South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

Natal And The Zulus

Natal, as we know, was given its name by Vasco da Gama from the fact that his ships passed its shores on Christmas day. But from that day on for over three hundred years the only white men who landed on its soil were an occasional slave-trader or ivory-hunter, or sailors driven thither by the dreadful circumstance of shipwreck. We have many pitiful tales of such castaways forcing a path through the swamps or over the mountains to Delagoa Bay, some even making for the Cape, and usually perishing from hunger or thirst or by the savagery of the natives. There was, to take only one case, the wreck of the Stavenisse  in 1687, when the crew might have died of starvation were it not that several English sailors, wrecked some time before, came to their aid with beads by means of which they purchased food from the natives. How some of them made a vessel and sailed to Table Bay is like a chapter of Robinson Crusoe. "John Kingston, the Englishman, made a saw out of the ring of the 'luijk.' We made one trip to the wreck, and picked whatever would serve our purposes; we found three anchors among the rocks, or thrown up on the beach, among them our best bower, with the piece of the cable to which the ship had ridden. We broke the shank in two; one part served for an anvil; the rest, with the arms and ring, were beaten into nails and bolts." Many sailors were murdered owing to the belief of the natives that (as Henry Fynn tells us) "white men were not human beings, but a production of the sea, which they traversed in large shells, coming near the shore in stormy weather, their food being the tusks of elephants which they would take from the beach if laid there for them, and placing beads in their room which they obtained from the bottom of the sea."

But the English are an adventurous race, and nowhere has their daring spirit been better shown than in the early history of Natal. The fate of Dr. Cowan and Lieutenant Donovan, who perished in an attempt to cross Natal into Portuguese territory, did not deter others. The ivory trade was the great temptation, and in 1823 a company was formed in Cape Town for the purpose of developing it. Thus began a precarious settlement of British adventurers on the spot where the town of Durban now stands. They were brave men—some of them might be called great men. The story of the hardships and dangers through which they passed, their shipwrecks at sea and their battles on land, would take a volume to itself. Even this brief account, from which by far the greater part of their doings must be omitted, will serve to show the extraordinary and perilous enterprises which formed the routine of their daily lives.

The chief among them were James Saunders King and Francis George Farewell, who had both been naval officers; the Fynn family—four in all, a father and three sons—of whom two afterwards became famous in Kafirland; Nathaniel Isaacs, an English Jew related to the Solomon family of St. Helena and then of Cape Town, who has written a fascinating account of his adventures; Captain Allen Gardiner of the Royal Navy, the missionary who afterwards died in Patagonia; John Cane, Thomas Holstead, and George Biggar. There were others; but these are perhaps the best known.

What these men did between them passes belief. They built a ship; they became chiefs of tribes; they led native armies; they held their own against the Zulus; they led embassies to the Cape from Chaka; they obtained charters from Dingaan; they were doctors, elephant-hunters, soldiers, diplomatists; they petitioned to be made a colony with a Governor and a House of Representatives; they became protectors of broken tribes; they built houses and founded the town of Durban which they called after the Governor of the Cape. They were, in short, men of their hands who could rise to the height of any adventure.

