http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/chronology/thisday/1838-12-16.htm
    http://www.talana.co.za/BATTLE%20OF%20BLOOD%20RIVER.htm
    http://www.encounter.co.za/article/15.html
    http://battlefields.kzn.org.za/battlefields/about
  • For a recent White Supremacist view of the battle see; The Battle of Blood River, Sermon Notes of Pastor Mark Downey http://www.kinsmanredeemer.com/BloodRiverText.htm
  • Ncome-Blood River Heritage Site http://www.voortrekkermon.org.za/Bloedrivier/BREnglish/ncome2
  • .htm

In Brief

Who: 464 Boers vs. more than 10,000 Zulu warriors.
Where: Ncome River, near Dundee, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
When: December 16, 1838
What: The slaughter of 3,000 Zulus to the point that the river ran red with Zulu blood. No Boers were killed.
Why: Revenge
How: Armed Boers formed a laager (circle of wagons, virtually impenetrable) in a very defensible position and lured the spear and shield carrying Zulus into firing range.

Longwinded Version

Murder of Piet Retief

When the British outlawed slavery in the Cape in 1834, the Afrikaner inhabitants had their world turned upside down. As a concession to the farmers at the Cape, however, they decreed that freed slaves be indentured to their former masters for 4 years. The apprenticeship period was to lapse in 1838. Not only were the Afrikaners put out because of the abolition of slavery and the replacement of Dutch (or Afrikaans) with English, but the compensation the Crown was to pay to former slave owners was paltry. In 1836, the Afrikaners organised and began to move their families - and their slaves - elsewhere. The movement became known as The Great Trek; the people as the much fabled Voortrekkers.

Piet Retief and his family and followers left the Cape in 1837. They travelled via the present-day Free State and arrived at the Drakensberg in October of that year. Aware that the land over the mountains was ruled with a sharp spear by Dingane (who had murdered his half-brother Shaka to take over the Zulu crown), Retief made use of the services of missionary Francis Owen to send a letter to Dinagane. The letter told of how Retief hoped that his people would live in peace with the Zulu, but at the same time, Retief pointed to how the Voortrekkers had defeated Matabele King Mzilikazi.

Dingane welcomed negotiations with Retief, who wanted to settle in the relatively sparsely populated area between the Tugela and Mzimvubu Rivers.

Retief was held as an astute military man, but clearly mentioning the defeat of Mzilikazi was not smart. Perhaps it was foolish arrogance. There is disagreement between the sources regarding the timing of the letter. One implies it preceded the negotiations with Dingane, and the other that it followed and contributed to Dingane's change of heart. Probably, the timing of the defeat of the Matabele is the best clue as to which is accurate.

Dingane was a megalomaniac, and accounts vary on his motivation. Some say he was worried that Retief and his followers' presence might undermine his authority. Others attribute more savvy to Dingane, saying he believed Retief's Voortrekkers were planning to ambush him.

Either to test Retief's military mettle, or as a token of the Voortrekkers’ sincerity, Dingane made an agreement over land conditional upon Retief's retrieval of cattle stolen by Sotho Chief Sekonyela. Retief did as asked, and in addition to 700 head of cattle, he acquired (one source says through trickery) from Chief Sekonyela 63 horses and a few rifles. Dingane wanted the horses and the rifles, but Retief refused to surrender them, on the grounds that they had not originally been stolen by Chief Sekonyela. Some say Retief did not surrender all the cattle they acquired, and that angered Dingane.

The cattle were returned to Dingane on February 3rd, 1838, and the agreement finalised the next day. The Voortrekkers began to move onto the land. All was well for a few days, but apparently some of Retief's men began to move closer than was comfortable to Dingane's royal court of Mgungundlovu ("The secret place of the elephant"). Some say that Retief and his men's success against Chief Sekonyela made them realise that they might not win an encounter with the Voortrekkers.

Dingane either invited Retief and his men (70 Voortrekkers and 30 Coloured (mixed-race) servants) to Mgugudlovu on the night of February 6th to celebrate the agreement, or to celebrate the return of Dingane's cattle or even as a farewell dance for the Voortrekkers. Aware of the potency of Retief's guns, Dingane instructed them to leave their weapons outside the royal kraal. It is said that as the dancing reached a climax, Dingane rose to his feet and yelled "Bambani aba thakathi!" - "Take the wizards!". The Voortrekkers were dragged away to a hill called kwaMatiwane and butchered.

Dingane's impis went on a merry dance through the Voortrekker settlements after the murder of Retief, killing hundreds of men, women and children and capturing more than 35,000 head of cattle and sheep.

Revenge

Andries Pretorius was born in 1799 and was a farmer in the Graaff-Reinet area. In 1837 he led a trek party from the town and also journeyed via the present day Free State and arrived in kwaZulu-Natal on November 22nd, 1838. Following the death of Retief, the surviving Voortrekkers in the region were leaderless. They elected Pretorius and within a week he had gathered a force to avenge Retief and his men's deaths.

