The Voortrekkers
Eyewitness account of the murder of Retief and his party.
An Eyewitness Account of the Massacre of Piet Retief
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With some particulars relating to the massacres of  Messrs. Retief  and Biggar. By  William Wood, Interpreter to Dingaan, Cape Town:

Published by Collard & Co., 24, Heerengracht. 1840.

In the year 1830, my mother and I embarked on board the cutter"Circe," Captain Blinkenstock, bound to Port Natal, to join myfather, Richard Wood, who was in the "employment of Mr. Collis,at that port.

The captain, my mother, and myself having landed,we proceeded towards a Zulu kraal, where we were treated kindly.We then set off for Mr. Collis's, and got there without anyaccident.  

I had been living there about six months, during which time endeavoured to pick up as much of the Zulu language as possible.

    We travelled as far as the Togela * River, where we weremet by Mabeyantee, Dingaan's principal messenger, who acquainted us that it was the king's order that the English at Natal should arm themselves and come to him at Megoomloof, as he wished to send them against an enemy who had robbed him, and who had placed himself in such a situation that the king's troops were of no avail in capturing him, as spears could not be thrown by hand to reach him, and firearms alone could be effectual.

   Thomas Halstead, an Englishman, being at the place at the time, volunteered to carry Dingaan's message to the people atPort Natal, and immediately set off for this purpose.

  When the residents at Port Natal were acquainted withDingaan's orders, they made preparations for fulfilling them;and when they had mustered as many as they could bring together,their strength consisted of about thirty English residents,amongst whom were John Cane (who commanded the party), Thomas Halstead, Richard Wood (my father), Richard King, Robert Russell, Thomas Carden, Richard Lovedale, and William Kew; also about forty Zulus, all of whom were armed with guns.  

John Broerand I waited for them at the Tugela River, and when they arrivedwe joined company and travelled until we came to the UmhlotiRiver, where we halted, and the rest proceeded on theirjourney to Ngungunhlovu. We remained at the river until the king sent for us.

As it may not be uninteresting to my readers tohear how this affair terminated, I shall, previously to closingthis narrative, give a true account of it.

  We had been about a fortnight at the Umhloti River when amessenger arrived from Dingaan, who told us that the king wishedto see us.  We immediately set off, and after travelling forsome days, arrived safely at Ngungunhlovu.   

Having arrived at a small hill which rises at the back of Dingaan'skraal, they fired a salute; upon which the king was greatly alarmed, andsent a messenger to ask them what they meant by firing. They said it wascustomary for all kings and great men to receive such tokens of respectfrom those who carried arms.

This answer dissipated the king's fears,and he sent them an invitation to come into his kraal and refreshthemselves, which they did.  Next day they started in search of theenemy, reinforced by a large body of Dingaan's troops, commanded by Inhlela.

Having travelled some days, they arrived in the vicinity of theUmpongola Mountains, where a party of Sapusa's people were posted, andlest these should discover that Inhlela had Europeans with him, theycovered the English with their shields while ascending the mountain.

Sapusa's  people had taken up a very good position on the top of a hill,immediately over, and commanding the entrance to, a natural cavern, inwhich they had placed the cattle they had captured from Dingaan. Byrolling down large stones, they had for some days prevented the approachof a party of Dingaan's troops who had before attempted to recapture the cattle.

    The nearest approach which could be made to them withsafety was by ascending a small hill opposite. This the partydid, and found themselves separated from Sapusa's people by adeep gulch at the bottom of which ran the Umpongola River.

Asthey were within speaking distance, John Cane, who commanded theEuropeans, spoke to them, and told them to deliver up the cattlewhich they had taken from the king, or he would fire upon them;adding that it was useless for them to resist, for that Dingaanhim-self had taken the trouble to come so far to get his cattle,and was determined to have them.

   On hearing this, Sapusa's people made no reply, but turnedtheir backs to them in token of contempt. John Cane's party thenfired a volley over their heads, and he again begged of them toagree to his demand, and told them that if they delivered up thecattle, he would allow them and their wives and children, whowere still with them, to depart unharmed. They still returned noanswer, and he then fired at them and shot three or four. Canerepeated his demand, but they treated him in the same manner,upon which his party again fired and shot some more of them.

AZulu woman was then Been to approach the brink of the precipice,leading a boy of about twelve or thirteen years of age by thehand, and having an infant fastened at her back.  Lookingtowards the Europeans, she cried out, "I will not be killed bythunder, but will kill myself," saying which she pushed the boyover the precipice, and jumped in herself afterhim.                                        

   The firing still continued, until the party cried out formercy, and promised to give up the cattle, which John Cane senta number' of men round to receive.

