The fortuitous discovery of some birth and death certificates, indicated that great grandmother, Maria Margaretha Smit, was the daughter of Phillipus Johannes Potgieter, the son of Veld Kornet (Field Cornet) Jacobus Christoffel, from Graaf Reinet; murdered in the frontier wars against the ImiDange-Xhosa in 1811. Google indicated that Phillipus’s brother, Kommandant (Commandant) Koos ‘Grootvoet’ (‘Bigfoot’) Potgieter, was my third great uncle, one of the voortrekker leaders. The confrontations between the Ndebele and the Zulus and our ancestral uncles, Oom Jakob and Oom Grootvoet gives a good indication of the obstacles that lay on the path of our voortrekker ancestors.
Oom Grootvoet fought in the Fourth and Fifth Frontier Wars as a Veld Kornet (Field Cornet) and was a wealthy sheep farmer. When the Sixth Frontier War broke out against Nelson Mandela’s ancestors, it all became too much for him. In a bout of pique, he got on his horse and rounded up a large group of fellow farmers, becoming one of the leaders of the Great Trek. They were hell bent for the ‘freedom’ of Natal.
Natal and the Zulus
The Portuguese navigator Vasco de Gama was so impressed with sighting the Natal coast on Christmas Day in 1497, that he named the country ‘Terra Natalis’, the Portuguese word (“Natal”) for Christmas.
Oom Grootvoet and his fellow Boer voortrekkers thought that all their Christmases would come, if they could only enter this ‘land of milk and honey’ – they would have their own Zion.
These intrepid Boers believed that the British wanted to place Nelson Mandela’s ancestors on an equal footing with them. “Were they after-all not Christians? Was this not contrary to the laws of God?”, were their cries, heard on the sabbath – but not in their local church, the Dutch Reformed Church at Graaf Reinet, where the servant of God was a Scotsman – Reverend Andrew Murray.
So, like the Israelites of old, they were bound for the Promised Land to escape the wrath of their Pharaoh, the British.
The church was against Oom Grootvoet and his desire to go to Natal. They wrote – “The Synod is justly grieved at so many members of the Reformed Church, who have left their homes and altars and have departed into the wilderness without a Moses or Aaron, and without promise or guidance at present to seek a Canaan for themselves”.
However, they did follow them into the interior and proved to be a source of solace and guidance to them, facing the same dangers as the voortrekkers. One of them, Reverend Colin Fraser – who could have visited Oom Grootvoet’s party – gives a good account of the dangers they all faced.
He wrote: “There was a small glade in the otherwise thick mimosa bush along the river and my father used to go there sometimes with his bible, meditating, and preparing his services. A thick mimosa stump afforded a seat. One day, as my father sat there with his Bible open on his knees, lost in deep thought with his eyes closed, he suddenly felt a weight on the Bible, and opening his eyes, he looked straight into the face of a lion, who had placed his huge paw on the Holy Book. He at once thought that he would have to face death, and he prayed to God to deliver him or to receive his soul. He became aware, however, that the animal was suffering from fear, as he was quivering and breathing hard, and just at that moment there was a loud shout, and the lion rushed away into the bush. My father then found himself surrounded by a number of wild bushmen armed with spears and bows and arrows, who were evidently hunting the animal, which they followed into the bush, leaving my father to devoutly acknowledge his unexpected deliverance, and to render thanks to God for His gracious care over him.
The Zulus were another thing! Oom Grootvoet and his fellow Boer families would rue the day that they entered the ‘land of milk and honey’.
The interior of Natal had been occupied since the 16th century by the Nguni branch of the Bantu-speaking peoples. In the 1820s and ’30s the Zulu clan of the Nguni, under Dingiswayo (1807–17), Shaka (1817–28), and Dingane (1828–40), had forged highly trained and skilled regiments with tactics and manoeuvres that enabled them to found a powerful kingdom north of the Tugela River.
Shaka’s campaigns were ‘worst case scenarios’, mounting a reign of terror, devastating the area south of the Tugela River. The lucky ones, not killed or conscripted by the Zulus fled to other regions or went into hiding, creating a veritable ‘terra nullius’.
The British did not help the voortrekkers’ cause, as they laboriously entered Natal in their ox-wagons. They established a trading post at Port Natal (now Durban) in 1824 and signed a treaty with Shaka ceding them Port Natal and about 80 km of coastline to a depth of 160 km inland.
Then an unspeakable act of treachery! King Dingane lured a trusting and unsuspecting voortrekker leader, Piet Retief and his voortrekker representatives into the royal kraal. They had just settled down to what they thought was to be a friendly ‘chinwag’, when the command rang out ‘Bulalani abathakathi’ (kill the wizards)! Retief and his men were dragged to the execution rock, called Matiwane and hurled to their death. We were told in our history classes that Dingane thought that these voortrekkers wielded evil supernatural powers.
Thus, my ancestors and the fledgling Boer nation entered one of the darkest periods in our history. After the slaying of Retief and his party, a Zulu army of 7,000 impis (soldiers) were sent out and they immediately attacked voortrekker encampments in the Drakensberg foothills at Blaauwkrans and Weenen (‘the place of weeping’) where half the contingent of voortrekkers in Natal were killed.
Oom (Uncle) ‘Grootvoet’ and the other leaders knew they had to come up with a deadly response to the murders, otherwise the Zulu army would keep on attacking them. On April 11, 1838, two commandos of about 347 men under the joint leadership of Piet Uys and another Potgieter – Andries Potgieter, including Oom ‘Grootvoet’, crossed the Tugela on the way to uMgundgundhlovu, the capital of the Zulu king, Dingane to wreak revenge.
