9. Blood River
From The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford (1968)

During the Great Trek many amazing episodes occurred, but I am willing to put high on the list of their achievements the fact that the emigrants stayed on in Natal after the Great Murder. Never was the faith, courage and endurance of the Afrikaners better demonstrated than during the weeks which followed the twin massacres of Kwa Matiwane and Bloukrans.

The trekkers, scattered in their bloody wagon-camps throughout upper Natal, were plunged into a situation filled with peril and uncertainty. They were left leaderless and dispirited. The number had been literally decimated. Everyone was hungry and half out of his mind with sorrow and apprehension. The encampments were filled with desperately wounded men, orphaned children and widows. The emigrants' fighting strength had suffered particularly severely. Of the 720 men capable of carrying a musket who had descended the Berg, 116 were dead. Ammunition was depleted. Provisions were running low and much of the stock looted. And no one knew when another Zulu attack might not descend on them and overwhelm the survivors in their camps.

This was Gert Maritz's great hour; it was now that this sickly man, who had always been thought of as something of a dilettante, showed his mettle. Maritz went from camp to camp consoling the bereaved, encouraging the remaining fighting men and telling them of his plans for vengeance. A few faint-hearted Afrikaners refused to be comforted; announcing that ever since they had entered Natal things had been going wrong, they trekked back to the high veld. But the vast majority of the trekkers simply refused to abandon the country; the womenfolk were particularly intransigent; Cilliers notes that it was 'those who were the most in distress, the widows and orphans, had the least inclination to return to the Colony'. To some extent no doubt they were influenced by the fact that to go back tamely to the safety of the Cape would condemn themselves to living on charity, whereas if the trekkers remained in Natal they might in the end defeat Dingaan and regain their stolen livestock. But what weighed far more with the women was a refusal to give up the absorbing dream of living in their own independent state; they were sustained still by a deep and mystic passion for personal freedom. And somehow despite all that had happened to the maatschappij its people still felt themselves to be the special favourites of Heaven whose faith now was being tested. To return over the Berg, they believed, would be to fail their loved ones lying on the slopes of Kwa Matiwane and in scattered graves along the Bloukrans and Bushman's rivers.

The sheer danger of the Voortrekkers' situation has to be constantly borne in mind at this point: for the Zulu army was intact and Dingaan must now annihilate the trekkers or face destruction himself. It was clear that the emigrants' immediate necessity was to concentrate all their wagons in a few strong defensive positions. Three great camps were accordingly set up and turned into veritable fortresses with turfed walls and loop-holed palisades. Maritz himself occupied the largest of these laagers situated on bare dusty veld overlooking the Little Tugela river near the prominent hill named Loskop; he fortified the camp with a strong wall of sods and in consequence the Boers knew it as Sooilaer. The remaining members of Retief's party consolidated their positions at Doornkop. And 290 wagons lay in another near-by laager on the Gatsrand.

Messengers were then dispatched for help to the overberg Boers. Uys at Winburg responded at once and came riding down the Drakensberg passes with welcome reinforcements of men and ammunition. His intense pugnacious spirit was not so much responding to the syren-song of Natalland, as pulled now by a very real concern for the safety of his fellow countrymen. Uys was followed, with noticeably less enthusiasm, by Hendrik Potgieter and his fighting men, muttering and fretful. Other far-riding couriers pleading for men, ammunition and provisions carried the news of disaster to Port Natal and the far corners of the Colony itself. The response was such that by April 1838 David Lindley could report that the trekkers 'have eleven hundred and about fifty men who are able to go on commando, besides old men and boys who would do good service in defending their encampment'. The overberg Boers poured provisions too down to their beleaguered kinsmen in Natal, and when Jacobus Boshof's well-laden wagon rolled into one of the camps, we read that 'Tears of gratitude were seen on every cheek, while others, weeping and sighing, said "Let our faith be in the Lord, for He will deliver us".'

All thoughts were now turned to revenge. But as so often among the Boers there was dissension over the leadership of the punitive expedition which it was proposed to mount. Maritz, the obvious choice, was ill (iller than he knew for he had a scant five months to live); the fighting men from Uitenhage would only follow Piet Uys; Potgieter's people refused to serve under anyone but their own leader. In the end Maritz wearily worked out a compromise which satisfied no one: the commando would operate in two separate contingents, one under Potgieter and the other under Uys. At the same time it was arranged through envoys to Port Natal that an entirely separate force made up of British settlers from Durban supported by a motley array of armed Bantu levies would cause a diversion by invading Zululand along the coast road. It was one of those plans which are so loosely tied together that the chance of its working smoothly is almost negligible, and this one was no exception.

The combined commando of Potgieter and Uys rode out of the encampments in two separate columns on 5 and 6 April 1838. Together they numbered 347 horsemen and thus constituted by far the largest force that the trekkers so far had been able to assemble. The Zulu commander, Ndlela, allowed them to ride to within a few miles of Umgungundhlovu and only stood to fight on ground of his own choosing. 'The Zulus,' lamented Francis Owen, 'selected very advantageous ground for the fight within half an hour's ride, and in sight of Umgungundhlovu, my late residence.'

Here the road to the king's 'Great Place' entered a narrow defile commanded on both sides by steep rocky hills which provided excellent cover. At its end the defile led into a valley dominated on the right by a mountain known as Italeni. Below it three Zulu regiments could be seen, and after a short conversation with Potgieter, the impetuous Uys, shouting 'Comrades, the soldiers of the murderer are there. Let us fall upon them,' led his contingent towards them at a gallop. Immediately the hills on both sides came to life with hidden Zulus who swarmed down to block the exit of the defile. At the base of Italeni Uys's men dismounted to attack the Zulus on the right, while Potgieter, more cautiously and with his men still on horseback, Moved off on the other side to engage the enemy's right flank. Unfortunately the two attacks were utterly uncoordinated.

