The Voortrekkers
Dingane Attacks the Voortrekker Laager at the Ncome River
The Battle of the Ncome ('Blood') River
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December 16th 1838

Pretorius received reports that the Zulu army was on its way to meet him and he chose a strongpoint with a deep 'donga' (erosion channel/arroyo) 14ft deep, on the one side and the Ncome river, into which the donga flowed, on the other. The river was high but could be forded in two places. On the remaining two sides was open plain that could be easily enfiladed. The position was very strong.


The Blood River Monument

Pretorius sent out a patrol to entice the 15,000 strong Zulu army to attack but they retired, hoping to lure Pretorius into an ambush. Pretorius declined and the Zulus then had to attack.

The Zulu Army Makes a Great Mistake

Dingane`s vastly experienced induna (commander) Ndlela planned to follow the Boer horsemen, cross the river and attack them that night but the distance was longer than he had anticipated and the regiments kept getting lost in the mist. Although many of the Zulus had reached the laager during the night, dawn came and saw most of the Zulu army still trying to cross the Ncome river.

This mistake on the morning of Sunday December 16th 1838 might be considered to be the critical turning point in the whole of the Great Trek.

The Zulu army could have laid siege to the laager, or have waited until the remaining two thirds crossed the Ncome river. Instead, the warriors who had crossed attacked impulsively, being cut down, charge after charge.


The Course of the Battle

Carnage in the donga In the laager was a herd of cattle that, because of the smoke and the din of the guns, threatened to stampede through the laager into the donga. Men were dispatched to that side and out of the laager the few yards to the donga where the Zulus were packed solidly. Every one was shot dead.

The Zulus now attacked with even greater ferocity and were crossing the Ncome river in numbers. Moreover, the ammunition was running low so Pretorius chanced sending out men on horseback. Two charges brought little result but a third, of 300 horsemen split the Zulu army and it started to falter.

voortrekkers The Boer horsemen were able to pick off the Zulu warriors lining the banks of the river that ran red with their blood and was henceforth called Blood River. A late charge by the Zulu crack corps was to no avail as they became entangled with the retreating warriors.

The Zulu Army is Routed

An estimated three thousand Zulu warriors were killed on the veld, in the donga and in the river. Not a single Boer was killed. Despite incredible bravery, the Zulus were no match against a strong defensive position.


The parallel with the previous events on the highveld is strong - each encounter starting with a massacre and ending in revenge.

In the ultimate of ironies, on that very day, the British had run up the Union Jack in Durban. The Voortrekkers' greatest enemy had arrived.

Next . . . the Voortrekkers advance on Dingane.

Additional Information on the Battle

More from Wikipedia on the Battle.

Extracted from Funkymunky. The Battle of Blood River and the Blood River Monument

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On the way back from St Lucia we took a detour and visited the Blood River Monument which consists of life-size bronze replicas of the wagons involved in the historic battle of Blood River. This is a fascinating piece of South African history and always reminds me of American history of the wagon trains heading West. This is the South African version of the Wild West.

The Great Trek 1835-1838

Between 1835 and 1838 there was a great migration of about 10,000 Afrikaans speaking people (Voortrekkers, pioneers) from the Eastern Cape Colony to the northern parts of South Africa. The migration is known as the Great Trek. They traveled into the wilds with their tent-covered oz wagons and their horses and they were armed with muskets. They were the first Europeans who traveled to areas later known as the Orange Free State, the Transvaal and Natal and one could say that they were the pioneers of western civilization in Africa from the south. In the two centuries that the Voortrekkers had been in South Africa they had developed their own identity in religion culture and language.

The main reason for the Trek was the discontent of the Afrikaans speaking farmers of the Eastern cape with the British Government. The banning of their language and the harsh labour laws made conditions unliveable. There were also problems with Xhosa who plundered their homesteads and raided their cattle. The British regarded the farmers as the instigators of all the trouble.

The Sixth Frontier war was the last straw. Forty farmers were murdered, 416 homesteads burned and thousands of horses, cattle and sheep were looted.

The Voortrekkers then decided to leave the Eastern Cape and travel to the north where they hoped to eventually be able to practice their own language and culture and to exercise their own government affairs free from British rule.

Prelude to the battle of Blood River

At least 6 different Treks or wagon trains moved in to the unknown northern interior between 1836 and 1838. They soon encountered hostile tribes and on 16 October 1836 the Trek of Hendrik Potgieter, with 35 men, decisively kept at bay an onslaught of 5,000 Matabele warriors. It was the first time in history that the method of a laager, a closed circle of ox-wagons, proved to be effective against an enemy of thousands.

