8 The Great Murder (see Map)
From The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford

The mood at Umgungundhlovu had indeed changed since Retief paid his first visit. Several events had occurred to increase Dingaan's fear of the emigrant Boers. First the king had learned that the trekkers were descending the Berg in large number. Afterwards news of Potgieter's bloody success at Kapain had filtered into Zululand. Then again Dingaan's fears of these terrible white men had not been assuaged by a new letter from Retief which Owen had read out to him. It was filled with admonitions and buttressed by threats. Admittedly Mr Owen did not see it that way: according to the credulous missionary it merely

'contained some excellent reflections and advice on the conduct of wicked kings'

and even assured Dingaan that Mzilikazi's

'punishment had been brought upon him by the righteous providence of God, because he had not kept God's word, but had made wax when he ought not'.

Pressure on Dingaan to act decisively moreover had grown that December when the tribal ritual of the First Fruits was celebrated at Umgungundhlovu; the warriors as usual had worked themselves up into a warlike fervour during the ceremony and implored Dingaan to 'eat up' the white trekkers in Natal. Finally to compound the king's wrath, on 22 January 1838 he received yet another letter from Retief saying that he intended to retain a proportion of Sekonyela's cattle and had no intention of giving up the horses and guns the Boers had taken from the Batlokwa chief 'as a guarantee of future behaviour'. Worst of all it was apparent that Retief had released Sekonyela.

These affronts aroused more suspicion and a savage hatred, and in the extremity of his rage Dingaan now finally made up his mind to destroy the trekkers in Natal. One can imagine the king's gross figure dilating still further with ferocious anticipation as his plans matured and he turned them over in his mind He decided to murder Retief when he returned to Umgungundhlovu, and immediately afterwards have his impis wipe out the Boer encampments under the Berg. To be successful Retief's killing at the capital must be initiated by treachery and surprise, and no doubt Dingaan recalled a plan he had made some years before to slaughter John Cane and a group of white companions from Port Natal: for when they came up on a visit to the 'Great Place', Dingaan had asked them to fire a salute in his honour, at the same time instructing his warriors to attack the white men before their guns could be reloaded. But the cautious Cane had, tongue-in-cheek, assured the king that it was customary for a line of men to fire a salute one by one and Dingaan had to forgo his hope of butchering the party in safety.

The king had never got over the disappointment at the failure of this plot. Now he decided that he might as well include Cane as well as a hated missionary named Gardiner in the bloody reception he was arranging for Retief; accordingly he sent out messengers bidding the two men to appear at Umgungundhlovu. Both Cane and Gardiner wisely ignored this command. The king then also decided that he might be able to include the trekkers' women and children in the coming slaughter at Umgungundhlovu: in a hospitable message dictated to Owen on 2 February, he asked Retief to bring the entire maatschappij with him when he came to receive a formal document ceding Natal to him. The letter announced that the king's 'heart was now content, because he had got his cattle again'; and went on

'He requested that the chief of the Boers would send to all his people and order them to come up to the capital with him, but,' in an anxious addition 'without their horses'.

But this part, too, of Dingaan's plan fell away, for on the very next day the sound of shooting was heard in the distance and Retief's cavalcade pranced into view. The Boers had ridden directly from the Drakensberg foothills and not via Port Natal as Dingaan had ordered: it was yet another provocation to gnaw at the king's forebodings.

By believing in Dingaan's continued goodwill Retief was of course making a tragic error of judgment. But the blow which had been arranged for him did not fall at once; the delay was not as has been suggested a case of the cat playing with a mouse; it was probable that the king was waiting for reinforcements to arrive in Umgungundhlovu as well as for Gardiner and Cane to accompany the trekkers into the trap he had set for them. During the first few days of the visit his warriors were again set to entertain the Boers with displays of mock fighting and dancing, while the white men responded by galloping around the parade ground firing off their guns, which of course added to the king's misgivings. When Retief at last showed signs of impatience, Dingaan glibly signed a document which had been drawn up same days before: in it he ceded all the land between the Tugela and the Umzimvubu to the Boers. It seemed to Retief now that his dream had come true. In the short African twilight that evening the Boers wandered happily among the huts of Umgungundhlovu for the last time, gossiping together and making preparations for their departure in the morning. They took little notice of a white boy named William Wood who happened to be visiting the capital at the time and (since he knew Zulu well) had been listening to the warriors' talk. Young Wood suspected Dingaan's real intentions, but when he tried to warn the Boers about his fears he was brushed aside with assurances that Dingaan

'was a man with a large and good heart' and 'We are sure the king's heart is right with us, and there is no cause for fear'.

