Causes of the Battle of Blood River in 1838

In 1829, Dingane ka Senzangakona became the king of Zulu. He ruled the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal with UmGungundlovu as its Capital.

King Dingane was in complete control of his territory and ruled it with iron fist. He was supported by many general, most important of them was general Ndlela.

However during the reign of his predecessor, King Shaka, some missionaries has entered his kingdom. Since their numbers were small they possess no direct threat to King Dingane’s authority.

King Dingane also has a half brother called Mpande. Prince Mpande was married to daughter of general Ndlela. Prince Mpande also had children so he was the direct threat to King Dingane’s rule.

General Ndlela personally protected Prince Mpande from King Dingane’s plans to assassination him.

In 1835, British governor of Port Natal signed a treaty with King Dingane. As per this treaty, King Dingane will waive all claims to the persons and property of every individual living in that settlement.

KwaZulu - Natal Map
KwaZulu – Natal Map

By 1836, Dutch-speaking farmers felt resentment against this social change, as well as the imposition of English language and culture, caused them to trek inland en masse. This was known as the Great Trek, and the migrating Boers settled inland.

These immigrants were not close knit unit and their leaders found it difficult to control the migration.

Massacre of Piet Retief’s Party

In 1837, Piet Retief former military commander on the Cape eastern frontier joined the immigrate and also migrated towards Zululand.

Soon, Piet Retief send the message to King Dingane. In this message, he requested King Dingane to grant them land in return for any service that King Dingane might desire.

King Dingane ask Piet Retief to recover approximately 700 head of cattle stolen from the by the Tlokwa from Zulu people. In return, King Dingane will grant them land rights.

On 4th February 1838, King Dingane and Piet Retief signed the negotiated land settlement deal at UmGungundlovu. Two days later, King Dingane invited Retief and his party into his royal residence for a beer-drinking farewell.

King Dingane asked Retief and his party to surrender their weapon and muskets at the entrance as normal protocol when appearing before the king.

As party progressed, King Dingane entertained Retief and his party with dancing warriors and beer. Suddenly, King Dingane suddenly accused the visiting party of witchcraft and ordered his men kill them.

Within few minutes, Zulu soldier killed Retief and his party. Immediately after the massacre, King Dingane sent out his zulu soldiers to attack and kill remaining Dutch migrants in their encampments at night time, killing an estimated 500 men, women, children, and servants.

As the news of massacre spread, migrant living in Natal begins to Panic. Soon, helps arrived from Cape colony and Andries Pretorius arrived in Natal to defend the immigrant.

Help also arrived from Orange Free State as they sent their commandos to defend Natal.

Andries Pretorius came up with strategy to target King Dingane only and to support Prince Mpande in gaining the crown of Zululand.

To achieve this, Andries Pretorius planned to weaken Dingane’s personal military power base in UmGungundlovu. Once weakened, Prince Mpande can easily defeat King Dingane.

Battle of Italeni

Royal city of King Dingane, UmGungundlovu was naturally protected against attack by hilly and rocky terrain all around. Only access to city was through a narrow gorge via Italeni.

Royal city of King Dingane - UmGungundlovu
Royal city of King Dingane – UmGungundlovu

Commandos from Natal decided to attack UmGungundlovu to weaken the power of King Dingane.

Soon, Natal’s commandos encounter the main Zulu army about 6 kilometers from Umgungundlovu.

The main Zulu army was guarding the narrow gorge which leads to Zulu capital.

One of the leaders of Natal Commandos, Uys, ordered his soldiers to ride within 36 meters of the Zulu force, dismount and then open fire.

As soon as his soldiers open fire the first two lines of Zulu soldiers were decimated. The rest of the Zulu troops lost heart and fled the battlefield.

Two soldiers of Uys army, Malan brothers, pursued the fleeing Zulus. However, fleeing Zulus led Malan brothers into a trap.

Sensing danger, Uys led the group of 15 volunteer soldiers for their rescue. As this mission was considered risky, hence the rest of the army stayed behind.

In an attempt to rescue Malan brothers, Uys, his son, the Malan brothers as well as five of the volunteers lost their life.

