DNA on the Groot Trek: Night of Slaughter
Somehow word of the Retief delegation massacres filtered through to various English traders still in Dingane’s territory, causing a panicked exodus to the Port Natal harbor. Francis Owen, his family and three American missionaries made it safely to the Hambanathi mission near Tongaat, from where they also fled to Port Natal. Some traders took refuge on the schooner, Mary, that was anchored off Port Natal, while others put together a defense force with 3,000 Natal Zulus (not part of Dingane’s rule), seeing this as an opportunity to counter-attack and get back some of the cattle that was stolen by Dingane’s forces. On February 12 Alexander Biggar sent Dick King with a few Zulus on foot (so as to escape attention by the impis) to warn the rest of the Voortrekkers in Natal, a journey of four days. Alexander’s 18-year old son, George, was at the Bloukrans camp of the Voortrekkers. King would arrive a few hours too late for George Biggar and many others.
For the Voortrekkers in Natal, a deadly silence hung over their encampments, one that they mistook as peaceful. Quite a few families had jumped at the chance to trek ahead of the main body of Trekkers gathered at the foot of the Drakensberg mountains. By mid-February these families were outspanned (unhitched) along a fourty-mile stretch along the Bloukrans and Bushmen Rivers (see map). So sure were these Trekkers of the success of Retief’s mission, that many of the men were either out hunting to replenish their supplies, while some were even on their way back to the Drakenberg mountains to help others descend those steep cliffs. In most of the camps the women and children were alone with their servants, who were taking care of the livestock grazing on the abundant sweet grass of these fertile valleys. Their ox wagons were staggered in small, indefensible family groups, far away from others. None were pulled together in a defensive laager.
For these ten days after the Retief delegation massacre, our 3rd great-grandfather Jacobus Malan was still unaware that his brother, Hercules, had been brutally murdered at KwaMatiwane. He and the twelve other Malan families who had trekked over the Drakensberg mountains were among those most eager and excited Voortrekkers who did not heed any caution to wait until the Retief delegation returned with their signed treaty for land in Natal. In fact, the Malans were forming the vanguard of all the groups who had trekked ahead into Natal. (Let that sink in: our family…vanguard…) The Malans were now encamped along a stream between Willow Grange and the Bushman’s River (near today’s Escourt), which would later be named “Malanspruit”.
Our Malan contingent included Jacobus’ second wife, Anna Maria Klopper, Jacobus’ twenty-two year old son and four more children from his first marriage (Margaretha Swart had died in 1830), and his five youngest children with Anna Maria. Our 2nd-great-grandmother Helena Catharina (Ouma Hannie Lampen’s ouma) was only six years old, and her youngest brother Hercules Phillipus was a toddler of two years old. (Looking at his birth date, he would have been born while his parents were trekking to Thaba Nchu.) Little Hercules would one day become the Heystek girls’ favorite uncle and the hero of all those pre-Boer War stories. Also in this group was the family of the now-murdered brother and senior Hercules, including his 21-year old son Johannes, as well as a sixteen-year old boy named Ferdinand Paulus van Gass, whose father had entrusted him to Hercules’ family when they still lived on the Oosgrens. Later in life van Gass would write his memoirs with detailed descriptions of this tragic time of slaughter amongst the Voortrekkers. Van Gass was quite bitter towards the English, though, and was of the opinion that the traders and missionaries had incited the Zulus against the Dutch.
I previously wrote about the story of Stephanus Erasmus, the brother of our 3rd great-grandfather Lourens. Stephanus was the Erasmus-man whose hunting party had been ambushed by Matabele impis in 1836. He and other Erasmuses were now camped out with the Gerrit Maritz party on the western banks of the Bushman’s River. Maritz had envisioned being here long enough to start some planting. The irrigation furrows he dug are still visible, apparently. Another Laurens Erasmus and his wife and five children camped in the area, some distance away from the main group of Erasmuses. (This is now not 3rd great-grandfather Lourens Erasmus, whose laager, at this stage, was still standing just north of the Vaal River on the other side of the Drakensberg mountains.) Seventy-eight Retief and Greyling wagons stood further north-west on Doornkop.
Unbeknownst to all, three Zulu regiments (some say ten) under Dingane’s chief indunas, Tambusa and Ndedla, were surging from the north-east towards the unsuspecting Trekkers. Their battle strategy was to form the head and horns of a buffalo: first the two horns encircled the target, then the head and chest crushed their enemy. They used this same strategy now, albeit quite spread out across the valleys where the Trekkers were encamped. The right horn would miss the Retief wagons further north at Doornkop, but enclose the groups south of today’s Chieveley, and the left horn would curl around the van Rensburgs south of Estcourt but miss the Malans further south.
At one o’clock in the morning of 17 February, when the moon had completely waned, the Zulus attacked. The slaughter that unfolded that night came from the pit of hell. Whole families and their servants were butchered—literally—mercilessly. Women and children, especially, were tortured with a savagery beyond human reason. A servant girl arrived barefoot at a nearby laager completely numb with shock, unable to speak about the horrors she had witnessed. Catharina Prinsloo survived 23 assegai wounds. The 12-year old Hannie van der Merwe survived with 21 assegai wounds and her achilles tendons cut. Hannie survived by pulling the dead bodies of her family over herself during the attack. Our Afrikaans preacher-friend in Tennessee, Carel van der Merwe, says that the tea table in their house comes from this van der Merwe wagon (see photo.) His brother in S.A. has the wagon kist (voorkis). Apparently it was not torched like most other wagons.
