The river ran red with blood

The Day of Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion was born out of the tri­umph of bul­lets and can­nons over spears

The Sunday Independent - - METRO - RICHARD RHYS JONES umuzi veg­hekke

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.

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