Uys's charge scattered the Zulus opposed to him, but his fighting men then made the mistake of splitting into several small groups, and each one was quickly surrounded when the Zulus rallied and fought back among the boulders. A wild melee developed in which Piet Uys and his son, Dirkie, were tragically killed.

To understand the course of events we cannot do better than follow the account left by Jacobus Boshof.

'Uys gallantly rushed in among the enemy,' he writes, 'with a mere handful of men and drove a whole regiment before him; but, on returning to join the rest of his men, another large body of Zulus, who had concealed themselves in the gullies on each side of him, rushed upon him and his few brave followers, and killed seven of them. By this time Potgieter had begun to retreat, and Uys and his son, a youth of about fourteen years of age, had as yet escaped unhurt; but as the former stopped his horse to sharpen the flint of his gun the enemy approached and threw an assegai at him, which wounded him mortally in the loins. He, however, pulled out the weapon, and after this he even took up another man, whose horse was knocked up, behind him; but he soon fainted from loss of blood. Recovering again, he was held on his horse for some distance by a man on each side of him. At length he said he felt his end approaching, and desired to be laid on the ground. He then said to his son and the other men about him: "Here I must die. You cannot get me any further, and there is no use to try it. Save yourselves, but fight like brave fellows to the last, and hold God before your eyes." They here left him, but not before they saw that to remain longer on the spot would be certain death to them. After galloping for about a hundred yards, the younger Uys, looking round, saw the enemy closing round his dying father in numbers, and at the same time he perceived his father lifting up his head. This was too much for the feelings of the lad: he turned round his horse, and alone rushed upon the enemy, compelled them to retreat, and shot three Zulus, before he was hemmed in by overpowering numbers and dispatched.' Nine other Boers were killed before the party managed to withdraw to safety.

In this crisis Uys's men received no assistance from the other contingent of the commando which had drawn rein at a small spruit [rivulet]. Potgieter, who had always before been ready for a fight, now hung back. He refused either to press in an attack on the left flank or allow his horsemen to move over to cover the retreat of the Uitenhage men. (To their credit it must be noted that sixteen of Potgieter's followers disobeyed his orders and rode to their friends' assistance.) Potgieter himself, abandoning Uys's pack horses and ammunition, led the majority of his followers on to a high hill and then rode off with them in an ignominious retreat which did not halt until it had regained the safety of the trekker camps. It was no wonder that this foray was given the derisory name of the Vlug Commando—the Flight Commando.

'One whole division of 150 men were put to shameful flight,' wrote Francis Owen, forgetting his grammar for once in his indignation, and in sober truth the story of the Vlug commando was a disgrace and a painful licking to boot. Nor could the trekkers afford to lose a man of Uys's fighting calibre. Accusations of cowardice and treachery were flung in Potgieter's face, and he was infuriated by the charges; had he gone over to the attack, he said, his men would never have escaped alive from Italeni and there was a good deal of substance in what he stated. But one suspects in fact that Potgieter had discharged what he believed to be his larger loyalty by refusing to endanger his own followers in an attempt to extricate Uys from his danger. One should perhaps not criticise his attitude too much. Potgieter's heart was not in the fight for Natal. He was a clan leader by nature; and the maatschappij had only recently rejected him as leader of the trek and given its allegiance instead to Piet Retief. At all events he had come now to the final parting of the ways. He argued, grumbled and sulked, and then despite all Maritz's pleas that he should not leave his fellow-countrymen in the lurch, Potgieter withdrew with his followers over the Berg. Of a sudden the lion of the north had taken on the role of an anti-hero and to the majority of the trekkers his action was the classical dolchstoss, the legendary stab in the back; they watched him go with sullen resentment, and an erstwhile friend who met Potgieter on his way to the high veld was doing no more than express the general feeling when he fulminated against the man who had conquered at Vegkop, Mosega and Kapain as one 'to whose treacherous and cowardly conduct the farmers attribute their defeat and the death of Uys'.

The largest commando the Boers had been so far able to gather together had been vanquished in a straight fight. But if Italeni was a severe reverse, the attack by the Port settlers on the Zulus six days later was sheer disaster.

John Cane and Robert Biggar had mustered fifteen other Englishmen and 1,100 Bantu into an indisciplined rabble of armed men which nevertheless marched under a great banner inscribed with a Montrosian 'For justice we fight'. The British fighting men referred rather splendidly to the expeditionary force as 'The Grand Army of Natal'. On 2 April 1838 when Dingaan's soldiers were concentrated near Italeni the Grand Army triumphantly plundered and burned an isolated Zulu kraal near Krantzkop. The small success was only slightly marred by the loss of two men; one died of snake-bite and the other was shot by John Cane for stealing. A few days later the ramshackle army crossed the Tugela and carried war into the enemy's country. No doubt its leaders had some idea of co-operating with the trekkers in attacking Dingaan but they were probably more interested in carrying out some cattle rustling while the impis were engaged with the Boers. Certainly most of their Bantu followers regarded the foray as a cattle raid, and everyone who could, joined in: 'Many of them,' notes Lindley gloomily, 'were so old they used walking sticks' to get along.

