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Piet Retief was in high spirits on Feb. 6, 1838. The leader of the Boers—Afrikaans-speaking descendants of 17th century European settlers, who were then seeking to escape British rule in Africa’s Cape Colony—had just negotiated a favorable treaty with the powerful Zulu Kingdom on the southeastern coast. The agreement permitted Retief and his fellow Voortrekkers (an Afrikaans term for pioneers) to settle in Natal on a sprawling tract of land stretching from the sea to the mountains between the Mzimvubu and Tugela rivers. What the Boers couldn’t have known is that Zulu King Dingane—who was already leery of the newcomers, their strong horses and deadly weapons—had no intention of honoring the agreement.

Ostensibly to celebrate the treaty, Dingane had invited Retief, his men and servants—100 men all told—to an early morning feast and dance at the royal capital of uMgungundlovu. The arriving Boers were asked to stack their firearms outside the settlement. After a sumptuous breakfast the Zulus treated their guests to an impressive display of precision maneuvers. As the spectacle reached its height, Dingane leaped to his feet and shouted, “Bambani abaThakathi!” (“Kill the wizards!”) His warriors instantly seized the unarmed Afrikaners and dragged them up a nearby hill, where the Zulus impaled and clubbed the settlers to death, Retief last of all. Dingane’s warriors then swept down on the new Boer enclaves, killing 282 men, women and children, as well as some 250 African servants. Abandoning all hope of peaceful coexistence with the Zulus, the surviving Boer settlers resigned themselves to war.

Zulu King Dingane addresses his people over the bodies of Boer emissaries he had ordered killed at the royal capital of uMgungundlovu in early February 1838. (Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Sometime in the early 17th century Malandela, a subchief of the Nguni tribe, led his clan down from upper Natal, eventually settling in the coastal Umfolozi River basin. When Malandela died, his younger son, Zulu, split off from the main group to lead his own clan. Smitten by the name of their young chieftain—Zulu means “Heavens”—his people adopted it as the name of their tribe. Such was the birth of the Zulu nation.

Over the following century a line of successors rose peacefully to shepherd the Zulus in their coastal haven. By the time Senzangakona rose to the chieftaincy on his father’s death in 1781, the clan numbered perhaps 1,500 at most. Their kraals (fortified settlements) stretched over a roughly rectangular 100-square-mile territory. Although they bickered with their smaller neighbors, the Zulus generally maintained a low profile to avoid attracting unwanted attention from the adjacent and powerful Mtetwa tribe to the southeast. Regardless, a careless dalliance would soon change African history.

Among the local clans with whom the Zulus contended were the eLangeni, whose chief had recently died. One of the latter’s orphans was a free-spirited daughter named Nandi who, despite tribal tensions, indulged in an impulsive riverside tryst with young Senzangakona. Within weeks the Zulus received a heated message from the eLangenis that Nandi was pregnant and the Zulu chieftain was the father of the unborn child.

Marriage would not have been out of the question, but for one thing—Senzangakona was himself half eLangeni, his mother having been from the clan. In the eyes of both groups this would have been tantamount to incest. Thus the humiliated Zulu elders sent the eLangenis a message that the pregnancy must be a fiction. Obviously Nandi was infested with the iShaka beetle, an intestinal parasite often blamed for menstrual irregularities in young women. Some months later, in the summer of 1787, eLangeni elders sent Senzangakona a dry note informing him Nandi was no longer pregnant, and he should come and collect her and her “iShaka.”

Knowing that were he to refuse, Nandi and their son would be cast into the wilderness (essentially a death sentence), Senzangakona took her into his kraal and installed her as his third wife in a harem that would grow beyond a dozen. Though the marriage technically legitimized Nandi as a member of the tribe, the scandalous nature of her union with Senzangakona strained their marriage and left the stain of disrepute on her and her infant son (whom the Zulus derisively called “Shaka”). After six unhappy years Senzangakona sent Nandi back to the eLangeni with Shaka and his infant sister in tow.

