Riding south towards his headquarters at Sand river Potgieter passed scores of trekkers who had already heard that the Matabele were on the war-path and were withdrawing hastily from their exposed positions along the Vaal. The veld was filled with their hurrying wagons and herds of cattle, bellowing as they were urged forward by mounted men. At Sand river which he reached on 2 September 1836 Potgieter discovered that the most prudent of his people had already retired towards Blesberg where the second wave of the Great Trek was now arriving. Had Potgieter decided to go back with them everything afterwards in course of the Voortrekker story would have been different, worse probably, but certainly different.
But Potgieter had no intention of retreating any farther. He ordered his remaining followers to go into laager. One party did so on the banks of the Vet river while Potgieter himself took his wagons to an easily defensible site he had noted some seventeen miles south of modern Heilbron. Here he would pit his forty available fighting men against the whole strength of the Matabele army.
In meeting the Matabele challenge head on, Potgieter was of course staking his life and those of his kinsfolk on the superiority of a few men's muskets fired from a wagon laager over the assegais of several thousands of warriors. Looking at it dispassionately he was betting on an extremely thin chance, for we must remember that in 1836 the tactical advantages of fighting from a laager had only rarely been demonstrated, and he would be outnumbered by a fantastic margin.
The site he chose on which to fight stood immediately below one of the few elevations that stand out of the plain separating the Vaal and Sand rivers. It is a low koppie about a thousand yards long and with two strata of reddish rock running round its mimosa-studded slopes. It is so shaped that it reminds the modern visitor of a slag heap. This strangely unimpressive hill which Potgieter was to clothe so splendidly with immense renown was always afterwards to be known as Vegkop—the fight hill. An active man can climb Vegkop within five minutes and from the top he will see the undulating veld stretching for many miles into the distance, and a scout stationed there would be able to give long warning of the approach of a Matabele impi. From its base on the south the ground falls gently away to a shallow spruit [rivulet] and is so devoid of cover as to provide a perfect killing ground to marksmen like the Boers. Here Potgieter placed his laager.
The laager wall was made up of some forty wagons which were drawn up in a rough square `with the tongue of one wagon running under the wagon which stood next to it.' With their fixed back axle the wagons were difficult to manoeuvre and it required all the men's efforts to wrestle them into line. The wagons were all chained together and the spaces underneath packed tightly with the thorn bushes which still grow abundantly on the slopes of Vegkop. Seven wagons were drawn up in the middle of the laager and covered with thick hides. Here wounded could be tended and they gave cover to the younger children. At two opposite corners of the laager the Boers constructed wooden loop-holed structures which they called schiet-hokken: these enabled the Boers manning them to enfilade all four sides of the laager.
Two openings were left in the laager wall to act as gates, each one the width of a wagon: they could be quickly closed by man-handling wagons kept in readiness beside them whose axles had been carefully greased. Once the wagons had been placed to his satisfaction Potgieter had the wiry grass surrounding them cleared by dragging trees through it and by trampling it down with driven cattle.
The wagon laager was not Potgieter's invention: it had been used during the Kafir wars on the eastern frontier of the Cape and as we have seen only a short time before had saved a group of trekkers on the Vaal. The concept may even have dated back from the days of Catholic persecution in Holland when the trekkers' Dutch forebears had been in the habit of holding their church services within a circle of carriages, which in an emergency could be defended. But never before had the Boers placed a wagon laager in the path of an enemy, deliberately inviting an attack on what looked like a frail and vulnerable refuge but which in fact was an extremely effective defensive work. The wagons, being chained together, could not be pulled out of line; assegais would not penetrate the tough wagon tilts after they had been strengthened with hides, and the defenders could take up commanding positions in the schiet-hokken and the wagon boxes, or keep under cover below the wagons in positions which allowed them a free field of fire.
