12 August 2007

The battle of Blood River - An opinion

The site of the Battle of Blood River, a bare 40 kilometers from Dundee, is one of the most underexposed battlefields in the entire battlefield tourism industry. The battle, fought on a bright and sunny day on Sunday, December 16, 1838, was a violent meeting between the two most salient cultures in Southern Africa in those years. The presence of the British, those arch-imperialists and land robbers of the time, did not have much to do with the fight. The fight was a punitive expedition, organised by the Voortrekkers, under the auspices of Andries Pretorius, a man they summoned from Graaf Reinet to come and help them.

David Rattray, the slain battlefields bard, explained it rather quaintly when he narrated the story. Brave men, a lot of them probably uneducated, or with very little education in the ways of words and letters, travelled towards Zululand in their “vegwaentjies” some time after the first punitive expedition ended in dismal failure at the Battle of Italeni, where that fighting Afrikaner family, the Uyses, first rose to prominence. Piet Uys and his 14 year-old son Dirkie sold their lives dearly in what later transpired to be a Zulu ambush. The Afrikaans derogative “vlugkommando” soon attached itself to the efforts of these men, maybe unfairly so. Many years later, Dirkie’s younger brother Piet would also pay with his life at the battle of Hlobane, on 28 March 1879, when he stormed back up the Devil’s Pass to assist one of his sons in what was to become a mauling for Evelyn Wood’s column during the Anglo-Zulu war. He was the only Boer leader to assist the British in their military adventure during the Zulu War of 1879, but after his death in action, his men left the British column in disgust.

The Battle of Blood River commenced on what was soon to become a bright and sunny day. The Zulu Army’s left wing, which had previously been repulsed by a few hardy Voortrekker men, women and children at the fight at Veglaer, was keen to prove themselves, as their king Dingane was definitely not impressed with them. The approached the laager from the southeast, crossed the Ncome river and the ravine, and then promptly lost their way. Was this a precursor of future incompetence? The fact still remains that their army of 12 000 men could not get to grips with the Voortrekker laager, which consisted of about 800 men, including three Englishmen (one a former British soldier) and a few hundred Coloured men and Zulus. The Trekker slaughtered them in their hundreds, killing perhaps as many as 3000, maybe more. They only suffered three slightly wounded men.

Andries Pretorius stopped the mounted pursuit at more or less nightfall, and the next morning the men broke up the laager and pursued the fleeing Zulus towards uMgundgundhlovu, the royal capital of Dingane. They took some casualties at the White Umfolozi River when the Zulus, those masters of the ambuscade, led them into a trap. Alexander Biggar died in this skirmish. On Christmas Day 1838 they discovered the remains of Piet Retief and his 69 men, including his teenage son, most foully murdered by Dingane’s indunas. These remains were interred in a grave that can been seen still today. The men then returned to Natal.

Today this site is revered as a cultural and historic site by both the Zulu and the Afrikaners. The problem is that the Zulu Museum is maintained by the Department of Arts and Culture, while the Bloed River Museum is maintained and cared for by private initiative, run by the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. This site is currently poorly run and managed, and has to be subsidised by Pretoria. This cannot continue indefinitely. What are we going to do about it?