British Settlers in Algoa Bay, South Africa in 1820. they started arriving in South Africa at the onset of the 18th century Franco-British War
The start of the conflict between Britain and France at the end of the 18th Century saw Britain make a tactical move for military occupation of territories controlled by its rivals mainly the Dutch, French and the Germans. It began doing so by taking the strategically important step of militarily occupying the Cape, for fear that the Dutch would turn it over to the French and thereby cut the British sea route to the East. The British had occupied the Cape twice: once in 1795 (they withdrew a short while after) and the second time in 1806 (they stayed on that time).
At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, Britain formally purchased the Cape from the Dutch for six million pounds and another colony was added to the growing British Empire. The white population of the Cape Colony in 1806 was of some 26,000 – and a slave population of some 30,000, with an estimated Cape Colored population of 20,000.
The British takeover of the Cape Colony brought in several changes of which the most important was the arrival in of over 3,000 British settlers in the Eastern Cape in 1820 and they were recruited with special financial aid of the British Government to bolster the White population on the eastern border with the Xhosa, where the intermittent race wars were continually threatening to overwhelm the isolated White towns. However, this was not just to increase white population in general but of the white English population as The British were smarter than their rivals when it came to hostile takeovers but nevertheless proved better than the others in other parts of the world except South Africa.
Within a matter of weeks, the influx of a large number of English speaking whites spiked the white population by 12 percent and caused a general Anglicization in the Cape area which affected the Dutch speaking Trek Boers. Although, many of those who had stayed close to Cape Town did not vocally object as compared to the Boers present on the frontiers of modern day South Africa the Anglicization process led to the introduction of English laws: in 1822, English became the sole official language; in the same year, the Cape Coloured population were included in the first labour laws and finally slavery itself was abolished in 1833. Furthermore, the British government offered compensation for the 35,000 slaves in the Cape Colony, to the Trek Boers – but this was only paid out in London, Hence making it practically impossible for most of the slave owners to collect their compensation. This was a major tactic to baffle the Boer people in South Africa.
A combination of factors: the Anglicization policy, the introduction of English law and the then seemingly unending wars with the Xhosas created the Great Trek (participants becoming known as Boer Trekkers, Trek Boer(s) or Voortrekker). From 1836 , around some 15,000 Trek Boer families packed up their goods into canvass covered wagons and set off for the interior, away from British rule. This Great Trek was the final catalyst for the formation of the people who became known as the Boers (the word Afrikaners was only developed late in the 19th century once the language spoken by the White non-English speakers had crystallized). By the time the Great Trek was over, the Boers had been formed into a distinct national identity of their own, fiercely independent and strongly Calvinistic in religion.
The dangers and epic of the great Trek alone have filled many a book: the effort of having to cross the highest mountain range in Southern Africa, called the Drakensberg (the Dragon Mountains – a deserved name) in ox wagons; the necessity of having to create much of their raw material and many supplies along the way; and the trials and tribulations of doing all of this with entire families in tow, was a truly remarkable achievement, and the trek itself came to assume almost superhuman status and symbolism in the White Boer psyche. A small group of Trekkers (pioneers) moved into the interior, into what became the Orange Free State and Transvaal, while a larger group crossed the Drakensberg mountains and decided to settle in what was to become Natal (known today as Kwa-Zulu Natal where Pietermaritzburg, Nkandla and Durban are present).
Leaving their jumping off points in the central and eastern Cape, small groups of Whites set off for the interior, with only covered wagons, horses and their ingenuity to guide them as they trekked into the wild, untamed, unknown and dangerous interior. The first small expedition, which started in 1835 ended in complete failure. Jan van Rensburg’s small party was ambushed and exterminated by violent Zulu Blacks on the Highveld field. Yet another party, led by Louis Trichardt, barely survived attacks by Blacks and was then decimated by malaria, with a few desperately ill survivors finally struggling through to the Portuguese base at Lourenco Marques (today Maputo, Mozambique) in Portuguese East Africa. The first two expeditions were therefore disastrous, producing a fatality rate of well over 80 per cent. Nonetheless, the issues forcing the Boers on did not diminish, and slowly over the next two years support for a new migration grew.
