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 136 - The place of weeping earns its name and the“Grand Army of Natal” marches off
This is episode 136 — the Zulu army has fallen on the Voortrekkers along the Bloukrans and Bushman’s rivers, close to where Escourt and Ladysmith are to be found today, but right now it’s February 17th 1838. The tributaries of these rivers were renamed Groot and Klein Moordspruit because of the bloody events of that time.
By the morning of the 17th most of the families camped along these streams and rivers were dead.
Within a few hours the right horn and the centre sections of the army had overrun the outlying Voortrekker camps, now the left horn prepared to assault Gerrit Maritz’s laager.
The Zulu army on the left flank initially approached the Viljoen camp, and Gert and Karel Viljoen, Gert Combrink, Izak Bezuidenhout, Meneer Schutte and Strydom, rode out to confront the attackers in an attempt to protect their families. Acting like plovers, the decoys split up in full view of the Zulu warriors, Gert and Izak riding towards the Bezuidenhout camp, and the others towards Englebrecht and Bothma camp.
They were looting anything of value as they went, and as I mentioned at the end of last episode, their discipline was slipping. The left horn now rounded on Gerrt Maritz’s laager, which was heavily defended unlike the other trekker camps, and he threw back the first attack. Many narratives of the future were being created about this defence, campfire stories of stoic action, including one where Martiz’s ten year old son armed himself with a pistol and fired on the Zulu while his mother and other women carried ammunition back and forth while still in their dressing gowns.
The Boers gathered back at Doornkop and revenge was on their lips. The sounds of weeping filled the air and for the next few days, outlying trekkers staggered towards this safe centre.
The Voortrekkers had lost more than 600 of their people. IT was the biggest calamity to befall any of the settler parties by a long way — a significant event in the story of South Africa. The place where the main massacres took place is marked today by the town of Weenen, Place of Weeping.
110 trekker men had died, including the 60 at kwaMatiwane, 56 women were dead, but shockingly it was the number of children wiped out — 185 that really was an abomination and embittered the Boers. The AmaZulu did not fight like the amaXhosa they realised too late. For centuries they’d lived alongside the Xhosa, sometimes within their kraals, and never had they witnessed such cold blooded killing of infants and women.
Then there were 250 coloured and Khoesan servants also speared to death by the Zulu — everywhere gore splattered the landscape — the Boers had lost one tenth of their population, and one-sixth of their men.
The Zulu had killed everyone and everything, cats, dogs, even the chickens.
However, in making a surprise attack, Dingana and his advisors had totally underestimated the Trekker’s fighting spirit and their grit, even when facing odds of 30 or 40 to one. They had discovered that even when at a disadvantage, the Boers provided a sting.
So it was with some irony that the first to respond to the Zulu attack on the Voortrekkers were the English who rode out from Durban.
Episode 135 - The Zulu army overruns the Voortrekkers along the Bloukrans and Bushman’s River
As you heard, Piet Retief and 100 Boers and Khoesan agterryes had been killed by Dingana on the 6th February 1838.
Missionary Owen watched the killings through his telescope until he couldn’t take it any more and collapsed in shock.
The Zulu king was not done, he’d ordered his amabutho warriors to seek and destroy the Voortrekkers who’d camped along the rivers below the Drakensberg where they’d arrived in large numbers expecting Retief’s negotiations to have ended well. Retief had thought so too, particularly after he’d returned Dingana’s cattle rustled by Sekhonyela of the baTlokwa.
About a thousand wagons had descended the passes, and the Zulu were determined the Voortrekkers were not going to remain on the land they’d invaded.
The vultures, wild dogs, and hyenas, jackals began to feed on the bodies strewn about kwaMatiwane near emGungungdlovu where Retief’s men had met their grisly end, while Owen and his family trembled with fear nearby.
Were they going to be next they wondered.
Dingana had sent a message as Retief was killed saying their were safe, but who believed the AmaZulu leader about anything?
Meanwhile, some of the warriors were going through the Boers baggage and inspecting the muskets that had been piled outside the main gate. Puffs of dust appeared from the south, and from there two horseman and their small travel party appeared at emGungundlovu.
Talk about bad timing.
It was James Brownlee who was a very young translator and a trainee missionary, and the American Henry Venables. They had picked a particularly bad time to ride up to Dingana’s Great Place.
