Episode 144 - Mpande evades Dingane’s assassination plot, the British seize Durban and Pretorius plans a covenant
The Battle of Blood River - or Ncome River - is etched in the consciousness of South Africans. While the gory details are not contested, its historical significance has been seized on by different political factions since the 16th December 1838.
The day itself is a public holiday which we now call the Day of Reconciliation. Before that it was known as Dingane’s Day or the Day of the Covenant, or the Day of the Vow.
Anything thought of as a covenant or a vow comes with baggage.
Gert Maritz had died at the age of 41 on 23 September - suffering from dropsy, heart disease and half of the Voortrekkers had setup a second laager across the Little Thukela River, fearful of leaving their fort in case another Zulu army bushwhacked them.
They had sent a deputation to elicit support from other trekkers in the transOrangia region, and in the highveld along the Vaal River. Only Karel Landman remained as a senior leader in Natal, but help was on its way in the form of a man who was half dragoon, part brigand, mostly hero.
And that was Andries Pretorius.
He was born in Graaff-Reinet and his family had prospered, owning several farms around the frontier town. He was fifth generation southern African, his ancestors dated back all the way to the early Dutch settlement in Table Bay. His ancestor, Johannes Pretorius was the son of Reverend Wessel Schulte of the Netherlands. Schulte had been a theology student at the University of Leiden when he changed his name to the Latin form of Schulte and therefore became Wesselius Praetorius, with an ae, then later Pretorius.
His deep connection with Africa leant weight to his other important characteristics, an imposing man, tall and imbued with a captivating personality to boot. He was a skilled commander of men, adept at the irregular nature of frontier warfare.There was a lot of movement at the end of 1838, because not only had the British soldiers arrived in Port Natal and Pretorius’ kommando had headed off to Dingane, but Prince Mpande was on the run from his half-brother Dingane as well.
He wasn’t alone - Mpande was joined by an estimated 17 000 of his followers after Dingane had made moves to assassinate his half-brother he regarded as an increasing threat to his rule. Dingane’s actions followed the defeat of his army by the trekkers at Veglaer, weakening his power in the eyes of his subjects.
On 6 December 1838, 10 days before the Battle of Blood River, Pretorius and his commando including Alexander Biggar as translator had a meeting with friendly Zulu chiefs at Danskraal, so named for the Zulu dancing that took place in the Zulu kraal that the Trekker commando visited.
It was during this relatively friendly occasion that important information was passed along, and now Pretorius became aware of Prince Mpande’s new refugee status, an important character in the coming power play. It was immediately apparent to Pretorius that the Zulu king was in a more precarious position than he had been a few months earlier.