Port Elizabeth based Boer Piet Retief, in 1837 organized an expedition from Grahamstown, after issuing a manifesto outlining his reasons for undertaking the Trek into the interior. After joining with an expedition led by Andries Potgieter for the initial trek north, Retief and his party turned eastwards over the Drakensberg mountains (the Dragon Mountains) in a virtually superhuman effort of unparalleled endeavour and hardship. Little wonder then, that when they reached the apex of the Drakensberg, and the green lands of Natal stretched out before their eyes, they called the land Blydevooruitzicht, or Happy Prospects.
There was however one serious issue: the fierce and warlike Zulu tribe under the leadership of their ferocious chief, Dingaan already occupied the new land. While the bulk of Retief’s party – which consisted mainly of women, children and aged men – encamped along the Blaukraans River, Retief led a party of 70 men and teenage boys on a peace mission to Dingaan at the latter’s chief settlement, or kraal, called Umgungundlovu.
The purpose of the mission was to try and peacefully negotiate land for the Trek party from the Zulus. Dingaan however accused the Trekkers of stealing cattle from him; only after several weeks searching did Retief’s party manage to locate the missing cattle (they had been stolen by a local chief called Siyonkella).
On 2 February 1837, the Boers returned to Umgungundlovu with the missing cattle: on 5 February, Dingaan and Retief signed a treaty (Dingaan signed it with a “X”, as he was illiterate) giving the Boers land in Natal. After the signing of the agreement, the Zulus put on a dancing show and celebration. In turn the White Boers gave a shooting and horse riding demonstration to the Blacks: confirming the reports Dingaan had already received about these White men who had sticks which could kill at a distance and who had magic beasts which could carry a rider at great speed.
However on the following day (6th February 1837), the 70 White men were up before daybreak. As they prepared to leave to return to their camp where their women and children were waiting, a Zulu messenger arrived. He carried with him a message from Dingaan asking that Retief and his men meet one more time inside the Zulu king’s enclosure where the two parties would toast their successful negotiations and future friendship.
The Whites agreed. Retief and his men made their way to the Zulu king’s inner enclosure. Before they entered the final ring of mud huts and reed walls, they were asked to leave their firearms stacked in a pile outside as a mark of respect to the king: foolishly they agreed, not suspecting that it was all an elaborate trap and that the Zulus had no intention of honoring their word. The treaty between Retief and Dingaan was still in the pouch the former was carrying. As the White men entered the inner enclosure, the gate was closed behind them. Dingaan greeted the White men, and bid them sit before him. They then drank the crude sorghum beer offered to them, still unsuspecting and full of trust. In the inner enclosure were nearly two thousand Zulus in full combat gear: shields, spears and wooden clubs. Now they had the White men unarmed and outnumbered. At Dingaan’s command they began dancing, shouting and waving their Stone Age weapons in the air.
The White men watched and listened. The Blacks then slowly started moving back and forth: each time advancing three steps and retreating two: gradually they crept closer and closer. At the point where they nearly touched the seated White men, Dingaan jumped up and shouted out “Kill the White Wizards!”
It was too late. the Boer whites realized the treachery which had been played out upon them: a few jumped up and tried to defend themselves with their small hunting knives, but they were no match for the two thousand heavily armed Zulus. Some of them were strangled to death on the spot by crude ropes made of cut up animal skins: the rest were seized, and along with the bodies of their dead comrades, were dragged outside the royal camp to a hill next to Umgungundlovu, called Hlomo Amabuta, the Hill of Execution. This proved the treachery of the Zulus.
There the Blacks cruelly executed the remaining Whites, one by one, by clubbing and spearing them to death. Last to be killed was Retief himself, after having been forced to watch his own teenage son be clubbed to death. Once dead, Retief’s heart and liver were cut out of his body and ceremoniously presented to Dingaan as proof that the chief White wizard was dead. The White Christian missionary, Francis Owen, whose mission station was situated on a hill overlooking Hlomo Amabuta, witnessed all these events. Despite the tragedy being played out before his eyes, the Christian Owen made no effort to warn Retief’s party, encamped as they were only a few hours’ ride away. Instead Owen fled to the British trading settlement at Port Natal (Durban) a few days later.
