On 16 December 1838, a group of around 470 Boer people (Afrikaners) were besieged by more than 10,000 Zulu warriors on the banks of the Blood River in Natal, South Africa. This led to one of the bloodiest and memorable battles in our nation’s history.
The Boer’s struggle for independence started in 1835 after the Cape Colony and Natal were invaded by the British. The Boer was not willing to serve under the English and moved inland, a movement known as The Great Trek. The almost 10,000 Boers who participated in the Trek were called Voortrekkers.
Commander Piet Retief chose to travel to Natal where he petitioned the King of the Zulus, Dingane, for a piece of land between the Tugela and Umzimvubu rivers up to the Drakensberg Mountains.
On the 4th of February 1838 Dingane signed the treaty which awarded the land to Boers. He invited the Retief-group to a Zulu dance on the 6th of February. During the ceremony, Dingane suddenly called out: “Bulalani abathakati!” (kill the magicians). The Boers were tied up and dragged outside the village where they were beaten to death with knopkieries. The remaining Boers were attacked in their laager, causing the deaths of a further 282 people.
The Natal Voortrekkers sent for and chose Commander Andries Pretorius from the Eastern Cape as their leader. He immediately put together a Commando of 470 men with 64 wagons to return to Zululand. The families that stayed behind had become impoverished and did not have enough wagons to return back over the Drakensberg Mountains, so it was of the utmost importance that their men returned.
A lay-preacher by the name of Sarel Cilliers suggested that they make a vow with God. In return for victory in the battle, they would build a church, always honour the day and tell their children so that future generations would honour the vow they had made.
The Boer Commando pushed deeper into Natal and on the 15th of December drew a laager on the banks of the Ncome River, today known as Blood River. Pretorius chose a strategic spot for the laager which forced the Zulus to attack mainly from a north-westerly direction.
The Zulu leaders, Ndlela and Tambuza, decided that the first Zulu regiment to attack would be the Abafana (boys) with their black shields.
Sunday the 16th of December was a bright sunny day. The first attack started just after sunrise but neither the Black Shields, nor the White Shields could push through the defences. The 470 Boer shooters had a wide range whereas the area narrowed for the approaching Zulus.
By 12 o’clock in the afternoon, the battle was over. The laager was surrounded by dead and dying bodies. Many of the wounded fled into the river which caused the water to turn red, giving it the name, Blood River.
Today is The Day of the Vow. I am a descendant of those Boer people and I have the choice to honour it or not. My children are English-speaking South Africans and identify themselves in that manner. I do however, on the 16th of December, tell them the story of Blood River, for them to do with as they please.