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The Voortrekkers, Umgungundhlovu, and the 400 angry horsemen of God
If I seem to treat the Great Trek too romantically, it is perhaps because I cherish, often despite my better judgement, an old admiration for the country Boer, whose dauntless qualities I covet and whose biltong I have shared with grateful pleasure.
Jan Morris, Heaven’s Command
Me too, Jan. Me too.
The Dutch are now an almost forgotten great empire of the Age of Discovery, eclipsed as they were by the progeny of the British and leaving fewer marks on their possessions than the French or the Spanish. Their New Holland became Australia. New Amsterdam, New York. Batavia, Jakarta.
But some of their fiercest offspring live on in the mongrel Dutch/German/Huguenot people of the Afrikaner. But they too have been forgotten, their states and institutions dismembered, and lands returned to the natives.
More than forgotten, they have been condemned. History has no place for them in the arc of Anglo-Protestant progressive justice. What is remembered is bundled up with condemnations of colonialism and a sense of snotty comeuppance at their hubris to build cities of their own on the Dark Continent.
Yet their stories are as majestic as their cousin settlers of the New World. A frontier, chosen people wandering in search of their Promised Land. Hundreds of years had rendered them as native a people as any to their corner of that continent. Perhaps really they are condemned for having lost, while Americans stand perched atop the world for having won. A bleak irony, for this is in no small measure due to European diseases having decimated New World natives, and for the Dark Continent having proved a disease death bed for Europeans.1
The Zulus, a highly organized fighting people, lived in a condition of terrible isolation, having slaughtered most of their nearer neighbours.
The King loved display. He surrounded himself with plump women, jesters and dwarfs. He liked to show off his famous glutton Menyosi, who could eat a whole goat in a single meal.
I haven’t yet finished Jan Morris’s Heaven’s Command — recommended by a Twitter friend — but I wanted to share these passages on the Boers below (shortened for brevity). The epic saga will speak for itself. For me, a truly soul-warming moment though is Morris’s description of the Afrikaner as slightly petulant. What a wonderfully true and affectionate description of a people. I am blessed to have had many South African friends — including upon a couple visits — and I must say, with love, that is a perfect description.
‘Do not let us go to them,’ said Pretorius, ‘let them come to us’: and so the sun rose with the Zulus still and silent outside the laager, and the Boers singing solemn hymns within.
There is, of course, much more to Heaven’s Command — a catalogue of Victorian empire — than the story of the Boers. Her tale of the pederastic princelings of Kabul and the British week-long retreat in 1842 is another breathless affair:
Before it had left the valley the army was virtually without food, fuel, shelter or ammunition, and behind it left a trail of dead and dying people, like a track of litter after a grisly holiday—some wide-eyed and insensible, some pleading to be put out of their misery, some stabbed about with knives, for the fun of it, by the Afghan children who swarmed through the mêlée.
So there remained, on January 13, 1842, only one survivor of the Kabul army—Surgeon Brydon, Army Medical Corps, galloping desperately over the last few miles to Jalalabad, Afghans all around him like flies, throwing stones at him, swinging sabres, reducing him in the end to the hilt of his broken sword, which he threw in a horseman’s face. And quite suddenly, in the early afternoon, Brydon found himself all alone. The Afghans had faded away. There was nobody to be seen. Not a sound broke the cold air. He plodded on through the snow exhausted, leaning on the pony’s neck, and presently he saw in the distance the high mud walls of Jalalabad, with the Union Jack flying above. He took his forage cap from his head and feebly waved. The fortress gates opened; a group of officers ran out to greet him; and so the retreat from Kabul, and the first of Queen Victoria’s imperial wars, came to its grand and terrible end.
A century after the events described, Morris has a prescient conversation with a local, presaging Soviet and American invasions in the decades to come:
As for the retreat from Kabul, though largely forgotten in Britain it is vividly remembered in Afghanistan: when in 1960 I followed the army’s route from Kabul to Jalalabad with an Afghan companion, we found many people ready to point out the sites of the tragedy, and recall family exploits. I asked one patriarch what would happen now, if a foreign army invaded the country. “The same’, he hissed between the last of his teeth.
And not to leave the impression that Morris is “merely” a breathtaking storyteller of grand epics, here she is too with a charming personal anecdote shared as a footnote to British emancipation and Sierra Leone (the second paragraph is a footnote to the first):
In the eighteenth century there had been some 14,000 slaves in Britain itself, scattered in gentlemen’s houses throughout the kingdom.
