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 15,000–21,000 Zulu attackers on the bank of the Ncome River on 16 December 1838, in what is today KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Casualties amounted to 3,000 of king Dingane's soldiers dead, including two Zulu princes competing with prince Mpande for the Zulu throne. Three Pioneers commando members were lightly wounded, including Pretorius himself.
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 dynasty.
The Trekkers—called Voortrekkers after 1880—had to defend themselves after the betrayal murder of chief Trekker leader Piet Retief, his entire entourage, and some of their women and children living in temporary wagon encampments during 1838.
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, which included Trekker access to Port Natal in which Britain had imperial interest, 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 soldiers, Dingane suddenly accused the visiting party of witchcraft. 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. According to Reader, in Africa, this document was a forgery.
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.
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 Wagon 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 cannon were positioned.
Mist settled over the wagon site that evening. According to Afrikaner traditions, the Zulu were afraid to attack in the night due to 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 or 6,000 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:
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.
In November 1838 460 men set out under Boer General Andries Pretorius to take on the Zulus. Andries Pretorius selected Jan Gerritze Bantjes (1817-1887) as his scribe and secretary in recording events of the campaign and coming retaliation battle with the Zulus. Bantjes wrote in his journal the daily progress of the commando from when they started out on 27 November 1838 until they reached their selected battle site over two weeks later on 15 December. They avoided being led into a trap as happened on the previous attempt to attack the Zulus in April which ended almost in disaster. On the journey, they had small skirmishes with various kraals but the main Zulu army had not arrived yet to attack. Boer and Zulu scouts were constantly monitoring each other's whereabouts. On Sunday, 9 December as Bantjes wrote in his journal, the Boers congregated under a clear sky to sing appropriate psalms and celebrate the Sabbath, taking a vow which became known as the "Day of The Vow or Covenant" that "if the Lord might give us victory, we hereby deem to found a house as a memorial of his Great Name at a place where it shall please Him, and that they also implore the help and assistance of God in accomplishing this Vow and that they write down this Day of Victory in a book and disclose this event to our very last posterities in order that this will forever be celebrated in the honour of God."
On Sunday 16 December 1838, while laagered near the Umslatos River or Hippo Pool, they were attacked by more than 30,000 Zulus, being outnumbered more than 60 to 1.
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. After three hours, the Boers had killed an estimated 3,000 Zulu soldiers and had only three of their men wounded, among them Pretorius. Jan Gerritze Bantjes kept his journal of the entire campaign and the Battle of Blood River. The Zulu withdrew in defeat, many crossing the river which had turned red with blood and thereafter known as the Battle of Blood River. The Boers celebrated the Day of the Covenant every year on 16 December and most of them credit the victory to God. After the battle, follow up attacks on the capital UmGungundlovu set the Zulu King Dingaan to flight with what retainers chose to follow him into exile.
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".
With UmGungundlovu as Dingane's political power base destroyed, and Dingane's military might weakened due to the disastrous Battle of Blood River, Prince Mpande openly joined into the military alliance with Pretorius. The Zulu civil war erupted into the open.
Following the Battle of Maqongqe in January 1840, the forces of Mpande did not wait for Pretorius' cavalry to arrive, and attacked the remaining regiments of Dingane, who were again under the command of general Ndlela, as at the previous Battle of Blood River.
Again Dingane's general 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.
After Maquongqe Dingane had to flee Natal completely, but before he did so, he had general Ndlela slowly strangled by cow hide for high treason,on the grounds that he had fought for, instead of against 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.
Afterwards Pretorius approved and attended the crowning of Zulu King Mpande in Pietermaritzburg. They agreed on the Tugela river as the border between Zululand and the Republic of Natalia.
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- Welcome to DISA
- Mackenzie, S.P (1997). Revolutionary Armies in the Modern Era: A Revisionist Approach. Routledge. pp. 75–76. ISBN 978-0-415-09690-4.
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