Unfortunately for Nandi, the disgraced mother and her children were even less welcome among her own people. Growing up fatherless, abused and embittered, young Shaka fomented a glowing hatred of the eLangeni. When famine struck the region in 1802, the clan summarily banished the single mother and her offspring, regarding them as unwanted extra mouths to feed. By then Nandi had taken a lover named Gendeyana of the neighboring Qwabe tribe. She’d already borne him a son, so he took her and all three children into his kraal.

Given the harassment that accompanied his lowly station, Shaka—who had defiantly kept his name—had out of necessity grown into a strong young fighter. Warriors were highly prized among the smaller tribes, and the eLangenis and Zulus each vied for his return to the fold. Shaka had no interest in taking up with his mother’s merciless tribe, of course, and his relations with the Zulus soured when he reported to Senzangakona for his puberty ceremony and lashed out at his father with years of pent-up anger. Choosing instead to spend his teen years with a relative aligned with the powerful Mtetwa, Shaka grew into a 6-foot-3, muscular specimen of young manhood. He also perfected his fighting skills, becoming an expert in the use of the light throwing spear known as the assegai.

At age 23 Shaka joined the Mtetwa’s elite iziCwe regiment, and he spent the next six years fighting for his adopted tribe, bending smaller clans to its will while working out his own frustrations on hapless foes. Combat only hardened his soul. For example, while Mtetwa Chief Dingiswayo was willing to let rival tribes submit peacefully, Shaka believed the only way to ensure loyalty was to crush an enemy, leaving him no option but subservience.

In this fanciful depiction the Zulu warrior-king Shaka holds the short-hafted iklwa stabbing spear, which required warriors to close on an enemy before fighting. (Look and Learn/Bridgeman Images)

Shaka also became something of a military innovator. Although an expert in the slender throwing assegai, he came to regard it as too fragile for combat. Wanting a more robust weapon, he invented a short, stabbing spear with a broad, razor-sharp blade and sturdy wooden haft. He taught his warriors to wield it underhand, which proved lethal in the close-quarters combat that characterized tribal fighting. He called it the iklwa, after the sucking sound it made when pulled from a victim’s torso.

Shaka instinctively rose to command, and Dingiswayo soon hit on the idea of installing him as chief of the Zulus on the death of their aging leader—Shaka’s own father, Senzangakona. The young warrior-hero would be certain to whip the easygoing Zulus into a formidable fighting force, which in turn might serve as a convenient buffer between the Mtetwas and anyone who might threaten them from the north.

Dingiswayo and Senzangakona soon met in council, where the latter was astounded to learn his disgraced son had risen to become a fearsome warrior and leading commander of the feared Mtetwas. When Dingiswayo suggested Shaka would make an excellent heir to the Zulu chieftaincy, Senzangakona professed delight and readily agreed. (In truth, he was wholly terrified of the Mtetwas, who, largely due to Shaka’s tactical acumen, had dealt him numerous battlefield defeats in recent years.) On returning to his kraal, however, the feckless old chieftain allowed his senior wife, Mkabi, to talk him out of his agreement with Dingiswayo and instead acknowledge her eldest son, Sigujana, as successor. Soon afterward, in 1816, Senzangakona died.

Aware of his repute among the Zulus as son of the still-disgraced Nandi, the 29-year-old Shaka likely suspected he would receive a less-than-cordial reception on his return to the tribe after 23 years in exile.

Gathering together a contingent of fiercely loyal Mtetwa warriors, Shaka set out for the Zulu kraals. Aware of Sigujana’s ascension, he sent his half-brother Ngwadi (second son of Nandi and Gendeyana) ahead to do whatever was necessary to vacate the throne. Ngwadi proved every bit as loyal, for when Shaka and his bristling warriors marched into Zulu territory, they passed Sigujana’s skewered corpse floating facedown in a stream.

