The battle of Blood River was fought on the 16th December 1838 between a force of Boers under the command of Andries Pretorius and an army of AmaZulu warriors led by Ndlela kaSompisi, at a location close to the Ncome River in Natal 1 in southern Africa. As the river became red with blood after the battle, the Ncome River was christened by the Boers as 'Bloedrivier' but to the AmaZulu the battle is known as Impi yaseNcome.
In the year 1652 the Dutch established a shipping station at the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa which eventually grew into the Cape Colony. However as a result of the Napoleonic Wars the British had seized control of the Cape Colony by 1806, as they wanted control of the Cape of Good Hope for the same reasons as the Dutch; in order to be able to control the trade routes to India.
The largely Dutch settlers at the Cape were not particularly happy about this change of government and there were a number of revolts against British rule during the early years of the nineteenth century. In particular the Afrikaner
speaking settlers, believed that the British were too lenient with the natives and were unhappy about the extension of political rights to non-Europeans. The last straw came in 1834 when the British decided to abolish slavery throughout their empire.
Therefore between the years 1835 and 1837 thousands of frontier farmers, known as Boers, migrated to the African interior in order to escape British rule and set up their own homelands. The Great Trek, as it became known resulted in thousands of Boers or Voortrekkers pouring across the Orange and Vaal rivers, seeking to carve out new farms and settlements. They were perhaps fortunate that much of the interior had been depopulated as a result of the aggressive expansionism of the AmaZulu kingdom under Shaka in the 1820s, a process known as the mfecane or difaqane2.
In 1837 one group of Boers led by Piet Retief crossed the Drakensberg mountains into AmaZulu territory and were keen to negotiate with their king Dingane, who had overthrown Shaka in 1828, for the purchase of the land between the Thukela and Umzimvubu rivers in return for cattle and rifles. On the 6th February 1838 the two sides met at the AmaZulu capital of uMgungundhlovu. The Boers delivered the cattle but not the firearms. Presumably this displeased Dingane as Piet Retief and 101 other Boers were promptly slaughtered 3. Dingane launched further attacks against Boer settlements, now apparently eager to drive the Boers out of Natal for good.
On the 9th December 1838 Andries Pretorius, was appointed Commandant-General of the Boer forces and proceeded to organise a retaliatory expedition against the AmaZulu. Pretorius swore on oath to God that his people would observe a day of thanksgiving in return for victory over the enemy. 4
On the 15th December Pretorius and his men reached the Ncome river and received the news that a large AmaZulu force had been sighted. Pretorius decided to form a laager west of the Ncome river and arranged his sixty-four covered wagons into a D shape. Here the river protected one flank whilst on the opposite flank there was a fourteen foot deep donga or erosion channel that afforded similar protection. The proximity of a marshy hippo pool and the Gelato Kopje also served to impede any attack on his position.
The Boers numbered 464 whilst the size of the AmaZulu army has variously been estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000 warriors. Despite the disparity in numbers the Boers did have certain advantages; they were armed with guns, if not necessarily the most up-to-date of firearms, and they also had with them two 2.5 inch muzzle loading cannons. The AmaZulu had spears.
The Battle of Blood River
There are reasonably detailed accounts of the battle in existence but it is sufficient to say that the AmaZulu launched a series of repeated charges at the Boer laager, all of which failed to get anywhere near the enemy lines, as they were shot down in their hundreds. This process continued until Pretorius had sufficient confidence to send out a force of mounted men to attack the AmaZulu lines and at the third attempt succeeded in dividing the AmaZulu army after which they fled the battlefield.
The strength of the Boer defensive position matched with their superior fire power proved to be the deciding factors in the battle. The end result was some 3,000 to 3,500 dead AmaZulu and only three slightly wounded Boers.
The Consequences of Blood River
Defeat spelt the end for Dingane's rule over the Kingdom of the AmaZulu. He was soon challenged by his half-brother Mpande and Dingane was eventually driven into exile in Swaziland where he was killed in 1840. Andries Pretorius proclaimed the foundation of the Natal Republic and declared Mpande a vassal of his new republic. However the Boer Natal Republic proved to be shortlived. Whereas the British were relatively relaxed about the establishment of Boer republics in the interior, Natal was a different matter and in 1843 the British annexed Natal much to the disgust of the Boer settlers. Indeed defeat at Blood River and the subsequent loss of Natal marked the beginning of the end of the AmaZulu Kingdom; it was eventually conquered and annexed to Natal by the British in 1878.
There was, of course, nothing particularly remarkable about the Boer victory at Blood River; it was only one of a number of similar victories where a small group of Europeans armed with guns were able to overcome seemingly overwhelming odds and defeat large numbers of African natives armed only with shields and spears. The Boers however regarded the victory not as a product of superior military technology but rather as a sign from God. In particular, Blood River was seen as tangible evidence of the bargain that they had made with God; in return for their faith they had been granted dominion over southern Africa. 5
The 16th December became a day of celebration throughout the Boer community known as 'Dingaan's Day', "the proudest in our history"6 as one Boer politician later put it. It became one of the key historical events that defined later Afrikaner nationalist identity and achieved an almost mythological importance, supporting their belief in their supremacy over the African natives and used as a justification for the later policy of Apartheid.
Dingaan's Day was proclaimed a public holiday when the Union of South Africa came into being in 1910 and continued to be celebrated under that name until 1952 when it became known as the 'Day of the Covenant', and later from 1980 onwards as the 'Day of the Vow'. Of course the new multi-racial South Africa pays little heed to such things but the 16th December remains a national holiday, renamed since 1995 as the 'Day of Reconciliation'.
Two memorials have been erected near to the site of the battle. The first was the Voortrekker Monument, consisting of a fort of cast-bronze wagons, specifically celebrating the Boer victory and erected on the site of Pretorius' laager. The second the Ncome Monument was inaugurated in December 1998 by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, to commemorate the amaZulu dead and is sited across the river from the Voortrekker monument.
1 Now part of the South Africa province of KwaZulu-Natal
2 Mfecane is the IsiZulu for 'the crushing' and difaqane the Sesotho for 'forced scattering or migration'
3 DejaMorgana adds that "I don't think the reason Dingane had Retief and his people killed at uMgungundlovu was because of the guns. There was much more to it than that. Retief had already backed Dingane into a corner, threatened him in several ways and was already notorious for cheating and tricking leaders like Sekonyela. So Dingane was pretty frightened and had at that point (not so wisely) already signed away a lot of territory to Retief. He was trapped and casting about for any way to get out of this hasty agreement, and I think he believed that he could do so by killing Retief on a rather flimsy pretext."
4The covenant took the form of a prayer by Sarel Cilliers, who asked God to grant them a victory over the AmaZulu, in return for which they promised to build a church in His name and that they would forever celebrate the day with thanksgiving.
5 According to Anton Ehlers "the Battle of Blood River/Ncome, its physical monumental manifestation and its annual commemoration on December 16 were key components in the mythological legitimisation of Afrikaner nationalism and its apartheid manifestation in the 20th century. This battle was an important element in the master narrative of the Afrikaners as God’s holy chosen people with a mission to christianise and civilise a barbaric country given to them by God."
6F.W. Reitz former President of the Orange Free State in his A Century of Wrong
- Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War (weidenfield and Nicholson, 1997)
- Anton Ehlers, Apartheid Mythology and Symbolism. Desegregated and reinvented in the service of nation building in the new South Africa : The covenant and the battle of Blood River/Ncome
- The Battle of Blood River at
- For a recent White Supremacist view of the battle see;
The Battle of Blood River, Sermon Notes of Pastor Mark Downey
- Ncome-Blood River Heritage Site