The day the trekkers were to leave, 6 February 1838, dawned bright and cloudless. After their final preparations had been made and the horses saddled, Retief received a message from the king asking him to assemble his men on the parade ground so that he could bid them all farewell. It seemed ungracious to refuse. Leaving their horses in the care of their grooms under a candelabra tree at the gate of the kraal the white men re-entered the town. Almost at once they were stopped by two indunas who explained that it was an offence to come armed into the king's presence and the trekkers obligingly piled their guns in a heap outside the gate.

Then they trooped in to watch a final exhibition of native dancing, refusing boiled meat for they had already breakfasted, but accepting milk for refreshment. One can imagine them sitting there in the blue and gold of the early morning, pulling on their pipes, idly watching the display, cuffing away the mangy dogs which cowered up to them. The air was filled with the smell of dust and sweating bodies and stale cattle dung. Retief had seated himself on the ground beside Dingaan's carved wooden throne; the wallet with the deed of cession of Natal was slung about his shoulders. All around a great circle of warriors were squatting on the ground, apparently unarmed but with assegais concealed in the dust of the cattle droppings. Occupied in watching the performance the Boers hardly noticed that the circle of dancers was closing in on them. The warriors were chanting an interminable war song and the king himself led the singing. During the last verse, and forgetting for once to put up his hand to hide his rotten teeth, Dingaan suddenly leapt to his feet with a shriek of 'Bulalani abatagati'—kill the wizards. It was the arranged signal. A great mass of Zulus pressed on to the white men. There was a short scuffle against impossible odds. Some of the Boers had time to draw their hunting knives and they are said to have killed twenty Zulus before they were overpowered. Then the white men were bound with rawhide thongs and borne, still struggling, down into the valley and up the slopes of Kwa Matiwane. It must have been a strange and terrifying scene, and it has burned deep into the Afrikaners' national consciousness. Owen on his hill was an unhappy witness of all that was going on. He heard the tremendous uproar in the kraal, the clashing of spears and knobkerries on shields, the hoarse shouts of the warriors and the yells of their victims, and above all the din the sound of Dingaan's voice still shouting out his command to kill the wizards. Unwillingly the missionary lifted his eyes to watch the beginnings of the deed of blood; fortunately he could not see the details of its ending.

There is a quality about the deaths of Retief and his men which does not seem to belong to an incident in history; rather it is like a scene from Grand Guignol or the feverish outpourings of an artist with a macabre mind working on a fresco or painting. On Kwa Matiwane most of the Boers were clubbed to death; for that purpose, the warriors used a wagon-load of sticks which chanced to be standing there. But some died when their skulls were broken with rocks. A few of Dingaan's victims it seems were skewered and left on the hill to a more lingering death. Certainly in another refinement of cruelty Retief was made to witness the agonies of all his companions before he himself was put to death and one can only guess at his thoughts as he watched the killing of his son. After every bit of life had been battered out of him, Retief's chest was ripped open, and his heart and liver wrapped up in a cloth and taken to the king.

In a few words Owen manages in his journal to convey the horror of the scene. His entry begins with 'A dreadful day in the annals of the Mission', and then goes on to describe the struggling groups on Kwa Matiwane; his account ends with

'At present all is as still as death: it is really the stillness of death, for it has palsied every tongue in our little assembly'.

For there was no movement now on the execution hill; some of the Boers' corpses had been impaled on tall poles to stand like petrified sentinels on the gruesome slopes. But very soon the scavengers descended on Kwa Matiwane:

'Scarcely had the Zulus left the place of slaughter,' writes Owen's maid, Jane Williams, another eye-witness, 'when the vultures swooped down on the bodies of their victims,'

flopping down in scores, waddling among the rocks and triumphantly fighting for the carrion which Dingaan their father had provided that day. The story goes, and it may well be apocryphal, that Retief's heart and liver were buried on the road to Natal in some magic ceremony which was intended to ensure that no white men should again come that way to the king's 'Great Place'.