When they entered Natal, they found one of the most extraordinary despotisms that has ever arisen in Africa. Chaka was the great chief of the Zulus. He had built up a nation of warriors, and made himself supreme over vast territories. The male part of the population was divided into veterans, younger soldiers, and amabutu, lads who had not served in war. These were distinguished by the colour of their long shields of oxhide, white, black, and red, and the higher orders wore black rings of reeds, bound with sinews and varnished with black beeswax, which were sewn upon their heads. Isaacs saw together seventeen regiments of warriors with black shields, and twelve regiments with white shields, which, he calculated, amounted to thirty thousand men in all; and Chaka assured him that this force was not half the army. They were armed with only one heavy stabbing assegai, to lose which was death, and their method of attack, devised by Chaka himself, who discarded the throwing assegais, was to charge in dense masses covered by their great shields and thrust when they got to close quarters. Thus they devastated the whole of the south-eastern corner of Africa, leaving the country almost bare of inhabitants. Fynn, who went with Chaka on one of his campaigns, describes the destruction of the Endwandwe tribe. They had collected all their cattle and their women and children on a rocky height and sat round them waiting for the Zulus to attack. Chaka's forces marched slowly and with much caution in regiments, each regiment divided into companies, till within twenty yards of the enemy, when they made a halt. After hissing and exchanging challenges, "both parties, with a tumultuous yell, clashed together, and continued stabbing each other for about three minutes, when both fell back a few paces. Seeing their losses about equal, both armies raised a cry, and this was followed by another rush, and they continued closely engaged about twice as long as in the first onset, when both parties again drew off. But the enemy's loss had now been the most severe. This urged the Zulus to a final charge. The shrieks became terrific. The remnant of the enemy's army sought shelter in an adjoining wood, out of which they were soon driven. Then began a slaughter of the women and children. They were all put to death.

The battle, from the commencement to the close, did not last more than an hour and a half. The number of the hostile tribe, including women and children, could not have been less than forty thousand. The number of cattle taken was estimated at sixty thousand."

After a fight like this all the cowards "were put to death. Every regiment had to sacrifice some, or its leaders would have been accused of protecting their men. If a regiment were defeated it was massacred en masse.

But the slaughter did not end in the field. Every day Chaka made a sign and a dozen or so of his courtiers or wives were dragged to the hill of execution and beaten to death. Once, it is said, the crying of a child annoyed him, and he slew not only the child itself but all the other innocents, amounting to fifteen or twenty, among whom it took refuge. On another occasion he murdered all the old men, saying that "they were of no use as they could not fight." Isaacs gives an account of how on one day he killed one hundred and seventy girls and boys. "He began by taking out several fine lads and ordering their own brothers to twist their necks, their bodies were afterwards dragged away and beaten with sticks until life was extinct. After this refined act of monstrous cruelty, the remainder of the victims in the kraal were indiscriminately butchered." If a father shed tears as he was killing his son, he was killed too, for moral disobedience. On one day Chaka killed nine of his wives because they made remarks which displeased him. The Hill of Execution was white with the bones of his victims, and great troops of jackals and wolves always waited round the place for the food they knew was sure to come.

But the greatest massacre of all was when Chaka's mother died. Fynn, who was an eye-witness, describes the scene in a passage of appalling horror. The Zulus were in a panic to be the first to show their grief, for they knew that a general slaughter was sure to follow, and those would be chosen who had the least appearance of sorrow. They tore from their bodies every description of ornament, and the fifteen thousand people in the kraal set up the most dismal and horrid yells. Those who could not force natural tears from their eyes took snuff copiously. Chaka, himself, who was something of an actor, stood for twenty minutes in full war attire, pensively shedding tears which dropped upon his shield. The people of the neighbouring kraals came pouring in to join the deafening chorus. The mourning went on in growing vigour all through the night, each striving to outdo his neighbour. By morning there were fully sixty thousand people in the town. Forty oxen were slaughtered to the spirits; but no one was allowed to touch meat, and the weaker began to give way to hunger and fatigue. Then at ten o'clock the war song began, and every one spurred himself to renewed efforts. All who gave in were cut down. Those who ran to the water to drink were speared as they went. Those who could no longer force tears from their eyes paid the penalty of death. Never was the simulated emotion of the courtier more valuable to those who could practise it. The river was choked with corpses. The ground ran with blood. By three o'clock no less than seven thousand had fallen as a sacrifice to the grief of this pious son; and it was only at ten the next morning that Chaka relented and allowed those who remained alive to rest and refresh themselves. These are only a few of many of Chaka's massacres, in which, it is estimated, at least a million of people were slaughtered.