From a Zulu perspective, Dingana’s orders for his amabutho to kill the Voortrekkers was a matter of business as usual, this was the normal way of things when a chief was disgraced and executed. His family and adherents would be bumped off, or “eaten up” to use the Zulu phrase, so that there would be none alive to avenge the king.
The Voortrekker livestock would be seized and the king would redistribute these beasts amongst his amabutho, exactly as the Boers had been doing amongst their Kommando members after the raids on Mzilikazi. And like the Boer raids on Mzilikazi, very few women or children were to be spared by Zulu warriors.
The Zulu army of about 5000 crossed a famous river at a famous point, the Mzinyathi or Buffalo River near Rorke’s Drift. How ironic that 42 years later, the very same crossing would see English soldiers fleeing from Cetswayo’s warriors after the Battle of Isandhlwana hunted across this very same Drift.
So the 5000 warriors marched along the Helpmekaar heights towards the Thukela River close to the confluence with the Bloukrans through the second week of February 1838.
By now most of the trekkers had scattered through this territory, in little family encampments of three or four wagons over a large area. Only a few had taken the English traders warning seriously and established defensible wagon laagers.
Most did not, they just outspanned where they were and began enjoying the fruits of the veld.
Many of these had headed off on hunts, leaving their families alone with their Khoesan servants, and to them, the AmaZulu warriors were going to do what the amaNdebele had done in August 1836.
Fall upon the wagons and kill everyone they could find.
Episode 134 - Lightning kills 12 Boer horses then the wizards die
This is episode 134 - and its going to be a massacre.
It is also crucial as you’ve heard that we dig deep into the events because today there’s a huge debate about what I’m going to explain next, what documents still exist about what happened, and who owns what when it comes to land in South Africa.
Specifically, land in KwaZulu Natal.
What exactly did Dingane agree to sell to Piet Retief? Why did he agree to do this when he had told the missionaries and his own people that he wouldn’t part with land at all?
It’s incredible to think that this one year, 1838, has sparked so much discussion — and that people today quote one fact after another to back up their political position on this matter.
So to the story at hand.
Piet Retief had struggled to hold the Voortrekkers together when he’d arrived back at the main trekker encampment at Doornkop. Piet Uys had arrived from the Highveld on the 15th December 1837, having heard that Retief’s visit to the AmaZulu king had gone well and he brought news of just how decisively amaNdebele chief Mzilikazi had been dealt with.
Uys was also reclaiming his leadership role over the Voortrekkers of Natal which didn’t go down well with Retief. Gerrit Maritz was his usual refereeing self interjecting between the two, and Uys agreed on the 19th December and after four days of argument to take the oath of the constitution to support Retief’s vision, but only after he consulted with his Volk, his followers.
These followers were on their way down the Drakensberg. It one of the life’s ironies that by the time he arrived back in Natal on the 24th January 1838, Uys had completely changed his tune. IT was on that date that he dictated a letter to Governor D’Urban back in Cape Town to the effect that he was now totally against Retief’s “sinister designs…” — and I’m quoting directly.
Sinister designs? Over what?
Retief it appeared and as we know was true, was planning to launch an independent state in Natal and Uys in what could be called a giant stab in the back, wrote to the British governor that he and his Volk were actually reaffirming their loyalty to the Crown. The English crown.
Retief of course was heading to the upper reaches of the Caledon valley on a quest ordered by Dingana to retrieve cattle stolen by the baTlokwa from the amaHlubi.
By inference, Dingana wanted Sekhonyela to pay for his transgressions and the Boers believed he was testing their somewhat flimsy relationship. Retief believed that the goodwill that would be generated by returning the cattle would lead to Dingana handing over some of that precious land controlled by the AmaZulu king.
He wrote a letter to Dingana informing the Zulu king of the successful raid on his enemy, the baTlokwa. By now, Dingana had almost gone into shock about something else. On the 2nd January he’d been informed by Owen the missionary about Mzilikazi’s fate and the utter thrashing he’d received at eGaneni, how his people had fractured and the erstwhile leader of the Khumalo clan had fled across the Limpopo River.
Another enemy, dispatched by the Boers, the Zulu had failed to defeat this man, but not the boers.
IT was the 25th January when the Trekkers gathered and prayed for protection, then a few days later, the party of 100 rode out with the cattle, and the 15 Zulu attendants including two indunas.
