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South Africa Holiday: Battle of Blood River

 

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After the Voortrekkers had failed to negotiate with the Zulus the secession of land for settling and grazing, and had endured a number of catastrophic assaults, they assembled at the Ncome River for a decisive battle. On December 16, 1838, 464 Boers under the command of Andries Pretorius defeated more than 10,000 Zulu warriors. The deeply religious Boers did not ascribe the military victory to their technically superior armaments, but interpreted it primarily as a sign of God. Before the battle, they had prayed and made a vow that if God would grant them victory over the Zulus, they would commemorate the event annually. With that battle behind them, they believed even more strongly that white predominance over blacks is God's own will.
 
The monument at the Blood River, a fort of cast-bronze wagons, brings to life the terrible events of 1838, which meant the beginning of the end of the Zulu Kingdom. This monument stood alone for many years as a reminder exclusively of the heroism of the white settlers, who suffered no fatalities at Blood River on that day.

Finally, in December 1998, a memorial for the 3,000 Zulu soldiers who died in the battle, was inaugurated by Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi across the river from the Afrikaner monument. The historic anniversary of the 'Day of the Vow' has been renamed 'Reconciliation Day' in the New South Africa

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In the early hours of the morning of 16 December 1838, a battle was fought between the Voortrekkers under the leadership of Andries Pretorius, and the AmaZulu warriors of Dingane near the Ncome River. The AmaZulu suffered heavy fatalities, losing more than 3000 men, while the Voortrekkers purportedly had only three non-fatal injuries. The Ncome River became red with the blood of the slain. Hence the Ncome River became known as "Blood River".
One of the historical events that was used by Apartheid apologists - some of them historians, political leaders and theologians - to construct an exclusivist Afrikaner nationalist identity, to inculcate in this community a sense of having a unique history and place in Africa and thereby legitimise white supremacy in South Africa, was what came to be known as the Battle of Blood River.
The background to this event can be found in two concurrent historical processes of the 1820s and the 1830s. First, the great trek (Afrikaans for "great organised migration") or the political disenchantment of Dutch-speaking farmers on the Eastern Cape frontier with British rule, leading to more than 15 000 of these frontier farmers trekking in groups north-east into the interior of the region to escape British administration. Secondly, the advent of the mfecane (IsiZulu for "the crushing") or difaqane (Sesotho for "forced scattering or migration") in the 1820s which was the political and military upheaval with concomitant forced migration of the Nguni people in the eastern region, that marked the rise of the rule of Shaka over the AmaZulu.

Once beyond British influence, the Voortrekkers tried to establish states in particularly those areas that were depopulated by the mfecane, such as in parts of Natal. Piet Retief, the leader of the Voortrekkers, met with Dingane, the leader of the AmaZulu, at the latter's capital at Mgundgundlovu on 6 February 1838 to apparently negotiate the cession of vast areas of land to the Voortrekkers for cattle and rifles. Ceding the land would effectively threaten the integrity of the still fragile Kingdom of the AmaZulu, a fact of which both Dingane and Retief were aware. The Voortrekkers delivered the cattle but not the firearms. At the meeting Retief was murdered at the command of Dingane.

Taking advantage of the turmoil that the murder of Retief had caused among the Voortrekkers, the AmaZulu attacked Voortrekker laagers to rid their region of the Voortrekkers whom they saw as intruders. This attack led to hundreds of fatalities at a place called Weenen (Dutch for "weeping").

On 6 April 1838 the Voortrekkers launched an unsuccessful counter-attack. On 9 December 1838 Andries Pretorius, who had assumed leadership of the Voortrekkers as Commandant-General, prepared the retaliatory attack by making a vow to God that in the case of victory, the Voortrekkers would annually observe a day of thanksgiving.


The Voortrekkers drew their ox-wagons into a laager (Dutch for a "mobile fort") on the banks of the Ncome River. In the early hours of the morning of 16 December 1838 they attacked the AmaZulu soldiers. The Voortrekkers with their firearms were militarily superior to the AmaZulu, who tried to escape into the Ncome River. They suffered heavy fatalities, losing more than 3000 men, while the Voortrekkers purportedly had only three non-fatal injuries. The Ncome River became red with the blood of the slain AmaZulu. Hence the Ncome River became known as "Blood River".

After the defeat of Dingane, the Kingdom of the AmaZulu was hurled into political strife. Mpande, the half-brother of Dingane, taking advantage of the political uncertainty overthrew the latter and seized the leadership of the AmaZulu. Since Mpande was open to the demands for land by the Voortrekkers, Andries Pretorius declared him King of the AmaZulu, and a vassal of the Voortrekker Natal Republic. Large areas of his kingdom were annexed by Natal. While Mpande's vassalage lapsed when the British colonial administration annexed the Natal Republic, the AmaZulu did not regain their land. However, they did undergo a period of stability and economic recovery.

Given that this day was observed with varying degrees of political and ideological intensity only in the twentieth century, there is reasonable doubt that such a vow had indeed ever been made.

For the greater part of the twentieth century 16 December had been observed as a public holiday, with Afrikaans-speakers attending special church services or visiting the Voortrekker Monument. Until the National Party seized power in 1948, this day was observed as "Dingaan's Day". After 1948 the National Party government set about politicising this day to legitimise their apparent uniqueness and historical relationship with God. Hence in 1952 "Dingaan's Day" officially became the "Day of the Covenant". In 1980 in the face of protracted resistance towards and rebellion against the white minority state by the black majority, the National Party appealed to old racist sentiments in the Afrikaans community and renamed the day the "Day of the Vow".

In 1994 South Africa elected its first non-racial and democratic government. In the spirit of promoting reconciliation and national unity, the day was given a new meaning and was renamed the "Day of Reconciliation" in 1995.

A new meaning and significance had already been accorded this day in the past: on 16 December 1961 the African National Congress launched its military wing, Umkhonto we Siwze, the Spear of the Nation.
 
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