Welcome to another guest post, this one by Michael (aka Racing Boo). I enjoy Michael’s thoughtful and often humorous comments so I asked him to do a guest post on a topic of his choice. I hope you read and enjoy a fascinating look in to the history and politics of South Africa.
December 16 is a public holiday in South Africa, celebrated officially as such for more than a century. Today it is called the ‘Day of Reconciliation’, but for most of those years it was known as the ‘Day of the Covenant.’ It was on this day in 1838, on the banks of the Ncome River in what is now the Kwa-Zulu Natal province, that the Boer leader Andries Pretorius led the people under his protection and leadership in making a vow, binding on future generations. If God would deliver them from the attacking Zulu impis (fighting units), they would henceforth celebrate the day as a Sabbath, and build a church to honour his name.
The Boers were farmers (that is the literal meaning of the word) who had left the frontier farms of the Cape Colony to escape the British rule that was entrenched by the early 1800s, and the endless border wars with the native Xhosa. They were strict Calvinists, descended from French and Dutch settlers who had fled religious persecution in those countries during the preceding two centuries. The British had little time for them, and offered them no protection, so they took their cattle and all their possessions loaded into their ox wagons, which were houses on wheels, and began the trek northwards. That word, perhaps the only word from the Afrikaans language to make it into mainstream global English, means ‘to pull’ or ‘to move’ in the sense of moving from one area to another, in this case boldly going where no (white) man had gone before.
They soon encountered other indigenous tribes of the region, in particular the mighty Zulu nation, the ‘people of the sky.’ The Zulu king at the time was Dingane, who had come to power in 1828 after assassinating his famous and even more notorious half-brother Shaka. One of the Boer leaders, Piet Retief (my wife Nadia is a direct descendant of one of his daughters), left the area of the Tugela River in February 1838 in the hope that he could broker permanent boundaries for the Natal settlement with Dingane. At the royal kraal near present-day Eshowe, an agreement was signed, ceding land in return for the recovery of some 7000 head of cattle stolen by a rival local chief, Sekonyela. Dingane then invited Retief and his men (there were about 100 in total, including his son) to a feast, which lasted several days. They were obliged to leave their weapons outside the enclosure.
Dingane put on a military display for his guests, but the climax of this was not a friendly goodbye. From a nearby hilltop, during a sudden silence, Dingane raised his stick and shouted “Bulalan’ abathakathi!” – Kill the Wizards! There are eye-witness accounts from the Zulu side, as well as one Boer who managed to escape with his life as he had been left outside the kraal to guard the weapons. One can only imagine the fear and terror of that moment, enhanced by the ululating kikiza cry of the women. Retief was apparently the last to die, and he fought back to the last breath.
The reasons for this massacre (apart from Dingane’s treachery, that is) are the subject of much speculation. It is believed that Retief may have unwittingly broken an obscure tribal law by retaining some of the cattle recovered from Sekonyela. Another explanation is that on the night before the massacre, the Boers had rounded up some of their horses outside the kraal in preparation for departure the follwing day. Dingane would have heard the sounds of the hooves at night, and there was a belief that wizards of the white race rode on horses at night. Whatever the reasons, the white settlements of Natal were now in trouble. Dingane sent his impis to attack several encampments, including one at Weenen where 500 men, women and children were killed. The settlers then called for help from another Boer leader, Andries Pretorius, asking him to leave the Cape Colony and come to their aid against the Zulu.
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Pretorius, determined to avenge Retief’s death, joined forces with Sarel Cilliers, and advanced on the royal homestead. On 15 December they heard word of a large Zulu force approaching them. They camped that night on the banks of the Ncome River, drawing the wagons into a half-circle known as a laager, with a large natural ditch behind them and the river to one side: a wide, calm section thereof that formed a pool for hippos. Wooden boards were used to shore up the gaps between the wagons. The Zulus didn’t attack at night, perhaps believing that the lanterns raised aloft on the long sjamboks (cattle whips) were evil spirits. More likely they were waiting for the necessary numbers to arrive. Superstitious or not, Shaka had been one of the great military generals of all time, re-drawing the tribal map of Southern Africa during his legendary and brutal reign. Under Dingane the impis hadn’t forgotten what he had taught them. They also realised that the Boers’ technology was superior to theirs.
The following morning, before daybreak, the Boers made their vow. Being pious and devout, and well versed in Scripture, perhaps they thought of that other covenant made on Mt Sinai thousands of years before, when delivery of previous promises was offered in return for fidelity. Just as the early Israelites were always concerned with how God interacted with them in this world, instead of a mythology centred on the actions of the gods in primordial time, so too must Pretorius have known that there was no time for interaction like the present. But there was no mountain-top here. Pretorius was a shrewd campaigner, and had refused to allow the Zulus to draw them into rockier ground where a mounted horseman would have little advantage over a spear-carrying warrior. Instead he had chosen flat terrain, where not only would the mounted commandos have more freedom of movement once he let them loose, but there was little, if any, cover for the advancing Zulu.
It’s not known who or what, if anything, the Zulu would have prayed to that morning. The Sky God of African religion is too aloof to be concerned with goings on down below, but I’m sure they would have consulted the tribal isangomas (diviners) who would have enlisted the help of the ancestors, believed to directly influence their living descendants.
As dawn broke on a clear day, one Boer observer later wrote that “half of Zululand sat there.” The Boers had some four hundred fighting men and two hundred helpers (not all of whom were white; as in all things in South African history, it’s literally not all about black and white). The Zulu force is thought to have been between ten and twenty thousand fighting men, armed with short stabbing spears. The Boers had muskets, requiring a charge of gunpowder to be poured down the barrel and then ramming lead balls down with a rod. Buckshot was used to maximise casualties. With a helper, a marksman could fire three shots every minute, and because they had access to more than one weapon each, were able to fire once every five seconds.