It must grudgingly be accounted to Dingaan's credit that he sent a warning to Owen just before he killed the Boers, assuring him that neither he nor his family would be harmed. But the missionary was nevertheless made very fearful a little later when he watched a knot of warriors marching up towards his huts. As they drew nearer he turned away to read with a broken voice the 91st Psalm to his wife and sister, and no doubt these poor people's courage was sustained by the deathless words of that triumphant outpouring which sounded over the rocky hill facing on to Kwa Matiwane.

'Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day. . . . For He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep thee in all His ways.'

But Dingaan's soldiers did them no harm, and it is wonderful to relate that after a few days Owen was allowed to leave Umgungundhlova by this violent man whose first instinct had been to kill all Europeans within his reach. The hilltop where Owen had lived was turned into a fold for the captured horses. Today it bears the buildings of a Christian mission.

Soon after the slaughter was completed Owen noticed that Tambuza and Ndlela were deep in conversation with the king.

'I have seen by my glass,' the missionary recorded, 'that Dingaan has been sitting most of the morning since this dreadful affair in the centre of his town, the Army in several divisions collected before him. About noon the whole Army ran in the direction from which the Boers came.'

What Owen had been watching was the initiation of the second part of the massacre plot. The captains of several regiments had been called up and given instructions to seek out the trekker encampments in Natal and 'eat them up'. They were to approach unseen and fall on them simultaneously during the dark of the moon. When the orders had been explained the regiments made a mock attack on the isigodhlo calling out. 'We will go and kill the white dogs'. Then they departed to their task. During the Kafir Wars on the eastern frontier it had been customary for the Xhosa to spare the women and children but Dingaan's orders now were to kill every living thing in the camps.

Yet after launching this fresh butchery Dingaan, like a child who knows he is doing wrong, yearned to find some justification for his actions. He had Owen write to Cape Town to assure the authorities there that the Boers

'wanted before they left to fire a salute with blank cartridge as they did on their arrival, but that their real intention was to kill him, as a proof of which when examined after their death, their guns were found to be loaded with ball'.

There is concrete evidence too which suggests that in fact the king had feared that the Boers would attack his isigodhlo under cover of darkness during the previous night. Kirkman, the interpreter for one of the American missionaries, was told when he visited Umgungundhlovu soon after the massacre, that

'the Boers had made three attempts to surround the kraal at night, but from their small numbers were unable to do so'.

And perhaps Dingaan was still voicing his suspicions of Boer treachery when a little later he expressed to Hulley his regret that Gardiner and Cane had not been present on the fatal day 'as they fully deserved'.

Subsequently the distraught trekkers tried to pin part of the blame for the tragedy of Kwa Matiwane on the British settlers at the Port. Stories went round that

'Gardiner and a man named Stubbs had visited Umgungundhlovu while Retief was dealing with Sekonyela, and had advised the king to murder the trek leader when he returned to the Great Place'.

Then again Owen, Cane, Ogle and another settler named Garnett have all been incriminated by Afrikaner tradition for prompting Dingaan to the murders: they are accused of being emissaries of the Cape Government which had no wish to see Natal occupied by the emigrant farmers. None of these rumours contained a single grain of truth: they must be seen merely as a reflection of the trekkers' contemporary anti-British views.

Meanwhile, as eleven days passed and the bodies of Retief and his companions kept watch with the vultures over Kwa Matiwane, tragedy hung over the trekkers Piet Retief had left below the Berg. Ten Zulu regiments lay concealed within striking distance of their encampments. They were waiting only for the moon to wane before annihilating the unsuspecting emigrants.

The advanced Boer camps were spread over a forty-mile front between the Tugela at modern Colenso and the present village of Willow Grange. The more prudent emigrants and groups of late-comers lay scattered right back as far as the foothills of the Drakensberg. The Zulu scouts failed to appreciate that the trekkers were disposed in such depth: accordingly it was the forward Boer encampments which took the full fury of the enemy onslaught, while those behind escaped attack.

The Boers were dangerously dispersed. This to some extent was inevitable since grazing ground had to be found for their enormous numbers of cattle and sheep. But it is difficult to excuse the trekkers for failing to fortify their camps or to throw out vedettes. They were over-confident and had ignored Retief's suggestion that despite Dingaan's good faith they should nevertheless laager their wagons every night once they had descended the Berg.

