In Brief

Who: 464 Boers vs. more than 10,000 Zulu warriors.
Where: Ncome River, near Dundee, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
When: December 16, 1838
What: The slaughter of 3,000 Zulus to the point that the river ran red with Zulu blood. No Boers were killed.
Why: Revenge
How: Armed Boers formed a laager (circle of wagons, virtually impenetrable) in a very defensible position and lured the spear and shield carrying Zulus into firing range.

Longwinded Version

Murder of Piet Retief

When the British outlawed slavery in the Cape in 1834, the Afrikaner inhabitants had their world turned upside down. As a concession to the farmers at the Cape, however, they decreed that freed slaves be indentured to their former masters for 4 years. The apprenticeship period was to lapse in 1838. Not only were the Afrikaners put out because of the abolition of slavery and the replacement of Dutch (or Afrikaans) with English, but the compensation the Crown was to pay to former slave owners was paltry. In 1836, the Afrikaners organised and began to move their families - and their slaves - elsewhere. The movement became known as The Great Trek; the people as the much fabled Voortrekkers.

Piet Retief and his family and followers left the Cape in 1837. They travelled via the present-day Free State and arrived at the Drakensberg in October of that year. Aware that the land over the mountains was ruled with a sharp spear by Dingane (who had murdered his half-brother Shaka to take over the Zulu crown), Retief made use of the services of missionary Francis Owen to send a letter to Dinagane. The letter told of how Retief hoped that his people would live in peace with the Zulu, but at the same time, Retief pointed to how the Voortrekkers had defeated Matabele King Mzilikazi.

Dingane welcomed negotiations with Retief, who wanted to settle in the relatively sparsely populated area between the Tugela and Mzimvubu Rivers.

Retief was held as an astute military man, but clearly mentioning the defeat of Mzilikazi was not smart. Perhaps it was foolish arrogance. There is disagreement between the sources regarding the timing of the letter. One implies it preceded the negotiations with Dingane, and the other that it followed and contributed to Dingane's change of heart. Probably, the timing of the defeat of the Matabele is the best clue as to which is accurate.

Dingane was a megalomaniac, and accounts vary on his motivation. Some say he was worried that Retief and his followers' presence might undermine his authority. Others attribute more savvy to Dingane, saying he believed Retief's Voortrekkers were planning to ambush him.

Either to test Retief's military mettle, or as a token of the Voortrekkers’ sincerity, Dingane made an agreement over land conditional upon Retief's retrieval of cattle stolen by Sotho Chief Sekonyela. Retief did as asked, and in addition to 700 head of cattle, he acquired (one source says through trickery) from Chief Sekonyela 63 horses and a few rifles. Dingane wanted the horses and the rifles, but Retief refused to surrender them, on the grounds that they had not originally been stolen by Chief Sekonyela. Some say Retief did not surrender all the cattle they acquired, and that angered Dingane.

The cattle were returned to Dingane on February 3rd, 1838, and the agreement finalised the next day. The Voortrekkers began to move onto the land. All was well for a few days, but apparently some of Retief's men began to move closer than was comfortable to Dingane's royal court of Mgungundlovu ("The secret place of the elephant"). Some say that Retief and his men's success against Chief Sekonyela made them realise that they might not win an encounter with the Voortrekkers.

Dingane either invited Retief and his men (70 Voortrekkers and 30 Coloured (mixed-race) servants) to Mgugudlovu on the night of February 6th to celebrate the agreement, or to celebrate the return of Dingane's cattle or even as a farewell dance for the Voortrekkers. Aware of the potency of Retief's guns, Dingane instructed them to leave their weapons outside the royal kraal. It is said that as the dancing reached a climax, Dingane rose to his feet and yelled "Bambani aba thakathi!" - "Take the wizards!". The Voortrekkers were dragged away to a hill called kwaMatiwane and butchered.

Dingane's impis went on a merry dance through the Voortrekker settlements after the murder of Retief, killing hundreds of men, women and children and capturing more than 35,000 head of cattle and sheep.


Andries Pretorius was born in 1799 and was a farmer in the Graaff-Reinet area. In 1837 he led a trek party from the town and also journeyed via the present day Free State and arrived in kwaZulu-Natal on November 22nd, 1838. Following the death of Retief, the surviving Voortrekkers in the region were leaderless. They elected Pretorius and within a week he had gathered a force to avenge Retief and his men's deaths.

The Vow

Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you. -- Lev 26:8 (NKJV)

On December 9th, 1838, Pretorius and his 464 men made a Covenant with God, which they repeated every night until the battle. If they were victorious in their battle with the Zulu, they would henceforth commemorate the day as a Sabbath and would also build a church. Though there is little doubt that Pretorius was a religious man, the covenant was a shrewd way to motivate his men. They were well aware that they would be vastly outnumbered, and morale would have been low were it not for the covenant.

