A series that seeks to tell the story of the South Africa in some depth. Presented by experienced broadcaster/podcaster Des Latham and updated weekly, the episodes will take a listener through the various epochs that have made up the story of South Africa.
Episode 146 - The Battle of oPathe where Bhongoza and Hans Dons earn oral history stripes
Andries Pretorius had won a major encounter with the Zulu army, which was now in full retreat and the way to emGungungundlovu was wide open. A day after the Battle on the 17th December 1838, Commandant General Pretorius had two Zulu captives brought before him. According to Voortrekker records, he gave them a piece of white calico with his name written on it in black ink, and told them to take it to Dingana. They should inform the king that the trekkers were approaching and that he should sue for peace, and to send messengers back to start negotiations and they should carry this cloth.
Ndlela kaSompisi the general had ordered messengers on ahead of the Amabutho who were now force marching back to the east, to the Great Place. The izinceku advisors rushed back warning Dingana that he should evacuate his beloved emGungundlovu as the Voortrekkers were on their way — his army had suffered a terrible defeat.
Msiyana kaMhlana who led the imVoko Amabutho regiment had told the izinceku that the king should make for the south side of the drift across the white Mfolozi, to a place called emVokweni.
IT was one of his larger homesteads, and gave him the option to make a loop north if pursued.
It was a day later that another messenger hurried up to Dingana and told him as he hunkered down at emVokweni that Pretorius and his WenKommando had arrived at the Mhlatuze River, and was about to cross. The Zulu king ordered that his beloved emGungundlovu be raised to the ground, along with two other large amaKhanda nearby.
On the morning of the 20th they saw emGungundlovu in the distance, wreathed in smoke, much of it still burning. It was a vast complex, the fire would burn for days. About half an hours ride away, they stopped once more and formed a laager near the place of death, KwaMatiwane. At that point they were unaware that the bones of their comrades were lying in the open only a short distance away.
The trekkers began to loot what they could from the smoky ruins of Dingana’s great place, and there was a great deal that had survived the fire. First however, they were determined to find out where the colleagues lay.
One of the men found Retief’s leather briefcase and peered inside. This is where the story is disputed by some historians because the Boers pulled out a document, the treaty apparently ceding Natal to the trekkers.
I have explained how this document is of historical interest, but utterly irrelevant in the debate about land in Natal. Dingana as you know by now, had signed it to pacify Retief, to lull him into his final meeting where the Zulu king had managed to convince the Boers to leave their guns outside, only to be murdered.
It was a chance discovery on Christmas Day that almost brought calamity to this WenKommando.
Pretorius was suffering from the wound he’d received at the Battle of Blood river, but was alert enough to interrogate a man who’d been discovered hiding close to their camp at emGungundlovu.
This was no ordinary man however, he was a decoy. Bongoza kaMefu of the Ngongoma people had realised that the trekkers were after the king’s cattle, and their determination to seize the property booty of this entire campaign could be their undoing.
Bongoza approached Dingana and suggested a plan to lure the Kommando onto the thornbush veld around the White Mfolozi, where they’d be susceptible to ambush. Nzobo kaSompithi who had rejoined the king’s main retinue agreed.
Episode 145 - The seminal Battle on the Ncome known as Blood River
This is episode 145 - we’re joining the AmaZulu and the Voortrekkers at the apocalyptic clash on the River Ncome, which was soon renamed Blood River.
This battle has seared its way into South African consciousness — it is so symbolic that its reference frames modern politics. Just when someone comes along and pooh poohs Blood River’s importance, events conspire against them.
And so, to the matter at hand.
We join the two forces preparing for battle on the evening of 15th December 1838, the amaButho arraigned in their units below the Mkhonjane Mountain east of the Ncome, and the 464 Voortrekker men waiting inside their 64 wagons.
Joining them was Alexander Biggar the Port Natal trader and 60 black levies, Biggar wanted revenge for the death of his son Robert killed by the AmaZulu at the Battle of Thukela.
Also at hand were Robert Joyce and Edward Parker, aiding Voortrekker commander Andries Pretorius as intelligence officers. Both were fluent in Zulu and had already passed on vital information to Pretorius about Prince Mpande who had to flee into exile. Dingane had tried to have his half-brother assassinated - the paranoid Zulu king thought Mpande was planning to oust him as he had done to his half-brother, Shaka.
The scene was set folks for this seminal battle at a picturesque place.
