The Voortrekkers
The Voortrekkers plan to defeat Mzilikazi.
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voortrekkersPotgieter realized that he would have to break the power of Mzilikazi if the trek was to proceed and he took a party to a defensible site and formed the wagons into a laager. Here, forty men were to face the might of the Matabele nation under a small promontory that was to be called Vegkop - Fight Hill.

Fighting from a laager had yet to be proven and yet the forty wagons were pushed with the disselboom (draught pole) of one pushed under the other. They were then chained together and the spaces between the wagons filled with thorn branches tied to the wheels. Seven wagons in the centre of the laager were used as a hospital and the grass around the laager was crushed by driving cattle over it.

Two openings, each just the width of a wagon were left, but these could easily be closed if necessary. By forming the wagons into a square with makeshift blockhouses at each corner to enfilade each side of the laager, it became an effective defensive position. The photograph is a view from the summit of Vegkop. The battle site is at the extreme left foreground.


There was finally a total of 33 men and seven boys (one of whom was just eleven and named Paul Kruger) and sixty women and children. Despite using the heavy smooth bored flintlocks, each man, with the help of the women, could fire his musket six times each minute. Another problem also faced the Voortrekkers - their stock. Thousands of animals were scattered over the veld and would be taken by the Matabele regardless of whether they would prevail or die.

Next . . . The Voortrekkers perfect their laager at the Battle of Vegkop.

More on Mzililkazi and the Matabele.

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Mzilikazi was the son of Mashobane, chief of the northern Kumalos, in South Africa, and rose to prominence in the service of Shaka, king of the Zulus. In 1823 he abandoned his allegiance to Shaka, and trekked northwards from Zululand (Natal) across the Vaal River, into what is now the northern part of South Africa, before moving south-west from there and re-establishing himself on the Vaal, south of modern Johannesburg (1823-7). He moved north again in 1827, to an area above the Magaliesberg range, near modern Pretoria, and was there when first visited by Dr Robert Moffat, and others, in 1829. In 1832 Mzilikazi moved westwards to the Marico Valley (west of modern Rustenburg), establishing a military capital at Mosega and royal kraals further north on the Tolane River, at Kapain (Gabeni), and elsewhere; and it was while in this area that he was visited in 1835 by Smith's Expedition, with Dr Moffat, and in 1836 by the American missionaries based at Mosega and by Captain Harris. He enjoyed success in bringing other peoples under his sway, and was feared for his despotic rule. Yet Mzilikazi was soon facing another threat, from the Voortrekkers, and suffered defeats at their hands on 16 October 1836 (at Vechtkop), in January 1837 (the destruction of Mosega), and in November 1837 (the destruction of Gabeni). In 1837-8 he led his people some distance further north, across the Limpopo (and so out of modern South Africa), to the Matopo Hills and the land in the vicinity of the new capital which he founded at Bulawayo. His people were the Ndebele (Amandebele, Matabele); and the area where they were now established came to be known as Matabeleland, in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). On three occasions in the 1850s he was visited in his kraal at Nyathi, near Bulawayo, by Robert Moffat, consolidating the friendship formed in 1829 and 1835. Mzilikazi died in 1868, and is renowned as the founder of the Matabele nation; it was during the reigns of his son Lobengula (1870-94) and grandson Nyamande that his people succumbed to white colonisation.

Captain Harris's safari in southern Africa (1836-7)