'It was on account of disobedience and imprudence,' a woman among the emigrants explained afterwards. 'The greater portion of the people were on the mission (to Dingaan) and others engaged in buffalo-hunting; others, moreover, were on the road to the Drakensberg to assist their families in coining down: so that the kaffirs found the women and children quite alone and sleeping peacefully.'

A second Boer put the situation rather differently:

'We were in tranquil security, for there was peace; and as Retief had recovered and restored the cattle belonging to Dingaan's people, we could not imagine things would not go alright.'

The improvidence was all the more reprehensible since it seems that rumours about the disaster at Umgungundhlovu were already reaching the trekkers; a Zulu was even reported as having shouted across the Tugela that Retief had been killed. It is true that a patrol was sent out to discover if there was an impi approaching the Tugela, and it was only prevented from running into Dingaan's army by the sharp-witted answers of a Zulu scout it happened to encounter. But only in a few cases was any effort made to pull the wagons round into a laager. Part Natal had learned of the Retief massacre before the middle of February, and some steps were taken there to warn the Boers of coming danger. Alexander Biggar sent one of his sons hastening to the trekkers with the news, but unfortunately he was shot dead by a trigger-happy Boer when he came galloping up to the first camp; Richard King, who had left Owen's service by now, trudged up to the camps on foot with a report of the massacre, but he arrived after the Zulus had put in their attack.

The most advanced trekkers' wagons stood that February along the banks of a spruit [rivulet] running from Willow Grange to the Bushman's river below modern Estcourt. Here the Malan, Swart, Breed and Van Rensburg families were encamped. Scarcely less exposed were fanaily groups of Roussouws, De Beers, Bezuidenhouts, Bothas, Liebenbergs and others who were scattered a little farther north along a ridge covered with thorn bushes that rose between two streams running into the Bloukrans river (afterwards they would be named the great and small moord or murder spruits). Maritz's large party was camped between and a little to the rear of these two groups on the banks of the Bushman's river where it makes a horse-shoe bend. Farther still to the west stood the seventy-eight wagons of the Retief and Creyling families on the hill which had been named Doornkop—the thorny koppie.

The Zulus made their assault in sections along the twenty-mite front which they had reconnoitred, and by good staff work the attacks went in almost simultaneously. At one o'clock in the morning of Saturday 17 February 1838 the warriors fell on the sleeping Liebenbergs at Moordspruit and annihilated the whole party. At almost the same moment another division of the impi overwhelmed the Roussouws and Bezuidenhouts near by. Young Daniel Bezuidenhout survived this attack. He says that he was awakened by his dogs barking furiously and got up to investigate. Instead of finding a marauding leopard he was met by a shower of assegais, and found as he notes dryly that 'We had to do with kafirs and not with tigers'. Daniel Bezuidenhout then succeeded in fighting his way through the Zulu ranks and ran to raise the alarm in the neighbouring camps. Thus forewarned the Bothas managed to fight off an attack for some time, but the whole family was killed after the Zulus drove a herd of cattle among their wagons and got among them during the ensuing melee.

The Van Rensburgs lay to the south with eight or nine other families and they had a few minutes' warning of the onslaught. It allowed them to take refuge on a near-by sugar-loaf hill, and here fourteen men held out for several hours. Just when their ammunition was running short a commando which had been rapidly mustered by Cilliers and Gert Maritz came into view and one of its men, Marthinus Oosthuizen, rode ahead and succeeded in reaching them with powder and bullets. A little later a counter-attack dispersed their assailants.

Maritz had an hour's grace to prepare the defences of his camp. His people heard firing in the distance, and it is a measure of their confidence in the Zulus that at first they believed it signified Retief's men announcing their return with a feu de joie or possibly a treacherous attack by the British settlers at the port. The breathing space allowed the Boers in the camp to bring a small cannon into action and drive off the Zulus who had formed a human chain in their efforts to ford the flooded Bushman's river. It is said that a marksman among the Boers repeatedly shot down men in the centre of this chain so that it might fall apart, and many Zulus are believed to have drowned in the river. Maritz then pursued the impi with thirty-three men. A contemporary account has left us a brave vignette of Maritz rushing off with a musket to the fight followed by his wife and thirteen-year-old daughter, both carrying a bag of gunpowder in one hand and a bag of slugs in the other.