The mob of men crossed the Tugela close to its estuary and at once attacked a kraal named Ndondakusuka. An impi of 10,000 warriors which Tambuza had hurried across country from Italeni and which was still flushed with success, was waiting for them. While one Zulu regiment moved over to cut off retreat to the river, the remainder fell on the Grand Army like a thunderbolt.

Thirteen of the seventeen Englishmen were killed in the assault. The gigantic John Cane, his pipe still clenched between his teeth when he fell, was among the dead. Only a handful of the native levies escaped the butchery which followed and managed to cross the Tugela.

One refugee ran the seventy-six miles to Port Natal with news of this disaster. Hot on his heels came the Zulu impi, and it was only by the happy circumstance that a ship had just put into the bay that the British still at the port escaped with their lives. After spending an enjoyable nine days looting and destroying everything they could find in Durban the Zulus returned to Umgungundhlovu. They could now count four victories during the past three months—Kwa Matiwane, Bloukrans, Italeni and Ndondakusuka—and Dingaan must have congratulated himself on having dealt a succession of near-mortal blows to the white intruders into his realm.

The Boers, it must be admitted, regarded the defeat of the English on the Tugela with mixed feelings. It had at least left a vacuum at Port Natal and despite their own grievous situation a party of trekkers led by Carel Landman moved at once to occupy the port. Landman conferred the post of Landdrost on the pro-Boer Englishman Alexander Biggar, who had returned to what remained of his house after the Zulus retired.

But in that winter season of 1838 the trekkers in Natal had reached the very nadir of their fortunes. They were herded together in unsanitary laagers; food was strictly rationed and no grain would grow until the summer rains fell; there was not even enough wine for the Communion service; the remaining cattle were starving because of the small amount of grazing that lay out of reach of prowling Zulus; saddle horses were in bad condition and only a few were fit enough to go out on commando; ammunition was perilously short; the response to requests for reinforcements had lately been disappointing; and worst of all the Zulu menace still hung like a doom over the camps. It was scarcely surprising that the men's morale had fallen to a dangerously low level.

The crisis came in August when an impi of 10,000 warriors was seen approaching the camp on Gatsrand; this time some of the Zulus were armed with muskets taken during the fights with the emigrants. One eye-witness found the 'kafir hordes terrible to see. I cannot describe their numbers; for one would think that all heathendom had assembled to destroy us.' For the next two days the Zulus encircled the laager, firing at it with their captured guns and skirmishing up to the wagons. Each day several serious attacks had to be driven off. The nights were even more terrifying. The warriors fired the surrounding veld and hurled burning assegais into the wagon tilts. The seventy-five white men fought back doing great execution with their snaphaans and a 3-lbr cannon, and we catch one vivid glimpse of conditions inside the laager from a description of the womenfolk who stood by with hatchets ready to cut off any black hands trying to untie the riems holding the wagons together. The Boers made several counter attacks on horseback, but the Zulus refused to give way; again and again they rallied and came back into the murderous fire from the laager, each charge becoming just a little feebler than the last; it was not until the third day, 15 August, that the impi finally moved off, carrying with it large cattle herds and leaving behind 'a thick bank of dead and dying'. Many of the defenders of Gatsrand had been wounded but only one of them lost his life.

Gatsrand after its defence was proudly renamed Veglaer—the fight laager. The action had proved again that from prepared positions the emigrants could withstand the entire Zulu army. But in some ways the trekkers' condition was now worse than ever. The stink of putrefaction made it essential to abandon Veglaer and its people moved across country to a site on the Little Tugela opposite Sooilaer. Then a different sort of disaster struck at the Voortrekkers of Natal; their leader Gert Maritz died at Sooilaer on 23 September, sighing with his last breath 'like Moses I have seen the promised land, but shall not dwell in it'.

The trekkers all this time had succeeded in keeping the road open to Port Natal, and it says a great deal for their courage and faith that at this time of universal gloom a venturesome party, that October in 1838, began to lay out a new settlement on the Umsindusi stream: they named it Pietermaritzburg to commemorate their two dead leaders. It was to become their capital.

That same month a ship put into Port Natal loaded with all sorts of provisions for the trekkers which had been sent by 'some liberal-minded countrymen of theirs at the Cape'. Now the emigrants luxuriated in ample supplies of sugar, rice, coffee, tea and spices which for so long had been denied to them. And as though this was a signal of better times to come gentle rain began to fall and green grass appeared by magic on the overgrazed veld around the camps. Finally on the morning of 22 November 1838 there was a great stir in the encampments as sixty burghers with a brass cannon rode into Sooilaer. They were led by a heavily-armed man who Erasmus Smit thought looked like a 'well-equipped, sabred and pistolled dragoon'. It was Andries Pretorius. The Great Trek had a happy knack of turning out new leaders at a critical time; Pretorius was one of them, and now with his arrival in Natal, the last leading actor of its cast had arrived on the stage.

From that morning until the day of his death fifteen years later Andries Pretorius no less than Potgieter dominates the trekkers' story. It is as well, therefore, if we pause here and take note of this man who brought the Afrikaner exodus to its successful conclusion.

Andries Pretorius at the time of his arrival in Natal was in his late thirties. Like Maritz he had grown up in Graaff Reinet, but he was a farmer at heart and as it turned out a successful one too so that he quickly became a man of wealth and consequence. For some years he had toyed with the idea of trekking from the Colony: in 1837 he paid a visit to the emigrant camps in Transorangia and served as a volunteer under Potgieter during the expedition to Kapain. Afterwards he rode into Natal with news of Potgieter's success, and he was greatly impressed by what he saw of the country.

