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The bloody Battle of Blood River and
the Voortrekker-Zulu war

The battle of Blood River was one of the great tragedies in the history of the many Voortrekkers leaving the Cape colony, to move to the Natal region on the eastern coast of South Africa.


At that time Natal was largely inhabited by the Zulus, who had developed into one of the strongest and most powerful black nations of Africa.

So the land in Natal was not for the taking. And the Voortrekkers had to negotiate with King Dingane of the Zulu nation, to buy land from them.

He promised them land between the Tugela river and the Umzimvubu river in the south of Zululand.

Having left the Cape on March 1837, Voortrekker leader Piet Retief and his party of about 400 Voortrekkers opted for natal as their destination.

They initiated negotiations with reigning Zulu king Dingane, to obtain land. Dingane promised that he was willing to cede to the Voortrekkers the land between the Tugela river and the Umzimvubu river in the south of Zululand.

In return Dingane wanted the Voortrekkers to recover andreturn cattle, horses and a few rifles that were stolen by renegade chief Sikyonela.

Sketch of a Voortrekker with his wagon encampment in the background - Battle of Blood River
Sketch of a Voortrekker with his wagon encampment in the background
The The Bloody Battle of Blood River

Piet Retief agreed and sent messengers ahead to bring the Voortrekkers the good news. Upon his return they were already crossing the Drakensberg mountains into Zululand. With the land deal concluded, Retief was able to convince Voortrekker leaders Gerrit Maritz and Andries Potgieter and their groups of Voortrekkers to join him.

A month later Retief visited Chief Sikyonela and recovered Dingane’s cattle, horses and guns, taking more then was stolen as a fine. He was now ready to finalize the land deal with Dingane. Retief was warned however not to go Dingane’s kraal, because of the King’s penchant for treachery, but he felt that the final conclusion of the transaction agreement with Dingane was too important.

Zulu chief with his weapons and shield at the Shakaland Zulu cultural village - Battle of Blood River
Zulu Induna (chief) with his weapons and shield at the Shakaland Zulu cultural village
The The Bloody Battle of Blood River - copyright © South African tourism

In the last week of January 1838, accompanied by a party of about of 69 Voortrekkers, Retief started the journey with the recovered cattle and horses to Umgungundlovu to visit Dingane for the second time. Meanwhile Dingane had learnt that Retief had taken more cattle and horses from Sikyonela then what needed to be recovered, with the intention to keep those for himself, that the Voortrekkers already had entered Natal in large numbers, and that Andries Potgieter and his Voortrekkers with their powerful guns had defeated the Matabele people.

The seeds of perfidy had been sown. Having arrived at Umgungundlovu, the King kept Retief and his company waiting for several days, entertaining them with displays of dancing and mock battles. Even though he had already decided to have them all killed, Dingane signed the treaty ceding the land to the Voortrekkers.

The next day, the 6th of February 1838, Retief and his men were invited to a farewell celebration at Dingane's kraal. To show their respect, they were asked not to bring their weapons. At the height of the celebrations, consisting mainly of dance performances by Zulu warriors, Dingane leapt up and shouted "Bamabani abathakathli!" (Kill the wizards). Retief and everybody with him were overpowered and executed KwaMatiwane hill, Retief being the last one to die.

Sketch of the Zulu king Dingane chanting over the dead body of Piet Retief - Battle of Blood River
Sketch of the Zulu king Dingane chanting over the dead body of Piet Retief
The The Bloody Battle of Blood River - copyright © South African tourism

Dingane’s next step was to try and exterminate all the Voortrekkers that had entered his territory, sending his 15,000 men army to attack the dispersed Voortrekker Laagers (encampments). Unsuspecting the Voortrekkers were encamped at the foot of the Drakensberg mountains, expecting good news from Retief’s meeting with Dingane.

To them the Zulu attack came as a total surprise. Their laagers were completely wiped out at Weenen, Bloukrans and Moordplaats, with hundreds of men, women and children killed. Some of the laagers further away were warned in time of the coming attack and they had been able to repulse some of the attacks.

Licking their wounds and shocked close to despair, the Voortrekkers in their anguish to survive and seeking revenge, saw attack as the only way of defence. On 5 April 1838 a force under commandant Dirk Uys rode out towards Umgungundlovu, followed by Andries Potgieter and his men. At Ithaleni near the Zulu capital, they ran into a Zulu ambush. Commandant Uys and many of his men were killed, while the survivors were scattered and driven off.