Of whom I cannot forbear to mention ‘Jack Black’ of Ystumllyn, near my own home in Caernarfonshire. He was the only black man in North Wales, and the local girls adored him: as his biographer austerely observed in 1888, gwyn y gwel y fran ei chyw — ‘the crow sees its young as white’.
What a character she must have been.
1. The Great Trek
So it came about that in the late years of the 1830s the Boers, the first refugees of Victoria’s empire, undertook the hegira of their race, the Great Trek—a mass migration of frontier people, perhaps 10,000 souls, out of the eastern Cape into the unexploited high veld of the interior, where they could pick their own land and be themselves. They were escaping in fact from the modern world, with all its new notions of equality and reason, but on the face of it they were simply trying to get away from the British. They were early victims of that latent British aptitude for interference which was presently to find subjects, and make enemies, from Canada to Bengal.
The Boers of the Great Trek—the Voortrekkers, as they were ever after to be known—made for the Orange River, the eastern frontier of the colony. Once across it, they would be free.
They were very experienced frontiersmen, and they travelled with a loose-limbed expertise. We see their high-wheeled trek wagons plunging through rivers and over ravines, the long ox-teams slipping and rearing, the driver with his immense hide whip cracking above his head, the black servants straining with ropes on the back wheels. We see them camped in laager within the circle of their wagons. The men in their wide-brimmed hats are smoking long pipes beneath awnings, or lie fast asleep upon the ground. The women are imperturbably suckling their children, mending their clothes, or preparing heroic Boer meals of game, eggs and violent coffee. Hens scrabble among the propped rifles and powder horns, a tame gazelle, perhaps, softly wanders among the carts, and in the distance the black men separately squat and gossip beside their fires. It is a truly Biblical scene, and the trekker Boers were searching quite consciously for a Promised Land. They moved in a spirit of revelation, as though pillars of fire were leading them (and one unusually ecstatic group, coming across a verdant spring in the remoter veld, assumed it to be the source of the River Nile, and named it Nilstrom). They were penetrating country almost unknown to white people—up through the scrub of the Karroo into the brilliant immensities of the high veld, which seemed to extend limitlessly into the heart of Africa, which smelt of herbs and heather, and over whose silences the stars hung at night with a clarity unimaginable to the distant philanthropists of Empire.
There were few black people to harass them. The only real opposition came from the warlike Matabele tribe, whom the Boer commandos, loose in the saddle and quick with the elephant gun, smartly defeated in a battle at Vegkop, well over the Orange River, killing 400 warriors and capturing 7,000 cattle.
The trekkers mostly travelled in groups of a dozen wagons or so, with ten or twelve fighting men, twenty or thirty black servants and a rag-tag tail of cattle, horses, sheep and goats. It was only in 1834 and 1835 that a sporadic movement of families and friends developed into a migration; and only in 1837 that the main body of the Voortrekkers, some 3,000 men and women, assembled at their rendezvous at Thaba Nchu, at the foot of the Drakensberg on the borders of Basutoland.
Now they began to think of themselves as a State. They were the Maatschappij‚ the Company of Emigrant South Africans, self-constituted in reaction to the British Empire, and from their leaders, so often at each other’s throats, they chose a Captain General. Piet Retief at 56 was more sophisticated than most of his contemporaries. He was of Huguenot stock, had grown up in the wine country around Stellenbosch, had lived in Cape Town and was a born wanderer, destined never to settle. He it was who gave the Great Trek its manifesto. Like most such declarations, it was meant to be read between the lines. ‘As we desire to stand high in the estimation of our brethren,’ it said, ‘be it known inter alia that we are resolved, wherever we go, that we will uphold the just principle of liberty; but whilst we will take care that no one shall be in a state of slavery, it is our determination to maintain such regulations as may suppress crime and preserve proper relations between master and servant…. We will not molest any people, nor deprive them of the smallest property; but, if attacked, we shall consider ourselves fully justified in defending our persons and effects to the utmost of our ability….’
There one hears, perhaps for the first time, the authentic voice of Afrikaner self-justification: the flattened cadences, slightly petulant, with which for a century or more the Boers were to plead their grievances and their cause—a peasant voice, uneducated and unsubtle, but more determined and more courageous than the British would usually suppose.