Back at Graff Reinet Pretorius had received a deputation of Natalians during the April of 1838 which entreated him to lead reinforcements to Natal, but it was not until several months had passed that some inspiration of patriotism or ambition suggested to him that he might play a larger part in the Voortrekker drama, and he finally obeyed the summons. When in the October of 1838 he fitted out a convoy of sixty-eight wagons and headed north, a key piece of the Great Trek had dropped into its proper place. At the Modder river Pretorius learned how desperate were the straits of the beleaguered trekkers following the death of Maritz, and he hurried on ahead of his wagons with sixty horsemen. At the same time he was sure enough of his reception to send messengers to each of the trekker encampments asking for all possible fighting men to concentrate at Sooilaer armed and prepared to take the field.

He was received at Sooilaer with relief and something approaching rapture as well. Here was a man who had the gift of making fine phrases which perfectly expressed the trekkers' aspirations. He had not been involved in the bitter schisms of the past two years, and above all others he could replace the leaders that had been lost—Retief and Uys, Maritz and Potgieter, and unite the maatschappij once more. And this ready-made hero proceeded to go about the task with efficiency and supreme self-confidence.

We know more about Pretorius than we do of the other trek leaders. In appearance he tended to an imposing portliness and carried a small paunch in a stately sort of way as though it was filled with securities and bank drafts. (A disrespectful English soldier, varying the simile, tells us that the Commandant-General 'is about six feet high and has a belly on him like a bass drum'.) Africans, however, who have an uncanny knack of picking out a man's most significant characteristics ignored his corporation and nick-named Pretorius 'Ngalonkulu'—brawny arms.

Pretorius's approach to the people he led was persuasive rather than self-assertive, that of a politician who knows how and when to use his charm; indeed he had about him something of the guile of men whom Afrikaners describe as being 'slim'. Sir Harry Smith who was no mean judge of character summed up Andries Pretorius as 'a shrewd and sensible man', but on occasion Pretorius could surprise everybody by bouts of unreasonable petulance which were all the more effective in getting his own way because they were so rarely exhibited. We have a portrait of Pretorius posing a little stiffly for the artist about this time; here his curious blend of phlegm and flame comes out very well in the expression on the clean-shaven, handsome face, and looking at it today one remains uncertain whether he is on the point of despair or fury.

Above everything else Pretorius was a hard worker, concerned with every detail of government (which the trek-leaders in the past had tended to ignore), a crisply efficient organiser, and, as he was about to demonstrate, a very competent military tactician.

Pretorius had been at Sooilaer no time at all before he began to get action: within a week of his arrival he had been elected Commandant-General of the trekkers and had set about the mustering of a commando which was to carry vengeance into Zululand. The previous attempts to deal with Dingaan had been bedevilled by the leaders' jealousies; now for the first time the burghers were to serve under a single commander. Late in November, after Erasmus Smit had preached to them from the appropriate text 'O Lord, defer not and do; defer not for Thy names Sake', Pretorius's commando pulled out of Sooilaer. When it had united with Landman's contingent from the Port his fighting force numbered nearly five hundred white men, and they were well supplied with stores and ammunition carried in more than sixty wagons. In addition over a hundred native levies under Alexander Biggar served with them. The Boers' fire power was enormously enhanced by three small muzzle-loading cannon of 2½-inch bore which were mounted on crude undercarriages. The fighting men were divided into five separate divisions, each with its own commandant, and instead of the old dissensions Pretorius got on famously with them all. He established a proper chain of command to replace the old method in which groups of men only took orders from leaders of their own choice. Officers were distinguished by wearing pistols in their belts. Discipline was tightened up and although the men might grumble that their commander was something of a martinet, morale remained remarkably high.

It was now that the Boers really learned what it was to be commanded by Pretorius. Every evening during the approach march the wagons were pulled into a great circle, the gaps between them closed with ladders, and sentries were carefully posted. One man in the column noted with surprised approval the way in which the new Commandant-General 'ordered that the camp should be properly enclosed, and the gates well secured, after the cattle should be within the same, and that the night patrols should be properly set out; all of which was executed with the greatest activity and readiness'.

The strategy of Pretorius was simple enough. He intended to march directly on Umgungundhlovu until his patrols made contact with the Zulu army. Then he would seek a strong defensive position and invite attack from behind a wagon-laager; there was to be no repetition of the impetuous charge on the enemy like the one at Italeni which had run into ambush.

The commando passed the site of modern Ladysmith without incident, and a little farther on were entertained to a display of dancing by a friendly chief near the Sundays river at a place which accordingly was named Danskraal. On 9 December 1838 it camped on the banks of the Wasbank river, so called for the large flat stones on its banks which lent themselves to clothes washing. All during the march Sarel Cilliers had felt in his element. Erasmus Smit had been left behind, and if Andries Pretorius was the unrivalled secular leader of the commando there was no one to dispute its spiritual direction with Cilliers. Every evening it was he who conducted divine service, and rounded off the eloquent prayers and fervent psalm-singing with a lengthy sermon. His mind was filled with the risks and importance of the commando's tasks and he frequently discussed with Pretorius and the section commanders some way off commending their cause to God. He had in mind their collectively making a vow to God like those offered by the Bible saints and this led to an important event in Afrikaner history.

