A Brief History
On December 16, 1838, one of the greatest defeats of a large military force by a much smaller force took place with incredibly lopsided results when the Boers (also known as Voortrekkers or Afrikaners) of South Africa fought the Zulu warriors at ‘Blood River’ (also known as Ncome River) in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.
The Boers were Dutch settlers of South Africa, and those hardy souls that headed inland to settle were called “Trekkers” or pioneers (or “Voortrekkers” after 1880). In 1838, the Trekkers had encountered many obstacles in illness, harsh terrain, and hostile African natives. In an attempt to settle in “Natalia” (also known as Natal) those Trekkers would have to defeat King Dingane and his thousands of Zulu warriors if they were to be able to make permanent settlements.
Led by Andries Pretorious, 464 Trekkers and their 200 native servants traveled by ox-cart to their intended destination when confrontation with the Zulu army became imminent. The Trekkers were well aware of another group of over 500 Trekkers that had been annihilated at the Weenen Massacre a few months earlier in the same area. A peace delegation sent by Trekkers hosted by King Dingane had also been murdered. The Trekkers also knew King Dingane would be sending his army to attempt to massacre their group as well. The future seemed grim for these would be settlers.
Pretorious picked an excellent defensive location with the Boers’ backs to a hippopotamus pool of the river and clear fields of fire to the front of their perimeter. The ox-carts were drawn into a circular defensive posture (known as a Laager) with barricades between each of the wagons, creating a rather effective temporary fortress. A key to the defense was the artillery fielded by the Trekkers, 2 smooth bore cannons, possibly a 6 pounder and a 4 pounder, both loaded with grapeshot to be fired like massive shotguns at massed attackers.
The Zulu army arrived soon after defenses had been erected, but King Dingane delayed the attack until his entire force of 10,000 to 20,000 warriors arrived (or as many as 30,000, with only half that number taking part in the battle).
The Zulu mistakes started even before the first combat began on December 16th, when under previous King of the Zulus, Shaka Zulu, the army had switched to short, stabbing spears and discarded their throwing type long spears. Although the short spear was better for close combat, the throwing spear would have proven useful in this particular battle. The next mistake for the Zulus was to split their forces and only use half the warriors in repeated attacks, human wave assaults that were cut down by the cannon fire and single shot muskets like grass being mowed. After a couple hours of carnage, mounted Trekkers sallied forth to take the battle to the Zulus and killed even more Africans.
After a 3 hour battle, over 3000 Zulu warriors lay dead, while only 3 Trekkers were even wounded! The mounted Trekkers routed the Zulu army and a most improbable victory had been won. The defeat of King Dingane spurred a rival prince to ally with the Trekkers and usurp the King in a Zulu Civil War that resulted in the exile of Dingane who had his failed general executed by strangling with cowhide.
Dutch settlers would continue to clash with Native Africans and with British Imperialists over the next few decades, ultimately resulting in a country called The Republic of South Africa that practiced “apartheid,” a discriminatory separation of races policy that was finally overthrown in the 1990’s so that today the country is (at least according to law) equal in its treatment of all people.
Question for students (and subscribers): Can you think of any other battle where such a tiny force inflicted such disproportionate casualties on another force 50 times larger? If so, let us and your fellow readers know about it in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Greaves, Adrian and Xolani Mkhize. The Zulus at War: The History, Rise, and Fall of the Tribe That Washed Its Spears. Skyhorse Publishing, 2014.
The featured image in this article, a 19th-century artist’s impression of the Battle of Blood River from http://images.google.fr/imgres?imgurl=http://www.bertsgeschiedenissite.nl/nieuwe%2520geschiedenis/19e%2520eeuw/bloedrivier.gif&imgrefurl=http://www.bertsgeschiedenissite.nl/nieuwe%2520geschiedenis/19e%2520eeuw/eeuw19zuidafrika.htm&usg=__bdz0B4tmyEyCaexpNaB_UnYpTrw=&h=423&w=593&sz=145&hl=fr&start=51&um=1&tbnid=1r2SHG6GUS96CM:&tbnh=96&tbnw=135&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dslag%2B%2BBloedrivier%26ndsp%3D20%26hl%3Dfr%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:fr:official%26sa%3DN%26start%3D40%26um%3D1, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.
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