Mzilikazi, the Zulu, the Griquas and the Boer

As Robert Moffat’s wagons slipped over the southern horizon and disappeared Mzilikazi turned back towards enKungwini to face arguably the greatest series of challenges to the long term survival of the amaNdebele that he had confronted thus far. The first of these was the long awaited settling of scores with the Zulu that came soon afterwards as Mzilikazi had always feared that it would.

Two years earlier the short but shockingly violent reign of Shaka Zulu had been brought to a predictably bloody end by his assassination at the hands of his younger half brother Dingaan, and other disaffected elements within a regime that had gone conspicuously awry. Towards the end of his life Shaka had succumbed to paranoia and neurosis which resulted in bouts of fratricidal bloodletting that eventually turned large sections of his following against him. The question of Mzilikazi’s rebellion and exodus had stayed with him throughout his life, but curiously he remained attached to the memory of his friend and never ordered any punitive expeditions against him.

Upon his succession Dingaan proved to be less forgiving, and perhaps more importantly less able to resist calls from within the military command to at long last revenge the slight of Mzilikazi’s theft of royal cattle and his refusal to bow to Zulu rule. The nation at that time was enjoying a period of peace, which did not sit well with the military, and it was agreed soon after Shaka’s death that a campaign would be launched against the amaNdebele to finally bring account to the matter of the Khumalo rebellion.

News of this did not reach Mzilikazi until he had despatched his own army north to the central plateau to raid among the maShona, or itShonalanga people of present day Zimbabwe. This left the home territory bereft of competent defence, a situation which was aggravated by the defection of many individuals of Zulu lineage who made a calculated decision to rejoin their kinsmen now bearing down on the Marico Valley from the east. This also armed the Zulu commanders with detailed information regarding the formation and strength of amaNdebele defences.

Gathering together what manpower he could among the home guard regiments Mzilikazi boldly set off and met the incoming Zulu force in a full frontal engagement that, although it temporarily halted the momentum of the invasion, and deflected a complete annihilation, was not enough to avoid a nominal defeat. The weak amaNdebele force presently took refuge in the thickly wooded hills of the Magaliesberg from where it launched harassing lightning raids on the Zulu regiments  still swarming across the country, razing settlements and plundering cattle.

In the end the Zulu army left with large amounts of booty and after much destruction, but with no absolute victory to report. The amaNdebele were wounded and reduced but by no means defeated. And as the dust slowly began to settle, and as the people emerged from hiding to count the cost, it was generally hoped that this would be the end of the simmering feud with the Zulu. Thereafter life slowly returned to normal in the Marico Valley, Mzilikazi moved his capital further north to a site called emHlahlandlela after which lost cattle and other livestock were replenished in the usual way. This certainly might have been the end of the Zulu affair where it not for the mood of Mzilikazi’s other enemies, and there were many of these, who felt that the only time to safely kick a dog like him was when he was down.

The dominions of the amaNdebele at that time consisted more or less of the area contained between the Vaal and upper Limpopo Rivers. Although amaNdebele patrols ranged over great distances the main centres of settled population tended to be narrowly focused around the confluence of the Marico and Crocodile Rivers in the region of what is today Rustenburg. For those living along the fringes of this territory, and in particular those that had not yet felt the full weight of amaNdebele raids, life existed in a constant state of insecurity. Any effort made to accumulate stock, property and food surpluses would be simply inviting attack from the amaNdebele.

This sense of the amaNdebele being a scourge on the landscape was also not limited to just the black tribes of the interior. The militancy and territorial aggression of the amaNdebele was also a source of fear and frustration to the various Griqua, Koranna and Bergenaar groups that had in the past been accustomed to a relatively free range north of the Vaal River. These were often supported with arms and money by powerful commercial interests as far away as the Cape, meaning that many diverse powers developed an interest in plotting the demise of the amaNdebele. And since no single force or entity was capable of achieving this alone it seemed inevitable at some point that a combination of interests would merge to challenge the amaNdebele grip of the northern interior. [1]

This happened in the winter of 1831 when an alliance was forged between a medley of different interior groups including several Griqua and Koranna clans alongside members of the Baralong, the Bataung and other notable Bechuana tribes. It was an imperfect alliance of not altogether unified interests, but under the command of local Griqua Captain Barend Barends it stood a fair chance of success if a cohesive discipline could be maintained and a combined sense of purpose achieved. The matter was put to the test soon afterwards when word reached Barend Barends at his headquarters of Boetsap that Mzilikazi had again deployed his crack troops north to raid in Bechuanaland, leaving the amaNdebele heartland defended by little more than a light force of older veterans and unblooded recruits.