We can perhaps best follow what next occurred from a description left by one of the Boers on commando, J. G. Bantjes:

'On Sunday morning. before divine service commenced,' he writes,'the Chief Commandant called together all those who were to perform that service, and requested them to propose to the congregation that they should all fervently, in spirit and in truth, pray to God for His relief and assistance in their struggle with the enemy; that he wanted to make a vow to God Almighty if they were all willing, that should the Lord be pleased to grant us the victory, we should raise a house to the memory of His great name, wherever it might please him, and that they should also supplicate the aid and assistance of God to enable them to fulfil their vow; and that we would note the day of the victory in a book, to make it known even to out latest posterity, in order that it might be celebrated to the honour of God: Cilliers, Landman, and Joubert were glad in their minds to hear it. They spoke to their congregations on the subject, and obtained their general concurrence. When after this divine ser-vice commenced, Mr Cilliers performed that which took place in the tent of the chief commandant. He commenced by singing from Psalm XXXVIII, verses 12-16, then delivered a prayer, and preached about the twenty-four first verses of the book of judges; and thereafter delivered the prayer in which the before-mentioned vow to God was made, with fervent supplication for the Lord's aid and assistance in the fulfilment thereof. The 12th and 21st verses of the said XXXVIII Psalm were again sung, and the service was concluded with the singing of the CXXXIV Psalm. In the afternoon the congregations assembled again, and several appropriate verses were sung. Mr Cilliers again made a speech, and delivered prayers solemnly; and in the same manner the evening was also spent.'

It seems that the original vow was made at Danskraal and then repeated at services held on subsequent days, one of them being at Wasbank. We learn too that Cilliers conducted his services in the open air mounted on one of the cannons, and there with his congregation gathered before him and the mountains standing like a line of witnesses in the north, the trekkers daily entered into their solemn compact that if God granted them a victory over the Zulus they would build a church and keep the day of battle as one of thanksgiving for ever.

It is interesting to note that Alexander Biggar and the other Englishmen in the commando joined in making the vow, but that five Boers abstained for fear of God's vengeance on their descendants if in years to come they broke the promise.

On 14 December the commando came up to a saddle-back hill named Gelato, and while the men rested their horses, Pretorius reconnoitred ahead, seeking a favourable site from which to offer battle to the Zulu army which was reported to be coming up. He found it just to the east of Gelato (soon to be renamed Vegkop) where a deep donga or a sluyt, fourteen feet deep and fourteen feet across but yet invisible from the plain, ran at an angle into the Ncome river and carried storm water into it. Just above this junction the river widened out into a long deep pool overgrown with weeds and a favourite haunt of hippopotami; the river here could only be forded at two drifts, one at either end of the pool. The angle between this hippo pool and the donga provided a perfect defensive position. It was so effectively protected on two sides that the Zulus could in practice only attack it directly from the north-west, and as they advanced they would of necessity be funnelled into a solid concentration which must be murderously exposed to the Boers' fire.

Cilliers saw the hand of God in the provision of such a stronghold, and later on he wrote,

'I must particularly mention how the Lord, in his watchfulness over us, brought us to the place where he had ordained the battle to be fought.'

Later that misty afternoon the Boers formed up their sixty-four wagons in the V made by the river and the donga. The laager was roughly triangular in shape, with two sides overlooking these natural obstacles and some seventy yards from them, while the third side arched out towards the north-west and stretched in a crescent-shape across the open tongue of land. The wagons were chained together securely, ladders were fastened across the spaces between them and skins stretched tightly over their wheels. Four openings were left in the laager's wall which could all be quickly closed by wagon-gates. The larger opening was intended, when the Zulu host drew near, to admit the horses and trek-oxen, numbering well over a thousand beasts, into the laager; the smaller 'gates' provided emplacements for the Afrikaners' cannons. The gun which Pretorius had brought to Natal was placed to the north-east; the second gun commanded the junction of the sluyt with the river; and the third, known affectionately as ou Grietjie, stood at the westerly end; today it occupies a place of honour near the Voortrekker monument at Pretoria. Next day, 15 December, after a brief skirmish with Zulu scouts, and satisfied that everything that should have been done to the laager had been done, Pretorius took out a strong patrol to make contact with the enemy. He encountered them, a menacing dark cloud of 15,000 men, in the Nqutu hills and watched the impi falling back in an attempt to draw him towards Italeni as though anxious to repeat the tactics which had defeated the Vlug Commando. It was a stimulating thing to see the Zulu main army at last, and Cilliers, who was always as ready to fall on his foes as to fall on his knees, was all for attacking it at once. But Pretorius was coolness itself:

'Do not let us go to them,' he said. 'Let them come to us.'

Although annoyed at the time Cilliers later had the grace to admit that

'afterwards I saw that it was for the best that we had done nothing that day', and he adds rather foggily, 'for the Lord hath said "My counsel shall remain. I will fulfil my desires".'

One can imagine Ndlela calling his commanders together once he had appreciated that Pretorius was refusing battle and that the well-tried Zulu plan for an ambuscade must be abandoned. The next few moments were in a sense the most significant in the whole course of the Great Trek. Ndlela knew perfectly well from his scouts that the Boers had set up a base laager on the banks of the Ncome, and with hindsight one can see now that in this situation which was as fluid as mercury a splendid opportunity lay open to him: he could throw his impi round the laager until hunger, thirst or even the boredom of sheer inaction drove the Boers to attempt a break out. But such thinking did not suit the Zulu way of fighting and Ndlela instead made a tactical error of the first magnitude: he decided that he would attack the laager directly and do so that very night. Orders went out for his regiments to make a forced march in the wake of the retreating Boers and storm their laager before dawn. The plan might have worked had the march not been so long, or the night so pitch dark and foggy that the regiments repeatedly lost themselves, or the Ncome unexpectedly in flood. As it was, during the dismal hours before dawn Ndlela was able to pass no more than 5,000 men across the river, and sunrise caught him with his army divided in two.