By day-break fugitives and wounded men were carrying news of the crisis to the main camp on Doornkop and here a strong laager was hastily formed. The Zulu offensive missed Sarel Cilliers' camp and he sallied forth courageously to assist his fellow trekkers. Cilliers led the counter-attack after admonishing his companions to

'Keep God before your eyes, and be not afraid, and follow me. With five men,' he wrote afterwards, 'I first saved the laager of Gert Barends, which was on the point of surrendering to the greater strength of the enemy,' and he adds that in the running fight which followed, 'I fired so much that the barrel of my gun became so hot I was afraid when I put in the powder it might burst.'

Then Cilliers joined with Maritz's men in bringing relief to the hard-pressed Van Rensburgs and other family groups near by. Later he remembered that

'Everything gave way to rage. There was no further resistance. We drove the kafirs into a confused heap and overwhelmed them until they were driven by us into the fastness of the mountains.'

At last night fell on the camps, a miserable night of fear and suffering. With the coming of morning the surviving trekkers were appalled by the magnitude of the disaster. Sorrowfully they counted the dead bodies of 41 men, 56 women and 185 children, besides those of 200 coloured servants. In a single bloody night nearly 500 members of the Great Trek had died, and the surviving camps were filling up with wounded stragglers. No mind can add up the sum of human anguish and anxiety which stemmed from Dingaan's work that night. Only two people were found alive among the wreckage of the Roussouw wagons: Daniel Bezuidenhout tells us that of them

'Elizabeth Roussouw had sixteen wounds, and died the next day. Adriaan had twenty-three spear wounds but escaped with his life.'

One catches the flavour of the horror too from the pen of Mrs Steenkamp who found it

'unbearable for flesh and blood to behold the frightful spectacle the following morning. In one wagon were found fifty dead, and blood flowed from the seam of the tent-sail down to the lowest part....On all sides one saw tears flowing and heard people weeping by the plundered wagons, painted with blood; tents and beds were torn to shreds; pregnant women and little children had to walk for hours together, bearing the signs of their hasty flight.'

Of another camp Cilliers writes,

'I was an eye-witness to the fact that little infants still in their swaddllng clothes lay in their blood, murdered in the arms of their mothers.'

Young Bezuidenhout when he got back to his camp found his wife lying dead and badly mutilated while her baby lay where her breast had been sliced off. It was even worse for Piet du Pre who returned from hunting to find his wife and seven children had all been murdered. An Englishman who later visited a survivor of the massacre tells us that when all her relations had been killed and

'lay in a heap of confusion weltering in their blood, this poor girl fainted among the dying and the dead at the sight, and being herself covered with the blood of her kindred escaped the destruction of her nearest and dearest relatives'.

The Zulus were pursued as far as the Tugela but the Boers only recovered a fraction of the stock that the impi was driving off. The trekkers estimated that in this single night they lost 35,000 cattle and sheep, but this is almost certainly an exaggeration: the true figure probably approximates to 25,000 head. Owen while still in Zululand saw the return of the impi with thousands of head of cattle, 'but', he adds, with 'only about 15 guns'.

The Zulu attack on the sleeping encampments had been brilliantly conceived but it fell far short of complete success. The Zulus believed they had killed most of the Boer men on Kwa Matiwane and were surprised by the resistance they encountered once the initial surprise had worn off. Nor had they appreciated that the trekkers' camps were scattered westwards as far as the mountains. Dingaan had hoped for total annihilation of the white trespassers into his dominions and he could not disguise his disappointment with the night's work:

'They told me,' he grumbled to Hulley, 'there was only one camp, Retief's, and that there were only about thirty-odd men left to defend it.'

Looking back on it afterwards David Lindley, one of the American missionaries in Zululand, summed up the Zulu attack critically with the remark that,

'Considering the opportunity they had, the impi accomplished very little indeed.'

But the trekkers that February would not have agreed with this conclusion. They spoke of the night's deeds as ' The Great Murder'. On top of the seventy men lost on Kwa Matiwane they had suffered a second near-mortal blow. Their stock losses too had been disastrous. But their rapidly organised resistance had driven off the Zulus who had too easily surrendered the initiative to the Boers. The Great Murder, one sees now, was one of those events which mark off the past from the future and in themselves set off a new train of events. For from now on it would be war to the death between the Afrikaners and Dingaan's impis.