William Cornwallis Harris (1807-48) received his commission in the Engineering corps of the East India Company, and was based in India from 1825 until his death in 1848. In 1836, after a period of illness, a Bombay Medical Board sent him for two years to the Cape of Good Hope, so that he might recuperate in a better climate. He sailed from Bombay on 16 March 1836, and on board ship met William Richardson, of the Bombay Civil Service, who agreed to accompany him on a hunting expedition into the interior of southern Africa. Their ship arrived in Simon's Bay, Cape Town, on 31 May 1836. By a striking coincidence, H.M.S. Beagle, completing her passage across three oceans, sailed into Simon's Bay on precisely the same day. The medic and naturalist Dr (later Sir) Andrew Smith (1797-1872) had recently returned to Cape Town from his scientific expedition into the interior of southern Africa (1834-6), during the course of which, in June 1835, he had met Mzilikazi at his kraal near the Marico River, west of the Kashan [Magaliesberg] mountain range (above, pp. 00-0). Captain Harris went to see Dr Smith, and was given much useful advice by him, including ideas for a suitable gift for Mzilikazi. Captain Fitzroy and Mr Darwin also went to see Dr Smith at this time, and CD took some 'long geological rambles' with him. It is a pleasant thought that the hunter Harris might have met the naturalist Darwin, perhaps at Dr Smith's, or in the streets of Cape Town; certainly, they would have had plenty of interests in common.

After taking advice from Dr Smith, Harris set off with Richardson on his hunting trip into the interior. On 2 July 1836 they sailed from the Cape around the coast to Algoa Bay, and thence made their way inland to Graham's Town and Graaff Reinet. The plan from there was to strike northwards (like Dr Smith) to the missionary station at Kuruman, where they could count on help from Dr Moffat, 'and to proceed thence to the country of Moselekatse, king of the Abaka Zooloos, or Matabili, a powerful and despotic monarch, whose dominions were known to abound with game'. They left Graaf Reinet on 1 September, reached Kuruman on 26 September, and rode thence north-eastwards into 'Moselekatse's country', witnessing en route the early stages of the 'Great Trek', as disgruntled Dutch settlers from the Cape trekked north into the interior, in search of a better life free from British authority. On 19 October Harris and Richardson reached Mosega, where they were welcomed by a trio of American missionaries. Daniel Lindley, Alexander Wilson and Henry Venable had sought permission in March 1835 to leave the boundaries of the Colony 'for the purposes of propagating the Christian religion among the people who acknowledge Mosalekatze as their chief'; but it was not until February 1836 (and so some time after Dr Smith had been with Mzilikazi in June and October 1835) that their station was established at Mosega, prompting Mzilikazi to move about 50 miles northwards to Kapain. Harris and Richardson left Mosega on 22 October, and reached Kapain on 24 October. At first, Mzilikazi came out of his kraal to see them; but on 25 October they were allowed to enter the kraal, staying there until the following day. From Kapain, Harris and Richardson rode south-east over the Tolaan River towards the Cashan Mountains (the Magaliesberg range), where for much of November they seem to have enjoyed themselves immensely in what Harris called 'this fairy land of sport'. Moving further northwards, along the Limpopo Valley, they 'enjoyed the novel diversion of hippopotamus shooting'; and soon afterwards Harris 'first met with, and slew, the koodoo', which clearly impressed him as the most regal among the antelopes. On 1 December 1836 they reached the Tropic of Capricorn, returning south from that latitude back through the Cashan Mountains (where Harris 'discovered' the sable antelope), across the Vaal River, and so by a different route to Graaf Reinet, which they reached on 24 January 1837.

Meetings with Mzilikazi

By the time he met Harris, Mzilikazi had already made his impact on several outside observers, including Dr Moffat, Dr Smith, John Burrow, and the American missionaries. Their reports provide important testimony of the nature of Mzilikazi's regime, of his success in bringing other peoples under his power, and of his relations with intrusive settlers, missionaries, merchants, and hunters. Needless to say, the witnesses saw the king differently, in ways which provide scope for instructive comparison. Dr Moffat regarded Mzilikazi as one whose power over others made it necessary as well as politic to cultivate his friendship, and who could thus facilitate his own work among the heathen, yet he was clearly moved at the same time by Mzilikazi's seemingly deep affection for him. Dr Smith accorded Mzilikazi the deference due to a great ruler, whose support was necessary for the success of his own Expedition; while John Burrow seems to have been more interested in the quality of the beer. The American missionaries, based at Mosega, produced an impressively dispassionate report in August 1836, for the benefit of their own controllers, which includes careful analysis of Mzilikazi's regime, of his relationship with Dingane and with other tribes, and of their own prospects for saving his soul and those of his people.

