The Day of Reconciliation, celebrated annually on 16 December in South Africa, is intrinsically linked to the Battle of Blood River.
South Africa’s wounds run deep; its very foundations built on blood and conflict. The clashing of tribes, both native and of settler stock, birthed a distinctly divisive diaspora. This nation’s complex history is defined by toil, by inexplicable cultural collisions, the juxtaposition between survival and unchecked domination. As the bandages of change are wrapped over South Africa’s gaping wounds, these bygone embattlements, unchangeable in consequence, amplify the discomfort caused by social discourse’s tautness.
Day of Reconciliation
It’s only reasonable, then, that South Africa celebrates a Day of Reconciliation. In theory, it’s a moment in time for citizens to acknowledge the horrors of an overtly oppressive past, while abandoning the lingering animosity attached to the trauma. Reconciliation.
In reality, most South Africans will grab the promise of a public holiday with both hands, often ignoring the historical significance, choosing, rather, to reconcile with booze and braais. It’s the South African way, a painful paradox of blissful ignorance.
The story of Piet Retief, a precursor to Blood River
Ironically, it’s a combination of ignorance and intrusion which founded the Day of Reconciliation. Although, 180 years ago it was birthed under a different name, during a different epoch, exemplified by God’s gift of survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
The year 1838 was an especially tumultuous time for the dispersed people of South Africa. The hunt for land was on. Dissatisfied with British rule in the Cape, Dutch descendants embarked on a remarkable expedition northwards. The Voortrekkers were searching for the Promised Land on African soil that had been erroneously elected as a sanctuary.
Following a flurry of skirmishes and calamities, the Voortrekkers splintered, with Piet Retief leading the migration towards the region of KwaZulu-Natal. Impressed with the land’s fertility, Retief resolved that the promised land would be found between the Drakensberg and Port Natal. Unfortunately for Retief, and his desperate band of Voortrekkers, this land was already ruled by a formidable force.
Dingane kaSenzangakhona Zulu, had come to power after assassinating his half-brother Shaka, ten years earlier. Retief, looking to acquire land from the Zulu king in 1838, arrived at Dingane’s kraal with a proposition.
According to historians, Dingane agreed to cede land in the Tugela-Umzimvubu region on condition that Retief recapture and return cattle stolen by the rival Tlokwa nation.
Two versions of what happened next exist. According to Voortrekker transcripts, Retief recovered the cattle and proceeded to draw up a treaty outlining areas due to be ceded in return for the Boers’ services. This document was signed by Dingane on 6 February 1838, after which Retief’s party was invited to witness a special performance by the Zulu impi.
During the fervent performance, Dingane rose from his throne and exclaimed: ‘Bulalani abathagathi!’ – kill the wizards! The Zulu warriors ripped into Retief and his delegation. Retief, his son, men, and servants – about 100 people in total – were all executed. It’s said that Retief was killed last, so that he could watch the suffering of his comrades.
Another theory hypothesises that Dingane’s betrayal stems from Retief’s dishonesty. It’s alleged that Retief failed to return all the stolen cattle to the Zulu king and was, as a result, murdered for his disobedience and deceit.
Either way, what followed was the greatest massacre in South African history. Dingane dispatched his impis to outlying Voortrekker camps, with the order to kill every woman, man, child and servant. In total, 534 Voortrekkers were killed in what became known as the Bloukraans and Weenen massacre – named after the Dutch term for “weeping”.
At this point in the tale, it’s important to note that the unmitigated violence which had occurred, and the river of blood which was to follow, was directly linked to the land question – an issue which, today, remains a national flashpoint. The issue of European settlers attempting to find sanctuary in Africa, juxtaposed by native birthrights and fierce resistance to territorial encroachment, defined the nation’s destructive path.
The Battle of Blood River
The murder of Retief and the subsequent Weenen massacre decimated the Voortrekker movement. For months after, the Voortrekkers, especially the surviving members of the KwaZulu-Natal contingent, drifted in limbo.
Help arrived in the form of Andries Pretorius, the leader of the pro-independence movement in the Cape Colony. Pretorius was appointed as general of a wagon commando directed against Dingane on 26 November 1838. The burning spirit of retribution ran strong through the blood of the Boers, whose sole focus was to avenge the murder of Retief, his family and over 500 Voortrekkers.
