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William Wood


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Kwa Zulu Natal History

An Eyewitness Account of the Massacre of Retief
STATEMENTS RESPECTING DINGAAN,
KING OF THE ZULUS,
           With some particulars relating to the massacres of
                       Messrs. Retief  and Biggar.  
      By  William Wood, Interpreter to Dingaan, Cape Town:
       Published by Collard & Co., 24, Heerengracht. 1840.

In the year 1830, my mother and I embarked on board the cutter "Circe," Captain Blinkenstock, bound to Port Natal, to join my father, Richard Wood, who was in the "employment of Mr. Collis, at that port.

The captain, my mother, and myself having landed, we proceeded towards a Zulu kraal, where we were treated kindly. We then set off for Mr. Collis's, and got there without any accident.  

I had been living there about six months, during which time Endeavoured to pick up as much of the Zulu language as possible.

    We travelled as far as the Togela * River, where we were met by Mabeyantee, Dingaan's principal messenger, who acquainted us that it was the king's order that the English at Natal should arm themselves and come to him at Megoomloof, as he wished to send them against an enemy who had robbed him, and who had placed himself in such a situation that the king's troops were of no avail in capturing him, as spears could not be thrown by hand to reach him, and firearms alone could be effectual.

   Thomas Halstead, an Englishman, being at the place at the time, volunteered to carry Dingaan's message to the people at Port Natal, and immediately set off for this purpose.

  When the residents at Port Natal were acquainted with Dingaan's orders, they made preparations for fulfilling them; and when they had mustered as many as they could bring together, their strength consisted of about thirty English residents, amongst whom were John Cane (who commanded the party), Thomas Halstead, Richard Wood (my father), Richard King, Robert Russell, Thomas Carden, Richard Lovedale, and William Kew; also about forty Zulus, all of whom were armed with guns.  

John Broer and I waited for them at the Tugela River, and when they arrived we joined company and travelled until we came to the Umhloti River, where we halted, and the rest proceeded on their journey to Ngungunhlovu. We remained at the river until the king sent for us.

As it may not be uninteresting to my readers to hear how this affair terminated, I shall, previously to closing this narrative, give a true account of it.

  We had been about a fortnight at the Umhloti River when a messenger arrived from Dingaan, who told us that the king wished to see us.  We immediately set off, and after travelling for some days, arrived safely at Ngungunhlovu.    

Having arrived at a small hill which rises at the back of Dingaan's kraal, they fired a salute; upon which the king was greatly alarmed, and sent a messenger to ask them what they meant by firing. They said it was customary for all kings and great men to receive such tokens of respect from those who carried arms.

This answer dissipated the king's fears, and he sent them an invitation to come into his kraal and refresh themselves, which they did.  Next day they started in search of the enemy, reinforced by a large body of Dingaan's troops, commanded by Inhlels.

Having travelled some days, they arrived in the vicinity of the Umpongola Mountains, where a party of Sapusa's people were posted, and lest these should discover that Inhlela had Europeans with him, they covered the English with their shields while ascending the mountain.

Sapusa's  people had taken up a very good position on the top of a hill, immediately over, and commanding the entrance to, a natural cavern, in which they had placed the cattle they had captured from Dingaan. By rolling down large stones, they had for some days prevented the approach of a party of Dingaan's troops who had before attempted to recapture the cattle.

    The nearest approach which could be made to them with safety was by ascending a small hill opposite. This the party did, and found themselves separated from Sapusa's people by a deep gulch at the bottom of which ran the Umpongola River.

As they were within speaking distance, John Cane, who commanded the Europeans, spoke to them, and told them to deliver up the cattle which they had taken from the king, or he would fire upon them; adding that it was useless for them to resist, for that Dingaan him-self had taken the trouble to come so far to get his cattle, and was determined to have them.

   On hearing this, Sapusa's people made no reply, but turned their backs to them in token of contempt. John Cane's party then fired a volley over their heads, and he again begged of them to agree to his demand, and told them that if they delivered up the cattle, he would allow them and their wives and children, who were still with them, to depart unharmed. They still returned no answer, and he then fired at them and shot three or four. Cane repeated his demand, but they treated him in the same manner, upon which his party again fired and shot some more of them.

A Zulu woman was then Been to approach the brink of the precipice, leading a boy of about twelve or thirteen years of age by the hand, and having an infant fastened at her back.  Looking towards the Europeans, she cried out, "I will not be killed by thunder, but will kill myself," saying which she pushed the boy over the precipice, and jumped in herself after him.                                        

   The firing still continued, until the party cried out for mercy, and promised to give up the cattle, which John Cane sent a number' of men round to receive.