2. Umgungundhlovu — The Secret Plot of the Elephant
Some thought they would cross the Vaal, to settle in the high grasslands of the Gatstrand and the Witwatersrand. But Piet Retief had his mind upon Natal, the glorious green country on the coast, lush, forested, watered, warm in the bitterest winter, in the summer freshened by breezes off the sea or the high mountains that bounded it inland. In October, 1837, he rode ahead with a party of horsemen and, passing through a pass in the Drakensberg, saw this paradise for the first time: there it lay below the mountains, green and warm, with palms and bananas, heavenly wild flowers of the tropics, magnificent forests of yellow-wood and tambuti, and far in the distance beyond the downlands and the coastal plain, the blue line of the Indian Ocean. ‘The most beautiful land,’ wrote Retief, ‘I have ever seen in Africa.’
Surely it was Israel. Few Europeans lived in it, and few Africans either, while the British Empire had specifically declined to annex it. Its only suzerain was King Dingaan of the Zulus, and he did not live there himself, but claimed it merely as buffer territory to his Kingdom of Zululand farther north. With this capricious but formidable barbarian Retief, riding down through the foothills with 14 men and four wagons, accordingly opened negotiations.
Dingaan lived in some state. The name of his royal kraal, Umgungundhlovu, meant The Secret Plot of the Elephant, and commemorated Dingaan’s assassination of his half-brother Shaka, the greatest of Zulu kings. It was a city of thatched beehive houses above a stream. Behind it the humped wilderness of Zululand stretched away to the north, a terrific empty country of dry hills and green river-beds, speckled only with the villages of the Zulu pastoralists. The nearest European settlement to the east was the Portuguese colony of Delagoa Bay, a thousand miles away: the nearest to the west was Grahamstown, far across the wasteland of the Transkei. The Zulus, a highly organized fighting people, lived in a condition of terrible isolation, having slaughtered most of their nearer neighbours.
The King loved display. He surrounded himself with plump women, jesters and dwarfs. He liked to show off his famous glutton Menyosi, who could eat a whole goat in a single meal. His palace was a great mud hut, its floor rubbed with fat to make it shine, its reed roof beautifully woven, and around it stood hundreds of huts in circular groups: huts for the wives and concubines of the king, huts for the young warriors of the bodyguard, huts for the royal weapons. A large cattle-kraal stood ostentatiously near the palace, the wealth of the Zulus being expressed in cows, and behind it the lazy circling of vultures marked the Hill of Execution, which was littered with human bones and scavenged by hyaenas.
Retief was courteously received. Warriors danced for him, marvellous in beads and ostrich feathers, with great skin shields brandished high, and plumes bobbing above their heads, and trained red oxen moving in rhythm with their gestures. Dingaan himself, bald, greased and resplendent in red, white and black, welcomed him graciously from his throne at the gate of the cattle kraal. Their talks were brief and to the point. Retief wanted simply to settle his people in the unoccupied territory of Natal, and Dingaan almost immediately concurred. The Boers could settle there, but only if they first performed a service for Dingaan: reclaim from the Basuto chieftain Sikonyela, in the mountains, a number of Zulu cattle he had lately stolen. When they had brought these beasts back to Umgungundhlovu, preferably with Sikonyela too, then the Boers could move into Natal.
Retief was delighted, and the Boers rode back in high spirits to the Voortrekker encampments beside the Drakensberg. The news preceded them, and the Afrikaners, quoting psalms, texts and prophecies, in-spanned at once and hastened impulsively through the passes, helter-skelter down the escarpment into Natal, until there were a thousand wagons, perhaps 4,000 Boers, prematurely encamped around the headwaters of the Tugela within Dingaan’s putative territory. There the first citizen was born upon the soil of New Holland, and the Voortrekkers felt that the worst of their hardships were over.
It did not take Retief long to perform his commission. With fifty burghers and ten of Dingaan’s Zulus he moved swiftly into the Basuto country, enticed Sikonyela into his camp, kidnapped him and held him prisoner until all the 700 stolen cattle were handed over. A week later Retief set off, with a commando of seventy volunteers and thirty coloured servants, to claim his reward from Dingaan. By now rumours had reached the Voortrekkers that the Zulu king might be less friendly than he seemed. He had been alarmed by the Boer victory at Vegkop—he resented the impetuous entry of the trekkers into Natal—he really had no intention at all of allowing the Boers to settle in his territory—he was blood-crazed and treacherous to the core. (‘Who can fight with thee?’ his warriors used to intone before him, dancing ferociously for hours at a time. ‘No king can fight with thee. They that carry firearms cannot fight with thee.’)