The Vow


Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you. -- Lev 26:8 (NKJV)

On December 9th, 1838, Pretorius and his 464 men made a Covenant with God, which they repeated every night until the battle. If they were victorious in their battle with the Zulu, they would henceforth commemorate the day as a Sabbath and would also build a church. Though there is little doubt that Pretorius was a religious man, the covenant was a shrewd way to motivate his men. They were well aware that they would be vastly outnumbered, and morale would have been low were it not for the covenant.

Blood River

The battleground picked by Pretorius was on the western bank of the Ncome ("Peaceful One") Spruit (spring). At the chosen point, the western bank forms a 90 degree angle with a deep donga (ditch), meaning that the Voortrekkers would have only two sides to defend. Furthermore, the position of Gelato Kopje and a nearby marshy hippo pool greatly restricted the Zulu's options for attack. Their charge could only come across a treeless plain to the northwest.

On the night of December 15th, Pretorius' men enclosed their 60 wagons into a laager. Traditionally, a laager was rectangular, but Pretorius adapted it to the battlefield. Only the side next to the donga was straight; the rest of the wagons formed a crescent, so that the laager was shaped like a “D”. There is a picture of the laager at http://www.kinsmanredeemer.com/BloodRiver.htm.

The wagons were drawn close, shaft to deck, and the wheels were tied with trek chains. There was a large gateway in the centre to allow the oxen and horses to pass through the laager. Two small cannons were placed at the north-western and north-eastern corners.

The night was moonless and misty. The Zulu had planned a nocturnal attack, but in the deep darkness they had lost their way. They only found the laager just before dawn on the 16th.

When the Voortrekkers awoke, they were surprised to find themselves virtually surrounded, with the nearest Zulu warriors only about 40 metres way. There were so many warriors (accounts vary from 10,000 to 20,000, with 12,000 the most likely total) that the crowd was hundreds of metres deep. (Remember the Voortrekkers probably exagerated.) The crowd of warriors assembled before the Voortrekkers was comprised of six regiments under the leadership of Dambuza, about 6,000 warriors. A small number had crept along the donga. Dingane's best regiments, the Black and White Shields, under the leadership of Ndlela, moved up in front of the verge below the river.

Foolishly, the Zulu waited for daylight.

Pretorius ordered his men to shoot as soon as they could distinguish targets. The Zulus charged as one, another tactical mistake, as they had no room in the crowd to wield their assegais (spears) and knobkerries (clubs). Their shields were powerless against the Voortrekkers' guns. They were forced to retreat within fifteen minutes to a position about 500 metres back.

When they launched their second attack, the light had improved and the Voortrekkers' guns were more accurate. The oxen and horses inside the laager became flustered and threatened to break through. Sarel Cilliers and a few others drove the animals back, at the same time firing upon the Zulus in the donga, who were forced to abandon the position.

The Zulu retreated again, and Pretorius redirected the copper cannon towards the hill where the Zulu leaders were. The second and third rounds from the cannon were accurate, which prompted the third attack of the Zulu, which lasted about an hour. As they tried to make their third retreat, the Voortrekkers opened the gateway of the laager and released a mounted commando of approximately half the force, led by Field Cornet Bart Pretorius.

At the commando's third attempt, they split the Zulu force into two. The Zulu, having lost their cohesion, attempted to retreat but were shot as they fled. Many were shot in and alongside the river as they tried to cross to safety.

Ndlela then released his 3,000 strong elite force, but as they tried to cross the river to the battlefield, they met with the fleeing warriors travelling in the opposite direction. Those who did not turn were trampled or shot by the Voortrekkers. The remaining Zulus dispersed in all directions.

By midday there were 3,000 dead Zulus, while only three Voortrekkers had been injured. The river ran red with blood.

Pretorius' men moved on to Dingane's royal kraal and found it deserted and burning, under Dingane's orders. Dingane had fled, and the Zulu empire split between Dingane and his brother Mpande, who had opted to collaborate with the Voortrekkers. Dingane was defeated in battle against his brother in 1839 and fled for Swaziland. He was killed in battle by the Swazis in 1840.

Covenant or Tactical Victory?

The Voortrekkers kept to their end of the bargain with the Almighty, and up until the fall of apartheid, December 16th was solemnly marked as "The Day of the Vow". Many non-Afrikaners refered to the day as "Dingaan's Day", however, and the day is still marked as a national holiday, now in the form of "The Day of Reconcilliation".

There is no question that Dingane was a ruthless, bloody power-hungry man, nor that the Voortrekkers were driven by revenge and won because of superior fire-power and tactics. Any force that stops 40 metres from their sleeping enemy quite frankly deserves to lose.

One can argue that the fact that no Voortrekkers were killed despite the phenomenal outnumbering indicates that God was on their side; however the Afrikaners - or at least the apartheid government - chose to see it as an indication that the Afrikaner was a chosen race.

Nevertheless, both sides displayed impressive courage, and the event should be marked with reverence.

Sources

http://www.talana.co.za/BATTLE%20OF%20BLOOD%20RIVER.htm
http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Battle%20of%20Blood%20River
http://southafricatravel.20m.com/kzn/battlefieldsbloodriver.htm
http://battlefields.kzn.org.za/battlefields/about/
http://www.country-data.com/cgi-bin/query/r-12084.html
http://www.encounter.co.za/article/61.html
http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/people/retief-p.htm
A History of South Africa by Leonard Thompson, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1990

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