The tyrant came to an evil end. Two of his brothers, Dingaan and Umhlangana, conspired against his life. They got one of his servants to hold his attention while the other conspirators, stealing up behind him, stabbed him with assegais which they had concealed under their cloaks. Chaka rose and attempted to throw off his kaross. He saw his brothers among the assassins, "What have I done to you, children of my father?" he cried, and with the words he fell at their feet.

Dingaan, whose first act was to kill his brother Umhlangana, was as detestable a monster as Chaka. But he had more guile, and his methods were more treacherous. When he decided on the massacre of a regiment, he would send the executioners by stealth. They would go into the village by twos and threes and mix in a friendly way with the people. Then at a given signal the general slaughter would begin. Captain Gardiner, who stayed with the monarch for some time, gives a good description of this hero. He wore a blue dungaree cloak, relieved by a white border and devices at the back, which, although tarnished, became his height and portly figure. He was inordinately vain, and when he went abroad his people shouted—

Arise, vulture!

Thou art the bird that eateth other birds.

He dressed his women, ninety in number, in elaborate parti-coloured uniforms of beads, and used to dance with them by the hour, all singing songs of his own composition. He himself was the most active of the band, though his figure "bore the nearest resemblance to Falstaff of any I could recollect." Now and then he would turn to Captain Gardiner and say: "Are we not a jolly people?" To show how jolly he was he would straightway order the death of several of his subjects.

This was the man whom the emigrant Boers had to deal with when they came trekking down the mountains with their wagons into Natal. Piet Retief, a colonist who had got into trouble with Stockenstrom and the Colonial Government, was the leader of the party. He was delighted with the country between the Tugela and the Bushman's River, which the Zulu atrocities had left almost bare of inhabitants, and the little party of British settlers received him with enthusiasm. "The arrival of Mr. Retief and a party of emigrants," says one of them, "was hailed by us as a matter of no small moment. The conviction that we shall, for the future, be permitted in live in peace, and be freed from the constant though idle threats of Dingaan, has infused a lively spirit amongst us." They presented Retief with an address signed by all the residents, a form of courtesy they were much addicted to, and helped him with their knowledge of the language and the country.

Retief bearded the lion in his den, and Dingaan, full of guile, promised him a grant of land if he would recover some stolen cattle from the Chief Sikonyela. This Retief and his friends accomplished, treating Sikonyela, who had been kind to them, rather shabbily. Then Retief returned with the cattle and some sixty men on a state visit to the great kraal, expecting to get a charter of the land he desired.

Now at this time there were at Dingaan's kraal the Rev. F. Owen, of the Church Missionary Society, who had succeeded Captain Gardiner, with his wife Mrs. Owen, his sister, Miss Owen, and a Welsh servant girl, and also William Wood, who was acting as interpreter to Dingaan.

The journals of the two eye-witnesses make painful reading. Owen had himself been warned by Gardiner that Dingaan was plotting to murder all the white people in Natal; his presence in the kraal was bravery almost amounting to madness. On the 2nd of February (1838) he notes that Dingaan asked him to write a letter of invitation to the settlers, and adds, "The Dutch will be too wise to expose themselves in this manner."

The Dutch were not too wise. The very next morning "when we were at family prayer," the sound of shots was heard and sixty Boers came riding into town with Sikonyela's cattle, firing their guns in salute, making their horses caracole and rushing at one another in sham charges. The Zulus in their turn showed their skill in a great dance of warriors. Dingaan seemed to be in the best of humours. The farmers were thrown wholly off their guard. They left their arms and horses in the custody of their servants (the Hottentot "after-riders" who usually carried their long guns) under two milk trees which grew outside the principal entrance to the town, a circular kraal strongly hedged with bushes. William Wood, the young son of a British settler, scented mischief, although he could not be sure. He watched his opportunity to warn the farmers to be on their guard, and as they strolled past him he whispered his suspicions. But the Dutchmen only smiled and said, "We are sure the king's heart is right with us, and there is no cause for fear."

