The Great Trek and the advent of the Mfecane

The origins of the battle are a matter of considerable debate. The background to this event can be found in two concurrent historical processes of the 1820s and the 1830s. First, the Great Trek (Afrikaans for "great organised migration") or the political disenchantment of Dutch-speaking farmers on the Eastern Cape frontier with British rule, leading to more than 15 000 of these frontier farmers trekking in groups north-east into the interior of the region to escape British administration. Secondly, the advent of the Mfecane (IsiZulu for "the crushing") or Difaqane (Sesotho for "forced scattering or migration") in the 1820s which was the political and military upheaval with concomitant forced migration of the Nguni people in the eastern region, that marked the rise of the rule of Shaka over the AmaZulu.

Once beyond British influence, the Voortrekkers had to decide on the ultimate destination of the Great Trek; this was a source of differences of opinion. Voortrekker leader, Potgieter believed that far North should be the ultimate destination. However, Mzilikazi’s Matabeles had to be expelled from the Western Transvaal (now North West Province) before a Voortrekkers state could safely be established in the North. Therefore Piet Retief, Gert Maritz and Piet Uys considered the area depopulated by the mfecane, the attractive Natal Coastal plain.

Natal had been regarded as part of the British sphere of influence since the establishment of the first trading post in Port Natal in 1824, but the early English traders and hunters found themselves unable to secure a stable relationship with the then Zulu King Dingane after the assassination of Shaka (Dingane, 10 years previously, had murdered his half-brother, Shaka, to assume the chieftainship of the Zulu’s). Numerous attempts were made by interested merchants in Cape Town and the Eastern Cape to pressurise the Imperial government into taking a more active role but nothing was done until 1837 when, in the shadow of the Great Trek, London appointed independent missionary Allen Gardiner as Justice of the Peace. Gardiner had no funds, no military resources and no clear mandate, and the tiny English community, numbering no more than 40 males, threw their weight behind the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief when he reached Natal in October 1837. Retief had to negotiate with the AmaZulu King Dingane over the ownership of land.

Sources cite that Retief paid a successful visit to the Zulu king at the beginning of November 1837, but sources differ greatly from this point on. Dingane supposedly declared that he was prepared to grant Retief an extensive area between the Tugela and the Umzimvubu as well as the Drakensberg, on condition that Retief restored to Dingane the cattle stolen from him by Sikonyela (the Tlokwa chief). Dingane felt that this would prove to him that Sikonyela and not the Voortrekkers had in fact stolen the cattle. Some sources claim that Dingane also demanded rifles.

With the wisdom of hindsight, it seems that Retief was incredibly naive in his dealings with Dingane. In his defence, it needs to be said that he was seeking no more from Dingane than Louis Tregardt had formerly received from the Xhosa king Hintsa, and that Dingane himself had made some sort of similar agreement with Gardiner in June 1835.

But Dingane had experienced more than enough trouble from the handful of whites at Port Natal and probably never had any intention of allowing a large ammount of heavily armed farmers to settle permanently in his immediate neighbourhood.

The various versions of the death of Piet Retief

As per the deal with Dingane, the Voortrekkers successfully obtained the cattle from Sikonyela and on 3 February 1838 Retief and his party reached the Zulu capital, Mgungundlovu, with the cattle. Retief surrendered the cattle but refused to hand over the horses and the guns he had taken from the Tlokwa. This could have been the reason for Dingane’s suspicion of Retief, but other sources site additional reasons, one being that Dingane’s agents, who had accompanied Retief to supervise the return of the cattle, also may have reported that even before the land claim had been signed, Voortrekkers were streaming down the Drakensburg passes in large numbers. Despite the suspicions, Dingane supposedly put his mark on a land grant document sometime the next day.

On 6 February Dingane requested that Retief and his men visit his royal kraal without their guns to drink beer as a farewell gesture. It was strictly in accordance with Zulu protocol that nobody appeared armed before the King. Retief suspected no fowl play and accepted the invitation. As soon as the Voortrekkers party was inside the royal kraal, Dingane gave the order and his regiments overpowered Retief and his men, and took them up to a hill to be killed. Francis Owen, the missionary at Dingane’s kraal, who later described the scene in his diary, witnessed the murders from a distance. It was the murder of Retief and his 67 men, as well as the supposed ‘land claim’ that seems to have ignited the war between the Voortrekkers and the Zulu’s. The mutilated corpses of the Retief party were discovered by a search party of trekkers who reported that a land deed, signed by Dingane, was found among the possessions of the dead men. Many historians doubt that this deed ever existed – it certainly does not exist today. Although reports claim that it disappeared in 1900 during the South African Anglo-Boer War.