Up until 1838 many disastrous encounters with hostile tribes left the future dark for the Voortrekkers. The Zulu king, Dingaan, gave instructions to his warriors to "Seek the White people's encampments and kill them"

The Battle of Blood River

Late in November Andries Pretorius led a wagon train consisting of 64 wagons towards uMgungundhlovu the kraal of Dingaan, King of the Zulus. They had with them two 2 1/2 inch muzzle loading cannons. There were about 470 fighting men and 100 servants. In the teams of the 64 wagons there were about 900 oxen and the men had about 500 horses. The fighting men could each carry 3 guns and they were divided into 5 separate commandos. The muskets were very primitive and were loaded by pouring gunpowder down the barrel then ramming lead balls down with a gun rod. A pull of the trigger ignited the gunpowder and the shot was fired. A maximum of three shots could be fired every minute and the range was about 100 meters.

Prior to the battle of Blood River Andries Pretorius took a vow before God for deliverance that should they be granted victory that day would forever be celebrated in His honour. The 16th December is to this day being celebrated as The Day of the Covenant, mostly by Afrikaans speaking South Africans.

On 15 December 1838 Pretorius and his wagons reached the Ncome river and his scouts reported sighting a large Zulu army. Pretorius found the perfect spot to set up laager, on the western side of a large hippo pool, about 50 meters long and a long dry donga set at about 90 degrees from the hippo pool. He formed the laager of 64 wagons between the pool and the donga. The wagons were formed in the shape of a "D" with the straight side along the donga and the rounded side facing the north-west. Wooden barricades were placed in front of the the openings between the wagons to prevent direct invasion. The two cannon were placed in openings between two wagons. The 900 oxen and 500 horses were held in the middle of the laager.

Late that afternoon Pretorius and a cavalry of 300 men galloped to nearby hills and came across the Zulu army of 15,000 men. They decided to return to the safety of the laager and let the Zulus come to them.

Because of the darkness of the night the Zulus decided to attack at first light the next morning.

The front lines of the Zulu army took position about 40 meters from the wagons The 16th December dawned a clear, sunny day. The Zulus made two crucial mistakes, positioning their front line only 40 meters away from the wagons and waiting to long to give the attack command.

The Voortrekkers fired a first salvo which killed hundreds and immediately followed that up with a further two salvo's before the Zulus could start their charge. The Zulus were hampered by the fact that the front lines were so closely packed and also the number corpses which grew with every salvo fired by the Voortrekkers. Inside the laager the dense cloud of smoke made visibility near impossible and Pretorius gave the order to stop firing. At the same time the Zulus decided to retreat to about 500 meters from the wagons. This was a blessing for the Voortrekkers as this gave the guns time to cool down before the second charge.

The second charge started and a wall of Zulu warriors descended on the laager. At short range the gunfire from the wagons was very effective as they were now firing 10 or more lead ball with every shot. A historian later said that the Battle of Blood River was the only battle in human history where more people were killed than there were shots fired. Hundreds of Zulu warriors forced their way into the donga and there they were mowed down as they stood so tightly packed together they they couldn't throw their spears effectively. Once again the Zulus withdrew to about 500 meters from the wagons.

With the third charge the Zulus used different tactics, they attacked in a dispersed formation, not so close together which resulted in the Voortrekkers wasting bullets and killing fewer attackers. But the Voortrekker defense held and the Zulus pulled back again.

As the fourth charge started, Pretorius changed strategy and aimed one of the cannons to shoot as far as possible into the back lines of the Zulus and aimed the other one into the center of the front lines. The effect of this strategy was great, with the first shot two of the Zulu princes were killed. The Zulus now attacked en mass, those trying to cross the hippo pool had no defense and were killed in the water and the blood started to colour the water and from that day the river got a new name: Blood River.

Pretorius' strategy was to sow confusion amongst the Zulus and he ordered his younger brother, Bart, to lead a mounted commando of 100 men to drive a wedge between the Zulu forces. Galloping between the donga and the Zulu forces, and firing from the saddle, they caused havoc amongst the Zulu warriors. At this stage the Zulu offensive degenerated into a blindfold charge of individual warriors. A second mounted commando caused more havoc and returning to the safety of the laager brought the Zulu army even closer to the laager enabling the marksmen to effect maximum damage.

A third mounted attack shot a path open and they started an attack from behind Zulu lines. An attack by another commando of 100 men split the Zulu army into smaller groups and eventually the Zulu army fled.