The rest of the army that stayed behind were also surrounded by zulu army and they have to fight their way out of the entrapment.

However inspite of defeat, the commandos from Natal learned a valuable lesson in fighting Zulu army. These lessons were as follows-

  • They will fight from the shelter of ox-wagons whenever possible
  • In future, they will also choose the place of battle rather than pursuing the Zulu army.

New cautious War strategies of the general Andries Pretorius

On 26 November 1838, Andries Pretorius (1798-1863) was appointed as Commander of Natal forces.

He has 64 wagons and 464+ heavily armed Natal’s commandos.

By December 1838, Prince Mpande and 17,000 followers had already fled UmGungundlovu. Main reason for his flight was repated assignation attempt of King Dingane.

Andries Pretorius also supported the earlier strategy of targeting King Dingane and support Prince Mpande.

Andries Pretorius also came to the conclusion that he has to attack king Dingane’s personal military power base in UmGungundlovu to weaken him.

Ten days before the battle, Andries Pretorius and his translator met command with friendly Zulu chiefs at Danskraal.

Information he received made Pretorius confident that he will be able to beat King Dingane. After this meeting Pretorius let the commando relax for a few days at Wasbank till 9 December 1838.

On 9 December 1838, they started moving slowly and consistently towards UmGungundlovu. As they moved closer to UmGungundlovu, they practised laager defense tactics in the evening every day.

Learning lesson from previous battle, Pretorius halt his advance towards UmGungundlovu on 15 December 1838, which is about 40 km from Italeni.

This served two purposes, first he eliminated the Italeni terrain trap and second he will fight in the terrain of his choosing using ox-wagons strategy.

Battle of Blood Rivers

On Saturday, 15 December 1838, about 80km from UmGungundlovu Pretorius got news from his advance guard that of a large Zulu force has assembled in the east in rugged terrain.

Some of the officers wanted to ride out and attack Zulu force. Sensing trap, one similar to trap used in battle of Italeni by Zulu force, Pretorius declined the opportunity to engage Zulu soldiers away from their base.

Instead, Pretorius decided on a small fortified ox-wagons fort on the terrain of his own choosing.

He hoped that general Ndlela of Zulu army would attack him on his terms rather than the other way around.

Soon they found a site for small fortified ox-wagons fort, which was about 10 km south west of their current position.

Fortified Ox-Wagons Fort
Fortified Ox-Wagons Fort

The chosen ground provides excellent protection on two sides as it was protected by vertical 8m descent into a deep hippo pool in the Ncombe River.

The wide-open area to the front of fortified ox-wagons fort provided absolutely no cover for attacking Zulu forces. Also zulu forces can attack only from two flanks.

As per strategy, the ox-wagons fort was drawn into the typical protective enclosure. They also placed movable wooden barriers and ladders which could be quickly opened for cavalry to attack zulu forces. These movable wooden barrier were protected by two smoothbore, short barrel artillery pieces positioned at the corners.

Andries Pretorius had brought a gun carriage mounted 6-pound naval carronade with him from the Cape.

By that time, Naval carronade was obsolete by European standard but was capable of firing a devastating grapeshot.

By 15 December, Andries Pretorius and his army were ready to take on Zulu army.

Soon, forward units of zulu army arrived near the ox-wagon fortification, however they did not attack as night was approaching and thick mist settle over the battlefield.

Another reason for general Ndlela to hold back Zulu army was that many units of Zulu army were still marching toward battle site. General Ndlela wanted sufficient number of soldier to arrive before he can launch his attack.

Heavy rains in past few days have swollen the Ncombe River making crossing the river difficult for Zulu army.

During the night of 15 December, general Nzobo along with six Zulu regiments, an estimated 20,000 Zulu soldiers crossed the Ncome River and started massing around the Ox-wagon fortification.

The elite forces of senior general Ndlela did not cross the river, thereby splitting the Zulu army in two.

Some of the units of Zulu army only arrived near sunrise by following the tracks of the wagons of Andries Pretorius’s army.

Just before the daybreak of 16 December, the patrols that were still at their posts and could see at distance the arrival of Zulus army.