So it was that no news reached the Voortrekker camp of women, children and old men along the Blaukraans river for ten days: the last word they had received was that Retief had been successful in negotiating land from the Zulus and that everything was in order. An atmosphere of joviality prevailed in the camp: the Trek had paid off. However, the reality was different: during the night of 16 February 1838, the Zulus struck. The Boers’ camps were small, scattered and poorly defended. Filled with a false sense of security, they were easy targets for the 10,000 strong Zulu army sent to annihilate them. Attacking at 1:00 am in the morning, the Zulus fell upon the largely sleeping White camps. The small camp of the Liebenberg family was quickly overrun and all of its inhabitants murdered as they slept. Next the Zulus made their way to the Bezuidenhout camp: Daniel Peter Bezuidenhout saw his wife, mother and sisters slaughtered by the Zulu spears and although badly wounded himself, he managed to escape and riding his horse, warn some of the neighbouring settlements. Still the Blacks pressed home the attack. entire families were killed, with one man grabbing his baby daughter and running for miles through the bush clutching his child to his chest, only to find that she was already dead, killed so efficiently by a spear that she had not even cried out. Finally some of the larger camps managed to draw their wagons into a defensive circle, or laager, and the Zulus were warded off.
But the cost had been frightful: nearly 300 Whites had been killed, including 41 men, 56 women and 185 children. Added to the 70 men killed with Retief, the Blacks had killed more than half of all the Whites in the entire Great Trek in Natal.
The scenes greeting the survivors as daylight broke on the 16 February were horrendous: where the Zulus had overwhelmed the White camps, entire wagons were drenched with gore. Johanna van der Merwe was found dead with 21 spear wounds; Catherina Prinsloo with 17. Elizabeth Smit lay dead, her breast hacked off, with her three-day-old baby beside her. Anna Elizabeth Steenkamp described in her diary a wagon filled with 50 corpses, most of them children, drowned in their own blood. The site was thereafter called Weenen, or weeping, a name it has retained to this day. For a while the entire Great Trek faltered: the Boers grimly held onto their camps, too weak to move on and too weak to stay. The Zulus then turned their attention towards the British trading settlement of Port Natal, besieging the Whites there in what had become an obvious racial war of anti-White extermination. The British garrison, although heavily outnumbered, held onto what would later become Durban, with equally fierce determination, and the Zulus did not manage to break the defenses, despite great efforts in this regard.
After this massacre, the whole Great Trek teetered on the brink of disaster: many wanted to give up and return to the comparative safety of the British ruled Cape, while others then turned their attentions further north even deeper into the interior, into what became the Transvaal and Orange Free State (Moden day Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Free State). There, the first piece of land occupied by Whites there was obtained by treaty from the Bataung tribe, and the town of Winburg was established in this region. The remaining men in the Boer camps in Natal then came to the conclusion that the trek should be abandoned: the losses they had suffered in Natal had been far worse than anything they had endured during their stay in the Cape Province, the ‘kaffir’ (an old ancient term used for rebellious blacks) Wars included. At this crucial junction, the brave Boer women stepped forward and insisted of the men that the Trek continue: too many sacrifices had been made for them to give up now. By cajoling, mocking and in many instances physically taking the lead, the women won the day: the men gave up their plans to return to the Cape and once again drew new strength to carry on.
However, further setbacks waited: a new commando under Piet Uys tried to avenge the massacre of the White women and children: they were defeated by the Zulus at the Battle of Italeni, which cost the life of Uys and his teenage son. Once again the threat of total defeat loomed along with a loss of White life.
News of the plight of the Trekkers had by now reached the Cape: a wave of support came flooding for the Whites, culminating in the arrival of hundreds of new Trek volunteers. Amongst them was a farmer from Graaff Reinett, Andries Pretorius (Pretoria is named after him), a dynamic natural leader who was elected Commandant General by the till then still leaderless Boers in November 1838. Within a week, Pretorius had organized a Boer commando of 451 men, including three British people – – Scotsmen actually, defenders of Port Natal who wanted to avenge the bloody Zulu attacks on the British settlements.
