Battle of Blood River
The Battle of Blood River (Afrikaans: Slag van Bloedrivier; Zulu: iMpi yaseNcome) is the name given for the battle fought between 470 Voortrekkers ("Pioneers"), led by Andries Pretorius, and an estimated "10,000 to 15,000" Zulu on the bank of the Ncome River on 16 December 1838, in what is today KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Casualties amounted to over 3,000 of King Dingane's soldiers dead, including two Zulu princes competing with Prince Mpande for the Zulu throne. Three Pioneer commando members were lightly wounded, including Pretorius.
The year 1838 was the most difficult period for the Voortrekkers since they left the Cape Colony, till the end of the Great Trek. They were plagued by many disasters and much bloodshed before they found freedom and a safe homeland in their Republic of Natalia. This could only be achieved by crushing the power of the Zulu King, Dingane, at the greatest battle ever fought in South Africa, namely the Battle of Blood River, which took place on Sunday 16 December 1838.
In the sequel to the Battle of Blood River in January 1840, Prince Mpande finally defeated King Dingane in the Battle of Maqongqe and was subsequently crowned as new king of the Zulu by his alliance partner Andries Pretorius. After these two battles, Dingane's prime minister and commander in both the Battle of Maqongqe and the Battle of Blood River, General Ndlela, was strangled to death by Dingane for high treason. General Ndlela had been the personal protector of Prince Mpande, who after the Battles of Blood River and Maqongqe, became king and founder of the Zulu.
The trekkers—called Voortrekkers after 1880—had to defend themselves after the betrayal murder of chief Trekker leader Piet Retief and his entire entourage, and ten days later the Weenen massacre where "not a soul was spared."
Dingane had agreed that, if Retief could recover approximately 700 head of cattle stolen from the Zulus by the Tlokwa, he would let them have land upon which to establish farms.
On 6 February 1838, two days after the signing of a negotiated land settlement deal between Retief and Dingane at UmGungundlovu, written by Jan Gerritze Bantjes which included Trekker access to Port Natal in which Britain had imperial interests, Dingane invited Retief and his party into his royal residence for a beer-drinking farewell. The accompanying request for the surrender of Trekker muskets at the entrance was taken as normal protocol when appearing before the king. While the Trekkers were being entertained by Dingane's dancing warriors/soldiers, Dingane suddenly accused the visiting party of witchcraft and ordered his men: "Bulalani abathakathi" (Kill the sorcerers...). Dingane's soldiers then proceeded to impale all Retief's men, lastly clubbing to death Retief, while leaving the Natal treaty in his handbag intact.
Immediately after the UmGungundlovu massacre, Dingane sent out his impis (regiments) to attack several Trekker encampments at night time, killing an estimated 500 men, women, children, and servants, most notably at Blaukraans.
Help arrived from farmers in the Cape Colony, and the Trekkers in Natal subsequently requested the pro-independence Andries Pretorius to leave the Cape Colony, in order to defend the Voortrekkers who had settled in Natal.
After the Battle of Blood River, the Dingane-Retief treaty was found on Retief's bodily remains, providing a driving force for an overt alliance against Dingane between Prince Mpande and Pretorius.
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War strategies of the generals
On 26 November 1838, Andries Pretorius was appointed as general of a wagon commando directed against Dingane at UmGungundlovu. By December 1838, Prince Mpande and 17,000 followers had already fled from Dingane, who was seeking to assassinate Mpande. In support of Prince Mpande as Dingane's replacement, Pretorius' strategy was to target Dingane only. To allow Prince Mpande to oust King Dingane through military might, Pretorius had first to weaken Dingane's personal military power base in UmGungundlovu. Dingane's royal residence at UmGungundlovu was naturally protected against attack by hilly and rocky terrain all around, as well as an access route via Italeni passing through a narrow gorge called a defile.
