Bloukrans and Moordspruit – “Blue Cliff” and “Spring of Murder”
There was little to be seen on the night of the 16th of February 1838 for there was no moon at all. It was a peaceful night along the Tugela River and its tributaries, yet it would soon become the darkest night of foulest murder. It was the greatest nightmare anyone had ever known.
Nobody knew it yet, but more than a week ago the Voortrekker governor Piet Retief and all 70 of his men and servants had been murdered by Dingane – king of the Zulu. They had been invited to a banquet to celebrate a peaceful land transaction when Dingane ordered his warriors to seize them. Retief and all his men were tortured to death in the most horrible way. Some were clubbed to death, while others were impaled, and then cast away to feed his vultures at KwaMatiwane – the place of killing.
Many miles towards the north their families were waiting upon their return. They were, in fact, expecting good news and were hoping to see their returning men any day now. They had reason to feel relaxed. Northern Natal was one of the most beautiful places in Africa. Framed by the towering Drakensberg Mountains, the climate was mild and the rolling landscapes made the world seem enchantingly lovely in a thousand unfamiliar ways. It was a country more captivating than many of them had ever seen in all their lives.
All along the Tugela River the Voortrekkers families were stretched out across a distance of 56 kilometres . They had no reason to suspect trouble. Dingane has sounded benevolent and friendly. There had been no news as yet, but under the circumstances no news was considered good news. Their leader, Gert Maritz, had nevertheless cautiously issued orders that the families should assembly near his own laager. The Voortrekkers found it impractical to be huddled together, however, and only a few families obeyed the instruction.
The rest remained at their peaceful encampments scattered across the valleys. That afternoon they brought their livestock closer to their camps, set out guards against lions – and prepared their pleasant suppers. Grandfathers read to their families from the Bible, mothers tucked their little ones in and kissed them each good night. One by one the voices all went quiet as the candles were blown out and the campfires were allowed to slowly burn to embers.
Around midnight, though, people began to stir. Some arose and started peering into the darkness with anxious eyes. From far away down-river came the sound of thunder. Yet, there was no lightning. And as they listened they began to realize that what they heard was not thunder, but the noise of distant gunfire. The sound of shots spread along the river frontage until they gradually fell silent altogether.
In places the glow of fires lit up the sky, until these too slowly disappeared. Eyes turned white in the suffocating darkness, for these were men who had already known four generations of warfare. They had guessed what was going on – and they knew were about to join a living nightmare. Little children began to cry. Trembling lips began to pray in silence. They had seen it before. They already knew what this meant – and they all silently understood that the angel of death was on its way to visit them as well.
Down river hardly anyone had heard the silent tread of 10,000 Zulu phantoms as they marched through the long grass. Here and there a dog strained at its rope and barked hysterically. The cattle milled and horses began to whinny. The animals could sense the approach, but inside some of the wagons the families were still sleeping soundly.
When the restlessness roused them, they were still drugged by sleep and slow in realizing what was happening. But then the long grass parted and a figure leapt into the wagon – dark as the night – with only eyes and teeth shining white. For a moment the moon gleamed upon a naked blade – and then there was a scream – a long, drawn-out shriek that shattered the night as if the entire sky was made of brittle glass. And then the warriors were everywhere at once.
In many places men were quick to leap to their feet and find their guns. By the light of stars alone their shaking fingers poured powder down the barrels, and a little more into the pan of their flintlocks. They hardly had to raise and aim – some scarcely had the opportunity to fire more than one or two shots before Zululand’s sharpest steel sliced into their backs and chests. In some places there was more resistance. The lucky ones who had more warning managed to find a little shelter – from where they fought a fight that required no courage – when fighting for the ones you love beyond reason itself – courage had no meaning. All men became lions and every soul was turned into a hero. Circumstances simply made you one.
Every man and women fought for their very lives that night. First with guns, and then with axes, knives and any object that they could swing. When these weapons were pried from their wounded arms, they fought with their bare hands. Fathers fell across their children, and mothers huddled around their crying infants. The blades found them all. The spears knew no mercy of any kind. The blades went through the mothers and into their children as if they were made from butter. Even the children who tore loose and ran away were run down and caught. Not one of them was spared.