This was on the morning of the third day, and shortly afterwards Dingaan, who had been whispering with his captains, came out of his hut and seated himself in front in his arm-chair. He ordered out two of his regiments, one composed of veterans with rings on their heads and bearing white shields, the other consisting of young men with black shields. The king formed the two regiments in a great circle, with his two principal captains, Tambuza and Inhlela, on his right and left hands, and then invited Retief and his friends to come and bid him farewell.

Just about this time our good missionary was sitting in the shade of his wagon, near his huts, which were outside the kraal and just opposite the hill of execution, when one of Dingaan's messengers came and told him not to be frightened as the king was going to kill the Boers. Imagine his consternation. What was he to do? He felt it was his duty to warn the Boers, but he knew that a step in their direction meant certain death. He was standing, with his wife and sister and Wood, torn this way and that by the dreadful dilemma, when one of the party cried. "There, they are killing the Boers now!" It was too late.

Retief walked confidently into the doomed circle, a wallet on his back holding the royal charter, and sat by the king, the rest of the farmers and their servants sitting a little way off but also in the circle.

Dingaan was gracious. The farmers, he said, must come and settle in the land he had given them: it was his desire. He then wished them a safe journey, and before they started, he said, they must drink some of his Kafir beer. The beer was brought in and the troops were ordered to amuse the farmers by a song and dance.

Then all of a sudden Dingaan cried:

"Seize them!"

The circle closed in upon the sitting men with a rush.

"We are done for!" cried Halstead in English, and then added in Zulu to the men he was struggling with: "Let me speak to the king!"

The king heard him but waved away the group with his hand. In despair Halstead drew his knife, ripped up one Zulu and cut another's throat before he was overpowered and dragged away.

One of the Boers also killed his man; but in a few moments the struggle was over. Each man was held by as many Zulus as could get at him, a dozen or so to each man, and they were dragged out with their feet trailing on the ground.

All this time Dingaan was sitting on his throne with his hand stretched out, screaming: "Bulala amatakati! Bulala amatakati!" ("Kill the wizards! Kill the wizards!")

And so the farmers were dragged to the hill of execution which faced the spot on which the little missionary party stood, frozen to the ground by horror. Mr. Owen laid himself on the ground. Young Wood kept standing and saw it all. There was a great multitude on the hill, beating out the brains of the farmers with knobkerries. Retief was forced to watch the slaughter of his friends, and then he himself was killed with accompanying barbarities so atrocious that I leave them undescribed.

So died the brave Piet Retief and his fellow-pioneers.

Then Dingaan and his indunas held a council, and shortly after a great army marched out of the town to attack the camps of the Boers. The farmers were scattered hunting, and when the ten thousand warriors burst upon the little scattered groups of wagons, there were only a few men to guard the women and children. It was a night attack, and the people were taken completely by surprise. The Zulus darted everywhere in countless numbers, slaying without mercy. Forty Dutchmen and one Englishman, fifty-six Dutchwomen and one hundred and eighty-five of their children, besides two hundred and fifty of their Hottentot and half-breed servants were killed. To this day the place is called Wienen, which in our language means weeping or lamentation.

We have various accounts of this massacre, and they describe atrocities too abominable to be set down in print. An "affectionate mother and grandmother," Mrs. Steenkamp, who wrote a journal for the benefit of her descendants, said the sight was "unbearable for flesh and blood to behold." In one wagon were found fifty dead, and blood flowed from the seam of the tentsail down to the lowest.