In the first wave of attacks the combined use of armed Griqua horsemen supported by sweeping native infantry proved to be devastating, and within a short time much of the southern amaNdebele hinterland had been laid to waste. Predictably, perhaps, the attack degenerated into a repeat of earlier Griqua incursions with discipline collapsing at the first sight of the vast amaNdebele herds. A rush for plunder took presence over prudence or caution while unity of purpose became every man for himself.

On receiving news of the advance, and with his principal units unavailable, Mzilikazi opted for a rare strategy of discretion. He chose not to expose what limited manpower he had to a direct confrontation, but instead ordered a northwards withdrawal at the cost once again of abandoning the wealth of his nation to enemy plunder. However reconnaissance groups were position to observe the progress of enemy units now absorbed almost entirely with the business of mustering captured amaNdebele cattle and moving them south across the Vaal. By the third day of the campaign most of the invaders largely abandoned any of the normal precautions of war. A conical hill in the locality was reached and there a large body of Griquas bivouacked and settled down to feast on stolen amaNdebele cattle.

In the meanwhile for three days a large amaNdebele shadowing force had been silently following the raiders, and when it seemed that their guard had been completely relaxed the unit moved stealthily forward, and in the half-light of dawn announced an attack with a sudden chorus of hissing, the clattering of spears on shields and the drumbeat of bare feet on the dusty earth. A few short minutes later the sun rose on a scene of carnage. Four hundred members of the Griqua commando lay dead, alongside scores of Koranna and amaTswana fighters, and many others caught in the general mêlée. Those few that survived abandoned their comrades and their booty and fled south to warn their commanders billeted at the rear.

Mzilikazi is said to have visited the scene of the battle himself, and under the conical hill that later became known as Moord-Kop, or Murder Hill, he walked among the dead under a cloud of thoughtful melancholy. The moment was sweet, of course, but Mzilikazi was engaged in a larger picture, and once again the signs were ominous that new and powerfully armed forces were gathering, forces that could not be forever ignored.

Although the failed invasion served as a salutary lesson to Mzilikazi, in the short term it did nothing to halt, or even slacken the frenetic pace of assaults and raids against neighbouring tribes. One after another intact communities on the fringes of amaNdebele territory were attacked, their cohesion smashed and their wealth and livelihood, as well as their young and able, stolen. Those left behind were slaughtered or left to die in the smouldering ruins of once productive landscapes. The first to fall in the renewed campaign were the Bangwaketsi, after which followed the Bakgatla, until by the end of 1831 Mzilikazi could claim most Bechuanaland as a constituent sector of his growing sphere of influence. All that remained was the fertile and productive country of the Marico Valley, home of the Bahurutsi people, which Mzilikazi vowed would be his before the end of the next raiding season.

His plans were however interrupted by the arrival at Mosega, the capital of the Bahurutsi leader Mokgatla, of a group of French missionaries intending to establish a mission station among the Bechuana tribes. These men were loosely acquainted with Robert Moffat which caused Mzilikazi to pause in what otherwise would have been an immediate expulsion ahead of a large scale military campaign. Instead the missionaries were summoned to Mzilikazi’s royal kraal, although only one, Jean Pierre Pellissier, actually made the journey.

Mzilikazi had for the first time directly requested a Christian mission to his territory, which of course delighted Pellissier, although as the two toured the surrounding countryside under an aura of mutual friendship the intuitive Frenchman began to suspect that it was less the spiritual renewal that Mzilikazi sought than access to gunpowder and shot.

It is doubtful that Mzilikazi ever had any serious intention of allowing Christian missionaries access to his people, and so why he went to the trouble of inviting Pellissier to his court remains a mystery. However the fact that he did delayed for several months his plans to attack the Bahurutsi which in the event was fortunate. Had he deployed his premier regiments as he had intended to do his country would once again have lain almost undefended against a second Zulu attack, news of which reached him almost at the moment he was poised to order his army south.

This time the Zulu regiments were buoyed and confident and ready to finish the job, while Mzilikazi, now with the full force of his army, met the news with confidence. In due course the two most powerful armies in the region met on the field of battle in a struggle as epic as it was inconclusive. When the two sides broke both claimed victory, although neither had prevailed, and once again a limping Zulu forced turned and wended its way back east while Mzilikazi celebrated the victory of survival.