Seizing the clan by its collective throat, Shaka commenced whipping the tractable band of hunter-gatherers into one of history’s most effective military societies

Seizing the clan by its collective throat, Shaka commenced whipping the tractable band of hunter-gatherers into one of history’s most effective military societies. He ruled by terror, executing rivals in droves along with anyone else who disobeyed or displeased him. The king had only to crook his finger at someone for that unfortunate to be dragged away and impaled and/or clubbed to death. Fear soon fused his warriors into a cohesive unit. The only error Shaka made in establishing his authority was in allowing half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana (sons of Senzangakona) to continue living with the tribe.

Among other military reforms, Shaka instituted a rigorous training regimen for all Zulu men of military age, though particularly geared to the uninitiated young, as they wouldn’t be hindered by any previously instilled bad habits. While the warrior-king personally drilled troops in his innovative close-quarters tactics, he had Zulu smiths melt down thousands of assegai spearheads and pound out blades for a forest of iklwas. In a matter of months Shaka’s warriors were re-armed and proficient in his style of fighting, their endurance developed to the point they could trot 50 miles across the rolling hills before the sun set. (By comparison, European troops boasted of managing 15 miles a day on level roads.) As Shaka’s victorious regiments absorbed a steady stream of vanquished enemy warriors, the Zulu army kept growing and improving.

Over the next dozen years Shaka’s regiments ranged across the region, bringing most of the disparate clans under his heel. Indeed, the Zulus soon supplanted the Mtetwas as the regional powerhouse. On the home front, however, Shaka’s incessant reign of terror was beginning to wear on his subjects. By all appearances their ruler had gone mad, his summary death sentences becoming increasingly random and irrational, including rounds of executions following the 1827 death of his beloved mother, Nandi. The specter of impending death proved too much of a strain for many, and a growing stream of disaffected Zulus sought refuge in European coastal enclaves. Conspiracy brewed among his highest lieutenants.

By 1828 Shaka was no longer personally participating in military campaigns and had largely withdrawn to his labyrinthine royal capital of kwaDukuza (Place of the Lost Person). There on September 22 he arranged to receive a delegation of tribal emissaries at a small kraal yards from the royal residence. Half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana got word of the meeting and prepared an ambush. As a third conspirator shooed away the arriving emissaries, Dingane and Mhlangana jumped an adjacent fence, hurled assegais deep into their brother’s sides, then dashed in to finish him off before fleeing. Shaka was scarcely 40.

A decade later the Zulu warrior-king’s military legacy would be tested.

The desperate Voortrekkers called on soldier of fortune Andries Petorius to organize a punitive expedition against the Zulus. (The Print Collector/Getty Images)

In November 1838 the desperate Boer settlers in Natal summoned from Cape Colony a soldier of fortune named Andries Pretorius to help them organize a punitive expedition against Dingane’s rampaging Zulus. As eager to aid his fellow Boers as he was to avenge the massacre of Piet Retief and party, Pretorius was impatient to get his kommando (mobile infantry regiment) armed, trained and under way. By early December his wagon train was ready to roll and set out for uMgungundlovu. Careful to avoid rocky terrain that might provide cover for Dingane’s swarms of spear-wielding infantryman, Pretorius and his troops made straight for the Zulu capital, reaching the intervening Buffalo River on the 14th.

After sending out a scouting party, Pretorius directed his column across the river. As the last of the wagons reached the opposite bank, the scouts returned with news that a massive force of Zulus, seemingly determined to keep the vengeful Boers from even threatening uMgungundlovu, was approaching. Although Boer sublieutenant Sarel Cilliers, who doubled as the expedition’s chaplain, implored Pretorius to ride out in force and meet the warriors head-on, Pretorius suspected a trap and instead had his men establish a fortified bivouac atop the steep left bank of the Ncome River.