Harris's entertaining description of his several meetings with Mzilikazi, during his stay at Kapain, 24-6 October 1836, can be placed beside earlier written accounts of the king, though he does not aspire to the dignity and detachment of their more formal reports. His three surviving drawings of Mzilikazi, all in QGK's collection, complement the sketches made by Charles Bell in June 1835. Harris was understandably nervous about making these drawings: 'Any attempt to have taken the king's portrait openly would probably have been attended with disastrous consequences, the art of drawing being supposed to be connected with witchcraft, but I seized the first opportunity of giving his Majesty a sitting unobserved.' They are powerful drawings, and bring us far closer than Bell's sketches to the image of the king himself.

The first of Harris's drawings of Mzilikazi (of which a detail is reproduced above) shows the king walking purposefully with folded arms towards the entrance of his kraal at Kapain, preceded by his herald, admired by his assembled warriors, and attended by his leading men. It is interesting to see how the drawing relates to Harris's narrative. Soon after Harris and Richardson arrived outside the entrance to the kraal, on 24 October, Mzilikazi had come out to meet them, and evidently made quite an impression:

He was attended by the spies that had accompanied us from Mosega, several of his chiefs, and most of the warriors who were not absent on the expedition I have alluded to, armed with shields and assagais. As he advanced others rushed up with a shout, brandishing their sticks. A number of women followed with calabashes of beer on their heads; and two pursuivants cleared the way, by roaring, charging, prancing, and caricoling as already described, flourishing their short sticks in a most furious manner, and proclaiming the royal titles in a string of unbroken sentences. <...> The expression of the despot's features, though singularly cunning, wily, and suspicious, is not altogether disagreeable. His figure is rather tall, well turned, and active, but through neglect of exercise, leaning to corpulency. <...> He appeared about forty years of age, but being totally beardless, it was difficult to form a correct estimate of the years he had numbered. The elliptical ring on his closely shorn scalp was decorated with three green feathers from the tail of the paroquet, placed horizontally, two behind and one in front. A single string of small blue beads encircled his neck; a bunch of twisted sinews encompassed his left ankle, and the usual girdle dangling before and behind with leopards' tails completed his costume.

After the initial exchanges, inside the travellers' tent, Harris and Richardson laid their gifts before him, including a fancy coat which had been specially made for the king in Cape Town, at Dr Smith's suggestion, and a tartan suit from Dr Moffat. After some further exchanges, Mzilikazi rose and left: 'The heralds preceding him as before, rent the air with shouts and acclamations, until "the great black one" had re-entered the kraal' -- essentially the scene drawn by Harris. Later the same day Mzilikazi returned, for a more informal meeting. This time he was wearing (against the cold) 'a handsome black leathern mantle', with ample folds reaching to his heels, which 'well became his tall and manly person'. On the following day (25 October) news came to Mzilikazi of (what was represented to him as) a victory over the emigrant farmers or Voortrekkers. He told Harris and Richardson that he wanted their tent, and in exchange for a promise that it would be sent to him once they had finished with it, he announced that they were at liberty to go wherever they pleased. Then he allowed them to pitch their tent inside the kraal, whereupon Harris examined the kraal and its inhabitants more closely. A second drawing of Mzilikazi, inscribed 'Moselekatse, King of the Matabili, Kapain, 25th October 1836', was evidently intended as a more formal portrait, made surreptitiously, and shows the king wearing the black leathern mantle (as seen on the previous day), in which (wrote Harris) 'he looked the very beau ideal of an African chief'. The third drawing shows the king with his paroquet feathers and leopard tails, as in the first.