On 14 December 1838, the Trekker wagons crossed the Buffalo River when Pretorius, who had scouted ahead, brought news of large Zulu forces closing in on their position. Pretorius decided to set up a laager on the banks of the Ncome River, which he proposed would offer a superior defendable position.
As night enveloped Zululand on 15 December, the ox wagons were drawn into a protective enclosure – wooden barriers and thorny bushes formed informal barricades covering gaps in the laager.
A thick mist descended on the camp in the dead of night – oil lamps hung on the ends of long sjamboks, glimmering in the face insurmountable darkness.
The Voortrekkers, numbering 464, gathered in the centre of the enclosure. Guided by their staunch Christian faith, the Boers, well aware of the approaching Zulu impi, prayed for salvation, providence and victory.
The break of dawn burnt the morning mist away; it was then, in the dim light, that the Voortrekkers first understood the true gravitas of their grim predicament.
The Zulu army, led by Dingane and his most trusted generals, Dambuza and Ndlela, numbered around 20 000. The Voortrekkers, under the stoic leadership of Pretorius and Sarel Cilliers, numbered less than 500, including women and children, and were outnumbered more than 40 to 1.
The Zulu army had spent three days, just out of shot of the Voortrekker encampment, practising traditional pre-war ceremonies, conducted by spiritualist doctors. These highly revered diviners prepared izinteleze medicines which were purported to make warriors invincible in the face of their enemies.
Around 6:30am on 16 December 1838, the Voortrekkers’ muskets fired. Young Zulu warriors, carrying customary black shields, were positioned 60 metres from the laager. The 3 000 strong regiment, under the illusion of invisibility, were mowed down by the Voortrekkers when they attempted to storm the encampment.
Jan Gerritze Bantjes, Secretary General of the Voortrekkers and one of Pretorius’ closest confidants, had been tasked with documenting every aspect of the battle in his journal. Bantjes wrote of the events:
“Sunday, December 16 was like being newly born for us – the sky was clear, the weather fine and bright. We hardly saw the twilight of the break of day or the guards, who were still at their posts and could just make out the distant Zulus approaching.
All the patrols were called back into the laager by firing alarm signals from the cannons. The enemy came forward at full speed and suddenly they had encircled the area around the laager. As it got lighter, so we could see them approaching over their predecessors who had already been shot back.
Their rapid approach (though terrifying to witness due to their great numbers) was an impressive sight. The Zulus came in regiments, each captain with his men behind (as the patrols had seen them coming the day before) until they had surrounded us. I could not count them, but I was told that a captive Zulu gave the number at thirty-six regiments, each regiment calculated to be “nine hundred to a thousand men” strong.
The battle now began and the cannons unleashed from each gate, such that the battle was fierce and noisy, even the discharging of small arms fire from our marksmen on all sides was like thunder. After more than two hours of fierce battle, the Commander in Chief gave orders that the gates be opened and mounted men sent to fight the enemy in fast attacks, as the enemy near constantly stormed the laager time and again, and he feared the ammunition would soon run out.”
The Voortrekkers armed with muskets and two cannons had the advantage of firepower. The canons, firing grape-shot, broken iron pot legs and stones decimated the Zulu forces at close quarters. Likewise, the muskets, which were loaded in tandem by women, children and servants, kept the unrelenting charge at bay.
By 8am, a thick cloud of black powder smoke hung over the encampment. Confusion and chaos enveloped the ranks of the young Zulu warriors – some broke and ran, others, shell-shocked, were gunned down amid the delirium.
However, a larger regiment, forming the main body of the Zulu army soon appeared over the distant hills. The mixture of red and white shields demonstrated the experience of the Zulu fighters entering the fray.
The 12 000 strong regiment, frenzied by the madness of war and hungry to avenge their fallen comrades, made a straight charge for the Voortrekker encampment. After a series of failed charges, led by the red-shielded warriors, the older regiments of the Impi in the rear hurled insults and taunts at their comrades and attempted to charge through them to attack Voortrekkers. Again, confusion and disorder enveloped the Zulu forces.
Shortly before 11am, the Zulu generals lost control over their soldiers. After suffering massive casualties, the Zulu regiments began to break up and disperse in confusion. The infamous “horn” attack strategy, originally developed by Shaka Zulu, fell apart, signalling defeat for Dingane’s forces.
