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date: 18 June 2021

Abstract and Keywords

Between 1837 and 1845, more than five thousand Dutch Afrikaner settlers moved into the South African interior, followed by even larger numbers after 1845. Their timing was opportune, for they crossed the frontier in the immediate aftermath of Shaka’s wars (the mfecane), which had depopulated and destabilized the region to such an extent that the Afrikaners encountered minimal initial resistance. The majority of voortrekker wagon trains headed due north, across the Orange and Vaal rivers, to establish new farms, communities, and ultimately two independent Afrikaner states. But one wagon train, led by Piet Retief (1789-1838) in 1837, split off from the others and headed eastward toward the coast, where there was better rainfall and access to the sea. Their route, however, took them right to the frontiers of the mighty Zulu empire, which was now ruled by Shaka’s half-brother, Dingane. Retief and a party of seventy men visited Dingane in early 1838 to seek his permission to settle in his kingdom, but the Zulu leader saw the arrival of whites as a serious threat, and he decided to launch a preemptive strike. Retief and his party were initially welcomed at the Zulu capital, but at Dingane’s command, they were all slaughtered. Dingane then sent his regiments to attack the wagon train, killing an additional 250 voortrekkers.

Temporarily defeated but not deterred, the Afrikaners decided to send a punitive expedition against the Zulu later that year. Led by Andries Pretorious, the Afrikaners assembled a force of five hundred well-armed male volunteers, two cannon, and fifty-seven wagons to confront a massive Zulu army that may have been as large as ten thousand. At the Battle of Blood River on December 16, 1848, the Afrikaners dealt the Zulu a stunning defeat in one of the most decisive military encounters in the history of colonial Africa. Lashing their wagons together in a defensive laager (“a mobile fortress of wagons”), the Afrikaners turned back successive assaults by Zulu regiments before launching a counterattack. When the battle subsided, more than three thousand Zulu lay dead on the battlefield—but not a single Afrikaner had been killed. One of the participants in this campaign was Sarel Cilliers (1801–1871), who led the men in daily prayers and Sunday worship. Cillier’s account of the battle highlighted the ferocity of the struggle, as well as the religious fervor that inspired the Afrikaner combatants. In later years, Cilliers became famous and revered as the “Father of the Covenant,” the holy promise that the Afrikaners made to God prior to their great battle with the Zulu.

Charl Celliers [Sarel Cilliers], “The Journal of the Late Charl Celliers”(1871), in John Bird, ed., The Annals of Natal, Vol. I: 1495–1845 (Cape Town: C. Struik, 1965), 238, 243–47.

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