Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

The Story of Natal

"Snatched and bartered oft from hand to hand."

— Kipling

"I N all the world there is not a fairer country than the pleasant land of Natal." It rises, in terraces, from the shores of the Indian Ocean to the heights of the Drakensberg. It is well watered by numerous streams, the soil is rich, and the climate healthy for Europeans. Some four hundred years before this time, the coast had been discovered by Vasco da Gama one Christmas Day, and this being the natal day of our Lord, he had called it Natal. It was inhabited entirely by natives. Now the solitary passes of the Drakensberg were speckled with the waggons of the hardy Dutch pioneers, who drove their flocks and herds into the green valleys of Natal. The story of their reception by the natives is not pleasant reading.

In the year 1783, a little brown baby had been born on the banks of the Umvolisi River. Chaka, for that was the name of this future Zulu chieftain, grew to manhood with a nature as cruel as Nero, ambitious as Napoleon. He had heard of Napoleon's conquests in Europe, and he now began a career of conquest, until he had made himself chief from the Limpopo or Crocodile river to the southern borders of Natal. Every tribe in his way, he exterminated. He devastated thousands of miles of country, and caused the death of one million human beings. At last he was slain by his brother Dingan, who made himself king over this now powerful and fierce tribe of Zulus.

It was into this depopulated country, that Retief led the Dutch settlers to make friends with Dingan. He went to Dingan's kraal to obtain from him a grant of land, and was received with every appearance of friendliness. He had sixty men with him; the rest were five days' march behind. But there seemed nothing to fear. Dingan made no trouble; the treaty should be signed next day, if they would return to him. The confiding Dutchmen and Retief returned, entered Dingan's kraal, and accepted his hospitality. They were warned to be on their guard; but "We are sure the king's heart is with us," they answered, "and there is no cause for fear."

Fearlessly the white men sat in the kraal, when suddenly Dingan called out: "Seize them; kill the wizards."

A band of Zulu warriors made for the strangers and killed every one of them, including Pieter Retief. The massacre over, the Zulus started off, at the king's orders, to attack the waggons containing the wives and children of the murdered farmers. These were peacefully sleeping, when the Zulus fell upon them. When morning dawned, 41 men, 56 women, 185 children, and as many servants lay dead at the foot of the Drakensberg mountains. And to-day stands a marble obelisk at Weenen—"the place of weeping"—in memory of the tragedy, which ended the first European emigration into Natal. These cruelties roused the rest of the colonists to action. For the last ten years there had been a little British colony at Port Natal. Now, in the face of a common danger, Boer and Briton joined hands. Tremendous fighting took place, but both Boers and Britons perished, overwhelmed by the superior numbers of Zulu warriors.

After these disasters, the emigrants left Natal alone. They crossed the Vaal and founded Potchefstroom, which was for many years the capital of Transvaal territory. Still it was evident to all that unless the cruel Zulu power was crushed in Natal, that fertile land could never be colonised by Europeans.

In 1838, a Dutchman, Pretorius, was chosen to lead an army against Dingan in Natal. With 400 men and 50 waggons, he crossed the Tugela river, and passing Rorke's Drift, reached a nameless stream, known to-day as Blood River. About Christmas time, they came in sight of Dingan's main army. It was so strongly posted, that to attack it would be madness. They could but entrench themselves and await results. The next day was Sunday. The weather was clear and bright. At early dawn, the great Zulu army approached, to the number of 10,000, and the battle began. For two long hours, the Zulu warriors endeavoured to storm the little Dutch camp; but they were armed with spears and assegais, while the Dutch had firearms, and at last the Zulus turned and fled. But over 3000 dead bodies lay on the ground, and the stream that flows through the battlefield, has ever since been called Blood River.

The victory of Blood River, on December 16, 1838, broke Dingan's power, and the Dutch colonists now began to settle on the land. They built the town of Pieter Maritzburg, naming it after their two dead leaders, Pieter Retief and Gerrit Maritz. The day known as "Dingan's Day" has always been kept by the Transvaal Boers as a public holiday, and will continue to be so under British rule. The deeds of the Dutch emigrants were watched with anxious eyes by England and the Governor of Cape Colony, and on the same day that the Battle of Blood River was raging, the British flag was hoisted over Port Natal. The Dutch, under Pretorius, proclaimed themselves a free and independent people in the Republic of Natalia, and set about forming a Government.

Another event now took place, which brought matters to a crisis. Panda, a half-brother of Dingan and son of the famous Chaka, tried to dethrone Dingan. With a large following, he crossed the Tugela into Natal, and sought the protection of the Dutch colonists against their old foe. Pretorius—still the hero of the Dutch settlers—marched with Panda against the king. Dingan was slain, and Panda acknowledged king of the Zulus. The emigrant farmers had now entirely freed Natal from the fierce power of the Zulus, and secured the friendship of their chief.

England now became anxious about their increasing strength and declaration of independence. She looked on them still as her subjects, for the British Government had decided, however far into the "hinterland" colonists might wander, they ever remained British subjects. So in 1842 she sent a small force to Port Natal, to emphasise her claim to the surrounding country. This step was resented by Pretorius, in the name of the Dutch colonists.

"Break up your camp and quit our territory," wrote Pretorius firmly.

Receiving no answer, he marched with 500 men against the English, and soon the little British camp at Durban was in a state of siege. It would have been forced to surrender, had it not been for the daring ride through ten days and ten nights of a young colonist, Dick King. While the English defended themselves as best they might, Dick King was making his way through darkness and danger to Grahamstown, a distance of 600 miles. There were unbridged rivers to be crossed, savage tribes of natives to be avoided; but young King had a stout heart, and on the tenth day of his perilous ride, he arrived exhausted at Grahamstown with his dismal tidings. In consequence of the news he carried, an English ship arrived off Port Natal with soldiers under Colonel Clœte, and the twenty-six days' siege was soon ended.

A year later the territory of Natal was formally declared to be a British colony. It was a turning-point in South African history. A great number of Dutch farmers settled down quietly under British rule, but the fiercer spirits recrossed the Drakensberg and joined their comrades in the Orange River Colony and Transvaal.

Their story will be told later.

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