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The Battle of Blood River

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

South Africa: Rainbows and Deserts

Battlefields: History: The Voortrekkers: Battle of Blood River

by Neville Worthington

16 December 1838

By the winter of 1838, the Voortrekkers in Natal had suffered innumerable setbacks (Bloukrans; the murder of Retief and his party; and the Vlug Kommando had failed to defeat Dingane. Sickness and fever were rife in the laagers and the livestock was suffering from lack of grazing.

On the 23rd of September, leader Gerrit Maritz died. A deputation from Natal was sent to Andrius Pretorius to ask for support.

In October Pretorius gathered a convoy of 68 wagons in the Cape and arrived at Sooi laager on the 22nd of November. Pretorius was duly elected Commandant and on the 27th of November, the Commando left to march directly to the Zulu capital, Umgungundlovu. The force consisted of 464 Voortrekkers plus 3 English Settlers (one of whom was Alexander Biggar) and 120 Port Natal natives.

On arriving in Waschbank, Sarel Cilliers led the commando in prayer and pledging that if God granted them victory, they would consecrate that day and keep it Holy.

Moving on past the present-day Dundee, the Commando made contact with groups of Zulu warriors. On the 14th of December, they came to the site of what is today Blood River.

The site that Andrius Pretorius had chosen to stand and face the Zulu army was well selected. It was bordered on one side by the Ncome River (Blood River), with a deep donga on the east side. A laager of 64 wagons was formed and here the Voortrekkers awaited the Zulu attack, which began on the 16th of December 1838, the height of summer in the southern tip of Africa.

The morning of the 16th dawned misty. The Zulu army, led by Nadella and Dambuza, had lost contact with some of their regiments in the mist and they did not attack as a combined force but in separate groups.

The Voortrekkers, with their canon loaded with pieces of metal and any metal fragments such as broken pot legs, cut swathes into the Zulu regiments. The warriors took shelter in the donga where they were so densely packed that the Voortrekkers poured a devastating fire into these forces, causing most of the casualties.

The Voortrekkers then pursued the Zulu on horseback. They ran into the river, where they were killed in great numbers, causing the water to turn red - thus giving the name Blood River. The Battle of Blood River was over.

Some 3000 Zulu warriors were killed. The Voortrekkers suffered 3 wounded.

While traveling with the Voortrekkers, Alexander's servants overturned his cart. Due to the accident, the mountain where it happened, Heuningberg, was renamed Biggarsberg , or Biggars Mountain, as it is still known today

In February 1838 Alexander's youngest son of 18 years, George, was 120 miles (190 km) inland at the Blaauwekrans camp of the Voortrekkers. When news reached Port Natal that the Zulus had exterminated Piet Retief's delegation, Alexander sent Dick King to warn George and others at the Voortrekker camps. Dick King departed immediately on foot, accompanied by some natives. Despite covering the distance in four days by walking day and night, they arrived just after the Rensburg voortrekker camp was attacked. They reached the vicinity of the next camp, near present-day Estcourt, just as the attack on it started on 17 February 1838. Though cut off from Gerrit Maritz's laager, Dick King participated in its defense but was unable to prevent the death of George, who was further inland.

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