Battle of the Blood River

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Battle of the Blood River
Part of: Big Trek
date December 16, 1838
place Blood River in South Africa
output Victory of the Boers
Parties to the conflict

Boers ( Voortrekker )

Kingdom of the Zulu


Andries Pretorius

Ndlela kaSompisi , Dambuza

Troop strength
• 472 Boers,
• 120 Africans from Port Natal ,
• 333 others (charioteers, grooms and traders)
• 10,000–20,000 warriors

three wounded

around 1,000–3,000 killed

In the Battle of the Blood River ( German : " Blood River "; Afrikaans : Slag van Bloedrivier , isiZulu : iMpi yaseNcome ) called, Boer Voortrekkers under Andries Pretorius achieved a decisive victory over the Zulu forces under their commanders Ndlela kaSompisi on December 16, 1838 († 1840) and Dambuza († 1840).

Starting position

The annexation of the Cape by Great Britain (1806) was followed by a number of innovations, such as the introduction of British law, which also provided for the equality of whites and free non-whites, and the abolition of slavery in 1833. The abolition of the Dutch official language and the possibility of speaking Dutch or Afrikaans in court were particularly painful for the Boer population - this aggressive assimilation and suppression policy of early English imperialism is seen by modern historiography as a decisive moment for the great trek , the mass emigration of the Boers from the Cape region. The Boers, who were mostly conservative-minded and who lived as farmers, viewed these legal innovations not only as a threat to their traditional way of life, but also feared for their livelihood. In 1835, an emigration movement began, the aim of which was to escape the sphere of influence of the British and British law. In total, around 6,000 Boers, the so-called Voortrekkers , made their way north in the following years to reach still free land and to continue their accustomed way of life there.

In the course of this emigration movement, known as the Great Trek , there were repeated clashes with the Zulu who immigrated a few years ago. One of the first rulers the Voortrekkers encountered and eventually defeated was Mzilikazi , the king of the Matabele and rival of the Zulu king Dingane . Although Dingane had initially supported the Whites, he was not happy about their victory over his rival as he secretly viewed them as a danger to his people as well. In February 1838 he therefore decided to launch a “preventive strike” against the white intruders, whom he had attacked and killed in their camps and other whereabouts. More than 500 Voortrekkers and their African helpers fell victim to these attacks, including Pieter Retief and his companions in the Zulu capital of uMgungundlovu when they wanted to negotiate a contract with the king there. After the Boers in Natal got over their shock, they equipped a punitive expedition led by Andries Pretorius , who had only joined them in November 1838. Elected general commander, he led 472 men along with 120 drafted blacks from Port Natal and over 300 grooms and black wagon drivers with 64 covered wagons in the direction of uMgungundlovu in what is now the province of KwaZulu-Natal . Pretorius succeeded in provoking the Zulu on December 16, 1838 to attack his well-fortified and conveniently placed Laager (the wagon castle consisting of covered wagons ) and defeating them in the ensuing battle.


Zulu warriors attack the Boer Laager ; Illustration from the 19th century

On the river Ncome, which was to be named Bloedrivier after the battle, the Zulu force led by Dambuza and Ndlela kaSompisi, which was estimated at 10,000 to 20,000 warriors, met the Boers entrenched in their camp . The regiments ( amabutho ) of the Zulu attacked the wagon castle repeatedly, but were repeatedly repulsed by the concentrated fire of the Boers and finally had to break off the fight. Not a single Zulu had managed to break into the wagon castle. The Voortrekkers had only three wounded as a result of the battle, among them Pretorius himself. In contrast, the Zulu had suffered devastating losses. The Boers put the number of their dead at around 3,000.

Decisive for the Boer victory was also the clever strategy of placing only the best shooters at the front line, but assigning the less experienced in handling firearms and the other helpers to reloading the rifles and pistols. In this way, each shooter always had enough loaded weapons available so that a constant fire could be maintained on the attacking Zulu. The shields of the Zulu were easily penetrated by the rifle bullets and, moreover, they could not bring out their majority due to the relatively small attack surface offered by the Boer wagon castle, which was additionally protected by the terrain.


Four days later, Pretorius and his men reached the royal kraal uMgungundlovu, who had since been abandoned by Dingane and razed to the ground. On a hill ( kwaMatiwane ) near the kraal they found the remains of Pieter Retief and his companions, who buried them in a mass grave.

Pretorius' victory made the further colonization of Natal and the establishment of the Boer Republic Natalia possible. The Zulu were greatly weakened, Dingane's power waned, and the decline of the most powerful tribe in southern Africa began.


December 16 is a public holiday in South Africa . Due to a vow that Pretorius and the Voortrekker made on December 9th and renewed daily until the day of victory in battle, it was called Geloftedag / Day of the Vow until 1994 , since then as Day of Reconciliation ("Atonement Day") called.


  • John Laband : The A to Z of the Zulu Wars (= The A to Z Guide Series, No. 202). The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham-Toronto-Plymouth 2010, ISBN 978-0-8108-7631-6 , pp. 184f. (Keyword: NCOME, BATTLE OF (1838) ).
  • SP MacKenzie: Revolutionary Armies in the Modern Era. A Revisionist Approach (= The New International History Series). 1st ed., Routledge, Chapman & Hall, London-New York 1997, ISBN 978-0-415-09690-4 , pp. 68-77: The Voortrekkers, Blood River, and the Zulu War of 1838-1840.

Web links

Commons : Battle of the Blood River  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files

References and comments

  1. ^ Hermann Giliomee , The Afrikaners - biography of a people, Cape Town 2003, pp. 75ff.
  2. Cf. Jörg Fisch: History of South Africa . dtv, Munich 1990, ISBN 3-423-04550-7 , pp. 128-132.
  3. Fisch (1990), pp. 132-134 and Laband (2010), p. 185.
  4. In modern literature, however, this number is considered too high. For comparison, reference is made again and again to the number of Zulu killed in the great battles of the Zulu War of 1879 ( e.g. Kambula or Ulundi ), where the British army had much better handguns than the Boers in 1838. Nevertheless, on the occasion of these battles in the British sources never cited the number of Zulu killed even close to that given by the Boers for the Battle of the Blood River. - Laband (2010), p. 185, therefore “only” assumes that Zulu warriors have been killed “ [p] robably well over 1,000 ”.

Coordinates: 28 ° 6 ′ 19 ″  S , 30 ° 32 ′ 30 ″  E