Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

Dingaan's Treachery

The Boers wanted to get away from British rule, but they did not want to be shut out from the sea. So one party under a leader named Pieter Relief resolved to settle in Natal.

Natal was at this time under the power of Dingaan, the brother of the cruel chief Tshaka. It was part of the country laid waste by his wars. Retief felt that it would be well to make a treaty with this chief, and get leave from him before forming a colony in his land, and so he set out to pay a visit to Dingaan at his capital.

For about fourteen years a few British traders had been settled in Natal. They had made a kind of treaty with Tshaka. He had granted them about a hundred miles of country round Port Natal, and they had founded a little town which they called D'Urban in honour of the governor of Cape Town. But this little settlement had never been acknowledged as a British colony, for again and again the British Government had said that they wished no more land in Africa.

The British at Durban lived a wild life. The natives round about came to look upon them as chiefs, and they often helped them in their wars. When these white people heard that the Boers wanted to settle near they were quite pleased, and promised to do all that they could to help them.

Dingaan too seemed pleased, and received Retief and his comrades in the most friendly way. He treated them as honoured guests, and displayed before them all his savage splendour. There were sham fights, almost as fearful as real ones; there was dancing and singing and feasting.

When Retief told Dingaan why he had come, the chief replied that he would gladly allow the Boers to settle in his land, but first, to show their friendship, they must get back for him some cattle which had been stolen.

This seemed an easy thing to do, for the Boers knew who had taken the cattle, so Retief agreed. Then he went back to tell the other farmers how well he had succeeded. With very little trouble they got Dingaan's stolen cattle back from the chief who had taken it, and then hundreds of wagons began to cross the Drakensberg range into the fertile land of Natal.

There was plenty of room, and the farmers spread out over the plains, while Retief and about sixty of the best of the Boers, with thirty Hottentot servants, set off once more to visit Dingaan and deliver his cattle to him.

Again Dingaan pretended to be glad to receive the Boers. Again there was dancing and feasting and great display of savage greatness. Then Dingaan asked a missionary who was there to draw up a writing saying that the place called Port Natal, together with all the land from the Tugela to the Umzimvubu River, and from the sea to the north as far as might be useful, was to be given to the Boers.

The same land had already been given to the British traders at D'Urban by Tshaka. But Dingaan had no care about that, for all that he wanted was to draw the Boers into a trap.

But the Boers saw no trap. Everything continued to be as friendly as before. The paper was signed, and one morning Retief and his men prepared to leave. When all was ready, and their Hottentot servants had gone to saddle and bridle their horses, the farmers once more went to Dingaan's hut to say good-bye. Outside the kraal they piled their guns, for they had often been told that it was not proper to go into the presence of the king armed.

They found Dingaan as usual surrounded by a great number of warriors, and as usual he received them kindly. He made them sit down, and bowls of native beer were brought so that they might drink a parting toast.

Then suddenly, as the men sat laughing and talking and holding the bowls in their hands, Dingaan shouted, "Bulala matagati, bulala matagati," which means "Kill the wizards." The Zulu warriors then rushed upon the unarmed farmers, and before they could even draw their knives most of them were struck senseless by the Zulu clubs and bound. One or two managed to get out their knives, and fought bravely for their lives, but they were soon overpowered. Then, wounded and half dead, they were all dragged to a hill outside the kraal, and there cruelly put to death. The Hottentot servants, too, who were waiting with the horses, were surrounded and killed, and their bodies with those of their masters left to the wild beasts to devour.

As soon as this horrible massacre was over, a great army of Zulus marched towards Natal bent on utterly destroying every white man, woman, and child.

Swiftly and silently they crept onward through the land, till a few mornings later they reached the first encampment.


"Beside them stood the women quietly loading guns."

It was early morning and no one was astir. In the little encampment all were peacefully sleeping. So sure were the Boers by this time of the friendly feeling of the natives, that the wagons were not even in laager, but were spread here and there wide over the plain.

Suddenly the sleepers were awakened by the wild war-cry and terrible hiss of the Zulu warriors, the hiss as of a thousand snakes, with which they began battle. Almost in their sleep the Boers were murdered. No one was spared, neither woman nor child. Then when all were dead, the savages wreaked their wild rage on the wagons, smashing and burning them, and carrying off anything they fancied, as well as all the flocks and herds. Where the peaceful encampment had been, they left a waste of blood and ashes, a place of wailing. And when later the friends of the murdered people came there, and stood with tears in their eyes amid the wreckage and the dead, they named the place Weenen, the place of tears. And the little town which stands there to-day is still so called.