The number of Zulus killed at Blood River was estimated to be in the region of 3,500 while miraculously only 3 Voortrekkers were slightly wounded.

To this day, the covenant made in 1838 is still honoured in South Africa and on the 16th December remembrance ceremonies are held at the site of the battle and at the Voortrekker monument in Pretoria, where at exactly midday, the sun shines through a small hole in the roof of the monument and onto a cenotaph on the lower level of the monument.

More Battle Details Extracted from SA History

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In the early hours of the morning of 16 December 1838, a battle was fought between the Voortrekkers under the leadership of Andries Pretorius, and the AmaZulu warriors near the Ncome (Buffalo) River. Some historians believe that the Zulu army was led by Zulu King Dingane’s generals Dambuza (Nzobo) and Ndlela kaSompisi. The AmaZulu suffered heavy fatalities, losing more than 3000 men, while the Voortrekkers reportedly had only three non-fatal injuries. The Ncome River became red with the blood of the slain. Hence the river became known as "Blood River".

Origins of the battle

The origins of the battle are a matter of considerable debate. The background to this event can be found in two concurrent historical processes of the 1820s and the 1830s. First, the great trek (Afrikaans for "great organised migration") or the political disenchantment of Dutch-speaking farmers on the Eastern Cape frontier with British rule, leading to more than 15 000 of these frontier farmers trekking in groups north-east into the interior of the region to escape British administration. Secondly, the advent of the mfecane (IsiZulu for "the crushing") or difaqane (Sesotho for "forced scattering or migration") in the 1820s which was the political and military upheaval with concomitant forced migration of the Nguni people in the eastern region, that marked the rise of the rule of Shaka over the AmaZulu.

Once beyond British influence, the Voortrekkers had to decide on the ultimate destination of the Great Trek; this was a source of differences of opinion. Potgieter believed that far North should be the ultimate destination. However, Mzilikazi’s Matabeles had to be expelled from the Western Transvaal (now North West Province) before a Voortrekkers state could safely be established in the North. Therefore Piet Retief, Gert Maritz and Piet Uys considered the area depopulated by the mfecane, the attractive Natal Coastal plain.

Retief had to negotiate with the AmaZulu King Dingane over the ownership of land. Dingane, 10 years previously, had murdered his half-brother, Shaka, to assume the chieftainship of the Zulu’s. Apparently Retief paid a successful visit to the Zulu king at the beginning of November 1837. Here is were sources differ greatly, Dingane supposedly declared that he was prepared to grant Retief an extensive area between the Tugela and the Umzimvubu as well as the Drakensberg, on condition that Retief restored to Dingane the cattle stolen from him by Sikonyela (the Tlokwa chief). Dingane felt that this would prove to him that Sikonyela and not the Voortrekkers had in fact stolen the cattle. Some sources claim that Dingane also demanded rifles others do not.

The Voortrekkers were successful in obtaining the cattle from Sikonyela and on 3 February 1838 Retief and his party reached the Zulu capital, Mgungundlovu, with the cattle. Retief surrendered the cattle but refused to hand over the horses and the guns he had taken from the Tlokwa. This could have been the reason for Dingane’s suspicion of Retief, yet other sources site additional reasons, one being that Dingane’s agents, who had accompanied Retief to supervise the return of the cattle, also may have reported that even before the land claim had been signed, Voortrekkers were streaming down the Drakensburg passes in large numbers.

Despite the suspicions, Dingane supposedly put his mark on a land grant document sometime the next day (5th). On 6 February Dingane requested Retief and his men to enter his royal kraal without their guns to drink beer as a farewell gesture. It was strictly in accordance with Zulu protocol that nobody appeared armed before the King. Retief suspected no fowl play and accepted the invitation. As soon as the Voortrekkers party was inside the royal kraal, Dingane gave the order and his regiments overpowered Retief and his men, and took them up to a hill to be killed. Francis Owen, the missionary at Dingane’s kraal, who later described the scene in his diary, witnessed the murders from a distance.

It was the murder of Retief and his men, as well as the supposed ‘land claim’ that seems to have ignited the war between the Voortrekkers and the Zulu’s. The mutilated corpses of the Retief party were discovered by a search party of Voortrekkers who reported that a land deed, signed by Dingane, was found among the possessions of the dead men. Many historians doubt that this deed ever existed – it certainly does not exist today. Although reports claim that it disappeared in 1900 during the South African Anglo-Boer War.

