Talana Museum South Africa  


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Blood River

16 December 1838

In 1838 the Voortrekkers in Natal suffered one disaster after another in their encounter with the Zulus under the direction of Paramount Chief Dingane.

Finally, in November of that year, they summoned Andries Pretorius from Graaff Reinet and appointed him, as Commandant General. Towards the end of that month he departed on a punitive expedition against Dingane with more than 60 wagons and about 470 men, the so-called "Wenkommando".

On Sunday, 9th December a solemn vow was made that, if God granted them victory, they would build a House to the glory of His name and that they and their descendants would in the future celebrate the day of the victory in His honour. After this, the vow was repeated every evening.

Slowly the kommando moved northwards, past the site of the present day Dundee, where they camped on the slopes of Talana hill and picked up coal to make their fires.

From the 12th December onwards, the reconnaissance patrols made contact with Zulu scouts and scattered groups of Zulu warriors.

On the 15th December the area where the battle was to take place was reached and the main Zulu force sighted. Pretorius decided to form a laager west of the Ncome River (afterward known as Blood River) and immediately above a spot where a deep donga sloped towards the river. Whilst the river and the donga would protect the laager on two sides, the position of Gelato Kopje (Vegkop) and a nearby marshy hippo pool would impede any attack from the other sides. The main onslaught would of necessity have to come from the north-west, which would mean that the small Boer force would be in a position to direct their fire into a concentrated mass of the enemy.

Pretorius explained his plan to the laager commandant, Piet Moolman, who formed the laager with the assistance of 150 men.

That evening the vow was repeated, sentries were posted and the men tried to sleep. The night of the 15th December was pitch dark with clouds and

thick mist obscuring the moon, counting in the favour of the Voortrekkers. When the Zulu commanders decided to attack, six regiments under Dambuza, consisting of about 6 000 warriors crossed the river. They subsequently lost their way in the dark and only reached the laager towards morning. Some of them crept down the donga and massed behind the laager whilst the majority took up position in a crescent formation extending from the donga to the river, to await daylight.

Those in front were crouched barely forty metres from the wagons and behind them the warriors were ranged solidly for hundreds of metres. Meanwhile the main body under Ndlela, consisting mainly of Dingane's prime regiments, the White and Black Shields, also moved up in front of the verge below the river and sat waiting on their shields.

The mist gradually cleared and Sunday dawned bright and clear. Pretorius gave the order to shoot as soon as sights and targets could be distinguished. With a total disregard for danger the Zulus charged, but within a quarter of an hour they were forced to withdraw to a position 500 metres away.

When they launched their second attack they were fired upon with deadly accuracy. At this stage the bewildered livestock threatened to break through the wagon laager. Under the direction of Sarel Cilliers, a few men raced to that quarter and drove the animals back, at the same time engaging the massed Zulus in the donga.

Once again the Zulu attack was repulsed and they retreated to a distance of 400 metres. Pretorius now directed the copper cannon towards the hill where the leaders of the Zulu force congregated. The second and third rounds burst among the indunas and led to a third fierce attack lasting for nearly an hour.

Soon after the Zulus had retreated once again, a mounted commando of a few hundred men led by Field Cornet Bart Pretorius launched an attack on them. Twice the commando was driven back but at the third attempt they managed to split the Zulu force in two. The greater part of the commando force now emerged from the laager and deployed to the north and south along the river where hundreds of fleeing Zulus were shot amongst the reeds and in the river.

At this point Ndlela's three thousand crack impis went into action. They attempted to cross the river at the drifts above and below the hippo pool, but were swept along by the hordes of fleeing warriors and shot down by the mounted Boers. At last the entire Zulu army took flight in all directions. The pursuit lasted until midday when the commando returned to the laager where 3 000 Zulus lay dead.

The Wenkommando continued on their way to the Royal Kraal at Umgungunhlovu, which they found deserted and burning, as Dingaan had fled. He was eventually defeated in 1840 and then fled to Swaziland, where he was killed.

THE LAAGER

The reconstruction of this laager was undertaken by Battlefields of South Africa Limited, a non-profit making company under the chairmanship of Mr. Marius Jooste.

A group of historians determined the approximate situation of the laager, as well as the number and type of wagons, the form of the laager, the number, type and position of the cannons, the construction of the "veghekke", the corralling of cattle and horses, the placing of lanterns onto whip handles, etc. Their survey was based on all the available sources regarding the battle, as well as an accurate survey of the site. The latter was done by means of repeated visits to the locality as well as the employment of normal, oblique, coloured and infra-red aerial photographs, which enabled the researchers to determine the positions of the original swamps and pools of the area, as well as the direction and situation of rivers and dongas.

The wagons were manufactured of cast steel and plated with bronze and it was calculated that they would last for approximately two hundred years. Although a cost factor prohibited the reconstruction of more detail, the laager is nevertheless considered a unique representation of an old and universal mobile defence system.

This laager of bronze wagons was constructed to be identical to the original laager as far as possible and is situated on the same spot.

The wagons were drawn up close to one another with the disselboom of one tied firmly under the deck of the one in front, while the wheels of one were joined to those of the adjacent wagon with trek chains. The spaces between front and back wheels were closed with "veghekke" or "fighting gates", tied to the wheels by riems. This prevented the Zulus from storming through into the laager or pulling the wagons apart.

Openings were left in the "crescent". To the north was the large gate which was closed with "veghekke" and wagons. Through this gate the 650 oxen and 700 horses of the Voortrekkers were brought into the laager at the last moment. This opening was also used by the mounted commando through which to launch their attack on the enemy. The cannon, affectionately known as "Ou Grietjie" was also positioned here. The two smaller openings at the eastern and western corners were left for two smaller cannons. The small brass cannon which Pretorius had specially brought with him was placed at the north-eastern corner to cover the entire river frontage and even to fire on the Zulus across the river.

THE COVENANT

Here we stand, before the Holy God of heaven and earth,to make to Him a vow that, if He will protect us

And deliver our enemies into our hands, we will observe the day and date each year as a day of thanks, like a Sabbath, and that we will erect a Church in His honour, wherever He may choose and that we will also tell our children to join with us in commemorating this day, also for coming generations. For His name will be glorified by giving Him all the honour and glory of victory.

How to get there

From Dundee take the R33 towards Vryheid. Follow the road signs to Blood River and Ncome.

To see

Blood River

Wagon memorial

1938 memorial wagon

Interpretation centre at Blood River

Curio shop and tearoom

Ncome

Zulu cultural exhibition at Ncome

Curio shop

Opening hours

08:00 – 17:00 daily