Saturday, December 27, 2014


Blood River

During our stay at the Spion Kop Lodge, we took advantage of our host Raymond Heron, an expert on South Africa’s wars, and asked him to take us on a tour of a couple of the battle sites. When we were here in 2012, he took us to the site of the Battle of Spion Kop which you can read about here. Spion Kop was one of the battles during the South African War which is better known as the Boer War.
This time we visited three battle sites from earlier wars between the Europeans and the Zulus which ended the Zulu threat to European efforts to take over the Zulu land. Coincidentally, these battles took place during the same period Americans were moving westward and doing the same thing to the Indians. In an even stronger coincidence perhaps, the Russians were expanding eastward to the Pacific Ocean at the same time.
The 1947 monument. This wagon is larger than life.
The Battle of Blood River was fought between 470 Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius, and 15,000–21,000 Zulu attackers on the bank of the Ncome River on 16 December 1838, in what is today KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The Zulu had developed a powerful attacking style emulating the horns of the cape buffalo. While the horns flanked the sides, the main body of the army attacked the front. with the enemy encircled one more portion of the army would sit with its back to the enemy until it was needed.

This and the next two photos show the 1971 monument with its 48 life-size bronze wagons.
At Blood River, the Boers negated the Zulu strategy by circling the 48 wagons where they were protected on one rear by the Ncome River and another by a dry riverbed. The front offered no cover for the attacking army. Before the battle, the Boers vowed that if God helped them win, they would build a church and honor the day forever as a holy day of God.

When the Zulus attacked, they were decimated by the Boers. As many as 3000 Zulus were killed while only three Boers suffered wounds. The Boers built their church in Pietermaritzburg and the holiday became known first as the Day of the Vow and then the Day of the Covenant. Today, December 16 is the Day of Reconciliation as the new South Africa tries to reconcile its racist, apartheid past with its non-racial future.

In 1947, the Afrikaners built a monument consisting of a larger than life granite wagon. Then in 1971, the monument was expanded to a life-size set of 48 bronze wagons staged in the laager formation including the three cannons deployed by the Boers. Then in 1998, the new government added a new monument and museum across the river. Ideally, the two monuments across the river from each other can provide symbols for reconciliation.

A Painting of the Reconciliation Ceremony
Our experience was ‘enhanced’ by a discussion by a young Afrikaner still living in the past. He made sure we understood he is not a racist, but he seemed mostly interested in making sure we understood that the Afrikaner is the superior race and was right to take the land. Change can be slow in coming. He was especially critical of the large mural in the new museum that he said misrepresented the battle. He would have been correct except for the fact that it is really showing the Reconciliation Ceremony that he should have attended. In the actual battle, the Zulus attacked from the field, not across the river and the Boers never left their kraal.


The Battle of Isandlwana on January 22, 1879, was the first major encounter in the Anglo–Zulu War that the British instigated in its effort to unite South Africa under one rule. After creating a confederation in Canada in 1867, Britain decided to implement the same plan in South Africa. This would require defeating the independent Kingdom of Zululand. The British did not see this as a major obstacle given their overwhelming firepower and superior military training. Such was not to be the case however.

Isandlwana Peak
The war began when the Zulu rejected an ultimatum that would have destroyed the kingdom anyway. Among other things, it required a disbanding of the army and allowing missionaries total freedom within the kingdom. In early January, 1879, Lord Chelmsford began moving his troops in preparation for battle.
Upon reaching Isandlwana, Chelmsford divided his troops, taking the larger group and leaving a garrison at Isandlwana. The poorly led garrison neglected to create any defensive lines leaving itself open to attack as Chelmsford chased what turned out to be a feint by the Zulu.

On January 22, the Zulu army attacked using its buffalo formation easily surrounding the British force. The result was the worst defeat ever in a colonial war for the British. They lost approximately 1300 men of their force of 1800 including 52 officers.

Two of the British monuments. Many divisions have erected their own.
The Zulu memorial. This is a replica of the Zulu necklace.

The battlefield today includes four different monuments to the British dead and dozens of rock cairns painted white to mark the burial sites of British soldiers. A small museum and Zulu memorial are located nearby.

Rorke’s Drift

Isandlwana was immediately followed by a battle at Rorke’s Drift where 150 British soldiers held off an intense assault by 3000-4000 Zulu warriors while losing only 17 dead and 15 wounded. Rorke’s Drift had been designated for munitions storage. By the end of the battle, most of the ammunition the British had for the war had been depleted. Eleven Victoria’s Crosses were awarded, the most even awarded for a single battle in British history.

The hospital
 A drift is a river crossing. This one was named for its first owner James Rorke. At the time of the attack it was both a weapons depot and a hospital for wounded and sick soldiers. The awarding of the eleven Victoria’s Crosses has been criticized as an overreaction to the defeat at Isandlwana, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that this small group of soldiers, many of whom were sick and wounded managed to hold off the much larger Zulu force for over ten hours.

The two battles secured British public opinion in favor of the war. While the British would retreat for a time because of the losses inflicted here, they would invade Zululand a second time within weeks and finally secure victory in early July.