On this day December 16, 1838
Over 450 Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius defeated an estimated 10,000 Zulu at the Battle of Blood River in what is today KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Casualties amounted to 3,000 Zulu deaths and 3 wounded Voortrekkers.
On 16 December, dawn broke on a clear day, revealing that ” ‘all of Zululand sat there’ ,” said one Trekker eyewitness. On his deathbed thirty years later, Sarel Cilliers recalled that before the battle commenced, the Trekkers had made a vow to God that if He should deliver them, they would build a church and commemorate the day as a Sabbath.
During the first phase of the attack, the Zulu repeatedly and unsuccessfully attacked the laager. The attackers were hindered by a change introduced during Shaka’s rule, which replaced most of the longer throwing spears with short stabbing spears.
The stabbing spear provided obvious advantages in close combat over its longer cousin. A Zulu eyewitness said that their first charge was mowed down like grass by the single-shot Boer muskets.
The Voortrekkers brought the full power of the firepower they had by having servants reload other muskets, allowiong a single rifleman and a band of servants to fire approximately a shot every 5 seconds.
Mackenzie claims that 200 indigenous servants looked after the horses and cattle and helped load muskets. Writing in the popular Afrikaans magazine, Die Huisgenoot, a Dr. D.J. Kotze said that this group comprised 59 “non-white” helpers and three English settlers with their black “followers.”
After two hours and four waves of attack, Pretorius ordered a group of horsemen to leave the encampment and engage the Zulu in order to disintegrate their formations. The Zulu withstood the charge for some time, but rapid losses led them to scatter.
The Boers pursued their fleeing enemies and hunted them down for three hours. Cilliers noted later that ” ‘we left the Kafirs lying on the ground as thick almost as pumpkins upon the field that has borne a plentiful crop.'”
Bantjes recorded that about 3,000 dead Zulu had been counted, and three Trekkers were wounded. During the chase, Pretorius was wounded in his left hand by an assegaai (Zulu spear).
Four days after the battle, the victorious Vootrekkers arrived at Dingane’s great kraal Mgungundlovu (near present day Eshowe) to find it deserted and ablaze. The bones of Retief and his men were found and buried where a memorial exists today.
Afterwards the clash was commemorated as having occurred at Blood River (Bloedrivier). 16 December is a public holiday in South Africa; before 1994 it was known as the Day of the Vow or the Day of the Covenant; but today it is the Day of Reconciliation.