As they threw their torches onto the tented wagons and the flames began to dance – the warriors of Zululand made sure that all the men and women were finished off. Then they took the children – every little child and baby that still breathed. They held them by their feet and swung their little heads against the wagons wheels. Each little crying voice ended with a hollow thud until every one of them was silent. Then they took everything they wanted, and sliced the bellies open of the people they had murdered.
Behind them they left utter carnage. Burning wood and canvas, fluttering feathers from sliced open beds and pillows, and scattered flour that looked like snow in all directions. Here and there a life was still gurgling away while limbs contorted painfully. Glass shattered, furniture smashed. Nothing left alive at all. And so they continued up the river to see who else they could still overrun.
Lourens Christiaan de Klerk, who survived the butchery, told that after they had listened to the firing in the dark for some time, a bushman woman had come stumbling into their laager. She was too shocked and traumatized to speak, and however hard they tried, they could not get a word out of her. By this, however, they knew what to expect.
Shortly after a white man came running from the same direction. This was Daniel Bezuidenhout, bare-headed and streaming with blood, and only dressed in shirt and trousers.
“All murdered!” he cried. “The Zulus are here!”
Gasping with exhaustion, he told his dreadful story. When the barking of their dogs woke him at 1 o’clock in the morning, he had risen to see whether the livestock was wandering off or being threatened by a leopard. To his surprise, he walked into a regiment of Zulus. Freezing in his tracks, he heard the warriors’ shields going “zirrrr” through the grass, and followed the noise as the Zulus stabbed at his dogs in the dark. Only half-clad, he retreated stealthily. Then he stumbled into a second regiment which was approaching from another direction. Under cover of darkness he hastened to his waggon where his wife was sick with their little baby of six days old. Handing him the child, she beseeched him to flee to safety.
As he jumped into the darkness and forced his way through the Zulus he could hear them stab his aged father to death. With the child in his arms, he managed to break through after being encircled three times. On each occasion they had been drawn to him by the crying of the baby. They first managed to stab him while he was crouched over the child, so that the spear entered his shoulder blade and went down his chest along his rib cage before killing the little baby in his arms. He did not notice it immediately, though, until after he had been wounded twice more.
When he finally managed to escape, he hid himself among the cattle. He was now safely in the darkness behind the Zulu lines. From here he could hear how the Zulus were stabbing the dogs and chickens to death, the tearing of the tent canvass and the destruction of the waggons.
At this point the bereaved father discovered that the helpless child was lifeless in his arms. Realizing that there was nothing more that he could do for his exterminated family, he hid the little body under a bush, and ran through the night to warn the other pioneers. In so doing, he gave priceless warning to the Van Dijks, the Scheepers family, as well as the Roets and Van Vuuren families and the family of Karel Geer. This saved many lives.
Even while Bezuidenhout was still telling his dreadful tale, the thundering of hooves brought Heila Petronella Roberts and her two daughters into their laager. Unbeknown to Heila, her husband had already been murdered with Piet Retief. Having been warned by the shots from a single man that night, she and her children had barely managed to reach their horses and escape in time. She confirmed that all the Bezuidenhouts had been killed.
Her own story was just as terrible. As she was fleeing from her waggons, she said she saw the neighbouring Greyling and Engelbrecht families – all 36 of them – running for the safety of her waggons. Moments later she saw them being overwhelmed and butchered to the last man, woman and child. There would be many more stories which were similar to these.
Gun battles were raging through the night in all directions. Nearly everywhere the fights were desperate to the extreme. The need was so severe that even children had to fight. One example was the little ten year old son of Gert Maritz who had to fire and load just like all the grown men. It is impossible to imagine the utter chaos of that night as thousands of warriors shouted, oxen and livestock scattered in all directions, guns blazed away at sounds and shadows, and the cry of murdered people rent the sky.
