The Battle of Blood River
and the
Blood River Monument


Bronze wagons of the monument

View of part of the laager

One of the cannons usee in the battle

Another view of part of the laager

Wagons placed end to end

Another view of the wagons

At the entrance to the monument

Artists impression of the Battle of Blood River


Zulu warrior with shield and spear

On the way back from St Lucia we took a detour and visited the Blood River Monument which consists of life-size bronze replicas of the wagons involved in the historic battle of Blood River. This is a fascinating piece of South African history and always reminds me of  American history of the wagon trains heading West. This is the South African version of the Wild West.

The Great Trek 1835-1838

Between 1835 and 1838 there was a great migration of about 10,000 Afrikaans speaking people (Voortrekkers, pioneers) from the Eastern Cape Colony to the northern parts of South Africa. The migration is known as the Great Trek. They traveled into the wilds with their tent-covered oz wagons and their horses and they were armed with muskets. They were the first Europeans who traveled to areas later known as the Orange Free State, the Transvaal and Natal and one could say that they were the pioneers of western civilization in Africa from the south. In the two centuries that the Voortrekkers had been in South Africa they had developed their own identity in religion culture and language.
The main reason for the Trek was the discontent of the Afrikaans speaking farmers of the Eastern cape with the British Government. The banning of their language and the harsh labour laws made conditions unliveable. There were also problems with Xhosa who plundered their homesteads and raided their cattle. The British regarded the farmers as the instigators of all the trouble.
The Sixth Frontier war was the last straw. Forty farmers were murdered, 416 homesteads burned and thousands of horses, cattle and sheep were looted.
The Voortrekkers then decided to leave the Eastern Cape and travel to the north where they hoped to eventually be able to practice their own language and culture and to exercise their own government affairs free from British rule.

Prelude to the battle of Blood River

At least 6 different Treks or wagon trains moved in to the unknown northern interior between 1836 and 1838. They soon encountered hostile tribes and on 16 October 1836 the Trek of Hendrik Potgieter, with 35 men, decisively kept at bay an onslaught of 5,000 Matabele warriors. It was the first time in history that the method of a laager, a closed circle of ox-wagons, proved to be effective against an enemy of thousands.
Up until 1838 many disastrous encounters with hostile tribes left the future dark for the Voortrekkers. The Zulu king, Dingaan, gave instructions to his warriors to "Seek the White people's encampments and kill them"

The Battle of Blood River

Late in November Andries Pretorius led a wagon train consisting of 64 wagons towards uMgungundhlovu the kraal of Dingaan, King of the Zulus. They had with them two 2 1/2 inch muzzle loading cannons. There were about 470 fighting men and 100 servants. In the teams of the 64 wagons there were about 900 oxen and the men had about 500 horses. The fighting men could each carry 3 guns and they were divided into 5 separate commandos. The muskets were very primitive and were loaded by pouring gunpowder down the barrel then ramming lead balls down with a gun rod. A pull of the trigger ignited the gunpowder and the shot was fired. A maximum of three shots could be fired every minute and the range was about 100 meters.
Prior to the battle of Blood River Andries Pretorius took a vow before God for deliverance that should they be granted victory that day would forever be celebrated in His honour. The 16th December is to this day being celebrated as The Day of the Covenant, mostly by Afrikaans speaking South Africans.
On 15 December 1838 Pretorius and his wagons reached the Ncome river and his scouts reported sighting a large Zulu army. Pretorius found the perfect spot to set up laager, on the western side of a large hippo pool, about 50 meters long and a long dry donga set at about 90 degrees from the hippo pool. He formed the laager of 64 wagons between the pool and the donga. The wagons were formed in the shape of a "D" with the straight side along the donga and the rounded side facing the north-west. Wooden barricades were placed in front of the the openings between the wagons to prevent direct invasion. The two cannon were placed in openings between two wagons. The 900 oxen and 500 horses were held in the middle of the laager.
Late that afternoon Pretorius and a cavalry of 300 men galloped to nearby hills and came across the Zulu army of 15,000 men. They decided to return to the safety of the laager and let the Zulus come to them.
Because of the darkness of the night the Zulus decided to attack at first light the next morning.
The front lines of the Zulu army took position about 40 meters from the wagons The 16th December dawned a clear, sunny day. The Zulus made two crucial mistakes, positioning their front line only 40 meters away from the wagons and waiting to long to give the attack command.
The Voortrekkers fired a first salvo which killed hundreds and immediately followed that up with a further two salvo's before the Zulus could start their charge. The Zulus were hampered by the fact that the front lines were so closely packed and also the number corpses which grew with every salvo fired by the Voortrekkers. Inside the laager the dense cloud of smoke made visibility near impossible and Pretorius gave the order to stop firing. At the same time the Zulus decided to retreat to about 500 meters from the wagons. This was a blessing for the Voortrekkers as this gave the guns time to cool down before the second charge.
The second charge started and a wall of Zulu warriors descended on the laager. At short range the gunfire from the wagons was very effective as they were now firing 10 or more lead ball with every shot. A historian later said that the Battle of Blood River was the only battle in human history where more people were killed than there were shots fired. Hundreds of Zulu warriors forced their way into the donga and there they were mowed down as they stood so tightly packed together they they couldn't throw their spears effectively. Once again the Zulus withdrew to about 500 meters from the wagons.
With the third charge the Zulus used different tactics, they attacked in a dispersed formation, not so close together which resulted in the Voortrekkers wasting bullets and killing fewer attackers. But the Voortrekker defense held and the Zulus pulled back again.

As the fourth charge started, Pretorius changed strategy and aimed one of the cannons to shoot as far as possible into the back lines of the Zulus and aimed the other one into the center of the front lines. The effect of this strategy was great, with the first shot two of the Zulu princes were killed. The Zulus now attacked en mass, those trying to cross the hippo pool had no defense and were killed in the water and the blood started to colour the water and from that day the river got a new name: Blood River.
Pretorius' strategy was to sow confusion amongst the Zulus and he ordered his younger brother, Bart, to lead a mounted commando of 100 men to drive a wedge between the Zulu forces. Galloping between the donga and the Zulu forces, and firing from the saddle, they caused havoc amongst the Zulu warriors. At this stage the Zulu offensive degenerated into a blindfold charge of individual warriors. A second mounted commando caused more havoc and returning to the safety of the laager brought the Zulu army even closer to the laager enabling the marksmen to effect maximum damage.
A third mounted attack shot a path open and they started an attack from behind Zulu lines. An attack by another commando of 100 men split the Zulu army into smaller groups and eventually the Zulu army fled.
The number of Zulus killed at Blood River was estimated to be in the region of 3,500 while miraculously only 3 Voortrekkers were slightly wounded.
To this day, the covenant made in 1838 is still honoured in South Africa and on the 16th December remembrance ceremonies are held at the site of the battle and at the Voortrekker monument in Pretoria, where at exactly midday, the sun shines through a small hole in the roof of the monument and onto a cenotaph on the lower level of the monument.

Just before midday, 16th December 2006 with the sunbeam approaching the cenotaph

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