Immediately afterwards the delayed offensive against the Bahurutsi went ahead, which was achieved without bloodshed when the impis discovered that the land had been prudently abandoned ahead of the invasion. Mzilikazi then led the amaNdebele tribe from the Magaliesberg into the fair and newly acquired territory of the Marico, and there they temporarily settled.

By the beginning of 1834 the amaNdebele nation had achieved significant size and a wide scope of political control that extended nominally between the Vaal and Limpopo rivers, with the new military and administrative core now situated at the old Bahurutsi capital of Mosega. Effective occupation and settlement of the Marico Valley went ahead with by now customary discipline and organisation, and in due course structures of defence were in place with the new southern fortified boundary becoming the Vaal River. Several garrison settlements with large military cantonments were established in various key locations with Mzilikazi’s own settlement established at eGabeni situated along the lower reaches of the Marico River somewhat south of the present day town of Lobatse.

With new settlements established, and life returning to normal, raiding recommenced with this time particular emphasis placed on securing the southern boundary of the Vaal. Mzilikazi stressed to his commanders before deploying them into the field that any trespass of any kind into amaNdebele territory was to be met with death without question. There would be no future surprise attacks, and no invasions. The Vaal River would define the soft underbelly of the amaNdebele heartland and the impis would comprehensively patrol and protect it.

So it was, and the first unfortunates to test the resolve of the patrolling impis was a party of Griqua hunters and their families camped on the north banks of the Vaal who were set upon without warning and wiped out with the exception of two children who were returned to eGabeni. A little later Andrew Geddes Bain, the Grahamstown merchant, then leading a trip to the Malopo River in the company of a retinue of coloured servants was unexpectedly borne down upon by an enraged force of amaNdebele and was forced to flee on horseback, fighting a fierce rearguard action, and at the loss of all his wagons, livestock, merchandise and provisions, which were also collected and transported north to eGabeni.

At this time also Robert Moffat chanced to visit Mzilikazi for the second time with the objective of securing safe passage for a party of geographic explorers from the Association for the Exploration of Central Africa. For an opportunity to receive a visit from the one man, white or black, who Mzilikazi regarded as a friend, he lifted the ban on travel, and in due course the Moffat party arrived at eGabeni.

Five years after their first meeting Moffat was struck by the changes that had taken place, not only in the growth and reach of amaNdebele power, but also in the physical bearing and countenance of Mzilikazi himself. The king had withdrawn himself from active service and so had gained weight and lost much of his earlier condition. He was now 45-years old, and unlike a missionary whose pursuits could be deemed spiritual and renewing, Mzilikazi was slipping past his prime. For whatever reason it might have been so Moffat seemed this time to find Mzilikazi even more lorn and desperate, perhaps even infatuated, a fact that others in the exploration party also seemed to notice.

As the exploration party continued north under the protection of Mzilikazi Moffat was constrained to linger on the outskirts of the royal kraal for much longer than he would have preferred. Uncertain precisely what to make of Mzilikazi’s slavish devotion, and his at times almost sensual longing, Moffat never relented in his own attitude of disapproval and criticism, which in a way just seemed to feed Mzilikazi’s childish yearnings. The delays irritated the missionary, and the visit swung between long bouts of fraternal communication and churlish bickering over Moffats desire to leave and Mzilikazi’s refusal to allow him.

However in due course Moffat did succeed in bringing the visit to an end, and a milestone in the lives of both men was passed. Only three periods of direct contact would occur between the two, all spanning pivotal years in the life of the region, of the amaNdebele and Mzilikazi himself, and all three moments of profound diplomatic importance in the process of accommodation that would in due course see the ultimate disempowerment of black and the establishment of white overlordship and governance.

In the meanwhile wider events underway on the continent would continue to limit the amount of space and time remaining in history for men like Mzilikzai to build and develop their political existence. Global European expansion worldwide was entering an accelerated phase at the end of the great Age of Exploration. A complex chain of events had been set in motion in Europe as the Old World powers sought wider global influence, a processes that in one way or another would result in the comprehensive dispossession of indigenous people worldwide, but in particular the black man of Africa.

South Africa was among the first African territories to experience the arrival of large numbers of permanent settlers from Europe. The temperate climate of the sub-continent had proved viable for European survival while the global geo-politics of the time rendered the Cape a vital possession for any power wishing to dominate the East India sea trade. By the dawn of the 19th century Britain was emerging as the principal global power, and it was inevitable that as Dutch global influence began to decline that the British would eventually gain possession of the Cape. Such was the nature of established Dutch settlement in the Cape hinterland at that time that any suggestion of British dominance, and the weight of British administrative intrusion, proved to be too great a burden to bear.