It was a night in which heroes were made. At Rensburg koppie, Willem van Rensburg held his gun upside down to indicate that they were out of ammunition.
“Help people! There is powder and lead in Willem Pretorius’ waggon!” he cried.
Nobody thought it possible, but a small group of men fought their way through the Zulu ranks. A young man of 18 years old, Martinus Jacobus Oosthuizen, or Tinie, as he was called, made the desperate race to the Pretorius waggons on his horse, “Swartjie” (Blackie).
Laden with shot and powder, the boy then had to run the gauntlet all the way back again. With desperate fascination the men watched as he stormed right into the ranks of 1,500 warriors – dodging clubs and spears as best he could. For a moment it seemed, lost, but then he burst through and completed his five minute death run in safety. His was just one more act of heroism that saved many lives that day. The women who survived the battle with their men showered him with kisses of appreciation afterwards.
Further away, the laagers which had been spared rallied themselves and went flying into the darkness – riding as hard as they could to try and aid whomever they might. In the darkness, however, they could not do very much. They were among the bravest of the brave to attack like that, but it was already far too late for most. The scale of the attack was just too big and the speed had been too great.
When the sun rose that morning, it fell across the valleys of a blood-soaked country. What the men saw on that day was something that most would not see again in their entire lives – a scene that few would ever want to talk about. The carnage was beyond description. Entire families had been wiped out. Waggon encampments were still smoking – with the wagons standing like coal-black skeletons upon the lonely landscape.
The deeds of valiant bravery that occurred that night were many, yet most are lost to history because the heroes fought until they perished and no one was left to tell the tale. The few who lived were scarred for life. They must have had nightmares for as long as they lived, and more than likely seldom spoke about that night.
One little girl, Johanna van der Merwe, was just 12 years old. She escaped the Van der Merwe laager and managed to reach the Prinsloo family which was encamped elsewhere. But here also, death found the families. Elizabeth (Betta) De Beer could only grab the youngest of her three children, a nine months old baby. She sought shelter beneath a waggon, but her baby was assaulted through the spokes of a wheel. Being left for dead, she managed to flee into the darkness, still clutching her bloody little baby in her arms. At the Bloukrans River she discovered the little child was dead, so she left its body there.
Together with Johanna van der Merwe and a Prinsloo girl they were found in a tree, which they climbed during the night of terror. There they were so weakened that they could not make a sound. After the sun had risen, two Zulus had passed beneath the tree. Drawn by the sight of blood that was dripping from the branches, they proceeded to stab at the girls as far as they could reach. One climbed into the thorn tree and grabbed Betta De Beer by her long hair. She became stuck in a fork of the tree, which prevented him from pulling her down.
When they were satisfied that the girls were probably dead, they moved on. They were only discovered by the pioneers when the vultures began circling the tree. Little Johanna had no less than 21 stab wounds. Catherina Prinsloo, was stabbed 23 times. The young Betta De Beer died a few days later. Elsewhere, Gert Lucas Joubert was also found with 21 wounds. His body was retrieved from beneath a pile of mutilated corpses. He, however, somehow managed to survive.
Another tale of survival is so dreadful that it almost cannot be repeated. One woman had been huddled against the trunk of a tree, desperately trying to shelter her baby with her body. After having stabbed her in the arms and legs, a Zulu ripped the baby from her clutch and disembowelled it with one thrust. Upon stabbing the mother in the back, she collapsed unconscious.
When she came to a little while later, the Zulu was laughing as he stabbed at her other child in the tree above her. The warrior laughed while the child wailed with fear. At long last the tormented child fell from the tree, nearly on top of its mother, where she lay with racing heart while pretending to be dead. The poor mother survived the deadly ordeal, probably to be haunted by nightmares for the rest of her life.
All through that day, the pioneers followed the sight of circling vultures in search of their scattered loved ones. Often they found the bodies of dead or dying Zulus – which they dispatched at once. Sometimes they found the bodies of their own – and wept with bitter anguish.