But Retief and his men rode boldly back to Umgungundhlovu, and found themselves respectfully welcomed again. There were dances and parades once more. The King talked at length about this and that. Zulu impis marched and counter-marched, beating their war-drums. After three days of mixed entertainment and discussion, Dingaan announced that all was settled, and he signed with his mark a deed granting to the Boers—‘the Dutch Emigrant South Africans’—all the land between the Tugela and the Umzimvubu rivers, ‘and from the sea to the north as far as the land may be useful and in my possession’. Natal was theirs, ‘for their everlasting property’. Retief and his lieutenants, leaving their weapons outside, entered the central kraal to seal the concord with a libation of African beer, while the dancers tossed and whirled in celebration around them, and the drums beat wildly.
They drank: and as they did so Dingaan, rising terribly to his feet in black and feathered splendour, cried ‘Bulala ama Tagati!’—‘Kill the wizards!’ Instantly the warriors and the dancers fell upon the Boers. They dragged them to the Hill of Execution, and there, binding their hands and feet with hide thongs, they beat their heads in with clubs and drove wooden spikes, as thick as a man’s arm, from their anuses through their chests. Retief was the last to die: they forced him to watch the sufferings of his comrades, and then they cut his heart and liver out, and buried them symbolically beneath the track that led across the river into Natal—‘the road of the farmers’, as Dingaan contemptuously called it.
3. Blood River and the 400 angry horsemen of God
The Boers were bent first on revenge against the blacks. After the massacre at Umgungundhlovu the Zulu regiments, sweeping across Natal, had attacked the scattered Boer encampments on the upper Tugela, killing 500 people, wounding hundreds more, driving off thousands of cattle, and plunging the Volk into chaos. Impis marched here and there, Boer commandos were ambushed, and even Britons found themselves embroiled—a missionary travelling through Natal in March, 1838, met a body of 400 Zulus, bellowing a monotonous war-song, led by a solitary Englishman with an ostrich feather in his straw hat and an elephant gun covered with a panther skin on his shoulder.
In November, just as the 72nd ran up the flag above Durban Bay, Andries Pretorius, one of the most respected and resourceful of the commando leaders, assumed the office of Head Commandant and prepared to fall upon Dingaan. ‘O Lord, defer not and do’, the elders prayed before his commandos left, ‘defer not, for thy name’s sake’: and in return Pretorius and his men swore that if God gave them victory over Dingaan, they would build a church in His honour to commemorate the day—‘we shall observe the day and the date as an anniversary in each year … and we shall tell our children that they must take part with us in this for a remembrance even for our posterity.’
So they crossed the Tugela, 400 angry horsemen of God, and rode direct for Umgungundhlovu. On Saturday, December 15, they halted to keep the morrow’s Sabbath on the banks of the Ncome River. They set up their laager, they mounted their three guns, and when dawn came on the Sunday they found that squatting silently upon their heels around them, thousands upon thousands in concentric circles, the feathered Zulu warriors waited. ‘Do not let us go to them,’ said Pretorius, ‘let them come to us’: and so the sun rose with the Zulus still and silent outside the laager, and the Boers singing solemn hymns within.
When daylight came the Zulus attacked, rattling their assegais against their shields to make a noise like falling rain, and hurling themselves in their hundreds upon the laager. They had scarcely a hope. The Boers, impregnably ensconced behind their wagons, decimated them with rapid fire. For hours the Zulus repeatedly charged, each time they were cruelly repulsed, until at last the Boers sprang from their wagons, let loose their commandos and rode into the impis, shooting the warriors down as they ran, driving them into the river, or slaughtering them as they crouched among the reeds of the river bank. It was like a terrible dream of war. ‘Nothing remains in my memory,’ wrote one of the Boers afterwards, ‘except shouting and tumult and lamentation, and a sea of black faces.’ Only three Boers were wounded in the battle, but at least 3,000 Zulus died. They lay on the ground ‘like pumpkins on a fertile piece of garden land’, and so stained the passing river with crimson that it was called Blood River ever afterwards.
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Scouting on Two Continents is a delightful cross-over between the New World and southern Africa, the memoir of a Major Frederick Russell Burnham who scouts across Apache country as well as fights for the British in southern Africa. Extracts coming to Kvetch soon.