While the main body was coming up to the eastern banks of the Ncome the impi's forward elements spent the last hours of the night close to the Boer wagons and with same warriors huddled in the donga, all vastly awed by the eerie light shed by the lanterns which the Boers had strung up over the wagons, and even more by the deep-throated singing of psalms and hymns which arose a few hundred yards away from behind the wagon-wall. They had not the heart to make an assault in the darkness and the magnificent opportunity which was open to them fled with the morning's lightening skies.

The Boers had stood to their guns long before dawn, fearful that a ground mist would have formed as it had done during the past few days and allow the enemy to conceal their final approach. They were puzzled as they waited by a noise like a distant rain until someone called out that it was made by the warriors rattling their assegais against cow-hide shields to drum up courage before battle. For now when the advanced Zulus should have waited until the whole of their army was concentrated near the laager, those regiments which had crossed the river regained their courage with daybreak and impulsively decided to put in their attack at once. What this meant of course was that the Zulus were beginning the battle when the majority of their soldiers were still separated from the Boers by a flooded river which could only be crossed with difficulty at two widely separated drifts. Nothing could have been more likely to lead to disaster. As an example of martial courage the Zulu attack which followed on that Sunday morning could not have been excelled, but as an example of the employment of military tactics it was deplorable and suicidal.

As the air began to smell of morning the white men watched the pattern of flat-topped thorn-trees on the hills across the river starting to show against the eastern sky, and listened to the birds which began to give chorus before setting off on their daily quest for seeds and insects. Then the sun's rim broke free from the horizon, tinting the surrounding hills with red so that the entire landscape for a few moments seemed to be drenched in blood. And the Boers saw with relief that the weather had cleared.

'Sunday, the 16th,' one of them recalled afterwards, 'was a day as if ordained for us. The sky was open, the weather clear and bright.'

In the spreading light a solid mass of black humanity was seen only a few hundred yards away and racing towards the wagons. At once the Boer guns and cannons opened with a roar. It was impossible for a single shot to miss such a target. Never at any time was there a hope that this attack would succeed. The shock of the concentrated fire was devastating and almost at once the first wave of Zulus reeled back in disorder. Then for two mortal hours these regiments mounted a wild chain of doomed charges on the north and west faces of the laager and one after the other they were smashed and flattened. It was a strange and horrifying scene, and the painting which the artist W. H. Coetzer made of it is perhaps the most celebrated of all the pictures of the Voortrekker saga.

Commandant Visser remembered afterwards

'we fired chiefly slug shots. Although nearly every one of us had two or three guns, the barrels had then become hot from constant firing.'

Because of the noise and the heat beating into their brains none of the Boers seemed afterwards to remember many details of the battle, and although in later years the action would be carefully chronicled, their accounts differ widely and it is still difficult for us to comprehend what really happened on the banks of the Ncome river that day in 1838. As one reads about it everything dissolves into a confused impression of a death-grapple that might go on forever; each man is isolated within his own separate fight, lost in the blinding choking fog of blue powder, hammered down by the deafening noise, dazzled by the evil little spurts of fire around him. One eye-witness named Bezuidenhout recalled that

'Of that fight nothing remains in my memory except shouting and tumult and lamentation, and a sea of black faces; and a dense smoke that rose straight as a plumb line upwards from the ground.'

Each charge was followed by a lull with the battle smoke hanging in the thin morning air, during which the fighting regiments received a trickle of reinforcements from across the river, and the only noise was the rattling of spears on shields, the shuffling of naked feet on the ground as the warriors nerved themselves for another rush, and the moaning of the wounded.

The Boers' chief peril came from the hundreds of cattle and horses crowded inside the laager. The terrible and mounting clamour of battle maddened them; the beasts wheeled about in panic and threatened to break through the wagon-line towards the donga and river. Cilliers seems to have been the first to appreciate the danger; he promptly led some men to the southern flank of the laager and began firing into the dense mass of Zulus crowded within the donga. The din, as was intended, drove the cattle back into the centre of the laager, but the raking of the sluyt also did dreadful execution. Here indeed the worst killing of the entire action took place. The very number of Zulus there was a disadvantage: they stood so tightly packed together that they were unable to climb the steep sides, unable even to throw their assegais, and when Cilliers called for volunteers to leave the shelter of the wagons and approach the donga every single warrior who stood there was shot dead.

As the initial Zulu attacks became weaker and weaker Ndlela's division on the eastern bank of the river was preparing to enter the battle. Now the guns were turned on this new target and the pounding they gave the Zulus seemed to act as a spur: it sent a mass of warriors racing through the drifts to join in the assault. The Boers coming out of the laager lined the river bank and drove them back with rapid fire. But even now Ndlela held back 3,000 of his crack soldiers, the White and Black shields, to make a final assault when the Boer fire showed signs of slackening.

He had good cause for being patient. Pretorius was sniffing trouble and becoming concerned that his ammunition would not hold out much longer. He decided he must resolve the issue by going over to the offensive. In risking a charge from the laager the Commandant-General was taking a calculated chance, but he reasoned that it was better to counter-attack now than wait until every bullet was spent. His anxiety is reflected in his dispatch.

'You will scarcely be able to form an idea of the sight presented around us,' he wrote, 'it was such as to require some nerve not to betray uneasiness in the countenance. Seeing that it was necessary to display the most desperate determination, I caused four gates of our enclosed encampment to be simultaneously thrown open, from whence some mounted men were to charge the enemy; at the same time keeping a heavy fire on them.'

