Dec 17, 2011

The Battle of Blood River, by Deirdre Fields

The Boers climbed “Execution Hill” (Hlomo Amabutu) in the hot, subtropical, Natal sun; the stench of rotting flesh filled their nostrils. This had been the Zulu King Dingaan’s execution site - and many had been the executions he had ordered. Thousands had found their tortured, final resting place here. Mostly, executions were conducted with the aid of a sangoma or witchdoctor, who would conduct “smelling
out” ceremonies, during which he would claim to sniff out those people who were evil wizards, or plotting some mischief against the chief.

Sometimes he would “smell out” hundreds at a time. Then they would be taken to Hlomo Amabutu to be executed, their bodies left for the vultures (which Dingaan affectionately referred to as his “children”) to feed upon. Holding their noses, the Boers picked their way over countless bones and bodies. Vultures rose to the air reluctantly, squawking their protest, their stomachs distended with rotting human

At last, the Boers recognized the remains of the bodies of the white men: Piet Retief and his party, whom Dingaan had murdered treacherously and cruelly. The Zulus had held Retief and forced him to watch, as one by one, his comrades, and finally his own teenage son were murdered before his eyes - bludgeoned with a knobkerrie (war club) or sliced up with an assegai (Zulu spear). When it was all over, Retief’s heart and liver had been cut out and presented to Dingaan. But what was that? Beside Retief’s body lay a leather pouch. Inside lay that precious treaty he had signed with Dingaan, granting the Boers all the land between the Tugela and Umzimvubu rivers. Here was proof that the Voortrekkers had won the land two ways: by treaty and by battle.

But something was strange - here, in this place of iniquity, where the vultures gorged on their accustomed diet of the flesh of human victims; as though kept at bay by a hidden hand, they had not touched the bodies of the Voortrekkers. Looking at the treaty, Andries Pretorius thought back on the events that had led up to this moment - back to the cape, in the years between 1835 and 1838. [Read the entire article as PDF…]

DEIRDRE FIELDS is proud to claim that her grandmother’s grandfather, Stefanus Schoeman, a minor trek leader himself, was among those heroes of the Battle of Blood River: in fact, he owned one of the cannon used in that battle. His cannon was named “Ou Grietjie” (Old Gretel) and had been imported from Germany. It was strapped to a set of wagon wheels and upon firing would leap into the air, sometimes somersaulting, and have to be retrieved before being fired again. It is presently in the Voortrekker Museum. Stefanus Schoeman later married Maria Aleta van Heerden, the widow of another trek leader, Hendrik Potgieter. Watching the movie Lord of the Rings, the author was forced to conclude that J.R.R. Tolkien was inspired by the Battle of Blood River in his powerful depiction of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, between Theoden and the people of Rohan on the one hand and the tens of thousands of bloodthirsty beasties on the other. (Tolkien lived in South Africa in his youth.)