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Zulu War - 1838

In consequence of various causes, among which discontent with British rule requires prominent mention, a number of Dutch farmers left the Cape Colony in 1835, and, under the command of Pieter Ketief, crossed the Drakensberg Mountains in 1837, and entered Natal. Their leader proceeded to the Zulu king Dingaan's capital, for the purpose of negotiating a treaty of peace and obtaining a formal cession of territory. In the last week of January, 1838, Pieter Retief, accompanied by seventy picked horsemen, crossed the Buffalo river, and on the 2nd of February arrived at Dingaan's kraal. The Zulu monarch fixed the 4th of February as the day for signing a formal cession of an immense district in Natal to the emigrant Boers. The necessary document, drawn out by the Rev. Mr. Owen, missionary, with Dingaan, was duly signed, and business having been satisfactorily concluded, the Dutchmen were invited into the king's kraal to take leave of Dingaan.

As requested, Retief and his followers left their arms outside. The Zulu monarch, surrounded by his favourite regiments, conversed in the most friendly manner, and while a "stirrup cup" of maize beer was in course of being drunk, suddenly cried out, "Bulala matagati!" "Kill the wizards!" These words were the signal for a cruel massacre. More than 3000 savages beat to death, with knobkerries, the unfortunate Dutchmen who had been weak enough to trust to Zulu promises and Zulu honesty. The corpses of the slaughtered men were dragged out of the kraal to an adjacent hillock, and there allowed to become the prey of wolves and vultures.

Dingaan looked upon the massacre of the farmers who had vainly trusted to his honour as only a commencement of hostilities. Ten regiments were immediately ordered out to exterminate all the Dutch emigrants. While these people were, without suspicion, waiting for the return of their husbands and relatives, a Zulu army crawled up to their nearest camp, near the Blaauwkrantz river, close to the present commemorative town of Weenen, or "Weeping." A sudden surprise at the dawn of day was effected, and then ensued the barbarous murder in cold blood of every man, woman, and child. Other detachments surprised other parties, and few escaped.

The destroying army moved swiftly southward and towards the sea. Wherever the "laager" plan was adopted, it was successful; and at "Necht Laager," on the Bushman's river, a few determined men succeeded in defending themselves against an overwhelming force. The engagement lasted all day, but when the farmers' ammunition was nearly exhausted, the fire from a 3-pounder, rigged at the back of one of the waggons, killed several Zulu chiefs, and caused a precipitate retreat. The men who were afterwards able to visit the principal scenes of slaughter discovered frightful scenes of horror and misery. Waggons were demolished, and by their ruins lay the corpses of men, women, and children abandoned to the wild beasts. Among the heaps of dead found at Weenen two young girls were picked out, one of whom had been pierced by nineteen assegai stabs, and the other by twenty-one. Both survived, although they remained crippled for life. It is estimated that in one week 600 white settlers were sacrificed as victims to the savage treachery of Dingaan.

Vengeance was determined upon by the Dutch emigrants, and a party of 400, having placed themselves under the command of Piet Uys and of Hendrik Potgieter, advanced from the Klip River Division against Dingaan. This took place in April, 1838; but unfortunately, shortly before, a party of Englishmen from D'Urban, with 700 friendly Zulus, having crossed the Tugela river near its mouth and destroyed a native town, the army of Dingaan, which had been kept in reserve, suddenly surrounded them and killed nearly every European. The conquerors followed up their success as far as D'Urban, and forced the few white people then resident there to take refuge on board a vessel named the Comet, fortunately lying at anchor in the bay. Dingaan, with his principal forces, watched the Dutch emigrants, and learned that Piet Uys and Hendrik Potgieter had placed themselves at the head of 400 men, with the object of invading Zululand.