The laager at Vegkop was in fact a strong fortress, but its garrison was grievously small, and now at this late stage two men who had no eye for glory slipped away to safety. When the attack did come Potgieter had only thirty-three men and seven boys (one of whom was eleven years old and named Paul Kruger) to meet it. In addition there were upwards of sixty women and children in the laager. But the women were no liability: the assault which followed could hardly have been beaten off without their help in loading guns and replenishing ammunition.
Once the laager had been formed the trekkers at Vegkop seemed to find comfort in their common acceptance of peril and they could await developments with some confidence. The guns were effective at about 100 yards, while the strongest Matabele warrior could not hurl his assegai with any accuracy beyond half that range. But the Boers did not relax; scores of tasks remained to be completed. Spare muskets, the smooth-bore flintlocks of the time, each one as tall as the man who served it and nearly as heavy, were piled up conveniently to hand behind the wagons; gunpowder was poured out into tidy little heaps close to the firing positions and powder-horns were carefully filled; tin plates were melted down and used to temper leaden bullets; little buckskin bags were sewn together by the women and filled with a dozen or more solid slugs (these missiles were deadly at close range; they burst like miniature shrapnel shells and each slug was nicked to make it more lethal). A good man, and each Boer at Vegkop might be so described, could be relied upon to fire his snaphnaan six times in every minute provided that his wife who stood beside him did not fumble when she reloaded his gun, and passed it back quickly to where he stood in his firing position. And these men very rarely missed their target.
Yet despite these undoubted advantages the trekkers must have waited on developments with great anxiety, making resolutions of their own or secret pacts with friends to kill their wives and children if the Matabelle breached the wagon line. And they still had to tend their stock.
Five thousand head of cattle and ten times that number of sheep grazed round the laager as far as the eye could see. It was galling to think that when the Matabele put in their attack, all these animals would have to be abandoned; there was hardly enough room within the laager for the saddle horses.
Although they can have given little thought to it these trekkers waiting in the veld were very important people; only they stood between the survival and destruction of the Great Trek; on their resolution and prowess depended the issue between white men and black men in a vast area of southern Africa. But this we must presume was hidden from them; all they could have recognised was their own dangerous situation as they waited for the inevitable Matabele attack. As it turned out they had several weeks to wait. Then, one October day, some terrified Bataung tribesmen ran into the laager shouting that an immense impi commanded by Mkalipi himself was only a few hours' march away. It was getting on for sunset, and Potgieter (no doubt a little impatiently) waited until Cilliers had conducted a short religious service, before riding out with him to size up the Matabele host. They came back saying that they put the number at over five thousand.
Next day, 16 October 1836, Potgieter again rode out of the laager, this time with most of the fighting men, on a manoeuvre which a military man would describe as a reconnaissance in force, but on this occasion it had the additional task of seeking to parley with Mkalipi. After riding north for an hour and a half the little commando came upon the Matabele host drawn up for battle, and at once the impi began pushing out its horns as though to envelop the Boers. An urgent and curious dialogue then proceeded. To shouts asking for a truce the Matabele spokesman answered `Mzilikazi alone issues commands, we are his servants, we do his behests, we are not here to discuss or argue, we are here to kill you.' The ubiquitous Bronkhorst was present and he gives a slightly different version of the encounter: `We sued for peace through an interpreter,' he writes, `shewing them our hair, as a sign that we did not wish to war with them, and that they should retire: they cried no, and attacked us immediately, while we retreated to the camp.' It was during this withdrawal that the Boers displayed the tactics they had devised of galloping up repeatedly to within range of the enemy, loosing off a volley from their horses and then swerving away to reload before the range closed to within spear-throwing distance. It was extremely effective, and it proved for the first time that the secret of Boer invincibility was not the horse, nor yet the gun, but the proper use of them in combination. Cilliers tells us that he fired sixteen shots into the impi's dense ranks during the withdrawal to the laager, killing three men with each shot, and he gloated over the high Matabele losses.
At the laager there was only time, as Cilliers assures us, for the trekkers to clean their guns before the Matabele came round the corner of Vegkop and spread out in a great circle around the wagons, whetting their spears with stones, feasting on two of the Boer cattle which they devoured raw, and happily discussing what they would do when they had stormed the laager. The trekkers were reminded uneasily of cats watching and playing with their prey before making the final pounce.