Young Zulus performing a warrior dance - Battle of Blood River
Young Zulus performing a warrior dance
The The Bloody Battle of Blood River - copyright © South African tourism

For the Voortrekkers this was almost the last straw and their spirits were at their lowest ebb. On the 12th of August 1838 they were attacked again by the Zulus at “Veglaer”. This attack lasted a full three days and nights. But this time the tide was to turn in favour of the Voortrekkers. Making their last stand last, the Voortrekkers were able to repulse attack after attack.

Finally, at the end of the third day, the Zulus called off the attack and disappeared, leaving hundreds of dead warriors behind. Only one Voortrekker lost his life. This proved to be the turning point. Although the death of their leader Gerrit Maritz after a long illness was a further set-back, things started to improve.

A much needed new strong leader was found in the person of Andries Pretorius, who arrived in natal on the 22nd of November 1838. He lost no time in getting things back on track under the Voortrekkers. Together with a force of almost 500 men and over 60 wagons loaded with provisions and gunpowder, he moved into Zululand to seek vengeance.

Portrait of Andries Pretorius, leader of the Voortrekkers in the Battle of Blood River
Portrait of Andries Pretorius, leader of the Voortrekkers in the Battle of Blood River
The The Bloody Battle of Blood River

With the simple strategy of marching straight to the Zulu capital Umgungundlovu and destroying the enemy when encountered, with the odds stacked against them, they realized that they needed the help from above. On the 9th of December they made a vow to God, that if God granted them victory, they would forever honour Him by observing that day as a Sabbath and by building a church as a memorial for future generations. They were to repeat this vow every night until they encountered then Zulus.

Upon receiving reports that the Zulu army was on its way to meet them, the Voortrekkers looked for a strong position to form their Laager (encampment) and make their stand. Having reached the banks of the Ncome river on 15 December, Pretorius choose a position with the Ncome river protecting the laager from the east and a fairly deep donga (ravine) protecting it from the south. This would force the Zulus to attack across open plain terrain from the north and the west.

Map of Voortrekker and Zulu positions during the Battle of blood River
Map of Voortrekker and Zulu positions during the Battle of blood River

Because of misty conditions on the evening and night of the 15th of December and having misjudged the distance to the Voortrekker Laager, only about half of the 15,000 men strong Zulu army had been able to cross the Ncome river and reach their attacking positions.

Instead of waiting until the rest of the army had crossed the river, they attacked at dawn of the morning of the 16th December 1838. This proved to be a fatal mistake. With their guns and two canons proving to be the equalizing factor, the Voortrekkers were able to repulse them charge after charge, while the Zulus that were still trying to cross the river, were cut down easily.

Running out of ammunition at the end of the day Pretorius chanced a desperate charge on horseback by 300 men, splitting the Zulu army. By this time the Ncome river was coloured red from Zulu blood (hence the name Blood River) and over 3000 Zulu warriors had already died. Not a single Voortrekker was killed. At nightfall the Zulus gave up and retreated and so the battle of Blood River came to an end.

Sketch of the Battle of Blood river
Sketch of the Battle of Blood river

Four days after the battle of Blood River, Andries Pretorius and his victorious Voortrekkers reached the Zulu capital Umgungundlovu on the 20th of December 1838, finding it deserted and completely burnt down. On KwaMatiwane hill they found the remains of Piet Retief and his party.

Surprisingly enough, the satchel with the treaty ceding the land to the Voortrekkers, was still intact on Retief’s body. Chased by the Voortrekkers and his revolting half-brother Mpande, Dingane fled to Swaziland where he was later killed by local chiefs and his own Indunas.

Blood River monument, a replica of the fortified Voortrekker Laager on the site of the Battle of Blood River
Blood River monument, a replica of the fortified Voortrekker Laager on the site of the Battle of Blood River
copyright © South African tourism

Keeping their Vow, the Voortrekkers built a memorial church in Pietermaritzburg (named after their leaders Piet Retief and Gerrit Maritz) two years later. In commemoration, the 16th of December was known and celebrated as "Dingane's day" until 1910.

Thereafter it was renamed "Day of the Vow" and recognized as a public holiday by the first South African government. With the end of apartheid in 1994, the day was kept as a public holiday in a conciliatory gesture to the "Afrikaner" population, but renamed "Day of Reconciliation".






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