Re-Interpretation of the Battle of Ncome (Blood River).

By the Departments Arts and Culture

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The covenant is the central feature of the Afrikaner nationalist treatments of the battle, then the alleged treachery and greed of the voortrekkers, often portrayed as land-grabbers, is a distinctive aspect of Zulu nationalist interpretations. These interpretations are less concerned with the battle itself, than with the encroachment of the Boers on the independent Zulu kingdom, itself set within a wider context of settler conquest and later, colonisation.

While Zulu nationalist historians have resisted Afrikaner historians demonisation of King Dingane through reference to his killing of the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief in events prior to the battle, it should be noted that within Zulu historiography, there has been a lively debate over the nature of the Zulu king's reign. Any attempt to redress the current imbalance in the events at Blood River Ncome needs to take into account the context in which King Dingane acted.

It should also be recognised that as much as the Voortrekkers prepared spiritually for the battle, so too did the Zulu forces. In ceremonies which lasted about three days, izinyanga zempi, specialist war doctors, prepared izinteleze medicines which made warriors invincible in the face of their opponents. The most important aspect of the ritual preparation for war involved proceeding to the graves of the kings, eMakhosini reciting praises and informing the kings that their country was in danger. King Dingane ordered that the great chant of his father, Senzangakhona, be sung. According to Zulu tradition, when the chant was sung, the whole army was fired with courage and ready for war. The regiments sang old war songs, preparing themselves for battle. Married woman in the homestead turned their leather skirts inside out until the end of war The women waved brooms to and fro, and placed them inside the sleeping mats for their men who had gone off to war. All this was done to secure the help of the ancestors and to spare the lives of the warriors.


The origins of the battle are a matter of considerable debate. 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 appropriately with the Zulu king, and had sought in good faith to fulfil Dingane's conditions for entry to the Zulu kingdom. But the latter had behaved treacherously towards them and defeat of the Zulu military was the only way they could guarantee their safety.

On instructions from Dingane and in order to secure land on which to settle, the Voortrekker leader, Retief, led a commando to the country of the Tlokwa in December 1837. The Tlokwa were believed to have been responsible for an earlier raid on the Zulus. After returning to the Voortrekker community, which had in the meantime started moving into Natal, Retief gathered a commando of 71 Voortrekker volunteers and 30 coloured servants, with whom he rode to Mgungundlovu to claim his land from the Zulu king.

The Zulu participants saw things differently: the first incident which caused ill-feeling between King Dingane and the Voortrekkers occurred in 1837, before the latter crossed into Natal, when a party of Voortrekkers attempted to seize cattle which the Zulu amabutho, regiments, had seized from Mzilikazi's Ndebele.

Dingane and his advisers regarded the entry of the Voortrekker 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, after Mzilikazi's defeat by the Voortrekkers, that the latter would be formidable enemies. 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 better 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 annihilate the Voortrekkers is not certain. It is likely that the die was not cast until the last moment.

When Retief returned to Mgungundlovu in February 1838, he surrendered the cattle but refused to hand over the horses and the guns he had taken from the Tlokwa. Dingane then staked his all on eliminating the Voortrekkers, thinking thereby to save his kingdom from destruction. Retief and those with him were to be killed at Mgungundlovu, and the rest were to be struck down where they had settled in upper Natal, before they had time to concentrate for defence. The first part of the plan was carried out. Retief and his party reached Mgungundlovu on 3 February, with the Tlokwa cattle. Dingane supposedly put his mark on a land grant document sometime the next

day. On 6 February Dingane requested Retief and his men to enter his royal residence 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 Voortrekker party was inside the palace, Dingane gave the order and his regiments overpowered and killed Retief and his men.

Jordan Ngubane believed that it could have been the land grant, which officially convinced Dingane to act. 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". On the other hand, 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 palace with the intention of attacking it. Then 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 "Butalani 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 wrong-doers in the Zulu kingdom.

The second part of Dingane's plan, namely to annihilate all Voortrekkers in Natal, was not a complete success, even though it was obviously well planned and even though the Voortrekkers disregarded a rumour that Retief and his deputation had been murdered and consequently made no preparations to defend themselves. Perhaps Dingane had underestimated the number of Voortrekkers in Natal, and perhaps his regiments called off their attack prematurely. During the early hours of February 16, they almost annihilated the Voortrekkers in their encampments between the Bushman's and Blauwkrans River. But further west the Voortrekkers rallied and held them off, and the Zulu retired back across the Tugela River with about 35 000 cattle and sheep.

A series of further engagements then took place between the Zulu on the one side and the Voortrekkers and the British traders from Port Natal (Durban) on the other side. On 6 April 1838, the Zulu defeated a Voortrekker commando at eThaleni in a running battle. Under Prince Mpande the then crushed the Port Natalians at Ndondakusuka (battle of the Tukela) on 17 April, and went to sack Port Natal. But on 13 - 15 August 1838, a large Zulu army led by NdIela failed to finish the business when it was thrown back at Veglaer after failing to penetrate the Voortrekker defences. The latter now resolved to go onto the counter-offensive and at the end of November launched their invasion across the Tukela River, which culminated in the battle of 16 December 1838.


Events surrounding the Battle of Blood River Ncome itself are not controversial. Most historians agree on the major features of the battle, including strategy, tactics, manouvers, weaponry and so on. These details are of interest mainly to military historians. The panel feels that it would see no purpose to include a lengthy description here and attaches a full account with a map, as Appendix One. A detailed analysis of the actual confrontation should be made available to the public at the site as part of the materials to be housed in an information centre.


What is the significance of this battle today? On the one hand, it is important because for the first time a Zulu king's capital was completely destroyed by invading whites. On the other hand, although the Voortrekkers crushed Dingane's armed forces, they did not break the spirit of the Zulu, who rose from defeat to constitute a major South African force again by the 1870's. Symbolically, the battle came to mark the beginning of Afrikaner dominance. It is notorious for the role it played in establishing historical stereotypes about Zulu barbarism and treachery and about the Afrikaners as God's chosen people in South Africa.

The panel unanimously feels that the government should openly support a movement away from one-sided and stereotypical representations of events in South African history, such as this battle. Instead the government should support and stimulate the viewpoint that conflicting interpretations are the life-blood of historical debate, and should neither be suppressed nor discarded in the practice of history. From this point of view it is clearly imperative that a major effort be made to ensure that far greater attention is given to Zulu interpretations of the battle. At the battle­ site itself there is a need for such materials to be made available.

The descendants of the original protagonists in the Battle of Blood River Ncome, namely the Zulu and Afrikaners of today, are no longer enemies. From the perspective of some 160 years after the confrontation, the main lessons to be learned from it are no longer about the courage and suffering of the participants, but rather an imperative not to prolong the conflicts of the past. This leads the panel to propose that a further monument should be erected at the site that carries a message of reconciliation for everybody. The name eKukhumelaneni umlotha (place of reconciliation) should be considered for this monument.

After a war it is often necessary for the protagonists to reconcile with each other and also within themselves as to what has taken place - the taking of human lives, the destruction, horror and tragedy which they helped to cause. By jointly participating in erecting a monument that would make noble the loss of Zulu life and extol Zulu bravery as much as the present monuments at the site do for the Voortrekkers; by moving beyond the mere valorisation of war; and by creating a spirit of reconciliation, the descendants of the original protagonists can play an immense part in the building of a united South Africa.