The laager had been drawn up in an oval shape on the western bank of the Ncome river, to its south was a deep donga about fifty meters away that had been scoured by rain, and this ran into the Ncome with banks that were over two meters high. While AmaZulu warriors could hide in this donga, it really worked in the trekkers favour because it broke up the ground - they could not charge the wagons but had to clamber over the trenchlike ledge and were then easy pickings for the Boer sharpshooters.
The Eastern side of the laager faced the Ncome River - about 80 meters away and this was regarded as even more difficult to assault. The River bank was muddy, and covered in reeds, making the approach almost impossible to achieve with any speed. Almost half a kilometer upstream, this river broadened into a marsh dotted with deep pools and crossing at that point would be almost impossible.
Downstream from the laager was a very deep hippo pool or seekoeigat as it was known, so deep that the Boers couldn’t feel its bottom with their long whipstocks. No AmaZulu warrior would be crossing there either.
More than half a kilometer downstream was a well used drift, and south east of the Ncome was a broad open plain dotted with small marshes and pools, and further south east lies the Shogane ridge, more than a kilometer away.
It was summer, and the rains had come. The river was flooding which was to further complicate the AmaZulu assault.
On the other side of the River, near Mthonjane mountain, Zulu commander Ndlela kaSompisi and his two IC Nzobo were finalising their plans on the night of 15th December 1838.
IT was well before dawn on the 16th December that Ndlela ordered his warriors to rise and prepare.
Episode 144 - Mpande evades Dingane’s assassination plot, the British seize Durban and Pretorius plans a covenant
This is episode 144 and a momentous event is about to take place. One that will shape Boer Zulu relations for centuries to come.
The Battle of Blood River - or Ncome River - is etched in the consciousness of South Africans. While the gory details are not contested, its historical significance has been seized on by different political factions since the 16th December 1838.
The day itself is a public holiday which we now call the Day of Reconciliation. Before that it was known as Dingane’s Day or the Day of the Covenant, or the Day of the Vow.
Anything thought of as a covenant or a vow comes with baggage.
Gert Maritz had died at the age of 41 on 23 September - suffering from dropsy, heart disease and half of the Voortrekkers had setup a second laager across the Little Thukela River, fearful of leaving their fort in case another Zulu army bushwhacked them.
They had sent a deputation to elicit support from other trekkers in the transOrangia region, and in the highveld along the Vaal River. Only Karel Landman remained as a senior leader in Natal, but help was on its way in the form of a man who was half dragoon, part brigand, mostly hero.
And that was Andries Pretorius.
He was born in Graaff-Reinet and his family had prospered, owning several farms around the frontier town. He was fifth generation southern African, his ancestors dated back all the way to the early Dutch settlement in Table Bay. His ancestor, Johannes Pretorius was the son of Reverend Wessel Schulte of the Netherlands. Schulte had been a theology student at the University of Leiden when he changed his name to the Latin form of Schulte and therefore became Wesselius Praetorius, with an ae, then later Pretorius.
His deep connection with Africa leant weight to his other important characteristics, an imposing man, tall and imbued with a captivating personality to boot. He was a skilled commander of men, adept at the irregular nature of frontier warfare.There was a lot of movement at the end of 1838, because not only had the British soldiers arrived in Port Natal and Pretorius’ kommando had headed off to Dingane, but Prince Mpande was on the run from his half-brother Dingane as well.
He wasn’t alone - Mpande was joined by an estimated 17 000 of his followers after Dingane had made moves to assassinate his half-brother he regarded as an increasing threat to his rule. Dingane’s actions followed the defeat of his army by the trekkers at Veglaer, weakening his power in the eyes of his subjects.
On 6 December 1838, 10 days before the Battle of Blood River, Pretorius and his commando including Alexander Biggar as translator had a meeting with friendly Zulu chiefs at Danskraal, so named for the Zulu dancing that took place in the Zulu kraal that the Trekker commando visited.
It was during this relatively friendly occasion that important information was passed along, and now Pretorius became aware of Prince Mpande’s new refugee status, an important character in the coming power play. It was immediately apparent to Pretorius that the Zulu king was in a more precarious position than he had been a few months earlier.
Episode 143 - The World in 1838, New Veld Tech and Plough Enhancements
This is episode 143 and we’re back in Cape Town, it’s late 1838, our new British Governor Sir George Napier is in the hot seat and he’s already regretting taking up the position.
He was trying to make Andries Stockenstrom’s eastern Cape Treaty System a success and this was not an easy task. Napier’s main pressure however was financial. Before he left Britain, the Colonial office had made it clear that they would not accept another war in the Eastern Cape.