The Boers were separated from death now by the width of a single wagon, but each wagon was marvellously broad in the sense that it divided two separate peoples and two separate civilisations. One doubts again whether the trekkers looked at their situation in this way. They were calm enough; there were no dramatics in the laager; everyone knew exactly what had to be done when battle was joined; but the waiting was nerve-racking. The Matabele sat on in their circle and for hours everything seemed to hang in suspense, as if the old and the new Africa were determined to pose a dramatic tableau. The waiting proved too much for an impetuous man like Potgieter. He tied a red rag to a wagon whip and waved it high in the air. The gesture seemed to infuriate the Matabele: they scrambled to their feet and came at the wagons in a great rush screaming out their battle cry of `bulala, bulala'—`kill, kill'- as they ran.
There was a certain ferocious chivalry about a Nguni charge; it had no half measures about it; once it was set in motion the warriors either conquered or died. And of course it was a most impressive sight to watch but for those at its receiving end, the charge at Vegkop was enough to make the stoutest heart quail. The warriors' `uniforms' were especially designed to enhance the effect of their warlike bearing. Cornwallis Harris who watched these men a little later when they returned from Vegkop to their kraals said their costume
`consisted of a thick fur kilt called an umcooloobooloo composed of treble rows of cats' or monkeys' tails descending nearly to the knee. A tippit formed of white cow's tails encircled the shoulders, and covered the upper part of the body, the knees, wrists, elbows and ancles [sic] being ornamented with a single ox tail fastened above the joint.... Nothing could be more savage, wild or martial than the appearance presented by the barbarian army returning to their despotic sovereign, wreathed with the laurels and laden with the spoils of victory.'
For what must have been agonising moments the Boers held their fire and only when the range had closed to a distance where every shot would tell did the murderous shooting begin. Cilliers tells us that he then fired slugs until the range had shortened to thirty yards after which he changed to ball; he notes too in his account that `all the children that were able to use a gun, helped in the firing'. Yet the Matabele attack was pressed home with fury: the warriors ran through a curtain of black powder-smoke to tear at the wagons in the laager; they attempted to scramble over them, and wrenched at the thorn entanglements. The thirty-three men and seven boys fought back against the 5,000, shooting until their guns were too hot to hold, holding their bullets in their mouths and spitting them one by one down the barrels, setting the charge by thumping the musket's butt on the ground (fearful that the scorching barrels would ignite the powder), using their clubbed muskets in flurries of hand-to-hand fighting, each one's shoulder aching where it had been kicked brutally by the fouled pieces through which they had fired a hundred rounds, each one only aware of the struggle immediately in front of him, quite oblivious about what was happening on either side.
The first attack at Vegkop failed, though only by a narrow margin. The warriors withdrew sullenly out of range of the terrible muskets: for the first time they had not conquered after a charge and they had not died, but they had been temporarily whipped. It was a life-giving respite for the white men: guns were cleaned and reloaded, spare powder and bullets were distributed, and the wounded were succoured. Then the laager's fighting men turned their attention to the circle of warriors lying around them. The sun was beating down on the veld by now, and some of the bodies were already covered by a ghastly fur of flies, but here and there the trekkers could see little runnels of perspiration running across the black skins of the fallen men. 'Dead men don't sweat', Potgieter cried, and a bullet was pumped into each prostrate figure which it was considered might live to join in another attack.
For one was being prepared. It was ushered in by a flight of assegais whipping through the air, the Matabele pitching them so high that they fell almost vertically inside the laager. Then a second charge came in and it too was beaten off.