Daniel Bezuidenhout, afterwards a burgher of the Orange Free State, was in one of the camps, and in his old age wrote down the story:—They were attacked in the night, and Bezuidenhout, awakened by the whirr of the assegais and the barking of the dogs, ran towards the wagons to get his gun. With his hands, in the semi-darkness, he broke through three lines of Kafirs, but found more and more. Then he heard his father cry, O God!" and he knew from the sound that the old man was choking with blood; he had been struck in the gullet. Another burgher fired three shots and killed three Zulus, and then he too cried "O Lord!" and fell. Bezuidenhout fled. One assegai stabbed him "on the knot of the left shoulder through the breast and along the ribs." A second struck the bone of his left thigh, "so that the point of the blade was bent, as I found afterwards when I drew it out." A third struck him above the left knee, a fourth above the left ankle "through the sinews under the calf" Then he got among the cattle and so escaped. With other refugees he sought shelter in a defended camp, and beat off Dingaan's regiments in a three days' fight.

And now the burghers braced themselves for revenge. A commando set out under Maritz, Potgieter, and Uys, but the three leaders were jealous of one another; and though some of them fought bravely, others hung back—or so at least one of the narrators says. There was desperate fighting, and part of the force was almost destroyed in a narrow pass. But they fought their way through with desperate valour. Here Piet Uys fell, and when his son, who was riding near, looked back he saw him surrounded by the Zulus. The brave little fellow, for he was only a boy of twelve, turned his horse and charged. In a moment he was surrounded by the savages. He shot two and then fell beside his father.

At this very time the English of Port Natal were determined on avenging the deaths of Halstead and Biggar. They brought together a force of seventeen Englishmen, as many Hottentots, and about fifteen hundred Zulus who had fled from Dingaan's rule. The Englishmen were their chiefs, and they hated Dingaan with a deadly hatred. Mr. Hewitson, a missionary, met part of this army on its way towards the enemy: "On the way," he says in his journal, "I fell in with a strange set of warriors. About four hundred Zulus came bellowing a war-song. It sounded exactly like the noise of angry bulls. No one could mistake its meaning; its tone was that of gloomy revenge. The words in English were: 'The wild beast has driven us from our homes, but we will catch him!' They were headed by a white man, who had an old straw hat on, with an ostrich feather stuck in it. He had on his shoulder an elephant gun covered with a panther's skin, and walked quite at ease at the head of his party, who went on with this dismal song, except that occasionally they all whistled the Zulu charge. They had flags flying, on one of which was written, 'Izin kumbi' (or the locust); on another 'For justice we fight.' They did not fatigue themselves with jumping of shouting, but the monotonous howl could be heard for at least two miles. In front they drove the cattle for slaughter; in rear the degraded wives carried Indian corn, pumpkins, etc., all of which passed so quickly by me that it seemed like a frightful dream."

A vivid glimpse—is it not?—of these appalling wars of extermination.

The Durban commando was at first successful, capturing several thousand cattle. But in a subsequent expedition Panda, Dingaan's brother, cunningly drew the little army on until he had lured it over the Tugela and into a deadly trap, and after a most desperate fight in which whole regiments of Zulus were mown down, the whole of the Port Natal army, except four English-men and five hundred Zulus, was destroyed, and the victorious Zulu army sweeping into Durban left the place in ruins.

Fortunately there was a brig in the harbour, and the settlers got aboard in time. Young Wood tells how the Zulus called on them from the shore to land, and how the settlers laughed at them from their boat. The refugee Zulus were not so fortunate; but many of the invaders fell before their guns. "When we landed," says Wood, "we found that some of our Zulus had shot numbers of the enemy. Two we found lying dead, dressed in my mother's gowns, with full sleeves, and in stockings without shoes." Imagine it—the two brawny savages lying stiff, in their early Victorian gowns (period 1888) with the blood flowing over the bombazine, and their feet sticking out starkly in white cotton stockings! Red Riding Hood's wolf in grandmother's nightcap was nothing to this!

But the Boers were gathering strength for another blow. This time the great Andries Willem Jacobus Pretorius was commandant, and he had an army not far short of five hundred burghers with horses, wagons, and small cannon. Pretorius was a fine leader. He kept good watch and fair discipline, and he was a merciful man, as his despatches and edicts show. With psalm and hymn and "sermons about Joshua," the huge cavalcade marched along towards Dingaan's kraal, the dreadful Umkungunhlovu.