Piet Retief wrote his last letter to his wife on the trail to emGungungdlovu.
“I was deeply affected at the time of my departure … It was in no way that I feared for my undertaking to go to the king but I was full of grief that I must again live through the unbearable dissension in our Society, and that made me feel that God’s kindness would turn to wrath…”
Episode 133 - Umkhandlu long thumb nails and tales of ill-gotten grain
It’s a hot day in northern Zululand, in the Mfolozi River valley, where Dingane’s capital emGungungudlovu was situated.
When Piet Retief first met the Zulu king, he failed the grasp the extent to which this man’s authority was was based in what historian John Laband calls a combination of mystical ritual and naked power politics.
That Dingane was a despot is clear but what was less understood was that his people allowed him to be so — that he could only make major decisions about political strategy with the input of important men and sometimes women, of the kingdom. The small inner sanctum of power, the umkhandlu, was a council that included the abantwana, the princes of the royal house.
Alongside these aristocrats were the izinduna, state officials that were appointed as commanders of the Amabutho regiments, some ruled over entire districts and administered justice in the king’s name.
Anyone was free to become an induna, unlike the umkhandlu, but only after members of the aristocracy were unavailable to take up that position. Because these induna were appointed, they had more to lose and did the king’s will more amenably.
Even so, one of these induna was going to balk when Dingane ordered him to kill Piet Retief and his small party of men that had been negotiating land in the first week of November 1837. More about that at the end of this episode.
Dingane’s main induna was Ndlela kaSompiti, his other was Nzobo kaSobadli, and both of these induna were of royal blood - linked to the royal house.
Oddly enough, the physical proof of their position was the permission to grow long fingernails.
Men of high status grew their nails, particularly thumbnails, longer than an inch and a half as a sign that they did not have to do manual labour, they were freed from having to hold hoes or wield implements.
They also wore another symbol of power, the ingXotha, a massive and heavy brass armlet that reached from elbow to wrist and looked a bit like an ancient Greek arm shield.
When Piet Retief arrived at emGungundlovu on the evening of 5th November 1837 they would not have noticed these emblems. The Zulu men were essentially semi-naked, only the ornaments, arm bracelets, beads, brass, worn below the knee and around ankles, bands of beads slung over the shoulder, indicated power. You had to look closely to be certain.
It so happened that Dingane was fully aware of who had done the rustling but he wanted Retief to pass a test. The Boer leader must embark on a quest, the Zulu king demanded the amaBunu prove themselves to him.
The baTlokwa it so happened had been rustling for the last two years anyway, this was not a recent phenomenon. So far, Sikhonyela had refused to send any of the cows back, and had insulted Dingane saying
“Tell that impubescent boy that if he wants to be circumcised, let him come and I’ll circumcise him…”
The Zulu custom of circumcision had been stopped in Shaka’s time as you know, but the baTlokwa continued with this rite of passage.
The baTlokwa lived on the upper reaches of the Caledon Valley, around more than 300 kilometers from where Dingane lived.
Retief knew that Dingane knew the real criminals were not him, but also realised it was an opportunity to demonstrate beyond doubt the good faith of the Boers and that Dingane was demanding proof of goodwill beyond mere words or little signed documents.
Episode 132 - Piet Retief rides into Natal and land is on the agenda
Just a quick thank you to AJL, as well as Jacque and Nkosinathi for your kind comments and emails - this series is nothing without my wonderful audience.
Gangans — which is Khoesan for thank you.
Voortrekker leader Piet Retief knew that he had to negotiate for any land in Natal with the Zulu king Dingane. So with that in mind, he left his family on the top of the escarpment as you heard at the end of last episode, taking four of the wagons and a small party of 15 men over the side of the Drakensburg by way of what we now call Retief’s Pass in October 1837.
He was still hopeful that Gerrit Maritz would join up with him so he loitered for a while at the base of the Drakensburg. Realising after almost two weeks that it was a futile to continue to delay, he turned for Port Natal, or what was now called Durban.
The first negotiations he needed to conduct were not with the AmaZulu, but the fractious and rebellious Durban traders. If any land was going to be seconded to the Voortrekkers, he needed to clear any plans with the semi-desperate crew living around the fledgling port.