Blood River

The battleground picked by Pretorius was on the western bank of the Ncome ("Peaceful One") Spruit (spring). At the chosen point, the western bank forms a 90 degree angle with a deep donga (ditch), meaning that the Voortrekkers would have only two sides to defend. Furthermore, the position of Gelato Kopje and a nearby marshy hippo pool greatly restricted the Zulu's options for attack. Their charge could only come across a treeless plain to the northwest.

On the night of December 15th, Pretorius' men enclosed their 60 wagons into a laager. Traditionally, a laager was rectangular, but Pretorius adapted it to the battlefield. Only the side next to the donga was straight; the rest of the wagons formed a crescent, so that the laager was shaped like a “D”. There is a picture of the laager at

The wagons were drawn close, shaft to deck, and the wheels were tied with trek chains. There was a large gateway in the centre to allow the oxen and horses to pass through the laager. Two small cannons were placed at the north-western and north-eastern corners.

The night was moonless and misty. The Zulu had planned a nocturnal attack, but in the deep darkness they had lost their way. They only found the laager just before dawn on the 16th.

When the Voortrekkers awoke, they were surprised to find themselves virtually surrounded, with the nearest Zulu warriors only about 40 metres way. There were so many warriors (accounts vary from 10,000 to 20,000, with 12,000 the most likely total) that the crowd was hundreds of metres deep. (Remember the Voortrekkers probably exagerated.) The crowd of warriors assembled before the Voortrekkers was comprised of six regiments under the leadership of Dambuza, about 6,000 warriors. A small number had crept along the donga. Dingane's best regiments, the Black and White Shields, under the leadership of Ndlela, moved up in front of the verge below the river.

Foolishly, the Zulu waited for daylight.

Pretorius ordered his men to shoot as soon as they could distinguish targets. The Zulus charged as one, another tactical mistake, as they had no room in the crowd to wield their assegais (spears) and knobkerries (clubs). Their shields were powerless against the Voortrekkers' guns. They were forced to retreat within fifteen minutes to a position about 500 metres back.

When they launched their second attack, the light had improved and the Voortrekkers' guns were more accurate. The oxen and horses inside the laager became flustered and threatened to break through. Sarel Cilliers and a few others drove the animals back, at the same time firing upon the Zulus in the donga, who were forced to abandon the position.

The Zulu retreated again, and Pretorius redirected the copper cannon towards the hill where the Zulu leaders were. The second and third rounds from the cannon were accurate, which prompted the third attack of the Zulu, which lasted about an hour. As they tried to make their third retreat, the Voortrekkers opened the gateway of the laager and released a mounted commando of approximately half the force, led by Field Cornet Bart Pretorius.

At the commando's third attempt, they split the Zulu force into two. The Zulu, having lost their cohesion, attempted to retreat but were shot as they fled. Many were shot in and alongside the river as they tried to cross to safety.

Ndlela then released his 3,000 strong elite force, but as they tried to cross the river to the battlefield, they met with the fleeing warriors travelling in the opposite direction. Those who did not turn were trampled or shot by the Voortrekkers. The remaining Zulus dispersed in all directions.

By midday there were 3,000 dead Zulus, while only three Voortrekkers had been injured. The river ran red with blood.

Pretorius' men moved on to Dingane's royal kraal and found it deserted and burning, under Dingane's orders. Dingane had fled, and the Zulu empire split between Dingane and his brother Mpande, who had opted to collaborate with the Voortrekkers. Dingane was defeated in battle against his brother in 1839 and fled for Swaziland. He was killed in battle by the Swazis in 1840.

Covenant or Tactical Victory?

The Voortrekkers kept to their end of the bargain with the Almighty, and up until the fall of apartheid, December 16th was solemnly marked as "The Day of the Vow". Many non-Afrikaners refered to the day as "Dingaan's Day", however, and the day is still marked as a national holiday, now in the form of "The Day of Reconcilliation".

There is no question that Dingane was a ruthless, bloody power-hungry man, nor that the Voortrekkers were driven by revenge and won because of superior fire-power and tactics. Any force that stops 40 metres from their sleeping enemy quite frankly deserves to lose.

One can argue that the fact that no Voortrekkers were killed despite the phenomenal outnumbering indicates that God was on their side; however the Afrikaners - or at least the apartheid government - chose to see it as an indication that the Afrikaner was a chosen race.

Nevertheless, both sides displayed impressive courage, and the event should be marked with reverence.

A History of South Africa by Leonard Thompson, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1990