Friday, December 16, 2011

Battle of Blood River: 16 December 1838

 The Battle of Blood River, so called due to the colour of water in the Ncome River turning red with blood, (Afrikaans: Slag van Bloedrivier; Zulu: iMpi yaseNcome) was fought between 470 Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius, and an estimated 10,000–15,000 Zulu attackers on the bank of the Ncome River on 16 December 1838, in what is today KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Casualties amounted to three thousand of king Dingane's soldiers dead, including two Zulu princes competing with prince Mpande for the Zulu throne. Three Trekker commando members were lightly wounded, including Pretorius himself.

In the sequel to the Battle of Blood River in January 1840, prince Mpande finally defeated Dingane in the Battle of Maqongqe, and was subsequently crowned as new king of the Zulus by his alliance partner Andries Pretorius.

After these two battles of succession, Dingane's prime minister and commander in both the Battle of Maqonqe and the Battle of Blood River, general Ndlela, was strangled to death by Dingane on account of 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.

Prelude to the battle

The Trekkers—called Voortrekkers after 1880[1]—decided to dethrone Zulu chief Dingane kaSenzangakhona after the murder of chief Trekker leader Piet Retief, his entire entourage, and some of their women and children living in temporary wagon encampments during 1838.

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.

Immediately after the UmGungundlovu massacre, Dingane sent out his impis (warriors) to attack several Trekker encampments at night time, killing an estimated 500 men, women, children, and servants, most notably at Blaukraans.[2]

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 dethrone chief Dingane.
After the Battle of Blood River, the Dingane-Retief treaty was found on Retief's bodily remains,[3] providing a driving force for an overt alliance against Dingane between Zulu prince Mpande and Pretorius.

War strategies of the generals

On November 26, 1838, Andries Pretorius was appointed as general of a wagon commando directed against Dingane at UmGungundlovu, which means "the secret conclave of the elephant". By December 1838, Zulu prince Mpande and 17,000 followers had already fled from Dingane, who was seeking to assassinate Mpande.[4] 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 August 12, 1838.

The military commander during Dingane's attack on Veglaer, was top general 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—whom Pretorius later crowned as Zulu king in 1840[5]—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.[4] Prince Mpande was married to Msukilethe, a daughter of general Ndlela.

General Ndlela, like Pretorius the promotor 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.[6] 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 was for Pretorius—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 so-called covenant included that a church would be built in honour of God, should the commando somehow 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, like the Republic of Natalia, which was established during 1840, when the Dingane-Retief treaty was implemented under king Mpande.

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, practicing 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.

The Battle

On 15 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 in 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 like 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 cannons were positioned.[7]
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.[8] Those Afrikaner traditions may likewise be classified superstitious, as a rational reason for the Zulu force not attacking that night would be that general Ndlela needed only to wait until the wagon commando had to move out of its defensive position within a week, or until it rained—rendering the muskets useless. Mackenzie speculated that the Zulu held back until what they perceived as the necessary numbers had arrived.[6]

During the night of 15 December, 6 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'", said one Trekker eyewitness.[6] 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.[9] In close combat the stabbing spear provided obvious advantages over its longer cousin. A Zulu eyewitness said that their first charge was mowed down like grass by the single-shot Boer muskets.[9]

The Trekkers brought to bear their full firepower by having their women and children and servants reload other muskets, allowing a single rifleman and a band of servants to fire a shot approximately every 5 seconds. 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".[10]

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.[9] 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."[11]
Bantjes recorded that about 3,000 dead Zulu had been counted, and three Trekkers were wounded.[9] During the chase, Pretorius was wounded in his left hand by an assegaai (Zulu spear).
Of the 3,000 dead Zulus, 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 Dingane's great kraal Mgungundlovu (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;[12] before 1994 it was known as the Day of the Vow, Day of the Covenant and Dingaan's Day; but today it is the Day of Reconciliation.[13]

Aftermath of the battle

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.

At the following 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 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,[14] as during the losing battle of Maqongqe against the Mpande-Pretorius alliance, Ndlela had fought for, instead of against Mpande, with the same disastrous result for Dingane as at Ncome-Blood River.
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.
Thanks to general Ndlela ka Sompisi, king Mpande became the founder of the contemporary Zulu dynasty to this day. The dynasty was meant to end the unstable transfer of ruling Zulu power via the assassinations of kings and the purging of princes, which Ndlela himself had experienced, whilst serving in the highest positions in both the Shaka and Dingane regimes.
For the above specifically—the implementation of a more stable way of Zulu ruler succession through Mpande as the root of Zulu dynasty—and for his genius in general, a monument was erected for Ndlela ka Sompisi in Zululand, the inauguration of which was attended by Jacob Zuma and S'bu Joel Ndebele.

Legacy of the battle

Popular Afrikaner interpretations of the Battle of Blood River (bolstered by sympathetic English historians such as G.M. Theal) played a central role in fostering ethnic nationalism among white Afrikaners[citation needed]. They claimed that the Battle demonstrated God's intervention, and hence their divine right to exist. The claim in the official guidebook of the Voortrekker Monument (unveiled during the centenary celebrations of the Great Trek on December 16, 1949) that Afrikaners were a nation of heroes exemplifies the conclusions drawn from such events. In time, the Afrikaner came to consider the site and the commemoration of the day as sacred.[10]

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.[15] 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.[16]

Historian S.P. Mackenzie[17] 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 October 15, 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[18] over three hours before being overrun.[15]

The official version not only represents the view of the winning side, but—like official accounts of the Great Trek and Anglo-Boer wars—leaves out the help provided by 200 indigenous people.[19] A handful of Afrikaners were uneasy with the official version.