But the Zulus got in first – they ambushed and routed the commando in the Battle of Italeni. Oom Grootvoet, along with the other Boers, survived by the skin of their teeth.
The Boers found the frontline of the Zulu army on the morning of April 11, when they crossed the Buffalo River close to Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana – later to become the sites of ferocious British colonial battles that featured in the eventual defeat of the Zulus.
The Boers quickly formed a commando, which set off to follow the wily Zulus. The Zulus cunningly lured them deeper and deeper into Zululand, where the main Zulu army was waiting at iTaleni Mountain, close to uMgundgundhlovu. They numbered several thousand warriors, under the command of their induna (chief) Nzobo.
They followed a group of Zulu who were chasing cattle into a ravine and found themselves in a wide valley with a steep hill on the right, and low ridges to the left. This valley was crisscrossed with dongas, gulleys and ravines.
Oom Grootvoet and company were caught in an ambush – a desperate scenario then unfolded! Suddenly about 3000 ‘black shields’ warriors appeared on their right and another 4000 ‘white shields’ warriors on their left, with another regiment cutting off any retreat behind The Zulus had them trapped.
They were completely unprepared for this. The Boer battle tactic was one of rapid movement and attack, on horseback. The Zulus knew this. The terrain they now found themselves in, could not have been more unsuitable. Oom Grootvoet had his first lesson in Zulu tactics – from masters at deception and ensnarement.
It was quickly decided that the one leader, Piet Uys would tackle the ‘white shields’ on the right, and the other leader, Andries Potgieter would go for the ‘black shields’ on the left. The two commandos found themselves fighting with their backs to each other – with no means of escape out of the ravine.
Oom Grootvoet then famously asked his leader if they were going to fight the Zulus ‘hand to hand’? Nobody knows what Piet Uys replied to that; but, so they did.
The commando broke up into smaller groups, just what the Zulus were waiting for. The battle quickly degenerated in a scrambling mess. Some Zulus were chased into thick brush where the Boers were met with lethal assegais (spears). Some Boers galloped over dead and injured Zulus – trying to shoot the ducking and weaving Zulus. Some Boers were thrown off their horses and continued to fight the Zulus in hand-to-hand combat.
A Zulu assegai struck Piet Uys from behind, in the lower back region, coming out in his chest – a mortal wound. The retreat began in earnest, with some Boers being thrown from their bolting horses. Many went down under flashing assegai blades.
Some dismounted in the face of the charging ‘black shields’, to get a more stable shooting platform. Some horses lost their footing, with horse and rider falling on the wounded and injured combatants. Any isolated and dismounted Boer was methodically dealt with, with the assegais flashing in the sunlight. Many Boer survivors spoke of the ‘flashing assegais in the sunlight’.
The Potgieter commando fell back across the Umhlatuze River, where they discovered that the men guarding the pack horses were gone, and that the horses had bolted. Then the hidden Zulu regiment showed itself, barring their exit from the valley of death.
Andries Potgieter and his men rode furiously to find a way out, over iTaleni Mountain.
The regiment that had suddenly risen up in the rear, then combined with the ‘black shields’ and made their way shouting and screaming, with the assegais flashing in the sun, to where Uys and a small band of his men were still trapped.
The other Uys men, in a frenzy, broke through the cordon of Zulus and galloped up towards the Potgieter commando who had reached the summit of iTaleni Hill. A breakaway group from the Potgieter commando attacked the ‘black shields’, firing from their saddles, to allow the fleeing Uys men to get to safety.
The Zulus were intent to deal the final blow to the retreating Boers, charging the Potgieter commando full on, beating on their shields and creating such an uproar that the horses started to panic, with many bolting.
Oom Grootvoet, with the some of the Uys men, galloped away in the direction where they hoped to find the pack horses with their back-up supply of ammunition. But all had fled, and the 60 horses and their supplies had fallen into enemy hands.
But things were not over yet. The Zulus had somehow cordoned them off. At the Umhlatuze River almost all the ‘black shields’ left on the field of battle engaged them, and the heaviest fighting of the day then ensued. For almost 30 minutes they had to beat the warriors off with rifle butts and employ their ‘fight and flee’ method without pause. Warriors would grab at the horses’ legs and the stirrups in an effort to slow them down, and the riders had to knock them down with their rifle butts.
It was during this desperate melee that the rifle of Piet Uys’s brother, “Swart” (Black) Dirk Uys, exploded, and blew his thumb off. The men then miraculously broke through in a running fight on the eastern slopes of iTaleni Hill, where some of the Boer servants were also killed in action. Every Boer who survived the battle had a different story to tell – as did the surviving Zulus. With Boers racing up and down iTaleni, trying to break through the ululating Zulus, trying to avoid the sharpest of blades; horses falling; riders trying to get on again – all accounts of the battle are sketchy and inconsistent – but what can you expect!
They ultimately decided to flee – the best decision of the day! Both commandos exited the battlefield in full flight with rear-guard actions being fought to keep the Zulu vanguard back.
Approximately 1000 Zulu warriors were killed, while the Boers lost 10 people. Nobody knows exactly what happened to Piet Uys’s son Dirkie. Some say that he was captured alive by the Zulus, taking him to the King, where he was slaughtered alive.
Both the commandos travelled through the night, trickling back dejectedly into the lagers in small groups the next day, licking their wounds.