He then distributed a few head amongst them, and commenced his journey to Ngungunhlovu Dingaan's kraal).      

  The form of Dingaan's kraal was a circle. It was strongly fenced with bushes, and had two entrances. The principal one faced the king's huts, which were placed at the furthest extremity of the kraal, behind which were his wives' huts. These extended beyond the circle which formed the kraal, but were also strongly fenced in.

On the right hand of the principal entrance were placed the huts of Inhlela (Dingaan's captain) and his warriors, and on the left those of Dambuza (another of his captains) with his men. The kraal contained four cattle kraals, which were also strongly fenced, and four huts erected on pole, which contained the arms of the troops.

At a short distance from the entrance was the trunk of a large tree, which was in a state of decay, and which no person was allowed to touch, being the tree under which Dingaan's father died, and which he valued very highly. Near this tree grew two other trees, which are called by the Zulu's milk-trees.

The other entrance was from that part of the kraal behind Dingaan's wives' huts, and this was considered private.

    The huts in which the Rev. Mr. Owen and myself resided were without the kraal, and facing a hill which had been the grave of thousands.                                        

   About sixty farmers,* at the head of whom was Mr. Pieter Retief, accompanied by forty of their servants, all well armed, with a view of convincing Dingaan that they meant him no  harm, attacked a chief who was an enemy of the king, and defeated him, taking from him about seven thousand head of cattle, which he had captured from him on a former occasion.

With these cattle they approached the kraal of Dingaan, to whom they delivered them: and at the same time expressed their earnest desire that peace might exist between the king and the emigrant farmers, whom they now represented.

  Dingaan gladly received the cattle; but his attention was arrested by sixty horses and eleven guns which the farmers had taken from the enemy, and he told them he must also have them. Retief, however, told him that he could not comply with this demand, as the cattle were his property, but not the guns and horses.

With this Dingaan appeared satisfied, and, shortly after, told them that the cattle should also be theirs; likewise promising them a piece of land extending from the Tugela to the Umzimvubu. Retief accepted his offer, and a treaty was signed between Dingaan on the one hand and the emigrant farmers on the other.

The farmers had been at Ngungunhlovu about two days, during which they walked about the kraal unarmed, hut had taken the precaution to place their arms under the protection of their servants or after-riders, who had taken up their quarters under the   two milktrees without the kraal.

On the morning of the third day,  I perceived from Dingaan's manner that he meditated some mischief, although from his conversation with his captains I could not perceive that he had given them any orders prejudicial to the farmers. I, however, watched my opportunity to warn them to be on their guard.

This occurred when some of the farmers strolled into the kraal, and, having come near the place where I was standing, I told them I did not think all was right, and recommended them to be on their guard; upon which they smiled and said: "We are sure the king's heart is right with us, and there is no cause for fear."

A short time after this, Dinguan came out of his hut, and having seated himself in front of it in his arm-chair, ordered out two regiments. One was called "Isihlangu Mhlope," or white shields, and the other the "Isihlangu Mnyama," or back shields: the former were his best men, and wore rings on their heads, formed of the bark of a tree and grass, and stitched through the scalp: and the latter regiment was composed entirely of young men.

These troops he caused to form in a circle, and, having placed his two principal captains on his right and left hand respectively, he sent a message to Retief, inviting him to bring his men, and wish the king "farewell," previously to starting. Retief a short time after this entered the kraal, accompanied by the other farmers and all their servants, with the exception of one or two, who were sent out to fetch the horses; their aims being left unguarded under the two milk-trees without the kasal.

   On Retief approaching Dinguan, the latter told him to acquaint the farmers at Natal, as soon as he arrived there, of the king'sdesire that they should soon come and possess the land he had given them; also to remember him to them. He then wished the  party an agreeable journey to Natal, and invited them to sit down and drink some * "tywala"  with him and his people, which invitation they unfortunately accepted.  

Retief sat by the king; but the farmers and their servants sat in a place by themselves, at a short distance from the king and his captains. After drinking some beer together, Dingaan ordered his troops to amuse the farmers by dancing and singing, which they immediately commenced doing.

The farmers had not been sitting longer than about a quarter of an hour, when Dingaan called out: "Seize them!" upon which an overwhelming rush was made upon the party before they could get on their feet. Thomas Halstead then cried out: "We are done for!" and added in the Zulu language, "Let me speak to the king;" which Dingaan heard, but motioned them away with his hand.