IT had cost the government dearly, 14 years after the English settlers landed the British were forced to defend their subjects during the the Sixth Frontier War. Hundreds of soldiers and their material had cost tens of thousands of pounds. The cost of the colonies was a major factor in the government's financial difficulties. The British Empire was vast and expensive to administer — someone had to pay for the upkeep of the colonial military, the infrastructure, and the salaries of colonial officials.
In the period of 1834-1838, the British government spent an average of £12 million per year on the colonies. This represented a significant portion of the government's budget - in 1837 for example the government spent £12 million on the colonies plus £15 million on the army.
According to the Hansard archive of the House of Commons, the British government's budget in 1838 was £51,524,110 with the largest categories of expenditure the army, navy, and interest on debt. These categories accounted for over 70% of the total budget.
The cost of the colonies had a number of consequences for British politics. Lobby groups were — and remain — a powerful force in British politics, and they opposed any policies that would increase the cost of the colonies, while helping the maintain a system that was dominated by the aristocracy.
Overall, the cost of the colonies was a major factor in the British government's financial difficulties and it also had a significant impact on British politics and the economy in the period of 1834-1838. The British national debt grew significantly in the period from the £796 million to £829 million or 4.2%.
On the other hand, Britain was benefiting from the colonial access to raw materials, such as cotton, sugar, and timber. These were used to support British industries, particularly textiles manufacturing and shipbuilding. Of course, the colonies created new markets for manufactured goods which actually help boost the economy and create jobs as well.
For investors, the entrepreneurs and connected royalty, it was an opportunity to earn large returns from these seized territories by building infrastructure, developing new industries, and starting new ventures. The strategic importance of its colonies also helped England maintain its global power and influence.
For example, Gibraltar was a key naval base that helped England to control the Mediterranean Sea, India was also a key strategic asset, as it helped England to maintain its power and influence in Asia and Cape Town remained a strategic asset on its main supply routes to the far east.
It’s time to cast our eyes further afield, as we do in this series just to understand how southern African events were often part of a much broader scope. This was the period of burgeoning colonial expansion globally and those who lived on the land before the arrival of European settlers were fighting for their survival.
Early settlers could also begin to take advantage of iron based tools being manufactured in Britain - particularly ploughs. There were many examples. Cast iron ploughs for example which were inexpensive to produce although they were relatively brittle.
Episode 142 - Moshoeshoe the beard-shearer and the complex theological soup of the BaSotho
This is episode 142. It would be remiss of me not to say Congratulations Bokke on a gritty win over the All Blacks to become world champions for a record fourth time.
With that said, picture the scene. We are standing on the western slopes of the Drakensberg, looking out across the Caledon Valley. The rivers we see here flow westward, into the Atlantic Ocean. Far to the south east lie the villages of the amaThembu on the slopes of the mountains that are now part of the Transkei. This is a follow up episode of a sort from episode 141, because last week we spoke about the Orange River, and the Caledon River is a tributary of the Orange.
It rises in the Drakensberg, on the Lesotho–South Africa border, and flows generally southwest, forming most of the boundary between Lesotho and Free State province. The Caledon flows through southeastern Free State to join the Orange River near Bethulie after a course of 480 km. Its valley has one of the greatest temperature ranges in South Africa and is an excellent place to grow maize or other grains.
But in April 1835 Moshoeshoe was eyeing the equally verdant land to his south, amaThembu land and led a powerful and large expedition of more than 700 men along with a hundred pack-oxen loaded with food south easterly over the Maloti mountains towards these people.
At first his raid went according to plan, he seized a rich booty of cattle. The amaThembu were also facing raids from the other direction, the British who were conducting their Sixth Frontier War so they were in a rather invidious position.
Moshoeshoe was blooding his sons Letsie and Molapo in battle. They had become restless back at his Morija headquarters and their frustration grew when Moshoeshoe denied them permission to attack the Kora who’d setup camp nearby.
As the Basotho withdrew after the raid, they were ambushed by the amaThembu and lost most of their livestock. Worse, Moshoeshoe’s brother Makhabane was killed and he suffered heavy casualties. Moshoeshoe would never again send another full-scale expedition into amaXhosa or amaThembu territory.
This change of strategy was fully supported by the missionaries who had begun living with Moshoeshoe’s people. What followed would be a remarkable partnership which is still hotly debated today and the interests of the missionaries would be further expanded or extended by the interests of the Basotho leader.