Two men alone succeeded in escaping from the awful slaughter. They, flinging themselves on horseback, sped away over the veldt to warn other companies of farmers of the awful death that awaited them. And they, as soon as they heard the terrible news, formed their wagons into laagers and made ready to defend themselves as best they could. Scarcely were they ready, when the black hordes poured upon them.

The Zulus swarmed in yelling thousands around the barricades of wagons, showering their spears upon the men within. But these grim, stern farmers fired steadily, ready to die rather than yield. Beside them stood the women quietly loading guns. They too were ready to die rather than yield. And if a black man, braver than his fellows, reached the wagons and tried to climb the barricade, he found himself struck down by an axe swung by a woman's hand. Even the children fought. "Go and hide yourself," said a mother to her little boy of ten.

"I can"t see any place where to hide," he said, "give me a pistol and let me shoot too."

The Boers fought so well that from laager after laager the savages were driven back, until at length, disheartened, they marched away leaving many dead upon the field.

Then the farmers who were left gathered together to decide what they should do. "Let us flee from the land," said some.

But the women would not hear of that. "We will never leave Natal," they said, "until we have avenged the death of our dear ones." And so they stayed.

The news of the terrible slaughter soon spread, and other Boers, together with the British who had settled at Durban, came to help to fight Dingaan. But the white people were few, and the natives swarmed in thousands, and what was worse, the white people did not all fight together. Several wanted to be leaders, and were jealous of each other. So the war went on for months, and disaster after disaster fell upon the Boers.

But at last, in December 1838, an army of nearly five hundred marched against Dingaan. There were no real soldiers among them, they were all farmers, but perhaps they were more like Cromwell's Ironsides than any soldiers that were ever seen. They were men of little learning, the Bible had often been their only lesson book, and they had the words of it constantly on their lips. No noise of laughter or merriment was to be heard in the camp, but morning and evening rose the sound of prayer and psalm-singing. It was as if a church had come out to do battle.

On Sunday, 16th December, the great battle was fought. At five o'clock in the morning the Zulus attacked the Boer encampment, and for five hours or more the fight lasted. With savage bravery the black hordes flung themselves again and again against the barricades. As they came on they were mown down in hundreds by the deadly fire of the Boer guns. For hours they attacked, but at length they fled, and were pursued by the Boers till darkness fell. The slaughter was awful. The ground was piled with dead and dying, and sodden with blood, the very river ran so red that afterwards it was called the Blood River. More than three thousand Zulus lay upon the field, and many more perished in the chase, but not a white man was killed, and only three were wounded. In memory of this great victory, the 16th December was called Dingaan's day, and kept ever after as a holiday.

After the fight the Boers moved on, and next day came to Dingaan's town. But they found it a smoking ruin, for the chief had set it on fire and fled. On the hill outside the town the Boers found the bleaching skeletons of their friends who had been murdered so many months before. They had not been touched since the day that they were thrown there. Although it was now little more than a skeleton, Retief's body was known by the clothes he wore and by a leathern pouch which he had carried. In it was found the treaty signed by the false Dingaan.

Reverently and sadly the Boers buried the dead comrades they had come to avenge. Then having rested for a few days they set off again to fight the savages. At length, having scattered them far and wide, they returned to Natal bringing with them many thousand cattle as spoil.

The Boers now took possession of Natal and proclaimed it to be a republic. The Dutch flag was hoisted, and the town of Pietermaritzburg founded. It was so called in honour of Pieter Retief and of Gerrit Maritz, another of the Boer leaders.

But Dingaan was not yet beaten. He built himself a new town, and waited quietly for a chance to swoop down upon the Boers. Meanwhile, however, he quarrelled with his brother Panda. Panda with many of his followers fled to Natal asking the Boers to help him. They were not sure at first that this might not be a trick. But Panda proved to them that he was in earnest, and so the Boers, joining him, once more marched to attack Dingaan. Another battle took place in which Dingaan was utterly beaten, and was forced to flee with the remnant of his army to hide in the fastnesses of the north. There he was soon killed by another savage tribe.

The Boers then proclaimed Panda king. But he was only a vassal king. He was really under the Boers and had little power. So at last there was peace once more between Kaffir and white man.

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