He then distributed a fewhead amongst them, and commenced his journey to NgungunhlovuDingaan's kraal).      

  The form of Dingaan's kraal was a circle. It was stronglyfenced with bushes, and had two entrances. The principal onefaced the king's huts, which were placed at the furthestextremity of the kraal, behind which were his wives' huts. These extended beyond the circle which formed the kraal, butwere also strongly fenced in.

On the right hand of the principalentrance were placed the huts of Inhlela (Dingaan's captain) andhis warriors, and on the left those of Dambuza (another of hiscaptains) with his men. The kraal contained four cattle kraals,which were also strongly fenced, and four huts erected on pole,which contained the arms of the troops.

At a short distance fromthe entrance was the trunk of a large tree, which was in a stateof decay, and which no person was allowed to touch, being thetree under which Dingaan's father died, and which he valued veryhighly. Near this tree grew two other trees, which are called bythe Zulu's milk-trees.

The other entrance was from that part ofthe kraal behind Dingaan's wives' huts, and this was consideredprivate.

    The huts in which the Rev. Mr. Owen and myself resided werewithout the kraal, and facing a hill which had been the grave ofthousands.                                        

   About sixty farmers,* at the head of whom was Mr. PieterRetief, accompanied by forty of their servants, all well armed,with a view of convincing Dingaan that they meant him no  harm,attacked a chief who was an enemy of the king, and defeated him,taking from him about seven thousand head of cattle, which hehad captured from him on a former occasion.

With these cattlethey approached the kraal of Dingaan, to whom they deliveredthem: and at the same time expressed their earnest desire thatpeace might exist between the king and the emigrant farmers,whom they now represented.

  Dingaan gladly received the cattle; but his attention wasarrested by sixty horses and eleven guns which the farmers hadtaken from the enemy, and he told them he must also have them.Retief, however, told him that he could not comply with thisdemand, as the cattle were his property, but not the guns andhorses.

With this Dingaan appeared satisfied, and, shortlyafter, told them that the cattle should also be theirs; likewisepromising them a piece of land extending from the Tugela to theUmzimvubu. Retief accepted his offer, and a treaty was signedbetween Dingaan on the one hand and the emigrant farmers on theother.

The farmers had been at Ngungunhlovu about two days,during which they walked about the kraal unarmed, hut had takenthe precaution to place their arms under the protection of theirservants or after-riders, who had taken up their quarters underthe   two milktrees without the kraal.

On the morning of the thirdday,  I perceived from Dingaan's manner that he meditated somemischief, although from his conversation with his captains Icould not perceive that he had given them any orders prejudicialto the farmers. I, however, watched my opportunity to warn themto be on their guard.

This occurred when some of the farmersstrolled into the kraal, and, having come near the place where Iwas standing, I told them I did not think all was right, andrecommended them to be on their guard; upon which they smiledand said: "We are sure the king's heart is right with us, andthere is no cause for fear."

A short time after this, Dinguan came out of his hut, and havingseated himself in front of it in his arm-chair, ordered out tworegiments. One was called "Isihlangu Mhlope," or white shields,and the other the "Isihlangu Mnyama," or back shields: theformer were his best men, and wore rings on their heads, formedof the bark of a tree and grass, and stitched through the scalp:and the latter regiment was composed entirely of young men.

These troops he caused to form in a circle, and, having placedhis two principal captains on his right and left handrespectively, he sent a message to Retief, inviting him to bringhis men, and wish the king "farewell," previously to starting.Retief a short time after this entered the kraal, accompanied bythe other farmers and all their servants, with the exception ofone or two, who were sent out to fetch the horses; their aimsbeing left unguarded under the two milk-trees without the kasal.

   On Retief approaching Dinguan, the latter told him toacquaint the farmers at Natal, as soon as he arrived there, ofthe king'sdesire that they should soon come and possess the landhe had given them; also to remember him to them. He then wishedthe  party an agreeable journey to Natal, and invited them tosit down and drink some * "tywala"  with him and his people,which invitation they unfortunately accepted.  

Retief satby the king; but the farmers and their servants sat in a placeby themselves, at a short distance from the king and hiscaptains. After drinking some beer together, Dingaan ordered histroops to amuse the farmers by dancing and singing, which theyimmediately commenced doing.

The farmers had not been sittinglonger than about a quarter of an hour, when Dingaan called out:"Seize them!" upon which an overwhelming rush was made upon theparty before they could get on their feet. Thomas Halstead thencried out: "We are done for!" and added in the Zulu language,"Let me speak to the king;" which Dingaan heard, but motionedthem away with his hand.