One man by the name of Du Preez was just returning from a hunting trip. When he reached his laager, he found his wife and every one of his seven children cold and lifeless. An entire family wiped out, with only he himself that had been spared by circumstances. Besides that, he had lost everything he owned, except the clothes that he was standing in. Some of the scenes were so dreadful that those who wrote down their memories many years later repeatedly declared that they were too terrible to record in detail.
The scent of death hung heavily across the bloody tapestry of that night. Ferdinand Paulus van Gass, who was just a young man at the time, wrote that, “all had been murdered in this gruesome way; children had stakes driven into their mouths and out the back of their heads, women were sliced open and their entrails were torn out, while the men were similarly treated in a manner that I am not able to recount.”
In the bush and long grass, bearded pioneers must have fallen to their knees and sobbed as they recognized friends and family, or familiar faces and neighbours. Van Gass recounted that at one laager they could not find a single gun that was not broken. The men had fought until they were out of ammunition, and had then fought with guns used as clubs until they were overwhelmed. Everywhere they collected little bundles – the castaway and crumpled figures of terrified little children, or women and servants who had died while trying to escape. Most were mutilated. Their bodies were strewn across the veld like so much rubbish. Even the dogs, cats, chickens and domestic animals were all butchered.
In places the bodies of victims and attackers were still entwined as they had died in mortal combat. Abraham Carel Bothma, who was the brother of Stephanus Bothma who had been hung at Slagtersnek, was found in this way. He had a large spear through his chest while the Zulu at his side had a knife wound in his heart. Bothma still had both legs wrapped around the Zulu from their deathly contest, but his body had been slit open and disembowelled from top to bottom.
Around him his coloured servant lay similarly mutilated, while in their camp all the women were found with their clothes torn off. They had been sliced open similarly. Above each place of slaughter the vultures were circling patiently – or rattling the branches of the thorn trees before jumping to a hurried feast.
In many places families were found inside their waggons. Some of the little children had suffocated to death beneath the weight of their dead relatives. In one waggon, 21 corpses were piled, plus one little eight year old girl who was dragged from under them, still alive.
The 12 year old Hannie van der Merwe was found with 21 spear wounds beneath a heap of 20 bodies. She astonished everyone by surviving. In places the blood scratch-marks showed how frightened women had been dragged from underneath their beds. The savageness defied all description. It was too much to witness women of all ages, their clothes stripped, their breasts cut off, and impaled with spears, before being disembowelled. Some had their Achilles tendons cut off. One such victim, Catharina Prinsloo, had hers cut also. She survived this mutilation, and altogether 17 spear wounds, and lived as a crippled until she died in 1892. Servants shared the same fate – butchered without mercy.
The survivors stared with hollow eyes, and drawn expressions. They were the toughest people in the Colony. Most of these men had grown up on the Eastern Border. They had known nothing but border raids all their lives. Most of them had known war since they were born. Blood was nothing new to them. But this was by far – without comparison – the bloodiest scene that anyone had ever witnessed. They stared at the limbs of little children which had been hacked off and cast into the trees like morbid decorations. All the dreadful memories that they ever had paled into insignificance compared to the unspeakable horror of one single night.
They still found survivors along the rivers and valleys, but not many. In one place, the astonished rescuers heard a whimper. At their approach they discovered a woman that lay sprawled with a spear still protruding from her back. When they rolled her over they found that the blade had sliced right through her, and also through the body of her baby, it was buried in the ground. The mother was cold and dead, but to their amazement they found the child was still alive. They removed the blade with the greatest care and still the little one did not perish. She was one of the few who were destined to survive that night. She would later marry and live until a good old age.
In the regions of Bloukrans and Moordspruit the sad pioneers collected the remains of those whom they had loved. Many of their names were recorded, but some were simply lost upon the vastness of the land. Together with their servants, the list of those who were butchered in that single night numbered 525 although it was impossible to be precise as so many families had been wiped out entirely, and so many had vanished without a trace.
The number of Zulus who had been killed was estimated at 500, while an unknown additional number had drowned in the rivers during the night. There were so many orphan children that the pioneers scarcely knew what to do with them afterwards. Funerals were held for ten days afterwards as more and more bodies continued to be discovered. Many were buried in two mass graves of 7 by 7 metres. On top of everything, the news was then received that Piet Retief and all his men had been massacred by Dingane. Not a single one had escaped.