Distraught and temporarily without a leader the Voortrekkers entered the battle with the view that it was a desperate fight to ensure their survival against overwhelming odds, and to secure for themselves a place to settle, a home to call their own, free of the shackles of any lordship. From their point of view, they had treated appropriately with the Zulu king, and had sought in good faith to fulfil Dingane's conditions for entry to the Zulu kingdom. But the latter had behaved treacherously towards them (by murdering their leader) and therefore the defeat of the Zulu military was the only way they could guarantee their safety.

The Zulu participants saw things differently: Dingane and his advisors regarded the entry of the Voortrekkers parties onto the land being requested, but not yet granted, as a demonstration that the settlers had scant regard for Zulu authority. It was also clear to Dingane that the Voortrekkers were a people who had easily defeated and scattered the force of his old enemy, Mzilikazi, whose empire Dingane had repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, tried to conquer. Dingane and his advisors knew that the Voortrekkers would be a formidable enemy, and his tradition, like that of Shaka, was not to tolerate strong neighbours. Ndlela kaSompisi, the Commander-in-Chief, Dambuza kaSobadli and other councillors probably advised Dingane to resist the Voortrekkers. The gathering of the warriors for the first fruits ceremonies at the end of December 1837 generated further pressure for a forceful solution. Dingane was therefore determined to take the Voortrekkers by surprise and to destroy them before they became more organised. In the 1930's the Zulu journalist, Jordan Ngubane, wrote that Dingane "had to choose between independence and slavery", and he chose the former. Exactly when Dingane made up his mind to attack the Voortrekkers is not certain. It is likely that the decision was not made until the last moment.

Jordan Ngubane believed that it could have been the supposed ‘land grant’, which officially convinced Dingane to act against the Voortrekkers. In a 1924 newspaper article he wrote that:

"It is no wonder that after signing this treaty, Dingane 'saw red' and massacred Retief and his followers. To take a man's whole country as far as the land may be useful in return for a few thousand cattle is nothing a civilised man should be proud of".

But as we have stated previously, numerous Zulu commentators regard the existence of the land grant as a myth. According to Zulu tradition (there is no proof of this event), in the night between February 5 and 6, Retief and his men attempted to surround the Mgungundlovu kraal with the intention of attacking it. Then the royal night guards reported this the next morning. Dingane was finally convinced that the Voortrekkers were really hostile. In terms of Zulu belief anyone seen loitering at someone else's homestead at night without announcing his or her intention, was regarded as umthakathi (a specialist doctor who uses medicine to kill people). Therefore it was suicide on the part of Retief and his men to encircle the palace. Dingane and his council discussed the report of the royal night guards and decided that Piet Retief and his party had to be killed. That was why Dingane gave the order "Bulalani abathakathi" (Kill those who use medicine to kill others), upon which Retief and his men were taken to kwaMatiwane hill where they were killed like all wrongdoers in the Zulu kingdom. This tradition suggests that the killing of the Retief party actually had nothing to do with the handing over of weapons and cattle. One can see why the origins of the war are so problematic.

The second part of Dingane's plan, namely to annihilate all Voortrekkers in Natal, was not a complete success, albeit it was well planned and the Voortrekkers at first disregarded the rumour that Retief had been murdered and consequently made no preparations to defend themselves. Perhaps Dingane had underestimated the number of Voortrekkers in Natal and the fervour with which the Voortrekkers would defend themselves once the intentions of the Zulu’s became clear to them.

The first attack was successful. During the early hours of February 17th a surprise attack was launched on the unsuspecting trekker lagers on the Bloukrans and Bushman’s rivers. Approximately 500 people (servants and Voortrekkers) were killed and the Zulu seized 25000 head of cattle and thousands more sheep and horses. The site of the attack was later renamed Weenen (‘weeping’).

The Voortrekkers began to organise a counter attack. A commando led by two rival Voortrekkers leaders Piet Uys and Adries Potgieter, marched towards Mgundgundlovu in a scissors formation (2-pronged attack). But just across the Buffalo/Ncome River, at Italeni, the AmaZulu ambushed them. A British Port Natal expedition rushed to assist the Voortrekkers but to no avail. Most of the Voortrekkers escaped, 10 were killed, among them Piet Uys and his young son Dirkie.