Earlier on 9 April 1838, a Trekker horse commando without ox wagons, thereafter called the "Flight Commando", had unsuccessfully attempted to penetrate the UmGungundlovu defence at nearby Italeni, resulting in the loss of several Trekker lives. Trekker leader Hendrik Potgieter had abandoned all hope of engaging Dingane in UmGungundlovu after losing the battle of Italeni, and subsequently had migrated with his group out of Natal. To approach UmGungundlovu via the Italeni defile with ox wagons would force the wagons into an open column, instead of an enclosed laager as successfully employed defensively at Veglaer on 12 August 1838.
The military commander during Dingane's attack on Veglaer was Ndlela kaSompisi. The highly experienced general Ndlela had served under Shaka, and was also prime minister and chief advisor under Dingane. Ndlela with his 10,000 troops had retreated from Veglaer, after three days and nights of fruitless attempts to penetrate the enclosed Trekker wagon laager.
General Ndlela personally protected Prince Mpande from Dingane's repeated assassination plans. King Dingane desired to have his half brother Mpande, the only prince with children, eliminated as a threat to his throne. Prince Mpande was married to Msukilethe, a daughter of general Ndlela. General Ndlela, like Pretorius the promoter of Prince Mpande, was responsible for Dingane's UmGungundlovu defence during the Trekkers' second attack attempt under Pretorius in December 1838. Given general Ndlela's previous defence and attack experience at Italeni and Veglaer during April 1838 and August 1838 respectively, Ndlela's tactical options were limited. Proven UmGungundlovu defence tactics were to attack Trekker commandos in the rocky and hilly terrain on the narrowing access route at Italeni, thereby neutralising the advantages mounted riflemen had over spear-carrying foot soldiers. Ndlela had to let Pretorius come close to UmGungundlovu at Italeni and lure the Trekkers into attack. Ndlela was not to attack the Trekkers when they were in a defensive wagon laager position, especially not during the day. The problem for Pretorius was that he had somehow to find a way to make Dingane's soldiers attack him in a defensive laager position at a place of his choice, far away from UmGungundlovu and Italeni.
On 6 December 1838, 10 days before the Battle of Blood River, Pretorius and his commando including Alexander Biggar as translator had a meeting with friendly Zulu chiefs at Danskraal, so named for the Zulu dancing that took place in the Zulu kraal that the Trekker commando visited. With the intelligence received at Danskraal, Pretorius became confident enough to propose a vow, which demanded the celebration, by the commando and their posterity, of the coming victory over Dingane. The covenant included that a church would be built in honour of God, should the commando be successful and reach UmGungundlovu alive in order to diminish the power of Dingane. Building a church in Trekker emigrant context was symbol for establishing a settled state.
After the meeting with friendly Zulu chiefs at Danskraal, Pretorius let the commando relax and do their washing for a few days at Wasbank till 9 December 1838. From Wasbank they slowly and daily moved closer to the site of the Battle of Blood River, practising laager defence tactics every evening for a week long. Then, by halting his advance towards UmGungundlovu on 15 December 1838, 40 km before reaching the defile at Italeni, Pretorius had eliminated the Italeni terrain trap.
On 14 December 1838, after the Trekker wagons crossed the Buffalo River, 50 kilometres (31 mi) away from their target UmGungundlovu via the risky Italeni access route, an advance scouting party including Pretorius brought news of large Zulu forces arriving nearby. While Cilliers wanted to ride out and attack, Pretorius declined the opportunity to engage Dingane's soldiers far away from their base and Italeni. Instead Pretorius built a fortified laager on terrain of his own choosing, in the hope that general Ndlela would attack it as at Veglaer.
As the site for the overnight wagon camp, Pretorius chose a defensible area next to a hippo pool in the Ncome River that provided excellent rear protection. The open area to the front provided no cover for an attacking force, and a deep dry river bed protected one of the wagon laager flanks. As usual, the ox wagons were drawn into a protective enclosure or laager. Movable wooden barriers that could be opened quickly were fastened between each wagon to prevent intruders, and two smoothbore artillery pieces were positioned. Andries Pretorius had brought a 6-pound naval carronade with him from the Cape, mounted on a gun carriage improvised from a wagon axle, and named Grietjie. The other ordnance piece is unknown in the original, but the reproduction depicts a 4-pound smoothbore cannon by then obsolete in most European armies. Both were used to fire grapeshot.
