The river ran red with blood
The Day of Reconciliation was born out of the triumph of bullets and cannons over spears
THE epic Battle of Blood River on this day, 180 years ago, ended 10 months of fierce Zulu attacks on Voortrekker families and avenged the deaths of Piet Retief and his 70 companions at King Dingaan’s on February 6, 1838.
Eleven days later, on Dingaan’s orders, impis attacked Voortrekker camps in the Bloukrans and Bushmans River valleys near present-day Estcourt, killing 97 adults (mainly women), 185 children and 250 servants.
Dingaan ordered another section of his army to wipe out the British settlers in Port Natal but, when warned by friendly natives, they took to rowing boats and boarded a ship moored in the bay. The Zulus looted the settlement’s mud-and-daub buildings, set them on fire and left three days later.
After trek leader Gert Maritz, 41, died of fever on September 23, the Boers were leaderless until Andries Pretorius arrived in November with 60 followers and two small cannons.
Pretorius, 40, who led a crack 800-strong commando in the Sixth Frontier War of 1835, was immediately elected commandant-general of the migrant community and began to organise a united commando to attack the Zulus in their own territory.
His 472 men were joined by Karel Landman and his Natal Boers, and English settler Alexander Biggar with a ship’s cannon and force of coastal blacks who had escaped Dingaan’s pogroms. The commando set out on November 27 and en route held a service promising that a church would be built in thanksgiving and the day The Battle of Blood River shaped the future of this country and was the undoing of Dingaan, Shaka’s successor would forever be commemorated if they won.
Chief scout Hans de Lange, sent ahead by Pretorius, selected a defendable position alongside the Ncome River, and when the commando arrived on December 15 their 64 wagons were formed into a D-shaped laager on a spit of land on the west bank.
The first row of wagons overlooked a 5.4m-deep donga that protected the defenders from attacks launched from the east and south, a second skirted a broad and unfordable stretch of water, and the third faced open veld.
Pretorius’s plans included speciallymade wooden (fighting gates) that slotted between wagons.
Their muzzle-loading muskets were accurate to about 80m and, although they loosed off between two and four shots a minute, eight men manning gaps between the wagons were trained to fire and load in rotation. After the first weapon was used, helpers handed over another primed and loaded gun.
Defenders each carried gunpowder and leather bags containing buckshot, and the cannons were loaded with grapeshot, pieces of metal and stones.
Packed inside the laager were 472 commandos, 217 mixed-race servants and five English settlers with 120 friendly Port Natal blacks, a total of 814 men. The 700 oxen and 750 horses were tied together and handlers calmed them during the action.
Informed by spies of the commando’s advance, Dingaan sent 12 000 warriors to confront the invaders. Before dawn on December 16, about 3 000 Zulus had crossed the river and were sitting quietly 150m from the laager, having swallowed muti the witchdoctors said made them invincible.
As the sun burned off the early morning mist it seemed to the Voortrekkers that the entire Zulu nation had arrived, and they gave thanks that the day would be hot and rainless and their gunpowder dry.
When ordered to attack, the young warriors sprang up, drummed on their shields with their assegais and shouted war cries as they ran.
They were met with a devastating fire from the muskets and cannons which tore great swathes in their closely-packed ranks.
At this stage the main body of 9 000 Zulus arrived from the southeast and also came under heavy fire.
Using the traditional encircling form of attack, the right horn and the chest tried to advance at different points but were stymied by the defensive formation of impenetrable wagons. The impetuous younger men in the right horn stormed across the flat area between the donga and the river with the experienced fighters in the chest close behind.
As those in the vanguard were shot down in droves the frustrated older men tried to push through them to reach the defenders. The cohesion of the Zulu ranks broke down and they became difficult to control.
Despite courageous charges across the open plain littered with their own dead, they failed to break into the laager. Some sought refuge in the deep donga where they were bunched together and hindered one another’s movements. Seeing their panic, and concerned about his dwindling ammunition, Pretorius sent out 150 mounted men to split the Zulu army in two.
Warriors trying to cross the river were shot in mid-stream. Others who tried to ford lower down became mixed up with a retreating impi and hundreds died underfoot.
The Ncome ran red with the blood of 1 000 warriors and was later renamed Blood River.
The battlefield was strewn with 3 000 Zulu bodies. Only three Boer defenders were wounded. One was Pretorius, who had been stabbed through his left hand during the final victorious mounted charge.
By noon, the battle of Blood River, a momentous event that ended Dingaan’s rule and affected the future of all South Africans, was over and the defenders held a thanksgiving service.
The Voortrekkers honoured their oath by building the Church of the Vow in Pietermaritzburg in 1841 which is now part of an impressive museum complex in the provincial capital.