Halstead then drew his knife, andripped up one Zulu, and cut another throat, before he wassecured; and a farmer also succeeded in ripping up another Zulu

   The farmers were then dragged with their feet trailing onthe ground, each man being held by as many Zulu as could get athim, from the presence of Dingaan, who still continued sittingand calling out "Bulala amatakati" (kill the wizards). He thensaid, "Take the heart and the liver of the king of the farmersand place them in the road of the farmers."

   When they had dragged them to the hill, *"Hloma Mabuto,"they commenced the work of death by striking them on the headwith knobbed sticks, Retief being held and forced to witness thedeaths of his comrades before they dispatched him. It was a mostawful occurrence, and will never be effaced from my memory.

    The Rev. Mr. Owen and I witnessed it, standing at the doorsof our huts, which faced the place of execution. Retief's heartand liver were taken out, wrapped in a cloth, and taken toDingaan.

His two captains, Inlela and Dambuza, then came and satdown by Dingaan, with whom they conversed for some time. Abouttwo hours after the massacre, orders were issued that a largeparty were to set off and attack the wagons that contained thewives and children of the murdered farmers, which were at aconsiderable distance from Ngungunhlovu, as Retief and his partyhad left them there, not wishing to bring their families intoany danger.

   A large body of men were immediately in readiness, and thecaptains, previously to starting, approached Dingaan singly, andmade a mock attack on him, thrusting their shields and thentheir spears close to his face, and going through a variety ofmovements; at the same time giving him various titles andpraising him, as all his people who approach him must do; andoccasionally calling out, "We will go and kill the white dogs !"

A short time after the party set off with great speed in thedirection of the wagons. The result of that attack is wellknown. The farmers who were guarding the wagons were taken bysurprise, when many of the soldiers   them fell, and some hundreds of women and children wereinhumanely murdered, but not without retribution, as a greatnumber of the enemy were slain, and the remainder obliged toretreat with precipitation.

  After the murder of the farmers, Dingaan sent a messenger,named Gumbu, to the Rev. Mr. Owen and me, telling us not tofear, as no harm should happen to us; informing us at the sametime that the farmers were "Tagati," or wizards, and that thatwas the king's motive for killing them.

Mr. Owen told me to tellhim that he had nothing whatever to do with the transaction, andcould not help what had transpired. He then turned round andwalked off. Knowing Dingaan's jealous and treacherousdisposition, I did not give the messenger the answer of Mr.Owen, feeling assured that it would have caused our deaths; butI told Gumbu to tell the king that we considered that he hadacted perfectly right in killing the farmers, as no doubt theywould otherwise have killed us, as well as him and his people.

  This answer pleased the king, and he sent us a present of anox. Not long after, we saw between fifty and sixty menapproaching the house; and it need scarcely be observed thatthis circumstance caused us not a little fear. When they came upto the house, they acquainted us that Dingaan wished to see us,and repeated the promise of the king that no injury shouldhappen to as.

We went immediately to him, and his first questionwas, "Are you afraid?" upon which I saw that the opinion whichwe had formed of the king left no room for fear. He thenlaughed, and said we had acted as we should do. He then asked,"Do you wish to return to Natal?" but we answered "No." He thendismissed us to our huts.

  The next day we waited on the king, when Mr. Owen askedpermission to go to Natal, but was refused. A messenger came,however, the same afternoon, bringing the king's permission forus to depart, but not to take our cattle or servants with us. Onthe following day he informed us that we might take both.  

Weremained four days longer without making any preparations forour journey, in order to show Dingaan that we did not expect anyviolence from him, and were therefore free from fear on thataccount, and not over-anxious to leave his kraal.  

Mr. Owen, whohad two wagons, then commenced packing up his things; but in themidst of his work was interrupted by the arrival of a messengerfrom Dingaan, who told him that he must leave the best wagon,together with his cattle and servants,' behind: to which ordersMr. Owen thought fit to submit; and everything being inreadiness, we went sad bade the king farewell, when he shookhands with us and wished us a pleasant journey.

I must hereobserve that Dingaan was averse to my going, and told me thatduring the time I had been with him I had received nothing butkindness; that I had been allowed to do as I liked; that he hadgiven me a herd of cattle, and a number of boys as 'companions;and he then asked why I wished to go away from him, telling meat the same time that I could do just as I liked, but he wouldmuch rather that I should stay. I told him that, having seen thefarmers killed, I was so filled with fear that now I could notbe happy any longer, and wished much to go to my father atNatal. "Well," said he, "I am sorry you are going; but if youare not happy, I will not detain you."