Harris's Narrative (1838), or Wild Sports of Southern Africa (1839-)

Harris's enthusiastic account of the 'sport' which he enjoyed, especially in the latter part of his trip, is what earns him his place in the literature of hunting, and his accounts of Mzilikazi, and of the early stages of the Great Trek, have earned for his narrative its status as a significant historical source. Yet he was also a naturalist, and a very fine draftsman. He refers on several occasions to the fact that throughout his hunting trip ('during brief cessations from hostilities') he was making drawings of animals, never moving without drawing materials in his hunting-cap, working at first 'under a bush in the open air', and completing the drawings 'on my knees in the waggon amid rain and wind'. He showed some of his drawings to Mzilikazi, who told him the Matabele name for the animals in question.

When Harris returned to the Cape Colony, in the spring of 1837, he was carrying his prized sable antelope (ready for setting up and despatch to London) and 'two perfect crania of every species of game quadruped to be found in Southern Africa, together with skins of the lion, quagga, zebra, ostrich, &c., tails of the camelopard [giraffe], and tusks of elephant and hippopotami'; and, in addition to all this, 'elaborate drawings of every animal that interests the sportsman, from the tall giraffe to the minutest antelope'. Harris remained at Cape Town for several months, and in September 1837 published a map of Africa north-east of the Cape Colony, 'exhibiting the relative positions of the emigrant farmers and the native tribes', accompanied by an 8-page pamphlet describing the early stages of the Great Trek. In October, Harris's friend, Captain James Edward Alexander, sailed from Cape Town, taking with him the sable antelope destined for the British Museum and a copy of Harris's map and pamphlet for the Royal Geographical Society.

By the end of December Harris himself was back in India, and was appointed Executive Engineer at Belgaum in January 1838; he must otherwise have been hard at work on his account of his expedition. He was eager to return to Africa in order to reach the 'great Inland Lake', of which he had heard much in 1836-7; and in a letter to the Geographical Society of Bombay, dated at Belgaum, 1 August 1838, he offered his services to the Royal Geographical Society as leader of an expedition to be organised for that purpose. The proposal came to nothing, and in the event it was Dr Livingstone, and others, who first 'discovered' Lake Ngami in 1849.

The diary which must have been kept by Harris of his expedition into the interior of southern Africa is not known to survive, but evidently formed the basis for the narrative which he produced soon afterwards, 'for the perusal of some of my brother officers in India, with whom I have oft stalked the forest and scoured the plain'. This narrative soon fell into the hands of others, 'whose opinions I respect, and whom it afforded gratification', prompting Harris to make arrangements for its publication. Among those who encouraged him was Dr James Burnes FRS (1801-62), who served as a medical officer in India from 1821 to 1849, latterly as Physician-General of Bombay. Burnes was himself on sick leave in England from 1834 to 1837, so cannot have been on the board which sent Harris to the Cape; yet it was to Burnes that Harris dedicated his work, 'in the progress and publication of which he has evinced the most lively interest'. The Narrative was published by the American Mission Press, Bombay, in 1838.

The image of Mzilikazi which serves as a frontispiece combines elements derived from two of the drawings made by Harris at Kapain in October 1836, with the caption 'Moselekatse, King of the Amazooloo'. The figure of the king is taken from the drawing of Mzilikazi re-entering his kraal, but in this composition he is walking past the kraal that he should be entering and the herald who should be preceding him has become a dancing man in the middle distance; the kraal in the background seems to have been suggested by the drawing of Mzilikazi in his cloak. In the first issue of the Bombay edition, the image (facing left) serves as a frontispiece, in a rather crude lithograph made by Harris himself. For a variant issue of the same edition, the lithograph was made in London, re-drawn (with some misunderstanding) from a copy of the first issue. The image of Mzilikazi was used again for the second and later editions of the Narrative, under its new title Wild Sports of Southern Africa, clearly derived afresh from Harris's composition and now facing right (as intended). In the second edition, published in London by John Murray in 1839, the image appears as a wood engraving, inserted at the appropriate place in the main text; but in the third, fourth and fifth editions (1841-52) it appears as a coloured lithograph by Frank Howard, restored to its original status as the frontispiece. It has become most familiar in this form, conveying a dignified and respectful impression of the great 'King of the Amazooloo'.