There are many stories of absolute horror, but also of incredible heroism that took place during that night. The van Rensburgs and three other families had outspanned their wagons close to a koppie (hill) in the area now known as Rensburg Spruit. The Malans were outspanned right in the front of all the Trekkers, about three miles away from the van Rensburgs, where the same creek is known as Malanspruit. (See the map at https://goo.gl/maps/xtRSpfTx3ho.) As the left horn of the Zulu regiments launched their attack, the van Rensburgs managed to flee with their “sannas”—the flintlock muzzle-loading rifles—to the koppie. There they staved off the attacks for hours, but they were running out of gunpowder. Twenty-year-old Marthinus Oosthuyse, hearing their frantic gun shots from afar, rode on his horse, Swartje, to investigate, and saw their desperate plight as Lang Hans van Rensburg was waving his gun upside down as a signal of their dire circumstances.
Marthinus managed to ride to the abandoned wagons for gunpowder, in the process also trying to rescue Lang Hans’ eleven-year old daughter whom he found hiding under a blanket in one of the wagons. As he fought his way back through the Zulu ranks to the hill, she was yanked out off the back of his horse by Zulus and stabbed to death, though. Marthinus managed to reach the van Rensburgs, who then were able to repel the attack with the death of another 100 impis.
Somehow (I would say miraculously) undetected by the left horn of the Zulus, the Malans escaped attack this night. When he first heard the gunshots in the night, Jacobus apparently thought that it was the Retief delegation returning from Umgungundlovu and receiving a joyous burst of gunshots from relatives. Jacobus must have had such a jolt of joy surging through him, thinking his brother Hercules was returning… but he then realized that none of the nearby families had any relatives among the Retief delegation, and that he was hearing frantic, defensive shots. He quickly organized the Malan wagons into a laager. A handful of impis approached them but were quickly defeated. In the hours after the attacks, the Malans apparently trekked back towards the Retief families’ encampments at Doornkop, where many of the survivors of the night were gathering. By now they must have realized that things had gone awfully wrong at Umgungundhlovu.
Incredibly, Teresa Viglioni, part of a very small Italian trader camp who got attacked along the Bloukrans River, escaped on her horse and rode south to warn Trekkers about the attacks. She was able to warn the Maritz group that included our extended Erasmus families, who organized their defense in a laager with two small canons that Maritz had brought with him from the Oosgrens. Dick King approached their laager just in time to join the defense of the laager. The Bushmen’s River was in full flood, and the impis approaching from across the river had to ford the river in a human chain, which helped the laager defense mow down enough warriors down until they retreated. Wherever the Laurens Erasmus family that I mentioned before, had camped, they were all killed. Dick King could also not save George, the son of his friend Alexander Biggar. Before another year was out, Alexander and his other son would also die while helping the Trekkers launch retaliation strikes against Dingane.
In the hours after the Zulu attacks, four counter-attacks were launched by the Trekkers. Assistance was given as they found more wounded among the dead and mutilated bodies in the burnt-out wagons along the way. The next day the Trekker men, including Dick King—who would by now have told them the horrific news about the Retief delegation—continued pursuing the retreating Zulus, encountering the main body busy driving the stolen Trekker livestock across the Tugela River.
Most of the 25,000 head of cattle and 200 horses had already been taken across, and many impis now drowned in their haste to get across the river. As it was getting darker, the Trekkers thought it wise to turn back towards their camps.
It took ten days to find and bury all the dead. Such was the grief around these Trekkers that they named one of the towns that they established later, Weenen (Weeping). The creeks running into the Bloukrans River were named Klein Moord Spruit and Groot Moord Spruit (Little and Big Murder Creek.) They named this night of February 17, 1838, “Die Groot Moord” (The Great Murder.) We know it today as the Bloukrans Massacres. The number of dead Voortrekkers came to 41 men, 56 women, 185 children and approximately 250 of their servants. The estimated number of Zulu dead came to no less than one thousand, half of whom drowned in the Tugela during.
(All images used are in the public domain, or from source listed here.)
https://goo.gl/maps/xtRSpfTx3ho Map of Malanspruit (bottom red circle) near Estcourt and Rensburgspruit (top yellow star), near Weenen in Natal. The two camps
appeared to have been about 3 miles or 5 kms away from one another. See also photo map of encampments.
N.A. Coetzee en E.M. Erasmus, Lewensverhaal van Pionierboer en Voortrekker Lourens Abraham Erasmus
https://the-truth-about-south-africa.org/south-africa/the-greatest-nightmare-in-the-history-of-south-africa/ Details of Bloukrans Murders
http://www.boererepublieke.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Bloukrans-rivier-moorde-naamlys.pdf List of Bloukrans deceased.
https://repository.up.ac.za/bitstream/handle/2263/17518/Grobler_Retief(2011).pdf?sequence=1 van Gass Memoirs mention.
The Swiss at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652–1971, Adolphe Linder, p. 210 – van Gass background.
https://mapcarta.com/14305412 Map of Malanspruit, (Malan Stream), near Willow Grange, Natal.
https://www.facebook.com/318928188644/photos/a.320103633644.152863.318928188644/10151320320758645/?type=3&theater Malanspruit and Rensburg Koppie history.
http://www.voortrekker-history.co.za/laagers.php#.WhDuK7aZORs Main Voortrekker Laagers beneath the Drakensberg mountains. Historical Dictionary of the Zulu Wars, John Laband.
http://www.bornman.org/maritz-trek.php - Maritz canons