Distraught and temporarily without a leader the Voortrekkers entered the battle with the view that it was a desperate fight to ensure their survival against overwhelming odds, and to secure for themselves a place to settle, a home to call their own, free of the shackles of any lordship. From their point of view, they had treated the Zulu king appropriately, and had sought to fulfil Dingane's conditions for entry to the Zulu kingdom in good faith. But the latter had behaved treacherously towards them (by murdering their leader) and therefore the defeat of the Zulu military was the only way they could guarantee their safety.

The Zulu participants saw things differently: Dingane and his advisors regarded the entry of the Voortrekkers parties onto the land being requested, but not yet granted, as a demonstration that the settlers had scant regard for Zulu authority. It was also clear to Dingane that the Voortrekkers were a people who had easily defeated and scattered the force of his old enemy, Mzilikazi, whose empire Dingane had repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, tried to conquer.  Dingane and his advisors knew that the Voortrekkers would be a formidable enemy, and his tradition, like that of Shaka, was not to tolerate strong neighbours. Ndlela kaSompisi, the Commander-in-Chief, Dambuza kaSobadli and other councillors probably advised Dingane to resist the Voortrekkers. The gathering of the warriors for the first fruits ceremonies at the end of December 1837 generated further pressure for a forceful solution. Dingane was therefore determined to take the Voortrekkers by surprise and to destroy them before they became more organised. In the 1930's the Zulu journalist, Jordan Ngubane, wrote that Dingane "had to choose between independence and slavery", and he chose the former. Exactly when Dingane made up his mind to attack the Voortrekkers is not certain. It is likely that the decision was not made until the last moment. Jordan Ngubane believed that it could have been the supposed ‘land grant’, which officially convinced Dingane to act against the Voortrekkers. In a 1924 newspaper article he wrote that:

It is no wonder that after signing this treaty, Dingane 'saw red' and massacred Retief and his followers. To take a man's whole country as far as the land may be useful in return for a few thousand cattle is nothing a civilised man should be proud of.

In contrast to Jordan Ngubane numerous Zulu commentators regard the existence of the land grant as a myth. According to Zulu tradition in the night between February 5 and 6, Retief and his men attempted to surround the Mgungundlovu kraal with the intention of attacking it. The royal night guards reported this the next morning. Dingane was finally convinced that the Voortrekkers were really hostile. In terms of Zulu belief anyone seen loitering at someone else's homestead at night without announcing his or her intention, was regarded as umthakathi (a specialist doctor who uses medicine to kill people). Therefore it was suicide on the part of Retief and his men to encircle the palace. Dingane and his council discussed the report of the royal night guards and decided that Piet Retief and his party had to be killed. That was why Dingane gave the order "Bulalani abathakathi" (Kill those who use medicine to kill others), upon which Retief and his men were taken to kwaMatiwane hill where they were killed like all wrongdoers in the Zulu kingdom. There is however no proof of this version of events, but this tradition suggests that the killing of the Retief party actually had nothing to do with the handing over of weapons and cattle. One can see why the origins of the war are so problematic.

Dingane raises Port Natal to the ground

After killing Retief, Dingane's began planning to 'annihilate all Voortrekkers in Natal'. The plan was initially a success perhaps because the Voortrekkers at first disregarded the rumor that Retief had been murdered and consequently made no preparations to defend themselves.

In Dingane's armies first attack, Zulu warriors massacred some 500 more of Retief's followers, two-thirds of them women and children, half of them black. The battle took place during the early hours of 17 February. A surprise attack was launched on the unsuspecting trekker lagers on the Bloukrans and Bushman’s rivers. The Zulu seized 25 000 head of cattle and thousands more sheep and horses. The site of the attack was later renamed Weenen (‘weeping’).

The trekker leader Piet Uys fell with his men and his son Dirkie in battle a month later, while Hendrik Potgieter beat an ignominious retreat back to the highveld. Port Natal was razed to the ground, the surviving missionaries and traders escaped by ship.

But it appears that after these events Dingane began to underestimate the number of Voortrekkers in Natal and the fervour with which the Voortrekkers would defend themselves once the intentions of the Zulu’s became clear to them.

Collections in the Archives