Halstead then drew his knife, and ripped up one Zulu, and cut another throat, before he was secured; and a farmer also succeeded in ripping up another Zulu

   The farmers were then dragged with their feet trailing on the ground, each man being held by as many Zulu as could get at him, from the presence of Dingaan, who still continued sitting and calling out "Bulala amatakati" (kill the wizards). He then said, "Take the heart and the liver of the king of the farmers and place them in the road of the farmers."

   When they had dragged them to the hill, *"Hloma Mabuto," they commenced the work of death by striking them on the head with knobbed sticks, Retief being held and forced to witness the deaths of his comrades before they dispatched him. It was a most awful occurrence, and will never be effaced from my memory.

    The Rev. Mr. Owen and I witnessed it, standing at the doors of our huts, which faced the place of execution. Retief's heart and liver were taken out, wrapped in a cloth, and taken to Dingaan.

His two captains, Inlela and Dambuza, then came and sat down by Dingaan, with whom they conversed for some time. About two hours after the massacre, orders were issued that a large party were to set off and attack the wagons that contained the wives and children of the murdered farmers, which were at a considerable distance from Ngungunhlovu, as Retief and his party had left them there, not wishing to bring their families into any danger.

   A large body of men were immediately in readiness, and the captains, previously to starting, approached Dingaan singly, and made a mock attack on him, thrusting their shields and then their spears close to his face, and going through a variety of movements; at the same time giving him various titles and praising him, as all his people who approach him must do; and occasionally calling out, "We will go and kill the white dogs !"

A short time after the party set off with great speed in the direction of the wagons. The result of that attack is well known. The farmers who were guarding the wagons were taken by surprise, when many of the soldiers    them fell, and some hundreds of women and children were inhumanely murdered, but not without retribution, as a great number of the enemy were slain, and the remainder obliged to retreat with precipitation.

  After the murder of the farmers, Dingaan sent a messenger, named Gumbu, to the Rev. Mr. Owen and me, telling us not to fear, as no harm should happen to us; informing us at the same time that the farmers were "Tagati," or wizards, and that that was the king's motive for killing them.

Mr. Owen told me to tell him that he had nothing whatever to do with the transaction, and could not help what had transpired. He then turned round and walked off. Knowing Dingaan's jealous and treacherous disposition, I did not give the messenger the answer of Mr. Owen, feeling assured that it would have caused our deaths; but I told Gumbu to tell the king that we considered that he had acted perfectly right in killing the farmers, as no doubt they would otherwise have killed us, as well as him and his people.

  This answer pleased the king, and he sent us a present of an ox. Not long after, we saw between fifty and sixty men approaching the house; and it need scarcely be observed that this circumstance caused us not a little fear. When they came up to the house, they acquainted us that Dingaan wished to see us, and repeated the promise of the king that no injury should happen to as.

We went immediately to him, and his first question was, "Are you afraid?" upon which I saw that the opinion which we had formed of the king left no room for fear. He then laughed, and said we had acted as we should do. He then asked, "Do you wish to return to Natal?" but we answered "No." He then dismissed us to our huts.

  The next day we waited on the king, when Mr. Owen asked permission to go to Natal, but was refused. A messenger came, however, the same afternoon, bringing the king's permission for us to depart, but not to take our cattle or servants with us. On the following day he informed us that we might take both.  

We remained four days longer without making any preparations for our journey, in order to show Dingaan that we did not expect any violence from him, and were therefore free from fear on that account, and not over-anxious to leave his kraal.  

Mr. Owen, who had two wagons, then commenced packing up his things; but in the midst of his work was interrupted by the arrival of a messenger from Dingaan, who told him that he must leave the best wagon, together with his cattle and servants,' behind: to which orders Mr. Owen thought fit to submit; and everything being in readiness, we went sad bade the king farewell, when he shook hands with us and wished us a pleasant journey.

I must here observe that Dingaan was averse to my going, and told me that during the time I had been with him I had received nothing but kindness; that I had been allowed to do as I liked; that he had given me a herd of cattle, and a number of boys as 'companions; and he then asked why I wished to go away from him, telling me at the same time that I could do just as I liked, but he would much rather that I should stay. I told him that, having seen the farmers killed, I was so filled with fear that now I could not be happy any longer, and wished much to go to my father at Natal. "Well," said he, "I am sorry you are going; but if you are not happy, I will not detain you."

   A small party of Zulu's was sent with us to drive the wagon and take care of the oxen; and a messenger was sent before us to the different villages through which our journey lay, with orders that we should be supplied with everything we needed, and that every assistance we might require should be granted to us.