   A small party of Zulu's was sent with us to drive the wagonand take care of the oxen; and a messenger was sent before us tothe different villages through which our journey lay, withorders that we should be supplied with everything we needed, andthat every assistance we might require should be granted to us.

   When we had got about four miles from Megoonloof,' Dinguansent a message to Mr. Owen that he should come to him, andimmediately afterwards another came, saying we might proceed.

    Having continued our journey to Natal, and not meeting withany further interruption, we rested for two days at one of themissionary stations, and then resumed our journey, being closelywatched by two spies, whom we supposed Dinguan had sent afterus.

We rested at several villages on our way, where we weretreated with great kindness; and in due time arrived at Natal,where we found the news of the massacre had preceded us, andactive measures were being taken for the defence of the placeagainst any attack which Dingaan might meditate against it.

    A fortnight after our arrival, the English at Port Natalcame to the determination of attacking Dingaan, and avenging thedeaths of Thomas Halstead and George Biggar, who had formed partof Retief's party, and who were their particular friends; andfor this purpose immediate preparations were made accordingly.

When they were ready to start they numbered their forces, whichconsisted of about thirty Europeans, a few Hottentots, andfifteen hundred Zulus. The latter had fled from Dingaan atdifferent times, and had settled at Port Natal;therefore theNatal people could depend upon their doing their best, as they well knewwhat awaited them if they should fall into Dingaan's hands. TheEuropeans, Hottentots, sad about 200 of the Zulu's had guns, butthe other Zulu's had only their county arms.

Previously tostarting the Zulus danced, sang, and went through a variety ofmanoeuvres, boasting of what the) intended to do with theirenemies. One of their songs was something thing in this style:~" We are going to kill the elephant who killed ourforefathers, fathers, mothers, wives, and children, and whodeprived us of our cattle.

Now we are going to kill him and eathim cattle. And if we catch him, we will cut him in pieces."   The following persons formed part of this commando -RobertBiggar'., who was the leader of the expedition, Thos. Carden, WBottomly, Richard King, John Cane, Richard Duffy, Robert RussellRichard Wood (my father), Wm. Wood (my uncle), and MessBlanckenberg and Lovedale.

Having started from Port Natal, theytravelled continuously into Dingaan's country, in the directionof Ngungunhlovu, and had been only four days on their journeywhen they fell in with a party of Zulus, having about seventhousand head of cattle.

On seeing the party the Zulus fled, andleft the cattle in the hands of the English, who then returnedto Port Natal, where the cattle were distributed among thecaptors.

    It appeared that, during their absence, the Zulus whom theyhad left at Natal to protect their property, &c., had takenprisoner a Zulu spy. He had appeared among them dressed infarmer's clothes; and, upon their questioning him, told them he hadcome   from Graham's Town; but, unfortunately for him, he wasrecognised by one of the people as one of Dingaan's best spies,and therefore they proceeded to put him to death.

When he foundthat there was no chance of escape, he confessed he was whatthey pronounced him to be, and said: "I have deserved death longago; for I have been the cause of the destruction of greatnumbers of people.

It will not be long before you will haveDinguan amongst you." When Robert Biggar's party had arrivedwith the cattle, the above was the information which theyreceived from the Natal Zulus of what had transpired iii theirabsence; and the reason they gave for not keeping the spy untilthe party had returned was, that they were afraid the Englishwould save his life, and they thought it better to be rid ofsuch a dangerous subject.

   Some eight or ten days had elapsed, when the same commandoagain started from Port Natal, in search of Dingaan, andproceeded as far as the Mavootie  * River without meeting anyopposition. Having crossed the river, they ascended a hill onthe other side, and from thence discovered a party of about 150men on the brow of a hill further on: on which three spies weresent to reconnoitre.

Those spies having stolen upon them, fireda few shots, which apparently so alarmed them that they fled,leaving their food on the fires, and a few assagais and shieldswhich they had dropped in their haste to escape.

    The spies having returned, a stronger party was sent towatch the enemy, and came up with them in the ruined huts of theAmapieke, on this side the Tugela River. On firing amongst them, the enemy fled, as on the former occasion, and the spiesreturned to the main body, who were advancing. When they hadarrived at the Tugela River, they sent forward some spies, whosoon returned with the information that they had observed thesame party of Zulus, who had fled from them twice before, lyingasleep in the village of a captain named Zulu.

