The Battle of Blood River, or “Slag van Bloedrivier” in the native Afrikaans language, is the name given to the battle fought between 470 “Voortrekkers” or Pioneers led by Andries Pretorius and an estimated “15 000” Zulu warriors on the bank of the Ncome River on the 16th of December 1838. It took place in what is today the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. It is believed that the Zulu suffered over 3,000 casualties, including two Zulu princes. Three Pioneers members were also said to be wounded, including their leader Pretorius himself.
The Trekkers, called Voortrekkers, had to defend themselves after the betrayal murder of their chief Trekker leader Piet Retief and his entire contingent.
How it started
The Zulu leader Dingane had agreed that, if Retief could recover approximately 700 head of cattle stolen from the Zulus by the Tlokwa tribe, he would let them have land upon which the Trekkers and their people could establish farms and settle down.
Two days after the signing of a land settlement deal called the “Natal Treaty”, between Retief and Dingane at the Zulu capital of “UmGungundlovu”, Chief Dingane invited Retief and his entourage to his royal residence for a beer-drinking farewell. The Trekkers were requested to surrender their muskets at the entrance, which was considered by them as standard protocol when appearing before the king. While the Trekkers were being entertained by Dingane’s dancing warriors, Dingane suddenly accused the visiting party of witchcraft and ordered his men to kill the “sorcerers“. Dingane’s soldiers then proceeded to kill all of Retief’s men, lastly taking down Retief himself, with the Natal treaty still in his handbag.
Immediately after the UmGungundlovu massacre, Dingane sent out his regiments, or “Impis” in Zulu, to attack several other Trekker camps which led to another estimated 500 people being massacred.
Help arrived from Trekkers from Cape Colony and Natal, where they subsequently requested the new leader Andries Pretorius to leave the Cape Colony, to defend the Voortrekkers who had settled in Natal. He proceeded to do the same despite being heavily outnumbered and in the process, defeated the forces of King Dingane using superior tactics and weaponry. It was said that so many Zulu died in the battle that the nearby river became red with their blood. Hence the battle is remembered as the “Battle of Blood River”.
After the Battle of Blood River, the Dingane-Retief treaty was found on Retief’s remains and became the foundation for an overt alliance against Dingane between Pretorius and Dingane’s half-brother Prince Mpande. With Dingane’s military might weakened due to the disastrous Battle of Blood River, Prince Mpande openly joined the military alliance with Pretorius and attacked the remaining regiments of Dingane.
Afterwards, Pretorius approved and attended the crowning of the new Zulu King Mpande in Pietermaritzburg, where they agreed on the Tugela river as the border between Zululand and the new Republic of Natalia.