As the veteran Zulu forces broke rank, Pretorius rode out of the encampment, flanked by a group of trusted mounted gunmen, directing close-range gunfire into the already waning impi. This direct challenge lasted for three hours until all Zulu forces had been driven from the battlefield.
Bantjes estimated that 3 000 Zulu soldiers had been killed in the battle, which had lasted less than seven hours. Astonishingly, not one Voortrekker died during the fight. Pretorious and two other Boers were wounded during close quarter skirmishes.
The bodies of fallen Zulu warriors scattered the scorched earth surrounding the Ncome river – the water itself ran red with blood.
The Battle of Blood River became a turning point in South Africa’s history. The monstrous defeat which befell the Zulu kingdom on that day destroyed Dingane’s political power base. The Zulu kingdom became embroiled in a civil war, as rival leaders vied for control. Dingane fled Natal in 1840, after being overthrown by Prince Mpande at the Battle of Maqongqe.
For the Voortrekkers, the Battle of Blood River entrenched their pious resilience and struggle for self-determination. This militaristic victory is seen as one of the most defining moments for the Afrikaner nation. As such, 16 December became a rallying point for the development of Afrikaner nationalism, culture and identity.
Day of the Vow
The Voortrekkers, fervent in their commitment to biblical doctrines, dedicated their accomplishments to God. The Boers’ triumph at the Battle of Blood River was seen as an act of divine deliverance, bestowed upon the Afrikaner nation by a benevolent God.
In the days leading up to the battle, Sarel Cilliers issued a proclamation, part prayer and part promise. While no record of the exact vow exists, it’s believed that Cilliers, in anticipation of the Battle of Blood River said:
“We stand here before the Holy God of heaven and earth, to make a vow to Him that, if He will protect us and give our enemy into our hand, we shall keep this day and date every year as a day of thanksgiving like a sabbath, and that we shall build a house to His honour wherever it should please Him, and that we will also tell our children that they should share in that with us in memory for future generations. For the honour of His name will be glorified by giving Him the fame and honour for the victory.”
As a result of the Voortrekkers’ triumph, 16 December became known as the Day of the Vow and was recognised as a religious public holiday in South Africa until 1994, after which it was it was renamed the Day of Reconciliation. In 1841 the Voortrekkers built The Church of the Vow in Pietermaritzburg and passed the obligation to keep the vow on to their descendants.
Unfortunately, the Day of the Vow, which had been colloquially renamed as Dingaansdag (Dingane’s Day) up until 1952, became a symbol of racial superiority – arguably a precursor to the oppressive ideology perpetuated under apartheid.
While initially, the day was commemorated by religious reverence, dubious racial undertones developed to define Afrikaner-dominance. To some, the victory at Blood River was redefined as a sign that God confirmed the rule of whites over black Africans.
Indeed, in n 1938, D.F. Malan, leader of the National Party, explained that the site of the Battle of Blood River was sacred, saying that the events which had transpired a century earlier established “South Africa as a civilized Christian country” under “the responsible authority of the white race”.
The Day of the Vow, which was perceived to celebrate Afrikaner domination over native Africans has been the subject of widespread criticism. In an attempt to deracialise the Day of the Vow, the South African government, in 1994, resolved to retain 16 December as a public holiday but to rename it the Day of Reconciliation in an attempt to foster national unity as the country entered a new democratic era.
Today, the site of the Battle of Blood River still remains divided in its remembrance. The Ncome monument on the east side of the river commemorates the fallen Zulu warriors and has become a symbol for Zulu nationalism. The Blood River Monument and Museum Complex, to the west of the river, consists of 64 ox wagons cast in bronze and commemorates the bravery of the Boers. In 2014, a bridge was built between the two monuments, demonstrating reconciliatory progress.
In the spirit of reconciliation, South Africans, from all walks of life, are encouraged to build their own bridges over the rivers of blood which have hollowed out the trenches of intolerance, separating citizens. Let the Battle of Blood River serve as a reminder of the devastation resulting from disunity, rather than signify a rallying call of racial superiority. The gaping wounds of the past need to be interrogated, objectively, with the privilege of considered hindsight – in this way, these festering injuries can be properly disinfected and cauterized through the salve of common understanding.
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