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The Battle of Blood River-a short story from South African history

Updated on January 29, 2015
Original sketch of battle
Original sketch of battle

A look into South African History

African Short Story: The Battle of Blood River.

As the first glimmer of light threatened to arrive in the East over the plains next to the Ncome River in this area of Natal, I could hear the hissing noise made by the 15 000 Zulu warriors as they crouched behind their shields, waiting for the call that would soon come to attack the Boer lager.

Lying on the ground with my gun loaded and ready, I could feel the shivers running up and down my spine. Next to me my sister, Martha, held my second gun ready and loaded. She knew exactly how much gunpowder had to be poured into the barrel and the shot that had to follow it in. A heap of shot made of tin and lead that we had patiently cast a few days earlier lay next to her in a cattle skin bag. The gunpowder was in the cow horn next to her left hand. She only took a couple of seconds to reload and after I had fired she would be ready to swop guns.

We had been in position for some time, sometimes drifting off into fitful sleep, waiting for the attack that we knew would come soon after daybreak. Occasionally I would hear her say a quiet prayer. We had both been moved by our father’s words, as he had led us in daily worship and prayer since Sunday. Standing on the gun carrier, with the families gathered around kneeling in a circle with the men clasping their hats over their hearts, he spoke with conviction and fervor. On behalf of all of us he promised God that if He gave us the victory, we would keep this as a religious day for ever.

As the daylight began to win the battle against the dark night we could make out the thousands of warriors with their matching shields (each troop had shields with the same colors) held out in front of them. The first line crouched only about 50 paces away. The spears caught the early morning sun and the hissing sound seemed to increase as it came from thousands of lips, aimed at intimidating us-with some success I might add. But then voices in the lager joined is singing quietly a well-known hymn asking God for help. To the Zulu warriors it may have sounded like wailing but to us in the lager it confirmed our belief that God would protect us in the coming battle. We were after all God fearing people who often carried as our only book a family Bible that was read every night and was used to teach children to read and write. My grandfather told me that we were travelling to find the promised land that God spoke about in His Word.

The wagons provided protection as they were tied together in a half circle with thorn bushes blocking the gaps between the wheels, tied down well with skin thongs and chains. We men had cut the branches with our axes and the women had dragged them to the lager lashing them to the wagons. Small gaps gave the couple of hundred marksmen lying on the ground or kneeling a place to fire through. Next to each marksman stood or lay a gun loader with the second of three front loader guns called Sannas, already loaded and ready.

To our surprise we heard the order to get ready and then fire coming from our commandant, Pretorius. Usually the trekkers only opened fire when the Zulu started their charge, but Pretorius was a leader who did not always do the usual. White gunpowder rose into the air as the Zulu leaders shouted out a battle cry.The first and second volley’s went off almost simultaneously. The Zulu warriors rose like one man to attack. Many falling to the ground again as the first shots flattened them. Spears were hurled at the lager, with the canvas coverings over the wagons breaking their speed. Some were hurled over the tops of the wagons coming to rest in the center of the lager often killing or injuring the animals gathered there. Other spears banged into the wooden sides of the wagons, looking like porcupine quills. In frustration some of the warriors broke their long spears, changing them into short stabbing weapons and rushing at the wagons, only to be shot down by the terrible, continuous fire from the lager.

The shooting went on and on, deafening the Boers lying behind their guns and creating havoc among the ranks of the advancing Zulu warriors. The air filled with smoke from the guns and dust from the panicking animals in the middle of the lager. The sound of the two small cannons the Trekker party owned was booming away in contrast to the sharper sound of the rifles. The animals in the center of the lager were in panic and fought to loosen themselves from their tethers, joining in with the shouts of the attackers to provide a terrible symphony of confusion and death. To our amazement we saw Zulus coming out of the Hippo Pool in the river on our right, like ghosts coming out of the ground. How could his be? The river bank was too steep and to deep. Later we were to learn that they stood on each other’s shoulders to get up the river bank, only to face the same fate as the other brave, fearless warriors.

I could feel the gun barrel in my hand getting very hot and hoped that the heat would not cause the gunpowder to explode as Martha pressed it down while loading. A black figure came over the tops of a wagon in a mighty leap only to be wrestled down by a strong woman trekker who killed him with one stab of his own short spear. Could this all be real or had I fallen asleep and was it just a nightmare?

“Vat, my Boet”,(take, my brother) my sister brought me back to the task at hand as I took the other rifle from her hand and fired, seeing two black figures falling from the shot.

“Cease fire”, we heard the command ringing out around the lager. The small gates on two sides of the lager were thrust open and two groups of Boers on horseback left the lager in pursuit of the Zulu warriors who were now fleeing, many falling into the river where the color of the water was turning red. The battle had only taken about two hours but it had seemed like an age. Martha began to cry softly and I moved over to comfort her. We both sobbed as we hugged. Our mother came past to check that we were okay. “Your father is out with the other men chasing the Zulus” she told us with worry in her voice. “He will be okay”, I was surprised to hear my sister say.

In this one short sharp battle the might of Dingane’s army had been broken, the murder of Piet Retief and his group avenged and my sister and I had been introduced to the world of war with its violence and killing. The debate as to the peace offers made by Pretorius, by our father and by others, to Dingane, would rage on for many years. At that stage we felt that we had only defended ourselves from a bloodthirsty warrior leader who had been happy to attack villages and tribes before we arrived on the scene, killing men, woman and children in his hunger for power. A month ago he had murdered Piet Retief and the rest of the Boer party who entered his kraal in peace, and now had to pay the price of his deceit.

As we counted our losses we found that only three Boers had been wounded and at least 3000 Zulu warriors had been killed.

We knew, as we continued to search for a place to settle, that this victory had been only one of possibly more battles, and who could tell what the future held? We did believe that God had answered our prayers. Had the Zulus also prayed? Who did they turn to in times like his?

Post script: The 16th December was kept as a holiday in South Africa. It was called Dingane’s Day until recently when it was renamed “The Day of Reconciliation”.

A good account of South African History can be found in James Michener’s book, “The Covenant”. The name of the book came from this battle and the promise made by the Voortrekkers. Sarel Cilliers was my great, great Grandfather on my Mothers side.

References: Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa: Ed. By Rosenthal.

Mentjies, J. “The Voortrekkers”. Corgi Books - 1973.


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