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The Battle of Blood River


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.

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.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—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.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.
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.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.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. 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.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. 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. 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.

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".

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 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;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.

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 Maqongqein 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,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.

The Day of the Vow

Was a public holiday in the empire of the Republic of South Africa (RSA) until the early 90s. Beyond this, it is a religious and a national holy day for the Boers, that the new capitalist-communist regime of the empire that rules over southern Africa has abolished, in an attempt to exterminate the Boer people  even on the national, historical and spiritual side.The following text, written by Arthur Kemp in the 1990, recounts the Battle of Blood River, and the Vow that has gone before .

In the period 1836 to 1840, known as the Great Trek the Trekkers Voortrekkers. Ed. who had reached the Natal interior under their leader Piet Retief, decided to try and negotiate land rights from the Zulu king Dingaan. At first, Retief appeared to have been successful, and Dingaan offered to give the Trekkers land if they recovered some cattle stolen from him by a lesser chief, one Siyonkella. This Retief and his small group then proceeded to do, and were welcomed back at the Zulu chief’s capital, Ungunggundlovu.

There Retief signed a written treaty with Dingaan, granting the Trekkers land rights, but as proceedings drew to a close Dingaan ordered his soldiers to seize Retief and his small delegation.

Retief and his men were taken to a hill just outside Dingaan’s kraal and cruelly clubbed to their deaths, having been tricked into leaving their fire arms outside the king’s kraal.The bodies were left on the hill and as tradition forbade the removal of any personal effects from people executed on that spot, another Trekker leader found Retief’s body, still with the written treaty between himself and Dingaan intact, some ten months later.

Immediately after murdering Retief, Dingaan sent his army to attack the Trekker camps, consisting mainly of women, children and elderly men, who were anxiously awaiting news of Retief’s negotiations with Dingaan. The attack on the Trekker women and children was carried out on 17 February 1838, and saw 56 women, 185 children and 40 elderly men slaughtered in the most gruesome fashion.

The psychological effect upon the Trekkers in Natal, whose total numbers at that stage were under 1000, was enormous. The site of the massacre was named Weenen (Dutch for “weeping”) and has retained the name to this day.A new Trekker leader, Andries Pretorius, decided that a final showdown with the Zulus would be necessary. On 28 November 1838, he led a commando consisting of 468 Trekkers, 1 Scotsman and 2 Englishmen, all in 57 wagons, in search of Dingaan’s army.

On Sunday 9 December, sensing the approaching battle with the Zulus, this relatively small group of men held a church service in the open veld at the Wasbank River, and made a pledge to the Christian God [YHWH. Ed.] that if they were granted victory, then they and their descendants would forever more celebrate . the day of the battle. Ed.“as if it were a Sabbath” in remembrance of the victory and their debt to their God [YHWH. Ed.].On Sunday 15 December 1838 the Trekker commando arrived at the river the Zulu called the Ncome.

The site had been chosen with care, since the Trekker forces were expecting the Zulu attack at any moment. The wagons were drawn into a circle, called a laager in Dutch. Along the one side of the laager ran a deep natural ditch, and some 300m to the east ran the river. At dawn of the 16th, as the mist lifted, the Trekker force of 471 men was confronted by a Zulu army of over 15 000.Wave after wave of Zulus attacked, and each time were forced to retreat by the Trekker fire power.
After several hours the Trekkers sent out a group of men on horseback to drive the Zulu army into the corner between the ditch and the river. Here the Zulus were decimated, and many only escaped by swimming across the river. So many perished there that the river itself ran red with their blood, leading to the battle being called the Battle of Blood River. The Zulu forces were defeated and Dingaan fled.The battle seemed all the more wondrous, when the final casualty total was counted  more than 3000 Zulu dead and not one Trekker even seriously injured.
Blood River Vow (1838). 16 December

The 16th December is like a sabbath for Boer nation, dedicated to thanksgiving YHWH, for to obey to the vow that the Voortrekkers (pioneers) did in the 1838. A vote that committed all their biological-spiritual descendants.After the murder of Piet Retief, perpetrated by the Zulus, and the massacre of several hundred Voortrekkers in Natal, the Boer pioneers survivors gathered themselves under Andries Pretorius, who decided to lead them against the Zulu army.On the 9th December 1938, under the spiritual guidance of Sarel Cilliers, a contingent of 471 men commited themselves as follows:

Here we stand before the holy God [YHWH. Ed] of heaven and earth, to make a vow to Him that, if He will protect us and give our enemy into our hand, we shall keep this day and date every year as a day of thanksgiving like a sabbath, and that we shall erect a house to His honour wherever it should please Him, and that we also will tell our children that they should share in that with us in memory for future generations. For the honour of His name will be glorified by giving Him the fame and honour for the victory.On 16th December 1838, near the Ncome River, 471 pioneers defeated a Zulu army of more than 15,000 units.
More than 3,000 Zulus died, and not even a Vortrekker was seriously injured.For the Zulus was the first major defeat of their glorious epic.Their blood copiously dyed red the waters of Ncome, so that battle is remembered as the Battle of Blood River.



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