That was the end. Five thousand warriors had failed to defeat thirty-three white men and seven boys. Mkalipi had been wounded by a bullet in the leg and had already retired from the fight; it was left to his successor to appreciate that the Matabele had been fought out and the only thing to do was to withdraw. The wounded impi drifted slowly away from the battlefield, leaving the best part of five hundred dead behind. But as they went the Matabele gathered up the Boers' herds and flocks, driving them to the north. Soon only a cloud of dust on the veld's horizon marked their passing. The laager was left like a little island of victory in a sea of grass. Two Boers had been killed: one of them was Nicholas Potgieter, brother of the trek leader; their bodies were buried in the vlei [bog] a few hundred yards away. The women tended the wounded; fourteen men had been hurt, mostly by the assegais thrown over the wagons; Cilliers himself was stabbed in the thigh but he writes almost gaily that he plucked out the assegai and killed his assailant with it. The assegais within the laager were gathered up and everyone stood amazed as 1,137 were counted out. Then led by Cilliers the trekkers united in thanking God for their deliverance, repeating after him, if legend speaks truly, the verses of the 118th Psalm. And how stirring it must have sounded to the victors of Vegkop as they intoned the great words `I called upon the Lord in distress: the Lord answered me and set me in a large place.... The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me? ...All nations compassed me about....They compassed me about like bees; they are quenched as the fire of thorns....Thou hast thrust sore at me that I might fall: but the Lord helped me....The Lord has chastened me sore: but he hath not given me over unto death.... This is the Lord's doing; it is marvellous in our eyes....'
That evening the trekkers lighted their mutton-fat candles, hung crude lamps on the wagon tilts and mounted guard lest the Matabele returned for a fresh assault.
No attack materialised. The Matabele had learned a salutary lesson and from now on the trekkers' gun would be the rulers of the high veld. But the danger for those at Vegkop was not yet over: food was short and they had lost their trek-oxen besides their beeves, so that they were marooned, hungry, in the hostile veld.
The laager seemed a fearful place next day, surrounded by a hideous circle of bodies turning black and swollen under the sun; they encircled the trekkers like grisly captors. Each day now some of the men would ride out through the thick cloud of flies to make sure the Matabele had gone and if possible try to retake some of the cattle, but `all we found' sighs Bronkhorst `were killed and skinned (about 1,000)' Eventually the wagons were dragged by the horses for about four miles to a healthier site and Potgieter's brother Hermanus galloped off to Thaba Nchu for help.
The two weeks that followed were in some ways the worst part of the trekkers' ordeal. There was no milk; what little corn they had was soon exhausted and no one dare venture far out of sight of the laager so that hunting was impossible. `It was a bitter trial to me,' wrote Cilliers, `to see my children cry from hunger, and I as well, and nothing to give them.' But what a marvellous victory these people had won. Even allowing for exaggeration of the numbers they had killed one cannot but be filled with admiration for the success of the thirty-three against 5,000 highly disciplined warriors; even the missionaries who were by no means always enamoured of the trekkers activities wrote admiringly `How gallant was their determination' at Vegkop.
During the long wait the thirty men (for two of the original number lay now near by in shallow graves and Hermanus Potgieter was seeking aid) and their womenfolk grew to hate the silent hill of Vegkop which watched them all the time like a malevolent spirit. But succour came at last. The missionary at Thaba Nchu, James Archbell, and chief Moroka joined in sending food and milch cows for the near-starving pioneers, and trek-oxen to draw their wagons back to the safety of the main camp under Blesberg.
Meanwhile the Matabele had made their way back to their kraals at Mosega and along the Marico river. One imagines that their feelings were a mixture of grief at the losses they had sustained tempered by unbounded satisfaction at the loot that had been taken. Dr Wilson, one of the missionaries at Mosega, wrote that `There was nothing but lamentation in the land for weeks on end on account of those slain in battle,' but Harris tells us in his book that `The king appeared in high glee' at the soldiers' success and he goes on to explain that `Plunder is the principal object of all savage warfare and ... Mkalipi had yet succeeded in the more lucrative object of his expedition.'