Mist settled over the wagon site that evening. According to Afrikaner traditions, the Zulu were afraid to attack in the night because of superstitions about the lamps which the Boers hung on sjamboks [whip-stocks] around the laager. Whether or not there is any truth in this, historian S.P. Mackenzie has speculated that the Zulu held back until what they perceived as the necessary numbers had arrived.
During the night of 15 December, six Zulu regiments, an estimated 20,000 Zulu soldiers led by Dambuza (Nzobo), crossed the Ncome River and started massing around the encampment, while the elite forces of senior general Ndlela did not cross the river. Ndlela thereby split Dingane's army in two.
On 16 December, dawn broke on a clear day, revealing that "all of Zululand sat there", according to one Trekker eyewitness. But General Ndlela and his crack troops, the Black and White Shields, remained on the other side of the river, observing Dambuza's men at the laager from a safe position across the hippo pool. According to the South African Department of Art and Culture:
In ceremonies that lasted about three days, izinyanga zempi, specialist war doctors, prepared izinteleze medicines which made warriors invincible in the face of their opponents.
This could explain why Dambuza's forces were sitting on the ground close to the wagon laager when the Trekkers opened fire during the day.
Only Dambuza's regiments repeatedly stormed the laager unsuccessfully. The attackers were hindered by a change introduced during Shaka's rule that replaced most of the longer throwing spears with short stabbing spears. In close combat the stabbing spear provided obvious advantages over its longer cousin. A Zulu eyewitness said that their first charge was mown down like grass by the single-shot Boer muskets.
As Bantjes wrote in his journal:
Sunday, December 16 was like being newly born for us - the sky was clear, the weather fine and bright. We hardly saw the twilight of the break of day or the guards, who were still at their posts and could just make out the distant Zulus approaching. All the patrols were called back into the laager by firing alarm signals from the cannons. The enemy came forward at full speed and suddenly they had encircled the area around the laager. As it got lighter, so we could see them approaching over their predecessors who had already been shot back. Their rapid approach (though terrifying to witness due to their great numbers) was an impressive sight. The Zulus came in regiments, each captain with his men behind (as the patrols had seen them coming the day before) until they had surrounded us. I could not count them, but I was told that a captive Zulu gave the number at thirty-six regiments, each regiment calculated to be "nine hundred to a thousand men" strong.
The battle now began and the cannons unleashed from each gate, such that the battle was fierce and noisy, even the discharging of small arms fire from our marksmen on all sides was like thunder. After more than two hours of fierce battle, the Commander in Chief gave orders that the gates be opened and mounted men sent to fight the enemy in fast attacks, as the enemy near constantly stormed the laager time and again, and he feared the ammunition would soon run out.
With the power of their firearms and with their ox wagons in a laager formation and some excellent tactics, the Boers fought off the Zulu. Buckshot was used to maximise casualties. Mackenzie claims that 200 indigenous servants looked after the horses and cattle and helped load muskets, but no definite proof or witness of servants helping to reload is available. Writing in the popular Afrikaans magazine, Die Huisgenoot, a Dr. D.J. Kotze said that this group consisted of 59 "non-white" helpers and three English settlers with their black "followers".
After two hours and four waves of attack, with the intermittent lulls providing crucial reloading and resting opportunities for the Trekkers, Pretorius ordered a group of horsemen to leave the encampment and engage the Zulu in order to disintegrate their formations. The Zulu withstood the charge for some time, but rapid losses led them to scatter. The Trekkers pursued their fleeing enemies and hunted them down for three hours. Cilliers noted later that "we left the Kafirs lying on the ground as thick almost as pumpkins upon the field that has borne a plentiful crop." Bantjes recorded that about 3,000 dead Zulu had been counted, and three Trekkers were wounded. During the chase, Pretorius was wounded in his left hand by an assegaai (Zulu spear). Of the 3,000 dead Zulu soldiers, two were princes, leaving Ndlela's favourite Prince Mpande as frontrunner in the subsequent battle for the Zulu crown.