When it was over, a spirit of great defeat and desolated descended upon the traumatized survivors. They had lost more than the mind could comprehend, for besides the many deaths of their loved ones, they had been robbed of a multitude of cattle which had either been driven off or been killed and mutilated.
With the death of the popular and charismatic Piet Retief, they also found themselves leaderless. Anxious laagers were drawn while false reports came in that more Zulus were on their way to continue the attacks. Some wanted to return back to the Colony. Most of the others, however, had now been steeled in their resolve.
During this dreadful time something occurred which seems peculiar to what would later become the Afrikaner nation. When desperation was so deep that even the stoutest hearts would lose their courage, it was remarkable how women often took a stand.
This was perhaps the first of these occasions when a group of women addressed their men and boldly declared: “If you are not man enough, then we as women will attack the Zulus!”
Their bravery inspired others who similarly declared that they would “expressly not trek home again, but would remain here to avenge this great injustice or to perish as their bothers.” A few turned back, but the vast majority stubbornly remained. Many felt that under these desperate circumstances, they had only the most desperate option left to them – and that was to regroup and find some way to attack their vastly superior enemy.
They could not have known it, but a dreadful time of siege and fear lay yet ahead for the shocked survivors. They would still be ravaged by cold and hunger and deadly disease epidemics while they huddled together and waited out months of siege and never-ending rains in squelching mud.
This would become one of the two darkest hours in the history of their budding nation. Indeed, much more blood was still to flow before the Zulu might would finally be cracked at Blood River and then be brushed away at Ulundi. They was destined to become a pioneer generation that was formed in the crucible of severest trauma. These experiences forged them into an indescribably tough people with a strength of faith that seemed unique in all their generations.
Our own Labuschagne trek was there that night, but they were among the lucky ones. Although no historical records about their movements have been found, it is believed that they were laagered at Labuschagnesdrift near Potgieters drift, where in 1899 the Spioenkop battles would be fought. Somehow the Zulus probably just did not chance to find their laager in that night. We were undeservedly lucky for from my own people apparently not a single one of them was lost. Other families, however, were wiped out entirely. Thousands of men and women never lived because of the lives that were lost that day.
People still remember the names of Bloukrans and Moordspruit today, and they know that the names are synonymous with some old tragedy of the past. What they do not realize, however, is that some of history’s traumas were so dramatic that people could not talk about them. And because they could not talk about them, they were not written down to the same degree of detail as other events were. They were just too terrible to tell frequently. And because there was less detail, they are not so well remembered now.
I look outside my window tonight and watch the moon as silver clouds spill across the sky. The charcoal branches of a tree reaches knottily, like the bones of some ancient hand that reaches to pluck it form the sky. It makes the scene alive before my mind eye. And I think about Natal, for I had known it well enough myself. I have been where these events had taken place. I have walked across the rolling plains of the Tugela basin. I have walked with outstretched hands, so that the long grass passed lovingly through my fingers.
Along those same very hills my ancestors fought in the desperate modern battles of the Anglo-Boer War, hardly sixty years later. This land holds so much meaning. Sometimes I think that the grass grows so beautiful in that land because it has been fed by so much blood. This is the land of my fathers. It was the land that they had dreamed about. For many it became their nightmare. But still, there is an element of loveliness that continues to this very day.
When the mighty Drakensberg lies snow-capped beneath a cobalt sky at twilight – when the turpentine grass is long and golden and smells like pine – and when the Tugela gurgles like a sleeping child – that’s when the land is so beautiful that it hurts your eyes and makes them water.
You think about this night and close your eyes and shudder. But when you open your eyes again the land is smiling. In the early morning when the sun rises and the gentle mists lie lazily upon the valleys – the pleading screams and helpless cries begin to fade. And all you hear is the total silence that whispers that Africa still loves her children – and that she wishes none of this had ever happened.