Another interesting change was taking place for the people of this mountain territory, driven by missionaries both the French and the English. This is because the religion of the 19th-century Sotho speakers was defined chiefly by its outward manifestation, the signs on the land, the animals, things going on that you can hear, smell, touch, see.
Religion, as the Sotho term ‘borapeli’ illustrates, was what people did and not what they
believed. This is a fundamental foundational difference that stymied the first missionaries at first.
The translation of molimo as God inaugurated a new era where there was a fixation on linear progression in an age of evolutionary thinking, where Protestantism was the theology. How did Molimo interlink with Tlatla-Mochilo? For the missionaries, this was an immense philosophical wrestling match.
This is where Tsapi, a man described as Moshoeshoe’s advisor and diviner re-enters our story for a moment.
Thanks to one of my listeners who is a descendent of Tsapi by the name of Seanaphoka for providing some more background.
Tsapi was actually the first son of the Bafokeng Tribal Chief Seephephe. Tsapi had a sister called Mabela, who was Moshoeshoe’s first wife and as Queen Consort she took the name MmaMohato.
Tsapi became Advisor and Senior Council member of Moshoeshoe.
Episode 141 — An ode to the Orange River and San spoor blows in the wind
Welcome back to the History of South Africa podcast with me your host, Des Latham. This is episode 141.
First a little admin - a big thank you to for tuning in. This series has passed one million listens, the response has been staggering.
When I began planning the history of South Africa podcast three years ago, it was literally a step into the deep end of audio production.
Nothing can truly prepare you for such an enterprise — and this is a solo job. It’s me, the hundreds of books collected over decades, the journals, the papers, the travel, the experience and you, the listener.
So without resorting to too much grandiose baloney, let me just say thank you. Without your support and wonderful emails and messages, this would have been an awful lot harder.
With that little detour out of the way, back to our story for this week.
We need to switch our gaze back to the northern Cape, circa 1838 and 9, and spend time discussing what was going on along the Orange River that in many ways is similar to the Nile and the Niger Rivers. The Orange River is smaller, but it also flows through an extremely arid zone like the Nile and the Niger, and like those waterways, it is a lifeline for animal and human life over a large area.
It was towards this riparian zone that the colonists were expanding, and ahead of them the Khoe, the Oorlam, the !Kora.
Then the Voortrekkers left in their hundreds, the flood turning to thousands, they weakened the Cape frontier substantially because it was a loss of military power. This happened as the trekkers themselves destabilised the interior of the country, and the British administration feared that they’d face dispossessed Africans who would become a nightmare as they entered the Cape, economic and war refugees.
Examples were the amaMfengu who had fled the Mfecane, now they faced more destabilisation as hundreds of men riding horses and carrying guns made their way out of the Cape.
By this time in the colony, most of previous Governor Benjamin D’Urban’s comprehensive programme of reforms had been accomplished, including the establishment of a Legislative Council, the introduction of a Revised charter of Justice, emancipation of the slaves and the beginnings of municipal government so that the locals could manage themselves.
As we continue with the series, that narrative of haste will be our companion. When we look at the goings on, we must extend our gaze beyond the borders, most of which are merely lines on maps. Regions are tied together through the shared use of water and other resources. In this episode we’re going to look north, and try to understand the link between the people of the Cape, and the people of Namibia.
Two people in particular. The San and the Oorlam and their relationship with the Orange River.
Between 1800 and 1839 the San had been virtually exterminated as a people. They had stood in the way of the first trekboers through the turn of the century, and the expansion could only continue into the welcoming environment of the eastern transOrangia region after the San of the Sneeuberg had been pacified.
This had been both a violent and a subtle and insidious practice, including gift giving, mainly alcohol. Even peaceful trekkers had undermined the San resistance by pure dint of infiltration into their territory. Once the colonists had established themselves beyond the Sneeuberg, the San were unable to prevent the destruction of their lifestyle. It was a similar story for the Khoekhoe.
Those who were not killed or captured retreated deep into the deserts or the inhospital areas of Bushmansland so that they could survive.
The !Kora were various clans who lived in a fluid situation in the interior of the country, and anyone who chose a raiding, roving mode of existence were likely to be called Koranna regardless of their ancestry.
But they had made excellent use of two major introductions into South Africa.
The Gun and the horse.
Amazingly well done
Modern, thorough and super listenable! We are always in awe at how well thought out the story telling and narrative arcs are.
When the history of a region begins with its geology you can be assured it will be firmly founded. For all that, the pace never flags. It holds my attention and commands my respect as few podcasts have done.
Peerless, engaging and sorely needed
Blows everything else out of the water.