By the 1830s an outward movement from the Cape of disgruntled Boer farmers and landowners had begun that in due course would become one of the greatest organised migrations in history. These intrepid souls, known as Trekboers, or Voortrekkers, gradually broke loose from British dominion, crossed the Orange River, and began to penetrate northwards with a view to opening up new territory for occupation free of any taint of British control. This movement became known as the Great Trek.

Meanwhile, and closer to home, Mzilikazi received a courtesy call from the Association for the Exploration of Central Africa as it made its way south on its return journey. Having in the meanwhile spent a great deal of time brooding on the menace of armed incursions crossing the Vaal River he had for the first time in his reign decided upon a strategy of treaty and diplomacy. He therefore requested that his visitors expedite the safe passage south of an amaNdebele embassy that would present a request for peace and goodwill to the authorities in the Cape. This was agreed to and done, and a few weeks later a meeting was held between Mzilikazi’s regent and chief counsellor uMncumbata and the British Governor at the Cape Sir Benjamin D’Urban. The result was a treaty of peace and co-operation that was agreed to and signed in March of 1836. This was of course merely a symbolic gesture on behalf of His Majesty rather than any diplomatic nuptial of substance, but it is interesting to note that no sooner was the ink of uMncumbata’s mark dry on the document than the vanguard of the Great Trek was reaching the symbolic barrier of the Vaal River.

The first group to cross and proceed north journeyed under the leadership of Louis Trichard. This was an ill fated expedition that slipped safely through amaNdebele territory only to disappear altogether in the fever-ridden country of Portuguese East Africa. Following behind the Trichard Trek came another party under the leadership of a shrewder and more resolute leader by the name of Andries Hendrik Potgeiter.  Potgeiter paused at the threshold of the Vaal River and peered across the frontier with interest. He did not immediately order a crossing but instead broke up the trek into its individual family groups and settled them into camps in a series of interlinked but scattered locations. He then selected a reconnaissance party that tentatively crossed the Vaal into amaNdebele territory and began a cautious exploration.

Behind followed a more robust hunting party under the leadership of a certain Stephanus Erasmus. It was this group that attracted immediate attention from the patrolling amaNdebele thanks to its hunting activities. Returning to his wagons one morning Erasmus was shocked to see a group of some 600 amaNdebele fighters engaged in the slaughter of his coloured retinue. Erasmus spun around, spurred his horse, and with his fellow hunters fled south to raise the alarm.

With the amaNdebele patrol in hot pursuit Erasmus and the survivors of his party barely reached the temporary settlements of the sojourning trekkers in time to convey the stark but urgent warning. Most managed a hasty encirclement of their wagons before the limited amaNdebele assault force descended. The attack was successfully beaten off although one unfortunate family group was taken unawares and annihilated, with the theft once again of two young children that were neither seen nor heard of again.

This was a pivotal moment in the fortunes of the amaNdebele. When Andries Potgeiter returned to the scene, and was confronted by both the victory and the tragedy, his natural desire for revenge was inflamed by his realisation that the fair country he and his men had successfully scouted would never be theirs until the military dominance of Mzilikazi and his warrior people was broken.

Potgeiter was one of the great and controversial leaders of a great and controversial enterprise. He was a bold and decisive man who led a people of legendary courage and resolution. These were men and women driven by two powerful forces: a desire for independence and a sense of racial and religious superiority and entitlement. They were confident in their abilities, and confident of the providence that had brought them to the threshold of a brave new world. Consequently the decision to plunge forward and seize the country that lay ahead was made on bended knees, and with eyes cast to heaven, and afterwards undertaken with the solemn and unimpeachable sanction of God.

The scattered parties were re-mustered into a cohesive force and their wagons encircled in a protective laager near a hill later to be named Vegkop. Ammunition was stockpiled, powder decanted and as much as possible the laager fortified. Thereafter the redoubtable Boer simply waited for the inevitable arrival of the amaNdebele, and for this they did not have long to wait. On the afternoon of 15 October pickets rushed into camp warning of the advance of a large body of amaNdebele. Indeed it was not very long before a force of some 6 000 crack troops came into view after which a selection of Boer horsemen solemnly left the encirclement and made their way forward to engage.