The wily Dingaan allowed the Dutchmen to advance to a place closed in between two hills, within a few miles of his capital, and thence led them to a valley, where a desperate hand-to-hand combat took place. The farmers had been accustomed to fight by firing from horseback, and then falling back rapidly to reload. They were so hemmed in by their position, that this mode of procedure was impossible, and they were at last, in desperation, compelled to concentrate their fire on one portion of the Zulu host. They then charged through the gap thus made, and escaped. Unfortunately, Piet Uys did not succeed in cutting his way through, and died with his son, fighting bravely against terrible odds. After this disastrous engagement, the Boers were so disheartened that hostilities were for some time suspended. They were renewed in August 1838, when Dingaan attacked the Dutch in their laagers, but was in all cases repulsed with loss. Towards the close of that year, an army of 10,000 Zulus attacked the Dutch farmers in a strongly entrenched position at the Umslatoos river. The engagement took place on Sunday, the 16th of December. For three hours overwhelming masses of natives endeavoured to force the emigrant camp, until Pretorius, finding that ammunition was beginning to fail, ordered 200 men to sally forth on horseback, and take the enemy in flank. This manoeuvre was successful, and the forces of Dingaan were compelled to fly, after leaving a large number on the field. The Dutch say 3000 Zulus were killed; but this is probably a great exaggeration.

After this decisive battle 5000 head of cattle were captured, and an advance was made to the hillock where lay the mortal remains of Retief and the brave men who perished with him. A frightful and ghastly spectacle was beheld: broken skulls, on which could be seen the marks of the knobkerries and stones with which they had been fractured, bones of legs and arms, and, strange to say, the skeleton of Retief, recognizable by a leathern pouch or bandoleer, in which was found the deed signed by Dingaan, resigning to the emigrant farmers "the place called Port Natal, together with all the land annexed; that is to say, from the Tugela to the Umzimvoboo river, and from the sea to the north, as far as the land may be useful and in my possession."

On the return of the emigrant Boers from this very successful attack on the Zulus, they were surprised to find that a small detachment of Highlanders, under the command of Major Charteris had taken possession of the Bay of Natal. This was done by order of Sir George Napier, Governor of the Cape Colony, from a desire "to put an end to the unwarranted occupation of parts of the territories belonging to the natives by certain emigrants of the Cape Colony, being subjects of his Majesty."

A brother of Dingaan, named Panda, who had been generally looked upon with contempt as a mere sensualist who was undisposed for the fatigues of warfare, became an object of jealousy to the king, in consequence of a large party among the Zulus, who were tired of constant fighting and bloodshed, showing some disposition to prefer him to his brother. An attempt to capture and kill Panda was followed by his flight across the Tugela into Natal, and his application to the Dutch emigrant farmers for assistance. Such an opportunity was gladly seized upon.

In the next year (1840) an army of Panda's, 4000 strong, was joined by 400 mounted farmers, under the command of Andries Pretorius. While the forces were mustering in Pietermaritzburg, an ambassador from Dingaan, named Tamboosa, arrived, bringing proposals for peace. Upon being seized and questioned, this messenger admitted that one of the objects of his mission was to obtain every possible information, with a view of reporting it to his master. This, however, by no means justified the blunder and crime committed by the Dutch farmers, who put Tamboosa to death, and would not even listen to his prayer for mercy on behalf of his young attendant, who suffered with him.

Scarcely was this execution over when the armies of Dingaan and Panda met in battle. In this fierce encounter two regiments were entirely destroyed, and the fortune of the day declared in favour of Panda, merely in consequence of a portion of his brother's army deserting in his favour. The Dutch farmers vigorously followed up this success, and forced Dingaan to take shelter among a small tribe close to Delagoa Bay, who killed him in order to secure the favour of his conquerors.

On the 14th of February, 1840, and on the banks of the Umvolosi river, the emigrant Boers proclaimed Panda king of the Zulu people, and at the same time declared that their own sovereignty extended from St. Lucia Bay to the Umzimvoboo (St. John's). Shortly previous to this date, Sir George Napier had ordered the British garrison to abandon D'Urban, and Captain Jervis, who held the local command, said, on the occasion of his departure, that he wished the inhabitants peace and happiness, hoping that they would cultivate these beautiful regions in quiet and prosperity.

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Page last modified: 25-10-2012 15:51:22 ZULU