It being late inthe evening, the party did not cross the river until the nextmorning, when they advanced upon the above-named village, wherethey found the Zulus mentioned by the spies, and, commencing anattack upon them, they immediately fled. Biggar had taken one ofthem a prisoner, and was in the act of questioning him, when heobserved large bodies of Zulus closing him in, and j foundretreat was impossible.  

In a short time the battle commenced,and the English had succeeded in driving them off three times insuccession, when another large body of Zulus was seen advancingin their rear.

It was then a step was taken by the leader of theparty which involved the whole in ruin; for he divided hisforce, and sent part of it to oppose this body which wasadvancing mg, which induced the enemy to make a desperate rush,by which they succeeded in getting between the divisions, anddestroying the whole party, with the exception of fourEnglishmen and about five hundred Zulus, who succeeded in makingtheir escape to Port Natal

    There were two of the Natal Zulus who, when they saw theimminent danger in which they were placed, threw themselves uponthe slain and counterfeited death. One was quite a young man andthe other of a more advanced age.                                  

   In this situation they heard a spy of Dingaan's,  who hadarrived when the battle was over,say to the captains: "Thefarmers are approaching from that mountain." And the reply was:' What is the use of going up to them?

   The white dogs have nearly killed us all; and, if we go tothe other dogs, they will finish us."  The dead and wounded werethen examined; and, some of the enemy coming near the spot wherethe two men were lying, one of them said: "Some of those are notdead let us cut them open;" upon which the young man jumped up,and was immediately killed; but the other lay still, and escapedto tell the story.

    When we who were at Port Natal received intelligence ofthis shocking occurrence, we kept a sharp look-out, and had ourspies on every hill, one of whom at length brought usinformation of the near approach of a large body of Dingaan'smen, who seemed to take their time, and did not travel quickly.When the spy had left they had lit their fires; and, it appears,had encamped for the night on the banks of the Umgeni River.

   Providentially, the "Comet" (brig), Capt. Rodham, was thenlying in Natal bay, within the bar; and on board that vessel allthe Europeans got that evening, leaving the Natal Zulu, many ofwhom had gnus, to make for themselves the best shift they could.

   The following are among those who got on board the (brig)The Rev. Mr. Owen, Mrs. Owen, and Miss Owen; Mrs. Champion, Mrs.Adams, the Rev. Mr. Grout, Dr. Adams, Capt. Gardiner, Rev. Mr.Champion, Mrs. Rodham, Mr. Biggar, senior, Mrs. Gardiner, Dr.and Mrs. Towey and child, Charles Adams, Jane Williama, Mr. and Mrs. Dunn and children, Mr. and Mrs.Miller, Mr. and Mrs. Pitman, Mr. and Mrs. Heyward and children,Mr. sad Mrs. Hull and children, Mrs. Wood (my mother), Mr.Richard King, Mr. Ogle, George Duffy, Jas. Brown, and myself.

    The next morning several of us went towards the shore in aboat, and perceived that the Zulus were occupying Natal.  Havingapproached very near the shore, one of the captains called outto us and said, "We have killed the principal people of Natal,and now only want Mr. Ogle !"

Upon which Mr. Ogle, who was inthe boat, stood up, and said, "Do you want me?" And, on beinganswered in the affirmative, he replied, "Then you shan't getme."

The same captain then, addressing me, said: "Who are you?""Do you not know William," said I, "who was so long with theking?" ~ he replied; "Come here, I want to speak with you" Towhich I answered, "I am not such a fool as that yet!" We thenrowed back to the ship.

   The Zulus kept possession of the place for nine days, andthen returned to Dingaan, after having destroyed everything thatcame in their way. Some of our party having landed, sent outspies, and found that the enemy had left the place in earnest.Only eight or nine of us remained at Port Natal, the othersthinking fit to proceed with the "Comet" to De Ia Goa Bay,whither she was bound, and from thence to the Cape in the samevessel.

When we landed we found that some of oar Zulus had shotnumbers of the enemy. Two we found lying dead, dressed in mymother's gowns, with full sleeves, and in stockings, withoutshoes. Others had shawls on; some had blankets, others sheetsrolled round them; while some had ladies' waist-bands tied roundtheir heads, etc.  

Sundry articles of provisions such as flour, coffee,sugar, fat, and plums-were taken from Mr. Ogle's house andthrown on the ground, into which they had poured a keg of Frenchbrandy, and having stamped it with their feet, left it for him.

We remained but a fortnight longer at Natal, and then my motherand I left it, in company with Mr. and Mrs. Edwards and family,for Graham's Town.               

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