The Battle of Blood River

On 25 November 1838 Andries Pretorius (who had been roaming as a scout in the then Transvaal) took over leadership as Commandant-General of the Voortrekkers in Natal. He immediately started to prepare a retaliatory attack on the Zulu. On Sunday, 9th December, Pretorius and his followers made a vow to God that in the case of victory; they would build a church to honour God and they would tell there children to observe a day of thanksgiving. (Recent research has put a question mark over the vow and its existence as ‘thanksgiving’ was not commemorated in the years immediately following the battle, but the church was built).

The Pretorius party had crossed the Ncome (Buffalo) River, and on Saturday 15 December, they reached a tributary (Thukela). Their scouts reported that a large AmaZulu force was advancing (10 000-20 000 Zulu warriors). The Zulu army was led by Dingane’s generals Dambuza (Nzobo) and Ndlela kaSompisi.

After the scouts had given the warning the Voortrekkers moved there wagons into a laager (circular formation) in the best strategical position possible, between a deep pool in the river and a donga (a large ditch). The Voortrekkers force consisted of 470 men. There were only two gaps in the laager and in each, a canon was placed. At dusk on the 15th December the Amazulu had already begun to circle the laager. A heavy mist surrounded the laager and only lifted in the early hours of the morning, this made visibility difficult.

At dawn on the 16th December 1838 the Zulu warriors equiped with assagais and shields swept towards the laager. To be able to use their assagais effectively they had to come as close as possible to the defenders. The Voortrekkers were equiped with far superior weaponry and responded to the Zulu advancement with musket and cannon fire.

Eyewitnesses and writers differ greatly on the details of the battle. At dawn when the first Zulu attack began, the firing was apparently so heavy that the Zulu warriors could not be seen through the smoke. The main shortcoming of the Voortrekkers weapons was the lengthy reloading times. The first Zulu attack had scarcely been repulsed when a second was launched, this time the Zulu warriors almost reached the laager…

Meanwhile hundreds of warriors were hiding in the donga. Sarel Cilliers and 80 others attacked them during a short lull in the fighting.

When the Zulu’s, who had withdrawn about 50 yards from the laager, failed to launch a third attack, Pretorius sent some men to draw them out to seal the victory. Pretorius’ cavalry met with determined resistance from the Zulu Warriors, and it was only after a third sortie that the Zulu’s were put to flight, pursued by the Voortrekkers.

At midday the pursuit was called off. More than 3000 corpses were counted around the laager. Only, 3 Voortrekkers (including Pretorius himself) were wounded, none were killed. TheNcome River became red with the blood of the slain. Hence the river became known as "Blood River". The Aftermath of the Battle After the defeat of Dingane, the Kingdom of the AmaZulu was hurled into political strife. Mpande, Dingane’s half-brother, taking advantage of the political uncertainty, overthrew the Dingane and seized the leadership of the AmaZulu. Since Mpande was open to the demands for land by the Voortrekkers, Andries Pretorius recognised him as King of the AmaZulu and an ally. Large areas of his kingdom were annexed by the Voortrekkers new Natal Republic. While Mpande's vassalage lapsed when the British colonial administration annexed the Natal Republic, the AmaZulu did not regain their land. However, they did undergo a period of stability and economic recovery.

The Battle was the main historical event that was used by Apartheid apologists - some of them historians, political leaders and theologians - to construct an exclusivist Afrikaner nationalist identity, to inculcate in this community a sense of having a unique history and place in Africa and thereby legitimise white supremacy in South Africa.

For the greater part of the twentieth century 16 December had been observed as a public holiday, with Afrikaans-speakers attending special church services or visiting the Voortrekker Monument. Until the National Party seized power in 1948, this day was observed as "Dingane's Day". After 1948 the National Party government set about politicising this day to legitimise their apparent uniqueness and historical relationship with God. Hence in 1952 "Dingane's Day" officially became the "Day of the Covenant".

African nationalists and the socialist liberation movement’s forces also used the day to mount protest action against white rule. The ANC led Congress Alliance launched its armed struggle (military wing), ‘Umkhonto we Siwze: the Spear of the Nation’, on December 16th 1961.

In 1994 South Africa elected its first non-racial and democratic government. In the spirit of promoting reconciliation and national unity, the day was given a new meaning and was renamed the "Day of Reconciliation" in 1995.


Muller, C.F.J. (ed)(1981). Five Hundred years: a history of South Africa; 3rd rev. ed., Pretoria: Academica, p. 166.

Potgieter, D.J. et al. (eds)(1970). Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, Cape Town: NASOU, v. 2, p. 377.

Reader’s Digest. (1988). Illustrated History of South Africa: the real story, New York: Reader’s Digest Association, pp.119 & 121.