Four days after the Battle of Blood River, the Trekker commando arrived at King Dingane's great kraal UmGungundlovu (near present-day Eshowe), only to find it deserted and ablaze. The bones of Retief and his men were found and buried, where a memorial stands today. Afterwards the clash was commemorated as having occurred at Blood River (Bloedrivier). 16 December is a public holiday in South Africa; before 1994 it was known as "the Day of the Vow", "the Day of the Covenant" and "Dingaan's Day"; but today it is "the Day of Reconciliation".
The conflict between Dingane and the Trekkers continued for one more year after the Battle of Blood River. The idea of a decisive victory may have been planted in Pretorius' mind by a Zulu prisoner, who said that most of Dingane's warriors had either been killed or had fled. The same prisoner led some of the Trekker party into a trap at the White Umfolozi River, eleven days after the battle at Ncome River. This time the Zulu were victorious. Only when Dingane's brother, Mpande, openly joined the Trekker side with his sizeable army, was Dingane finally defeated in January 1840.
Following the Battle of Maqongqe in January 1840, the forces of Mpande did not wait for Pretorius' cavalry to arrive, and they attacked the remaining regiments of Dingane, who were again under the command of General Ndlela. Ndlela strayed from normal fighting tactics against Mpande, sending in his regiments to fight one at a time, instead of together in ox horn formation. Maquongqe Dingane had to flee Natal completely, but before he did so, he had Ndlela slowly strangled by cow hide for high treason, on the grounds that he had fought for Mpande, with the same disastrous result for Dingane as at Ncome-Blood River. Dambusa, Dingane's other general, had already been executed by Mpande and Pretorius when he fell into their hands before the battle.
Popular Afrikaner interpretations of the Battle of Blood River (bolstered by sympathetic English historians such as George Theal) played a central role in fostering Afrikaner nationalism. They believe that the battle demonstrated God's intervention and hence their divine right to exist as an independent people. This is stated in the official guidebook of the Voortrekker Monument (unveiled during the centenary celebrations of the Great Trek on 16 December 1949) that Afrikaners were a nation of heroes exemplifies the conclusions drawn from such events. From the day of the vow, Afrikaners consider the site and the commemoration of the day as sacred.
Historian S.P. Mackenzie doubts the reported number of Zulu deaths. He compares Zulu casualties at Ncome to battles at Italeni, Isandlwana, and Rorke's Drift. Mackenzie acknowledges that the casualty count was not impossible. Yet, in a similar victory on 15 October 1836 by Trekkers under Hendrik Potgieter over some 9,000 Matabele, the latter suffered only 350 casualties. In 1879, 600 British soldiers with breech-loading rifles causing 2,000 Zulu casualties, perhaps 1,000 killed over three hours before being overrun.
Ncome/Blood River monument
A church, called "the Church of the Vow", was built in the Natal town of Pietermaritzburg in 1841, where Pretorius settled on the farm "Welverdient" (English: "Well-earned"), a gift from the Trekkers.
A monument was erected on the site of the battle in 1947, consisting of an ox wagon executed in granite by the sculptor Coert Steynberg. In 1971 a laager of 64 ox wagons cast in bronze (by Unifront Foundry in Edenvale — Fanie de Klerk and Jack Cowlard) was erected, and unveiled on 16 December 1972.
The Ncome monument on the east side of the river commemorates the fallen Zulu warriors. While the Blood River Memorial is associated with Afrikaner nationalism, the Ncome monument was intended as a symbol of reconciliation—but has become connected with Zulu nationalism.
At the 16 December 1998 inauguration of the most recent version of the monument, the Zulu politician and then Minister of Home Affairs, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, apologized to the Afrikaner nation for the death of Piet Retief and the subsequent suffering. At the same time Buthelezi also noted the suffering of the Zulu under British Colonial and Afrikaner rule during apartheid. He stressed that South Africans needed to consider the day as "a new covenant which binds us to the shared commitment of building a new country."
South Africa's ex-president, Jacob Zuma, attended the official inauguration of the Ndlela monument in Eshowe, Kwazulu-Natal.
- Battle of Isandlwana
- Day of the Vow
- List of battles 1801–1900
- Military history of South Africa
- The symbolism of the Voortrekker Monument
- Voortrekker Monument
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