So it was that a combined White Boer and White English speaking commando, armed with two cannons, set off in search of the Zulus. After six days of running battles with Zulu patrols, Pretorius chose his camp: covered on the one side by the Ncome River and on the other by a deep ditch, or donga, the Boers arranged their 64 wagons in an almost triangular shape, with the longest part of the triangle running across the side of the laager which had no natural defense. Ever the improvisers, the White party then cut down masses of thorn bushes and placed them in the donga and underneath and between the wagons themselves, a highly effective early barbed wire.
They also hung lanterns on the end of their long oxen whips, which then protruded out over the outside perimeter of the wagons, providing illumination to prevent a surprise night time attack by the Zulus. Later the Blacks would tell that they had been petrified of the magic of the White wizards, in particular the “ghosts” which hanged above the wagons during the night. Then the Boers prayed to God that if they were granted victory, they and their descendants would celebrate the day for ever more as a sacred day and celebrate it as if it “were a Sabbath”. This vow gave rise the day being called in later times the “Day of the Vow”, although in fact the actual battle, which was celebrated on 16 December, was not the same day upon which the Vow was taken but rather on the day of the battle.
At dawn on 16 December 1838, the Zulus finally attacked. Each Zulu regiment was led by its commander, the younger men in the vanguard, the older veterans making up the rear. As they moved forward, estimates of their numbers varied from between 10,000 and 30,000. They chanted and stamped their feet in unison; a frightening sight by any account. The 451 Whites had little illusion of what their fate would be if the tens of thousands of Blacks overwhelmed their tiny position. Pretorius ordered his men not to fire until they were absolutely sure of making a kill: exercising iron self control, the Whites waited until the Zulu battle line had advanced to within ten paces of the wagons: then the White guns opened up on the Black masses, and the Zulu attackers were cut down by their hundreds. The few primitive spears thrown by the Zulus hardly even reached the wagons. The Zulus fell back, struck down by the White Wizards’ magic killing sticks to which they had no answer. On the river side of the laager, the Zulus at first tried to attack through the water: bringing one of the cannons to bear, the Whites blasted the Black ranks at virtual point blank range, each shot killing dozens of Zulus. Finally the Whites had fired so many rounds they ran out of cannon shot: once again, they had considered this possibility, and had pre-selected and stored suitably shaped stones, which they now loaded into the cannons, continuing to rain a merciless fire upon the Blacks. These cannon were unquestionably decisive: the Blacks had never seen such weapons before, and it must have seemed as if the White Wizards now had fire spitting dragons on their side as well. Again and again the Zulus tried to attack: each time they were driven off by the combined White artillery and musket fire. At no stage did the Blacks even get close enough to stab any White: only two Whites (one was Pretorius himself) were nicked by spears thrown by the Zulus, but that was all. By now, several thousand Blacks had been killed by the White Wizardry.
As the Black line wavered once more; Pretorius gave the order to attack. Leading a detachment of 150 mounted men, one wagon was pulled aside and the commando galloped out to ride straight into the foremost Zulu regiment of over 2,000. Dumb struck with terror at the guns, the cannon and now the White Wizards on their huge hoofed beasts, the Zulu line broke in fright and turned tail and fled. The Blacks tried to outrun the horses: dozens could not and were trampled underfoot. Hundreds tried to dodge the horses and guns by jumping into the Ncome River, which took them above their heads. This was to no avail. The accurate musket fire and the cannons blasted them as they struggled in the river, and the water quite literally turned red with their blood: hence the river became known to this day as Blood River. The Black attack was broken: the Whites pursued the fleeing Blacks until dark, exacting a violent and bloody revenge for the massacre of the White women and children at Blaukraans. Zulu dead at the battlefield itself totalled over 3,000 – but this does not include those killed off site or who died of wounds elsewhere.
The highly Calvinistic Trekkers took their victory as a sign from the Christian God that they were meant to win and the belief in a divine mission in Africa was born into Boer consciousness, with the battle later assuming virtual mythical proportions, being celebrated every year thereafter with church services of thanks.