It took 90 hours to ride from the base of the Drakensburg mountains to Durban - and the exhausted group of trekkers rode into the harbour town on 20th October. Like other visitors, Retief was shocked to note that there were “53 Englishmen, no white women, only black ones…”
Dingane was also acutely aware that in military matters, he was in a somewhat weakened position. All the reports he’d heard about the British and how they’d defeated the amaXhosa with their firearms and horses had shaken the Zulu king. He’d also heard about the attack on Mosega, and was about to hear about how Potgieter and Uys had driven Mzilikazi from eGabeni forever.
Back in Cape Town, British officials were growing concerned. They heard about the amaNdebele’s fate, and how the Voortrekkers were now heading to Natal. Instead of stabilising things, the Boers appeared to be causing one war after another.
Shortly afterwards the Boers saddled up for a much more difficult mission - to approach Dingane to try and get the king’s permission to settle within his land. They couldn’t just ride in, first they sent a message to one of the most important characters of this part of our story, a missionary called Reverend Francis Owen of the Church Missionary Society.
Important because he was going to be an eyewitness to brutal events.
Owen and his wife were not alone at emGungundlovu.
His sister was there too, and an interpreter, an artisan builder and mechanic Richard Hulley, Hulley’s wife and three children as well as Jane Williams, his Khoesan servant. They’d rolled up to Dingane’s great place in the second week of October 1837.
This less than a month before Retief was going to show up.
Episode 131 - Sharpened horns at the battle of eGabeni and the story of the Liebenberg girls
Mzilikazi Khumalo was trying to piece together his shattered amaNdebele after the attack on Mosega in early 1837 by the Boers and their allies the Griqua and Rolong.
Then in midyear, he’d been attacked again by Dingana’s impis — he’d managed to survive that invasion but things were looking very bad as he hunkered down in his imizi of eGabeni in the Marico area of what is now north west province.
Across southern Africa, movers and shakers were moving and shaking.
By now, Durban was a busy place. Dingana was vacillating about its future. Trader John Cane who was well ensconced inside Zulu life managed to negotiate with Dingana to allow the traders some latitude — to remain for now — with assistance from Gardiner despite his invidious position.
If you remember, Dingana had told Qadi chief Dube to bring him poles for his palisade, although some Zulu oral tradition says Dingana killed Dube for dancing better than him, but either way there’s no disputing what was now an open clash between the Zulu king and the white traders.
Dingana had demanded the Qadi refugees be sent back across the Tugela River, the traders refused and then began to fortify Durban. The crisis now brought into sharp relief the role of ex-military men like Alexander Biggar. The former captain and paymaster of the 85th regiment had been cashiered from the British Army in 1819 following a scandal - he basically misappropriated regimental funds and was stripped of his rank.
Dingana’s threats reminded Biggar of Nxele the wardoctor and the amaXhosa, and being military minded, he realised this threat provided him with a perfect opportunity. He was elected as commandant of the Port Natal Volunteers, and organised local men, black and white, into a body of troops, and appointed captains to oversee this group.
OF course he appointed his son, Robert, as well as John Cane and Henry Ogle as Captains, and this so-called army began to fortify Durban stockade. Not done, Biggar issued a proclamation in May 1837 calling on the inhabitants of Durban to hold themselves ready in cheerful obedience to his orders.
In the third quarter of 1837, Potgieter and Retief were making their way to the edge of the escarpment with the Voortrekkers, from where they were going to split. Retief was going to make his way down the Drakensburg to Natal, and Potgieter was going to turn inland — staying on the high ground.
The Voortrekkers were still plodding their way along the Sand River heading in a north easterly direction, and taking note of the empty plains which Mzilikazi had purposefully used as a buffer zone. On the 1st September 1837 they camped near where the town of Senekal is today, then continued east passed where the modern town of Paul Roux lies.
Then they arrived at the edge of the escarpment, near Warden in the Free State. While Maritz and Potgieter disagreed, they agreed on one thing, and that was the need to destroy the amaNdebele, determined to evicerate the threat from the Marico region and to claim back their cattle still held by Mzilikazi.
They were also obsessing about something else.
Maritz and Potgieter wanted to recover the thee very young Liebenberg children who had been seized by the amaNdebele warriors after they were found hiding in the camp overrun by the the year before during the battles along the Vaal.
Sara, Anna Maria and Christiaan.
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.