Durban - The battle of Blood River, or Ncome, on December 16, 1838, has long been divisive in South African history. For the Boers, it was their acclaimed God-given triumph. For Africans, it was a valiant struggle against colonial aggression.
In his latest book, The Boer Invasion of the Zulu Kingdom 1837-1840, historian Dr John Laband has painstakingly sifted through fresh evidence to present the less familiar Zulu perspective, explaining the political motivation and strategic military objectives at the time.
Laband, Professor Emeritus of History at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, has authored, co-authored, and edited more than 20 books on warfare and military culture in Africa, specialising in the Zulu kingdom. He will introduce the book at the Durban International Book Fair this week.
The Independent on Saturday caught up with him at his home in Greyton in the Western Cape.
“I re-evaluate the famed Battle of Blood River,” Laband says. “Seen from the Afrikaner point of view, it is justified as a response to the treachery of the Zulu and the murder of Piet Retief and his party. And the victory at Blood River shows God’s support for the cause. It did add to Afrikaner nationalism,” said Laband.
But the Zulu people also had a response to it. “Here, it's interesting. A more traditional point of view was to look at King Dingane and ask, ‘why did you thrust in an evil spear?’ To say, under your rule things fell apart. That view, in many ways, still persists in modern politics and was pursued by the Inkatha Freedom Party. In essence, the great ruler was King Shaka, and others let the side down,” he says.
“The other point of view, more from the ANC camp, was Dingane was a prototype of resistance to colonial intrusion and someone to be admired for attempting to push the Boer incursion out of his lands. He was, therefore, a hero.
“There are also different ways of looking at Dingane. What could he do? Here were people arriving with their wagons and flocks. He knew about their success against Mzilikazi. Do you give up half your territory, or do you resist? And if you resist, you know they’re so military powerful, do you try to destroy them by craft, so to speak? Anyone who’s watched Game of Thrones knows what happens when you get invited to a banquet. That trick’s been around since Heroditus.
“So it was sensible policy to wipe out the leadership and then send out the army to wipe out the followers,” he says.
His book has also made use of fresh Zulu sources, among them many from the James Stuart Library, which has recently been transcribed. Stuart, a magistrate in early 20th-century Zululand, interviewed hundreds of old Zulu men and women to get their oral history.
“Stuart was talking to people who had been alive and may have fought at Blood River. This is now available beside the Boer accounts ‒ the letters and diaries. With so much of colonial history, it’s not that African evidence isn’t there, it's that historians didn’t look at it,” says Laband. “It’s a case of putting together the evidence and making sense of it, rather than writing a triumphalist story.
“In the Zulu oral testimony, they don’t say much about the great defeat at Blood River, but do talk about the Battle of the White Mfolozi, the plain where Ulundi is today, where the Boers were badly ambushed and totally beaten up. It was then that they decided to negotiate with Dingane. After Blood River, the king retired with his army and set up a new homestead to the north. After the battle of the White Mfolozi, it was the Boers who pulled back,” he says.
He also notes the Involvement of the English-speaking settlers in Port Natal, nominally Dingane’s allies, who decided to join the Boers. “Essentially, at one point, Dingane had a war on two fronts. They were completely and utterly defeated at the battle of Tugela,” Laband says. “In fact, the Zulus swept down and burnt Port Natal, with the settlers having to escape onto a ship in a bay.”
He also notes that a number of Africans fought with the Boers, and the British, for that matter.
“These were the agterryers. The Boers always moved off with their black retainers, who would dig the ditches and look after the horses. They did battle at Blood River. There were as many African guys in that laager as white guys, and some of them would have been shooting. It’s typical of colonial wars. It’s not just whites against blacks, but colonists, with African allies fighting other Africans.”
The book focuses on the execution of Piet Retief and his party. “I’ve gone into it in a fair amount of detail to understand the Zulu point of view. The activities of the Boers led to them being viewed as bad guests. They would enter the women’s quarters. They were wandering around at night. The Boers said they were looking for their horses, but the Zulus thought it was witchcraft. And then there was the arrogance of the Boers. They told Dingane how they zapped Mzilikazi. Everything just confirmed Dingane’s decision that these were bad guys,” Laband says.
Laband has been writing about elements of Zulu history “for ages”. His previous book was The Eight Zulu Kings. “Okay, there are nine now,” he says.
Laband was involved in the late 1990s while working at the University of KwaZulu-Natal with the commission set up to look at reconciliation and the reinterpreting the battle. “Today, you have the two monuments. The Boer monument and the new Ncome monument were built across the river. You’ve finally got a bridge over the river joining the two, but you’ve still got the lager facing the Zulu bull's horn formation. They’re still facing each other and never quite reconciled despite the high hopes of the 1990s.”
In 2002, he left KZN for Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, retiring in 2014 to Greyton. He has since written six books. “In many ways, I still go to the office every morning. I go to my study upstairs. It’s a real pleasure without having student essays to mark,” he says.
In between, he enjoys hiking in the mountains around the area and plays “quite a bit” of boule and some bridge.
He says the study of history is useful in any profession. “It gives you a sense of where you are in the world and an understanding of it. It’s a window or perspective into the present and makes one a more aware, active and involved citizen. Who can understand what’s happening in Ukraine today without a sense of the history?”
- The Boer Invasion of the Zulu Kingdom 1837-40
- Laband will speak at Durban International Book Fair on the Alan Paton stage on August 11 at 4pm. Entry is free.
The Independent on Saturday