Pretorius couldn’t have chosen a better defensible position. The Ncome protected one flank, while a deep ravine shielded another. The only route of attack opened onto veldt, leaving no cover for the massed Zulu attackers. Pretorius had his men drive their ox-drawn wagons into the standard Boer protective circle, or laager, each wagon’s tongue lashed to the one ahead of it, the draft animals safely inside. The defenders blocked the gaps with stout wooden barriers that could be easily removed should the Boers need to counterattack or flee. Musketeers then placed stockpiles of powder and balls at the ready, while Pretorius had gunners position the column’s two field cannons and load them with grapeshot.

The laager certainly made a conspicuous target, albeit a very prickly one that could not be outflanked. By advancing deep into Zulu territory and setting up a powerful military enclave, Pretorius was openly defying Dingane and his splendid warriors. He knew the Zulu king could not possibly let such a challenge pass without suffering a humiliating loss of face.

December 16 dawned with perfect battle weather and the sobering spectacle of an estimated 30,000 Zulu warriors seated patiently on the surrounding veldt. Pretorius and his 464 men were outnumbered more than 60-to-1.

On command the Zulus arose as one and rushed the seemingly vulnerable laager. The attack went badly from the outset. Hundreds of warriors were trampled underfoot as those behind pressed into the single, narrow defile open to them. But more than terrain hampered the Zulus. Most damningly, Shaka had long ago replaced the tribe’s traditional assegai throwing spears with the short-staffed iklwa stabbing spears. But to use them, the Zulus would have to close the distance.

Pretorius’ brilliant selection of a defensive position meant his men could concentrate their firepower on the tightly packed mass of charging warriors without worrying about being flanked. The Boers also employed an ingenious strategy to sustain an ordinarily impossible volume of fire. Pretorius had brought along some 200 African servants to look after the horses and draft animals, but also, crucially, to reload the weapons in combat. Not by accident, there were also more muskets than musketeers. As their servants feverishly reloaded the guns, each man was able to get off a shot about every five seconds, far faster than the Zulus had anticipated.

The Afrikaners upheld their tradition of deadly marksmanship, their musket balls passing through two and even three men. A Zulu survivor of the battle later described how sheets of Boer lead mowed down the first wave of warriors like grass. In the first two hours of battle the musketeers and gunners repelled four attacks. As the last assault fell apart, Pretorius, sensing the momentum had shifted in his favor, ordered the wooden barriers removed and his best horsemen to charge out against the remaining Zulu formations. The warriors withstood the saber-wielding Afrikaners for a while, but their depleted units ultimately lost cohesion, broke and fled in panic. For three hours the cavalrymen chased scattered groups of Zulus across the veldt, shooting, slashing and riding down dozens more.

Pretorius himself joined the pursuit, suffering a stab wound to the left hand for his trouble. Remarkably, he was one of just three Boers wounded in the battle. None were killed. In the waning light the victors made a rough tally of the fallen Zulus. They settled on a round figure of 3,000.

For several years the Zulus and Boers kept up a grinding war of attrition, but Dingane’s brother Mpande ultimately grew dissatisfied with his sibling’s bungling of military matters. After being repeatedly overruled or ignored, Mpande defected to the Boers, taking a sizable number of warriors with him. Hoping to unseat Dingane, the Afrikaners threw their military support behind Mpande, and a combined Boer-Zulu force soundly defeated Dingane at the Jan. 29, 1840, Battle of Maqongqo, effectively ending the fighting.

Subsequent generations of Afrikaners renamed the Ncome the Blood River and commemorated December 16 as the Day of the Vow, after a pre-battle prayer led by Cilliers in which the Boers had beseeched God for victory. In fact, the Battle of Blood River was a factor in engendering ethnic nationalism among the Boers, who construed their lopsided win as evidence God was on their side, granting them the divine right to rule all of South Africa.

In 1994, with the end of apartheid, South African President Nelson Mandela renamed the holiday the Day of Reconciliation. MH

Kelly Bell is a longtime military history writer whose work has appeared in World War II, Vietnam, Aviation History and numerous other magazines. For further reading he recommends The Story of the Zulu Campaign, by Waller Ashe and E.V. Wyatt Edgell, and The Washing of the Spears, by Donald R. Morris.