11 August 2011

The Bloukrans Massacre

Piet Retief left Doornkop with a party of 70 men and 30 Coloured servants on 25 January 1838 and arrived at the Zulu capital umgungundlovu on 3 February. After they had spent a few days at the Kraal, a treaty was drawn up in which Dingane granted land to the voortrekkers. This document, dated 4 February, was signed on the 6th at the time of the final interview. On that morning the voortrekkers and their servants were seized and taken to a hill nearby, where they were killed. On the same day Dingane dispatched thousands of warriors under the command of Ndlela Ntuli to exterminate the voortrekkers in the midlands of Natal.

The advanced Trekker camps were spread over a 25 km range between the Tugela from the present-day Colenso to the present-day village of Willowgrange. The remainder were at Saai Laager, Doornkop and in scattered camps further westward.

Four family groups had established themselves in the valley of the Rensburg Spruit, which lies about 10 km east of the present-day Estcourt. Further north, many family groups were located between two streams flowing into the Bloukrans River. (Later they would be named the Great and Little Moord (Murder) Spruits.) Maritz.'s large party was camped between these two groups on the banks of the Bushman's River.

When the Piet Retief party failed to return to their laager on 12 February as had been expected, Gert Maritz became concerned and visited many of the family groups, warning them to form laagers. In some cases he was successful but many disregarded his warnings.

At about midnight on 16-17 February 1838 the Zulus began their assault on the Trekker encampments over a 9 km front along the Bloukrans River. The Zulus fell upon the sleeping Liebenbergs, Besters and de Beers near the confluence of the Umlaas River (also called the Little Murder Spruit) and the Bloukrantz Rivers.

Daniel Bezuidenhout, awakened by barking dogs, managed to escape to the families further west and warn them of the impendinq Zulu attack. Hans Bezuidenhout also managed to escape and warn others in the vicinity. All the Trekker families situated to the west of the Qabango (also called the Great Murder Spruit) were overwhelmed and killed, including the families of Botha, Smit, Breytenbach and most of the Bezuidenhouts. Further to the south, some of the Zulu impi fell upon the Rossouws. Nearby, 36 members of the Engelbrecht and Greyling families sought protection with the Robbertse family who were located between the Little and Great Murder Spruits. This group, however, were overtaken by the Zulus and killed.

Artists rendition of an attack during the Bloukrans Massacre

The Van der Merwe and Prinsloo families were located close to each other to the east of the Great Murder Spruit. Johanna van der Merwe, who was 12 years old, sought shelter with the Prinsloos. She received 21 assegai wounds in the Zulu attack and Catherina Prinsloo received 23. Both were found by a rescue party the following afternoon. Both eventually recovered and lived to an old age.

Therese Viglione, wife of an Italian trader, mounted her horse and rode to as many laagers as possible warning them of the Zulu attacks.

George Biggar, the son of an 1820 British Settler, who was born on board the South African bound ship "Weymouth", was killed at Bloukrans.

Legendary Dick King went to warn the Trekkers near Weenen about the murder of Piet Retief, but as he was on foot, he arrived too late. He was able to render some assistance and helped defend the Maritz Laagers.

Most rivers were swollen from recent rains. At Doornkop, Piet Retief's laager and his immediate followers were now anxiously awaiting their leader's return, wholly unaware that he and his group were murdered by Dingane. This laager consisted of 78 wagons.

Sarel Celliers was with a small laager at the Bushmans River; Maritz’ laager was some 4 miles south of the Bushmans River, before its confluence with the Tugela where it was joined by two small streams.

Further to the south, and east of the Great Murder Spruit, was the Bothma family, warned of an imminent attack, they fled westward, crossed the stream and sought refuge on a nearby koppie. There they initially managed to withstand the Zulu attacks, but eventually the Zulus, using herds of cattle, overwhelmed them and the entire family perished.

The Zulus then plundered and destroyed the camps they had attacked. The camps to the west remained unscathed, and by sunrise a group of 196 men, women and children sought refuge at Doornkop which lies about 8 km west of the present-day Chieveley.

It is apparent that the Trekkers launched counter-attacks on four fronts. From Doornkop, commandant Greyling led a force into the valley of the Bloukrans River. Sarel Cilliers, leaving his camp near the present-day Frere, led a force by a circuitous route to arrive on the ridge to the east of the valley of Great Murder Spruit. He then advanced into the valley and rendered assistance there. Hans (Dons) de Lange left his camp on the Little Bushman's River and made an assault on the retreating Zulus. Gert Maritz, after a successful defence against the Zulus at Saai Laager, went to the aid of the beleagured Trekkers in the valley of the Great Murder.Spruit.

The following day the Trekker pursuit was resumed. At the Tugela they came upon a large body of the enemy, who were trying to drive the cattle and sheep across the river. On being attacked, the Zulus rushed into the swollen river and many were drowned. Unfortunately for the Trekkers, the 25 000 head of cattle and 2000 horses siezed from the camps had already been taken across the Tugela and as it was growing dark and the place that had seemed fordable now looked dangerous, the Trekkers were forced to abandon the pursuit

They returned to the scene of the massacre and joined the survivors in search of the dead, dying and wounded. For ten days burial parties were busy locating and interring the dead. The number slain was ascertained to be not less than 41 men, 56 women, 185 children and 200 servants. The Trekkers spoke of the night's deeds on 16-17 February 1838 as "The Great Murder". Nowadays it is usually referred to as "The Bloukrans Massacre". It is estimated that the Zulu losses amounted to not less than 1 000, half of which incurred during the counter-attack.

It is believed that most of the victims now lie buried in a mass grave on the left bank of the Great Murder Spruit near its confluence with the Bloukrans. At the instigation of General Piet Joubert of the Transvaal, the remains of the victims were exhumed from their scattered graves and re-interred in a communal grave on 17 December 1895 The reburial was a solemn ceremony attended by a large crowd including old Voortrekkers like Marthinus Oosthuizen. The remains of Gert Maritz were also transferred from Maritzdam near Loskop on the Little Tugela where he had been buried. The monument was erected in 1897.

South Africa, the country of our birth
Image: The Massacre at Bloukrans

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