The story of Vegkop is one of the epics of both white and black South African history. Although quiet confidence characterised both sides, the spectacle of a laagered fortification brimming with the feared sight of gun barrels, and for the Boer the sight of a distant line of savage foot solders, schooled in storm force and genocide, and themselves in a situation of profound isolation, must have stirred the bowels in a manner that even Christian fortitude could hardly have relieved. In the nervous silence of the moment, with a soft wind blowing over the veld, the vast assembly of amaNdebele fighters dropped to their haunches and waited in silence. The Boer horsemen trotted forward, and a brief and vastly unequal standoff ensured, before in a moment the amaNdebele were on their feet, a drum roll of spears and shields echoed with a virile challenge, and with a roar and a hiss the phalanx of warriors surged forward.

The Boer horsemen fired in an even fusillade, fell back, reloaded, and fired again, eventually arriving back at the laager which opened to receive them as thirty paces behind the first hissing wave of amaNdebele smashed against the defences. The battle then raged fierce. A combined force of amaNdebele pride and ferocity and Boer faith and determination drove the two sides together with chilling determination. Wave upon wave of warriors mounted the bodies of the dead and dying and tore at the wagons, while cool and controlled firing and reloading kept up a steady barrage of deadly fire. After the first few frenetic minutes the amaNdebele flinched and broke, and then retreated beyond range leaving several hundred black dead and dying heaped against the walls of the laager.

A second a short while later attack fared no better, and eventually discretion proved the better part of valour, and with the consolation of several hundred head of cattle the amaNdebele detachment turned and made for home. For the Boer riflemen who disengaged themselves from their firing positions and watched the exodus of the enemy and their precious herds, victory was also inconclusive, but their very survival had been an achievement, and if their livelihood had been stolen and was being driven away at the head of the amaNdebele army, this simply rendered it more imperative that an expeditionary force be assembled to the take the fight to the amaNdebele, and take back what was theirs, and far more besides.

In the aftermath of Vegkop Boer strength was consolidated under the combined leadership of Hendrik Potgeiter and newcomer Gerrit Maritz. Throughout November and December of 1836 the two men laboured to assemble a force sufficient to mount an attack, and if possible depose the amaNdebele from north of the Vaal River. By early January 1837 the task had been completed, and a large and heterogeneous force of Boer, Griqua and allied black tribesmen crossed the Vaal and made its way towards the largest of the amaNdebele military cantonments.

A dawn attack was launched, which was followed by a series of running battles that culminated in a classic formation attack by a large amaNdebele force that was reasonably easily broken and repelled by the mobile tactics of mounted riflemen. Thereafter the main bulk of the amaNdebele force was driven back and retreated north in good order, but at the loss of a large amount of territory and much livestock. Wary of overstretching the resources of his invasion force Potgeiter declined to press home his victory, but retreated back across the Vaal with minimal casualties and a large haul of booty.

In the meanwhile the clear defeat of this once invincible force was celebrated far and wide, not least among the Zulu. Within a few months of the episode a second strong Zulu force appeared on the horizon and bore down on the wounded amaNdebele nation with profound malice. For the third time in a decade these kindred armies met in a clash of arms that ended, despite the relatively weakened force of the amaNdebele, with yet another stalemate. The Zulu returned to the east and the amaNdebele to the northwest, both severely bloodied but neither beaten. It was clear that in this contest at least there was nothing to choose between the two great armies.

Meanwhile, in a series of arguments and disagreements, the briefly united Boer revealed somewhat the factionalism that defined their internal dynamic. Potgeiter and Maritz argued and parted company, and Potgeiter joined forces with a newcomer from the south by the name of Pieter Uys, and launched a second series of attacks across the Vaal. This third assault in almost as many months followed a similar pattern to the third, and again the amaNdebele were routed at the loss of hundreds, if not thousands of men, and huge quantities of livestock. Boer commandos reached eGabeni where a desperate strategy by the amaNdebele to attack behind a stampeding herd of cattle was thwarted by the Boers, and again the amaNdebele were put to flight.

This time there would be no reclaiming ground, no regrouping and counter attack. Soon the vast majority of men, women and children of the amaNdebele were fleeing north through passes in the Dwarsberg Ridge, abandoning their brief tenure of the Transvaal territory to the incoming Boer, and resuming once again the rigors of flight and exodus into the deep unknown.

[1] Johnson, R.W. South Africa: First Man Last Nation. (Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg, 2004), pg54/55