So the wagons were wheeled back to provide the openings in the laager, and two successive cavalry charges went in a thundering yelling gallop across the open ground to the north. Both failed to break the Zulus. A third attack from the western face, however, was more successful. Three hundred horsemen drove a solid wedge into the Zulus on the left, riding them down, firing as they went, and they cut the impi into two. The warriors at last began to waver, and now the game was in Pretorius's hands. It was not yet mid-morning.

Led by the Commandant-General himself the greater part of his force now deployed north and south along both banks of the Ncome, shooting down the Zulus who approached or tried to hide among its reeds. These warriors could only cower helplessly in the water as the Boers came riding slowly down the banks, picking them off at leisure. The water was deeply stained that morning with their life-blood, and ever since the Ncome has gone by the name of Blood river. Some of the Boers believed that far more Zulus were drowned at Blood river than shot to death.

Only now did Ndlela fling his last reserves into battle. It was too late. The legendary 3,000 men of the Black shields and the White shields raced for the drifts; there was a final flare-up of firing from the Boers who by now were lining the river bank, and Dingaan's crack regiments were carried away by the mass of warriors escaping from the carnage; they were quite unable to affect the issue of the fight, and in a queer, slow stumbling flight, because they were simply too tired to run fast, an immense disorganised rabble of men streamed off in defeat in every direction with the Boer horsemen in pursuit.

The firing died away in the distance, and suddenly the drama of Blood river was over. Not a single warrior was to be seen on his feet: Jan Uys noted that

'In the space of about 400 yards square they counted 400 dead Caffirs' [sic] and one can imagine with what elation Cilliers stared around him at one of the most tragic and moving tableaux of the Great Trek and in a well-remembered remark noted that the dead lay around the laager as 'thick on the ground as pumpkins on a fertile piece of garden land'.

It had been a remarkable demonstration of fire-power over naked bravery. The number of Zulus killed at Blood river was estimated by Pretorius to have totalled '3,000 and some hundreds'. Yet not a single Boer had been killed, and only three wounded during the pursuit: one of them was Pretorius himself who had been pierced through the wrist by an assegai which had severed his radial artery.

The wheel of retribution had turned full-circle; Retief and the women and children of the Great Murder had been avenged. Curiously too the story of the struggle on the high veld had been almost faithfully repeated: as before, the trekkers' encounter with a Bantu military empire had begun with a massacre and now it had ended in signal revenge.

Pretorius allowed the pursuit to go on for most of what remained of the day and it was ten o'clock that night before the last weary horseman came back into the laager. Long before this Cilliers had conducted the mandatory service of thanksgiving. The Voortrekkers had good reason to be content with the day's work. It seemed now that Natal would be theirs after all. They had no inkling that already British red-coats had landed at Port Natal, and there on that very day would run up the Union Jack. No sooner had one enemy been disposed of (although they knew it not) than another one had appeared out of the sea.

For Pretorius the day of battle ended with his sending two captured Zulus off to Dingaan carrying a white cloth on to which he had inscribed his name as a form of laisser passer, together with a verbal offer of peace on the terms of indemnity he had communicated before. It takes very little imagination for the mind's eye to visualize with what contentment then that night the Commandant-General climbed into his wagon and threw himself down to sleep.

The march to Umgungundhlovu was renewed after a day's rest during which the commando waited to see whether Ndlela would have another try. Then on 19 December its triumphant horsemen spattered across the Umhlatuzi river without opposition and came up towards the king's 'Great Place'. It was unfortunate that at this point one of the more high-spirited members of the party 'thoughtlessly shot at a crow', for we read from the account of one man on commando that 'not ten minutes afterwards the whole town and palace were in flames'. We know now that Dingaan had lingered in the town with his seraglio after the battle of Blood river, still hoping perhaps to come to terms with its victors. This chance shot frightened him and changed his mind. Waiting only to give orders for Umgungundhlovu to be fired, the king fled precipitately. Next day the commando rode into the deserted burnt-out town, and were drawn as though by invisible hands to the hill of Kwa Matiwan. They were appalled by what they saw there: from now on its name for Afrikaners would conjure up visions of death and deep shadows, a sinister name which carried a shudder with it: the corpses of the men who had died with Piet Retief lay mouldering on the rocky slopes together with hundreds of kerries which had been used to batter them to death. The bodies had been mummified by the sun, their faces burned to the colour of tanned leather, the bared teeth grinning fiendishly, fingers dried out into lacey claws which seemed to clutch at the polluted air. Most men had died from having their skulls shattered; many had been impaled after death.

'Their hands and feet,' Cilliers saw, 'were still bound fast with thongs of ox hide, and in nearly all the corpses a spike as thick as an arm had been forced into the anus so that the point of the spike was in the chest.'

Retief's body was identified by a satin vest he had worn, and also by a leather pouch still hanging from a bony shoulder; inside it was the document by which Dingaan more than ten months before had ceded Natal to the trekkers. The way in which their title deed to the land had been preserved seemed like a sign to the Boers: 'The Papers were in as good a state of preservation,' gasped one of them, that they might have been 'left in a closed box'. Reverently the poor remains of their kinsmen and friends were gathered together and interred in a common grave.