Bantjes, the commandant's secretary, has given us a graphic account of the expedition. On Sunday, the 16th December 1888—Dingaan's Day, as it was ever afterwards called—the camp was formed on the bank of a river, which being still and steep of side gave complete protection on one flank, while a deep little ravine guarded the other. At dawn the Zulu army advanced upon the two open sides of the camp. Bantjes says it was a terrible and yet beautiful sight—thirty-six regiments in close order, nine or ten thousand fighting Zulus, with their plumes and long shields and great spears. Then the firing began with muskets and big guns. The wagons were fastened together with long ladders, and skins of oxen were stretched over the wheels. At the back of each wagon there were little heaps of gunpowder and bullets, and when the Zulu regiments had charged to within ten paces of the camp, the Boers had scarcely time to throw a handful of powder into the gun, and then slip a bullet down the barrel, without a moment even to drive it home with a ramrod. "Of that fight," says Bezuidenhout, "nothing remains in my memory except shouting and tumult and lamentation, and a sea of black faces; and a dense smoke that rose straight as a plumb-line upwards from the ground."

Thus the battle raged for two hours, and then Pretorius opened the laager and sallied out with his men on horseback, leaving only a few men in the camp. It was a daring and magnificently conceived piece of tactics—one of the most brilliant things ever done in native warfare. The Zulus, taken between two fires, wavered and fled. The Boers galloped among them. The commandant, at close quarters with one Zulu and finding his horse unmanageable, jumped to the ground to shoot his opponent. His gun missed fire. The Zulu stabbed and stabbed, Pretorius fencing with his musket. Then the two closed; the commandant took a thrust through his left hand and held the Zulu down with his right, until a burgher came up and drawing the spear from Pretorius's hand killed the Kafir with it.

The Zulus were now in full flight. The ravine was chock-full of them, and here the Boers made dreadful havoc. Others fled in the open, and the Boers rode along on either side of a great band of 2000 of them, shooting them as they went and skilfully herding them towards the river. "They lay on the ground," says Karl Celliers, "like a fine crop of pumpkins." Those who remained rushed into the river and lay under water "with their noses out like hippopotamuses." The Boers went along the bank shooting them till the stream looked like a pool of blood, so that it is called the Blood River to this day.

Then Pretorius marched to the king's kraal, which was found deserted and burnt; and the bones of Retief and his men were reverently buried. Dingaan had fled from the wrath of the white man.

It would take too long to follow the action of this tremendous war. The end came when Panda fled from Dingaan with nearly half the Zulu nation. The Boers had the wisdom to take Panda's side. In parallel lines they swept over the country to meet their common enemy. Dingaan, now desperate, chose to fight, endeavouring at the same time to detach the Boers by offering them all that they wanted. Pretorius very rightly shot the ambassadors. Then the two great Zulu armies met, and a tremendous conflict ensued. Thousands fell, whole regiments were killed to a man; but at last Dingaan's forces broke and fled, and all that was left of the white man's allies shouted a song of victory over the stricken field.

Dingaan fell into the hands of Sapusa the Swazi, and was there killed. The manner of his death is told by Bezuidenhout, though whether it is true or not I cannot say: "On the first day (according to the statement of the Kafirs), Sapusa pricked Dingaan with sharp assegais, no more than skin-deep, from the sole of his foot to the top of his head. The second day he had him bitten by dogs. On the third day Sapusa said to Dingaan: 'Dingaan, are you still the rain-maker? Are you still the greatest of living men? See the sun is rising: you shall not see him set!' Saying this he took an assegai and bored his eyes out. This was related to me by one of Sapusa's Kafirs who was present. When the sun set Dingaan was dead, for he had neither food nor water for three days. Such was the end of Dingaan."