Potgieter emerged from the ordeal of Vegkop more purposeful than ever, more formidable and more ruthless, and he conveys a growing impression now of real weight and power. He could think of little else but of revenging himself on the Matabele and recovering his stolen cattle. And at Thaba Nchu he found the weapon he was seeking—fighting men in plenty. For by now the stream of the Great Trek was beginning to run more strongly and an imposing array of wagons was drawn up under Blesberg. On 19 November further reinforcements rolled up when Gert Maritz led in a hundred wagons. It was a well set-up party; his people made a great impression on the other trekkers, one of whom described the new-comers as being `numerous, prominent and influential'. Maritz himself travelled in a wagon that was tastefully painted in light blue and topped by an elegant canopy.
Maritz, after suffering financially from the emancipation of the slaves, had left Graaff Reinet two months earlier. He heard of the Vaal massacres as he came up to the Orange river. With some anxiety he pressed on northwards and at Blesberg was relieved to learn that the immediate threat from the Matabele had been thwarted by Potgieter's success at Vegkop. Maritz was a man of some administrative experience, and he pointed out that with so many trekkers now gathered together they had a need to organise some form of government. Accordingly a public meeting took place on 2 December 1836 in Potgieter's camp. No one had a very clear idea of how to conduct an affair of this sort, but in the end seven men were elected by secret ballot to exercise executive, legislative and judicial powers over the united trekkers. Potgieter who had recently shown such an uncommon capacity for fighting was chosen as `laager commandant', but the forty-year-old Maritz wearing all the prestige of a man who knew the law received the rather more important post of President and Judge. It was apparent that Hendrik Potgieter, the first of the Voortrekkers, had now to contend with a formidable rival.
Since Gert Maritz was to become another of the heroes of the Great Trek we must pause here to consider his rather enigmatic figure. Maritz, unlike the other Voortrekker leaders, was essentially a townsman. As a young man he had set up as a wagon-maker at Graaff Reinet and soon became one of the town's most prosperous burghers. He was a handsome man who dressed fashionably, preferred negotiation to fighting and even included law books in the extensive library he had carried off with him on trek. His good-humoured sophistication and telling felicity of phrase contrasted very strongly with the stiffness and withdrawn silences of Potgieter, and it was inevitable that the two elected constitutional leaders would soon clash. But for the time being all was concord and unanimity in the camp. Maritz agreed that the trekkers' foremost task was to chastise Mzilikazi, recover all the stock that had been stolen, and once and for all remove the Matabele threat to the future of the emigrant farmers in the interior.
Between them Potgieter and Maritz were able to muster a little army of 107 white burghers supported by forty mounted Griquas under David Davids who had a personal score to settle with Mzilikazi, and forty Barolong on foot who were of dubious fighting value but were intended to herd the cattle it was hoped to capture. Potgieter's own followers set out from Thaba Nchu on 2 January 1837; Maritz's men who had no intention of serving directly under Potgieter (and wore red distinguishing bands around their hats to make this clear) followed the next day. The combined force crossed the Vaal at Commando drift, and, instead of making directly for Mosega; veered off to the right in the hope of misleading any Matabele scouts that may have seen them. Only near the present site of Pretoria did the commando turn sharply westwards. They were guided now by two men: one was Matlaba, a Barolong chief who had served under Mzilikazi and hated him; the other was a Matabele renegade who, having been taken prisoner at Vegkop, `durst never present himself again before his royal master'. At the end of a 325-mile ride the commando was within striking distance of Mosega.
The Matabele settlement at Mosega was made up of fifteen different kraals. These were situated in a rich alluvial depression which is surrounded by a circle of high hills, penetrated in several places by narrow passes. Harris describes the place as `a lovely and fertile valley bounded on the north and north-east by the Kurrichane mountains and in form resembling a basin of ten or twelve miles in circumference'.
The commando reached the rim of hills without being seen, on the night of 16 January 1837, and while Maritz's sharpshooters occupied the southern passes, Potgieter's force concentrated under cover of the most southerly hill. At first light next day his horsemen galloped for the nearest kraal.