The commando settled down that night close to the hill of Hlomo Amubuta, but after four days it moved a few miles to the south-east on to a high ridge overlooking the White Umfolozi, prepared there to celebrate Christmas and the New Year while waiting like Napoleon at Moscow, for a king's submission. If this was not forthcoming they proposed to gather in all the royal cattle before leaving. There was some concern expressed about the way armed Zulus were taking up positions on the neighbouring hills, and fearing that they would rally there and return to the attack, patrols were repeatedly sent out to keep an eye on the warriors; one of them brought back an ingratiating captive who said he would lead the Boers to a near-by ravine in which Dingaan's herds were hidden. Pretorius swallowed the tempting bait and issued orders for a mounted foray. He wanted nothing more complex than some cattle-booty and to stir up a good fight. He got his fight but failed to get the cattle. Two days after Christmas the Commandant-General led out this force of 300 white men supported by about 100 of Biggar's African levies. Almost at once his wounded wrist began hurting badly, and Pretorius turned over the command to Carel Landman with a warning against being ambushed: 'Landman,' Pretorius is reported to have said to his big shaggy companion before he rode off, 'place your scouts well forward on both sides of the patrol.' Whether Landman actually heard this admonition is a question; if he did he very quickly forgot about it.

So far everything during the Blood river expedition had worked out with a precision that is the rarest of all occurrences in military affairs. But now as the horsemen rode north-east they entered a winding defile leading towards a drift across the White Umfolozi; beyond it they could see open ground dominated by an isolated koppie. Large herds of cattle were grazing there and the men eagerly pressed forward. They were riding straight into a trap which bore an uncanny resemblance to the one prepared at Italeni.

As they cantered forward thousands of plumed warriors suddenly appeared along the hills on both sides of the defile, effectively cutting off their retreat; other regiments could be seen converging on the drift. Even the 'cattle' that had been seen on the open ground beyond turned out to be soldiers crouching under their ox-hide shields. Realising that they were in serious trouble, all Landman could think of was to take up a position on the conical hill in front and fight it out with the Zulus. But his second-in-command, Hans de Lange, had a better sense of tactics:

'Verdomp,' he shouted, 'look at the kafirs, how many do you think there are? How many can we kill, and for what length of time can our powder and lead last us against such an immense number? It is certain death for us to go on to that hill. Forward men, forward. He who loves me follows me.'

In a wild sauve qui peut de Lange led the commando off at a gallop, fighting off the Zulus as they crossed the drift and passed the koppie, and he only paused after a mile or two to consider the situation again.

It was an alarming one. The enemy was closing in and the commando had been weakened when sixty of its number had seen an opening in the Zulu ranks and cantered off to safety. By now the remaining Boers were no longer a compact body of fighting men: they had separated into anxious little groups which were badly rattled by their narrow escape and concerned now that they were cut off from their base by an exultant army of savages. After holding a hasty council it was decided to cast out in a wide circle upstream to the north-west and only then search for a drift to recross the Umfolozi. There followed a terrifying ride of fifteen miles. The Zulus' pursuit was relentless; some of them were mounted on captured horses and in any case a running warrior could keep up with a horseman in this rough country. Even when they fell back the Boers would be harried all over again by fresh groups of Zulus. Time after time a gallant rearguard of twenty or thirty men would turn to beat off the enemy in wild flurries of hand-to-hand fighting. It was 3 p.m. before the disordered mob of horsemen found what looked like a drift across the river, and now they were daunted by the sight of hundreds of Zulus converging on them to contest the crossing. Hampered by quicksands in the river bed, six more white men were killed at this drift, among them Alexander Biggar who had ridden up to Zululand to avenge the death of his two sons. Biggar's levies suffered here far more severely: seventy are said to have died on the banks of the White Umfolozi.

Pretorius sent fresh men and horses out to assist the broken commando and that evening the survivors rode into camp grey-faced and stupid with fatigue; all in all they were lucky to come out of the affair alive. Had they been fifteen minutes later at the second drift not one of them would have escaped. The unhappy Landman was much blamed for the debacle; his companions rather unfairly dismissed him as 'a good old man who could never see danger'.

Following this setback the commando waited at the laager near Umgungundhlovu for a few more days to rest the knocked-up horses. Then, since there was no sign of the Zulus being enticed from their hilly strongholds, three great kraals nearby were burned and the Boers withdrew. Despite the losses suffered during Landman's foray they could still congratulate themselves on the victory at Blood river, and felt justified in naming their expeditionary force the 'Wen Commando'. But they had failed to capture Dingaan, the Zulu army though badly mauled still lived and moved, and their haul of cattle was disappointing, certainly far less than the Zulus had swept away from them over the past year.

'One of the chief objects of the commando,' dryly commented a British spokesman, 'viz. the capture of cattle, was not effected, for a few horses and twenty-five muskets seem to have been the only spoils.'

Landman was quite discredited; Andries Pretorius who had been spared involvement in the near disaster on the White Umfolozi was the only man on the expedition to carry a bigger reputation back into Sooilaer than he had taken but: from now on he was regarded by the trekkers as a lion-hearted soldier, wise beyond his years, and a hero in the mould of an Old Testament prophet.

Even as the commando rode slowly back towards the encampments on the Upper Tugela, it was disturbed by rumours that British soldiers had established themselves at Port Natal. A hundred redcoats had indeed been landed at the Port two weeks before Blood river and although so small a number could be swept into the sea without much difficulty, the Boers knew that the contingent was backed by the hated colonial Government at the Cape and, in the last resort, by the entire might of an Empire which only a generation before had defeated the great Napoleon. The home-coming of the Wen Commando ended then on a note of anti-climax, and one can sympathise with Sarel Cilliers when he reached his wagon at the end of all these stirring adventures and wrote angrily:

'On arriving there we were very much put out by the receipt of a proclamation from the British Government in which we were told that if we went to Dingaan's country and took up arms against him, it would assist Dingaan against us.'