Scientific interpretation of the battle

General Ndlela was an extremely highly experienced Zulu-general, prime minister and royal advisor, first serving under king Shaka. Ndlela was very close to prince Mpande, whom he personally protected from king Dingane's orders to kill Mpande as a possible political opponent.
Ndlela's strategy and actions at the Battle of Blood River were questionable.
Why did Ndlela attack the laager, when he knew that it was better to wait and only attack the wagon commando when forced into column formation in the narrow pass of Italeni en route to Umgungunglovu?

Why did Ndlela not attack the laager when it was raining, as he must have known from experience that muskets struggle to fire when moist? December is peak rain season in the area.
Why did Ndlela not attack the laager under cover of dark as during the approach, and as per such experience less than a year before?

Why did Ndlela not follow conventional ox horn formation during the attack, but only sent Dambuza's horn across the river to attack the laager alone?

Was it luck that Pretorius' canon eliminated Dinganes' battle observers, the other two princes, who were also Mpande's political competitors?

Was Ndlela actually fighting for Mpande and against Dingane, as at Maqongqe?
Ndlela was definitely executed for high treason by Dingane, because at Maqongqe he had fought for his friend Mpande.

Mpande and Pretorius were friends, who fought together overtly at Maqongqe, the sequel to the Battle of Blood River. Mpande was personally crowned as Zulu king by Pretorius.
In the first Zulu civil war, Ndlela, Mpanda en Pretorius were strategic allies, working for each other - this was Dingane's final conclusion, thus killing his own general Ndlela.

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: Rightly Earned), a gift from the Trekkers.[20]

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 1998.[21]

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.[22]

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."[23]

Today two complexes mark the battle site: the Ncome Monument and Museum Complex east of the Ncome River, and the Blood River Monument and Museum Complex to the west.

Ndlela monument

President Zuma attended the official inauguration of the Ndlela monument in Eshowe, Kwazulu-Natal. Ndlela is remembered for saving prince Mpande from Dingane's elimination plans.



  • "Nuwe Geskiedenis van Suid-Afrika", revised edition, by Cameron & Spies. Human & Rousseau, 1991.
  • Revolutionary Armies in the Modern Era: A Revisionist Approach, S.P. Mackenzie. Routledge, 1997, ISBN 978-0-415-09690-4.
  • Fifty Years of the History of the Republic in South Africa (1795–1845), J.C. Voigt, Volume 2, 1969, ISBN 0837113067.


1.       ^ Bailey (2003).
2.       ^ New History of South Africa (First Edition ed.). Tafelberg Publishers. 2007. p. 146. ISBN 978-0-624-04359-1.
3.       ^ Eybers, G. W. (1918). Select constitutional documents illustrating South African history, 1795-1910. London: G.Routledge & sons, limited; New York, E. P. Dutton & co.. p. 148. Retrieved 2009-11-29.
4.       ^ a b SAOH - South African History Organisation, Mpande kaSenzangakhona,
5.       ^ SAOH - South African History Organisation,
6.       ^ a b c Mackenzie, S.P (1997). Revolutionary Armies in the Modern Era: A Revisionist Approach. Routledge. p. 74. ISBN 978-0-415-09690-4.
7.       ^ Mackenzie, S.P (1997). Revolutionary Armies in the Modern Era: A Revisionist Approach. Routledge. pp. 74–75. ISBN 978-0-415-09690-4.
8.       ^ Voigt, J. C. (1969). Fifty years of the history of the republic in South Africa (1795-1845). Negro Universities Press. p. 69. ISBN 0837113067.
9.       ^ a b c d Mackenzie, S.P (1997). Revolutionary Armies in the Modern Era: A Revisionist Approach. Routledge. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-415-09690-4.
10.   ^ a b Welcome to DISA
11.   ^ Mackenzie, S.P (1997). Revolutionary Armies in the Modern Era: A Revisionist Approach. Routledge. pp. 75–76. ISBN 978-0-415-09690-4.
12.   ^ "Public Holidays". South African Government Information. Retrieved 2008-11-16.
13.   ^ "16 December (Day of Reconciliation)". South African Government Information. Retrieved 2008-11-16.
14.   ^ Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, speech during opening of Ndlela Monument, 14 August 2004,
15.   ^ a b Mackenzie, S.P (1997). Revolutionary Armies in the Modern Era: A Revisionist Approach. Routledge. p. 76. ISBN 978-0-415-09690-4.
17.   ^ "S. P. MacKenzie". University of South Carolina. Retrieved 2008-11-16.
18.   ^ Ian Knight,Isandlwana 1879: The Great Zulu Victory, Osprey, 2002, ISBN 978-1841765112, p.86. Knight's estimate of Zulu casualties is more in keeping with those suffered by the Zulu at Kambula where a British column forms an excellent defensive position with a wagon lager, six 7 pounder artillery pieces and 2,000 soldiers and inflicts 800(counted bodies)-1,000 killed on the Zulu.
19.   ^ Mackenzie, S.P (1997). Revolutionary Armies in the Modern Era: A Revisionist Approach. Routledge. p. 73. ISBN 978-0-415-09690-4.
21.   ^ "Ncome Museum/Monument: From Reconciliation to Resistance" by Professor Paula Girshick of Anthropology at Indiana University in Museum Anthropology 27.1-2 (SPRING/FALL 2004): 25-36.
22.   ^ Graham, Brian; Howard, Peter (2008). The Ashgate research companion to heritage and identity. Ashgate research companions, Ashgate science and religion series. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.. pp. 358–359. ISBN 0754649229. Retrieved 2009-10-06.
^ Speech delivered by the Minister of Home Affairs (Chairman of the House of Traditional Leaders) at the inauguration of the Ncome/Blood River Monument - 16 December 1998

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.