The surprise was complete. As they came out of their huts rubbing the sleep from their eyes the Matabele were shot down in their scores. The Boers raced their horses from one kraal to another to continue the killing; they burned the huts as they passed and drove the survivors headlong towards the north. The missionaries at Mosega counted themselves lucky to escape the slaughter. `Early in the morning,' wrote Dr Wilson, `I was awakened by the firing of guns; I arose and looked and saw the farmers on horse-back, pursuing and shooting the natives, who were flying in every direction.' The Rev. Daniel Lindley, who was awakened by an anxious Stephanus Erasmus seeking news of his son, tells us that `Thirteen, some say fifteen kraals were attacked and destroyed. Few of the men belonging to them escaped and many of the women were either shot down or killed with the assegai. We have no means of knowing how many lives were lost in this affair; we think two hundred.... On the part of the assailants only two were killed. These were Bechwana one of whom creeping into a house in search of booty received his death wound from the man within; the other was carelessly shot down by a Boer mistaking him for one of Mzilikazi's men. They took away with them about six thousand head of cattle and made our field of labour a desolation.'
The massacre may have been cruel and brutally indiscriminate, but in all fairness one must place the Boers against their own time and situation. No one could survive here on the high veld unless they made themselves just as violent and just as ruthless as the Matabele. Nor must one ever lose sight of the fact that it had been Mzilikazi who had first made unprovoked attacks on the trekkers. At all events now that the fighting was over it was vital for the Boers to give the Matabele no chance to rally or their small force would risk annihilation. Before the morning was out all the Bantu survivors hiding in their huts had been mercilessly winkled out, and not a single warrior was left alive at the great basin of Mosega.
But although Mosega had been destroyed and the Matabele humbled, not much really had been settled. Admittedly more cattle had been taken than had been lost at Vegkop but the defeat was not decisive: the main Matabele army was still in being and neither Mzilikazi nor Mkalipi had been involved in the action; a real victory could only be won by the destruction of Kapain, and the Boers' horses, it was decided, were too worn out to attempt an additional sixty-mile ride with the whole country now thoroughly aroused.
In fact the commando as it retired from Mosega did so with undignified haste for the Boers were anxious to get their cattle booty across the Vaal before the Matabele recovered from their panic. The American missionaries, realising that they might very well be killed to expiate the Matabele defeat, elected to accompany the commando south, and they tell us that they had to drive their wagons that first night for twenty miles without stopping. `The horror of the flight,' sighs Lindley, `was increased by constant alarms. Herds of wild game moving along the plain were taken for regiments of pursuing Matabele, the dust raised by them and the sound of their hoofs not being distinguished from the tread of an army.'
The success of the attack of Mosega was further marred by the unseemly wrangling that followed between the two leaders of the commando. Maritz and Potgieter could not agree over the division of the plunder: Potgieter insisted on the lion's share to compensate his people for their losses at Vegkop and one cannot help feeling sympathy for his attitude; Maritz on the other hand demanded that the loot be equally divided between the two sections of the commando. In his learned way Maritz quoted so many parallel cases and talked so fast that he could hardly be understood, but in the end, by exercising the intractability which was the very essence of his nature, Potgieter got his own way. But this first quarrel represented the opening bars of fifteen years of discord and it was an angry dissatisfied crowd of men who rode into Thaba Nchu on 28 January 1837.
Now that they were economically independent again, and furious that the other trekkers would not join them at once in a second onslaught against the Matabele at Kapain before they regained their balance, Potgieter's people moved away from Blesberg. The enchanting vision of the rolling plains they had begun to farm before the Matabele assault was still dancing before their eyes, and they settled down happily along the upper reaches of the Vet river. Potgieter himself continued north, hoping to re-establish contact with Louis Tregardt. But near the Zebediela river he learned that Tregardt had already left the Zoutpansberg and was on his way to Delagoa Bay. A little sadly, Potgieter returned to the Vet. He was worried about the fate of the voorste mense and still anxious to crowd the defeated Matabele. But he would have to wait a little longer before he met Mzilikazi in a final round.
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