The first salvo mowed down hundreds of Zulu, who were only about forty metres away to begin with. The second and third salvos were made before the Zulu even made their first charge and by then, they were hampered by the wall of bodies that was already piling up. With their first charge having been repelled rather easily, the Zulu retreated about five hundred metres to regroup. Pretorius gave the order to stop firing, as the dense cloud of smoke in the laager had reduced visibility to almost zero. The muskets also had a chance to cool down.
The second charge began, the Boers now firing about ten balls with every shot. It has been said that this was the only battle in human history where more people were killed than there were shots fired. Hundreds of Zulu also tried to stream across the large ditch, and were killed as they stood tightly packed together, unable to throw their spears effectively.
The third charge was less catastrophic as the warriors were more dispersed, resulting in fewer casualties, but was ineffective nevertheless. Pretorius also began using his two cannon, firing one over the front lines into the back, killing two Zulu princes with the first shot, and the other firing straight into the advancing line. The Zulu now attacked en masse, trying to cross the hippo pool. Again, hundreds were killed in the pool, turning the river red from their blood, and forever giving the battle its iconic name: the Battle of Blood River.
Pretorius now changed his strategy, sending out his commandos, mounted men in small groups, to sow confusion among the Zulu ranks. Gallopping in front of the Zulu lines and firing from the saddle, the resulting havoc caused the Zulu offensive to degenerate into a blind charge of individual warriors. The mounted men were then able to get behind the Zulu lines and the Boers went on the offensive, chasing down the fleeing Zulu for several more hours. Once it was all over, the Zulu had lost over three thousand men. The Boers had a total of three minor injuries, one of them Pretorius himself. He was stabbed in the hand by a Zulu spear.
This battle, set within its context of the Great Trek and early black-white conflicts in the century leading up to the Anglo-Boer War, is an important part of our shared history as South Africans, no matter what our ethnicity or political persuasion. Many of us have ancestors buried on some battlefield somewhere, and our next-door neighbour might have an ancestor buried on the same field, but who was fighting for the other side. In a nation with eleven official languages, each major tribal entity represented by each of those languages has had a war with most of the others at least once during the last 350 years.
But what I want to highlight here is how this one battle was taken, lifted entirely out of context, and used as a bastion of the state religion of Afrikaner Nationalism during the apartheid (separateness) era.
Growing up in apartheid South Africa, even as an English-speaking white person, this story was told of in our history books with great reverance. In the Afrikaans (Boer) community, it is repeated with religious overtones right up there with the parting of the Red Sea. Right up to the 1970s, nobody ever challenged the party line, that God’s hand was clearly on the side of the righteous Boers, and his deliverance of them from the murderous hand of the savage was a clear indication of the divine right of the Afrikaner nation to the ‘promised land’. The Great Trek became the Boer ‘Exodus’. The public holiday, which has undergone so many name changes, was declared a religious holiday. In other words, the 16th December had equal status with Good Friday and Christmas Day. (As an aside; one of the colloquial names for this holiday is Dingane’s Day, which I always thought was bizarre; it really wasn’t his day at all.) However, with the subsequent dismantling of apartheid, much of our history has been re-visited, and this battle is, of course, no exception.
Some historians have cast doubt over the idea that a vow was ever actually made. The text of the vow that can be read at the battle site today is a translation of a reconstruction from a 1919 biography of Sarel Cilliers (the other, less celebrated Boer leader in this conflict). In despatches to the Volksraad (Boer political leadership), Andries Pretorius did mention a promise that had been made, not a vow. In Afrikaans the two words are almost identical, but have a different first letter, and the meaning is quite different too. The dispatches don’t mention specifics of this promise, either.
Perhaps the best evidence of the seriousness of a promise can be seen in how that promise was kept. Firstly, it seems that although Cilliers probably did commemorate the event anually, Pretorius himself did not. Secondly, there exist today several churches that are claimed to have been built to satisfy the vow. The earliest of these was built in 1841, three years after the battle, and the one which is feted as the “Church of The Vow” was only built in 1866.
By the late 1800s the significance of the battle was already becoming a part of Afrikaner folklore. Paul Kruger, a famous Boer leader of the late 19th century, was adamant that one of the causes of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1901 was that Boers had not properly celebrated the Battle of Blood River, and that God was therefore angry with them. Kruger, one of the heroes of white South Africa, was to my mind one of the most primitive African leaders ever, and for remarkably stupid reasons led his people into a catastrophic war that came close to wiping them out altogether. Let it not be forgotten that Britain invented the concentration camp during the latter part of the Boer War in response to the guerilla tactics of the Boers, and that almost half of the Afrikaner population was exterminated by 1902.
In 1938, speaking at a ceremony held at the battle site, D.F. Malan, leader of the National Party, said that the battle established South Africa as a civilised Christian country and the responsible authority of the white race. In 1952, four years after coming into power, the same party declared the day to be a religious public holiday. Now imagine how you would feel as a Zulu: not only is your defeat being celebrated, but celebrated as divine providence. Little wonder that Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress, chose this day in 1961 to begin a series of attacks. In 1994 the first democratically elected parliament kept the holiday, but changed its name to the Day of Reconciliation. In the same year, Chief Buthelezi, a popular politician and member of the current Zulu royal family, apologised on behalf of the Zulu nation for the murder of Retief. A year later, and appropriately, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work on 16th December.
The vice-like grip of Afrikaner nationalism was loosened and overthrown in the early 90s, with apartheid being consigned to history’s dustbin. May every other political regime that institutes repression and separation by exploiting its power base with the assurance that God must be on their side, be sent the same way.