In the morning, Andries Pretorius noticed a large army and felt that all of Zululand has come to fight him.

Pretorius called back all the patrols inside the Ox-wagon fortification by firing alarm signals from the cannons.

As General Dambuza’s men surrounded the Ox-wagon fortification, General Ndlela and his crack troops, the Black and White Shields, remained on the other side of the river.

They closely watched the movement of General Dambuza’s men from a safe position across the hippo pool.

General Dambuza ordered his Zulu soldiers to attack the Ox-wagon fortification. The Zulus army attack in regiments with captain of each regiment leading his troops.

The first charges of Zulu soldiers were mown down like grass by the muskets fire of Pretorius’s soldier. The first wave ended in disaster.

General Dambuza sent in the second wave of Zulu soldier. These soldiers went forward at full speed and quickly encircle the Ox-wagon fortification.

Pretorius’s soldiers were taken aback by sudden and rapid approach of Zulu soldiers.

Zulu attack on Ox Cart Wagon
Zulu attack on Ox Cart Wagon

At this moment in the battle Pretorius unleashed his cannon from each gate of fortification. Pretorius’s soldiers also unleashed heavy discharging of musket fire.

Pretorius use of firearms and Ox-wagon fortification proved to be an effective tactics. Soon, musket fire from Ox-wagon fortification inflicted heavy casualties and forced Zulu army to withdraw. So, the second wave also ended in disaster.

Within the period of two hours Zulu army has made four attacks on Ox-wagon fortification but all of them failed.

After the fourth attack, Zulu army had stopped their attack and regrouped. Taking advantage of intermittent lulls Pretorius resupplied his soldier and provided them with much needed rest.

He then ordered well rested horsemen to leave the encampment and engage the Zulu soldiers. He wanted to prevent Zulu army from reforming and induce the disintegration of their formations.

Another reason for cavalry charge was that Pretorius thought that if attacked continued his ammunition would soon run out.

So he opened the gate and ordered his cavalry to charge. At first Zulu army withstood the charge but heavy casualties forced them to scatter. During the cavalry charge, Pretorius was wounded in his left hand by a zulu spear.

The cavalry pursued their fleeing zulu army for many hours and inflicted heavy casualties on them.

Aftermath of Battle of Blood River

After the end of battle, 3000 zulu soldier laid dead on battle field with minimum casualties in Pretorius camp.

During the battle, two princes were also killed. This left Prince Mpande as frontrunner in the subsequent battle for the Zulu crown.

Four days after the Battle of Blood River, the Pretorius and his army arrived at King Dingane’s great kraal UmGungundlovu. The stronghold of King Dingane’s was already burned with no one left to fight Pretorius and his army.

The soldiers from Natal then found and buried the bones of Retief and his men.

Though the Natal forces have won the battle, the war was far from over.

Later, Pretorius interrogated the zulu prisoner, who told him that most of King Dingane’s warriors had either been killed or they had fled.

Eleven days after the battle of Blood River, that prisoner led group of Natal soldier into a trap and White Umfolozi River. The zulu army then annihilated this group of trapped soldiers.

Defection of Prince Mpande

The war continued for one more year after the Battle of Blood River. Finally, Prince Mpande openly joined the Natal side with his sizeable army of his own. The combine army finally defeated King Dingane at Battle of Maqongqe in January 1840.

During the battle, General Ndlela who was commanding King Dingane’s army strayed from normal fighting tactics of ox horn formation against Mpande. Instead he sent one regiment at a time to fight army of Prince Mpande.

Following the Battle, the forces of Mpande did not wait for Pretorius army to launch a further attack on the remaining regiments of King Dingane, who were again under the command of General Ndlela.

In the battle King Dingane’s army was utterly defeated and King Dingane blamed General Ndlela for the defeat. So, he had Ndlela slowly strangled by cow hide for high treason.

After the defeat, Dingane had to flee Natal completely. General Dambusa and other top general of zulu army were executed by Prince Mpande and Pretorius.

Later, Prince Mpande was crowned as Zulu King in Pietermaritzburg and Pretorius attended the crowning ceremony. They later agreed on the new border between Zululand and the Republic of Natalia, which was Tugela River.

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