Boers massacre the Zulus at Blood River

Posted in Africa, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, War on Friday, 14 October 2011

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This edited article about the Zulus originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 842 published on 4 March 1978.

Dingane the Zulu Chief, picture, image, illustration

The Boers make an agreement with Dingane, the Zulu Chief, by Severino Baraldi

The 69 Boers were in high spirits as they rode slowly through the Natal hills towards Ngungundlovo, the kraal of the Zulu king, Dingane, driving a herd of cattle before them. Almost a year earlier, they and thousands of their fellow Afrikaners – the descendants of Dutch settlers who had arrived at the Cape Colony two centuries previously – had left the Cape to escape British rule.

In Natal, they believed, they had found that home. They had met Dingane and persuaded him to give them all the land south of the Tugela River. In exchange he had asked them to recapture a small herd stolen by a minor chief in the Drakensberge (Dragon’s Mountains), the western borders of Dingane’s domain. This they had done without firing a shot: the chieftain had been too terrified to resist. Now they were returning to Dingane’s capital to claim their reward.

They left the herd outside and galloped in, firing their muskets into the air. They then settled down to drink the Zulu corn beer and await the king’s signing of the deed granting them the land.

While they waited, they watched the massed ranks of Dingane’s leading regiments perform their shuffling, stamping dances in the dusty, kilometre-wide cattle pen in the centre of the kraal.

The king duly appeared, and with great ceremony put his mark on the document. But as Piet Retief, the Boer leader, joined the men to drink a final mug of beer. Dingane suddenly rose from his throne and bellowed: “Seize them! Kill the wizards!”

Before the surprised Boers could move, they were surrounded by thousands of warriors and dragged, struggling and kicking, to a hill overlooking the kraal. There Retief was forced to watch his comrades die before he too fell under the Zulu’s assegais and knobkerries.

Months later, when another Boer commando discovered the bodies, the document granting them southern Natal was found in a pouch on Retief’s belt.

Dingane had been on the Zulu throne for ten years when the Boers first came to Ngungundlovo. For most of his 40,000 warriors, they had been quiet years compared to those of Shaka’s reign. They were spent in their kraals, dotted throughout northern Natal, with only an occasional campaign against a minor rebel clan.

Dingane himself never took part in these campaigns, spending most of his time at Ngungundlovo, the kraal he had built on the White Mfolozi to replace Shaka’s kwaBulawayo as the Zulu capital.

For the English settlers at Port Natal – now called Durban in honour of the Cape Governor Sir Benjamin D’Urban – the ten years were profitable ones with trade in ivory and hides increasing tremendously.

Then, in 1838, the Boers arrived in Natal. A year previously they had left the Cape farms in what became known as the Great Trek. Tough, independent frontiersmen, whose name meant “farmer” in their Afrikaans language, they had left to escape the restrictions of British rule and the laws which forbade slavery.

During their travels to Natal, they met the Matabele, then fleeing from Natal and, using the advantages given by their firearms and horses, easily defeated them. When news of the victory reached Dingane – who, unlike his predecessor Shaka, was no soldier – he was worried, no doubt remembering Shaka’s dying words that white men would “walk over our land.” He feared the newcomers’ strength, and may even have sent Retief to retrieve his cattle to test that strength. If so, the results must have alarmed him.

His fears became well founded when, without his permission and before he had signed Retief’s document, Boer families began streaming into his territory.

He therefore believed he was acting in self-defence when he killed the Boer party in Ngungundlovo. Ten days later his regiments attacked laagers (wagon encampments) in Natal, killing 300 men, women and children.

The Boers to the west of Drakensberge retaliated by sending a commando of several hundred men into Natal, under Piet Uys. But in their first clash with the Zulu army, Uys, his son and several others were killed, and the commando beat a hasty retreat into the mountains. A mounted force sent from Durban was also cut to ribbons.

For six months there was an uneasy peace in Natal. Then in December a combined force of 600 Boers and English settlers, taking with them two cannon, set out against Dingane. On Saturday, 15th December, after learning from scouts that a large Zulu force was nearby, they formed their wagons into a laager on the banks of the Ncome River (Blood River). With two flanks protected by the river and a deep, broad ditch, they made their camp almost impregnable by covering the wagon wheels with rawhide shields and stacking thorn bushes under and between the wagons.

At dawn the next day, the party awoke to find 12,000 Zulu warriors sitting silently watching the laager. On command from their induna, the entire impi threw itself at the laager as the Boers hastily snatched up their muskets and began firing volley after volley into the massed black ranks. Oxhide shields were no defence against the musket and cannon fire, and the Zulus were cut down in their hundreds. But for two hours the warriors charged straight into the guns. Only after one in every four had been killed and thousands wounded did they finally retire.

The Boers marched triumphantly on Ngungundlovo – hastily deserted by Dingane and his court – and after burying the bodies of Retief and his comrades, burned it to the ground.

The Boers then turned their attention to the task of building “the Free Republic of New Holland” in southern Natal. They had not yet finished with Dingane however, as there were still 5,000 head of their cattle in his kraals, taken during earlier raids.

Dingane sent back a few hundred, keeping the rest in the hope that the matter would be forgotten. After rebuilding Ngungundlovo, he began planning an invasion of Swaziland, a small, mountainous country to the north of Zululand, hoping to regain some of his military prestige.

Early in 1840 he ordered his brother, Mpande, to report to Ngungundlovo to take part in the campaign. Mpande, warned that Dingane planned to kill him, fled south, with 17,000 supporters, to seek refuge in New Holland.

For the Boers, already impatient over Dingane’s delay in returning their cattle, this was an ideal opportunity. They sent Dingane a final demand for the cattle and, when this was refused, marched north with Mpande. The force was joined, as it marched north, by hundreds of Zulus, eager to escape the climate of defeat that seemed to surround Dingane. Mpande’s force, with only a small white contingent to lend moral support, met his brother’s army at Magongo in February, 1840. After a day-long battle, the king’s army was routed, and Dingane fled to Swaziland, where he was murdered soon afterwards.

The Boers then declared Mpande the new king of the Zulus, but as a vassal of their new republic. They also extracted a high price for their assistance, and returned to their capital, Pietermaritzburg, with 60,000 head of cattle and 1,000 young Zulu “apprentices” to work in conditions of virtual slavery.

Zululand had survived the first onslaught of European armed might, but it was to be 40 years before the once mighty nation regained some of its lost pride – by defeating an army of the world’s most powerful empire.

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