   When we had got about four miles from Megoonloof,' Dinguan sent a message to Mr. Owen that he should come to him, and immediately afterwards another came, saying we might proceed.

    Having continued our journey to Natal, and not meeting with any further interruption, we rested for two days at one of the missionary stations, and then resumed our journey, being closely watched by two spies, whom we supposed Dinguan had sent after us.

We rested at several villages on our way, where we were treated with great kindness; and in due time arrived at Natal, where we found the news of the massacre had preceded us, and active measures were being taken for the defence of the place against any attack which Dingaan might meditate against it.

    A fortnight after our arrival, the English at Port Natal came to the determination of attacking Dingaan, and avenging the deaths of Thomas Halstead and George Biggar, who had formed part of Retief's party, and who were their particular friends; and for this purpose immediate preparations were made accordingly.

When they were ready to start they numbered their forces, which consisted of about thirty Europeans, a few Hottentots, and fifteen hundred Zulus. The latter had fled from Dingaan at different times, and had settled at Port Natal;therefore the Natal people could depend upon their doing their best, as they well knew what awaited them if they should fall into Dingaan's hands. The Europeans, Hottentots, sad about 200 of the Zulu's had guns, but the other Zulu's had only their county arms.

Previously to starting the Zulus danced, sang, and went through a variety of manoeuvres, boasting of what the) intended to do with their enemies. One of their songs was something thing in this style :~" We are going to kill the elephant who killed our forefathers, fathers, mothers, wives, and children, and who deprived us of our cattle.

Now we are going to kill him and eat him cattle. And if we catch him, we will cut him in pieces."    The following persons formed part of this commando -Robert Biggar'., who was the leader of the expedition, Thos. Carden, W Bottomly, Richard King, John Cane, Richard Duffy, Robert Russell Richard Wood (my father), Wm. Wood (my uncle), and Mess Blanckenberg and Lovedale.

Having started from Port Natal, they travelled continuously into Dingaan's country, in the direction of Ngungunhlovu, and had been only four days on their journey when they fell in with a party of Zulus, having about seven thousand head of cattle.

On seeing the party the Zulus fled, and left the cattle in the hands of the English, who then returned to Port Natal, where the cattle were distributed among the captors.

    It appeared that, during their absence, the Zulus whom they had left at Natal to protect their property, &c., had taken prisoner a Zulu spy. He had appeared among them dressed in farmer's clothes; and, upon their questioning him, told them he had come   from Graham's Town; but, unfortunately for him, he was recognised by one of the people as one of Dingaan's best spies, and therefore they proceeded to put him to death.

When he found that there was no chance of escape, he confessed he was what they pronounced him to be, and said: "I have deserved death long ago; for I have been the cause of the destruction of great numbers of people.

It will not be long before you will have Dinguan amongst you." When Robert Biggar's party had arrived with the cattle, the above was the information which they received from the Natal Zulus of what had transpired iii their absence; and the reason they gave for not keeping the spy until the party had returned was, that they were afraid the English would save his life, and they thought it better to be rid of such a dangerous subject.

   Some eight or ten days had elapsed, when the same commando again started from Port Natal, in search of Dingaan, and proceeded as far as the Mavootie  * River without meeting any opposition. Having crossed the river, they ascended a hill on the other side, and from thence discovered a party of about 150 men on the brow of a hill further on: on which three spies were sent to reconnoitre.

Those spies having stolen upon them, fired a few shots, which apparently so alarmed them that they fled, leaving their food on the fires, and a few assagais and shields which they had dropped in their haste to escape.

    The spies having returned, a stronger party was sent to watch the enemy, and came up with them in the ruined huts of the Amapieke, on this side the Tugela River. On firing amongst them, the enemy fled, as on the former occasion, and the spies returned to the main body, who were advancing. When they had arrived at the Tugela River, they sent forward some spies, who soon returned with the information that they had observed the same party of Zulus, who had fled from them twice before, lying asleep in the village of a captain named Zulu.

It being late in the evening, the party did not cross the river until the next morning, when they advanced upon the above-named village, where they found the Zulus mentioned by the spies, and, commencing an attack upon them, they immediately fled. Biggar had taken one of them a prisoner, and was in the act of questioning him, when he observed large bodies of Zulus closing him in, and j found retreat was impossible.  

In a short time the battle commenced, and the English had succeeded in driving them off three times in succession, when another large body of Zulus was seen advancing in their rear.

It was then a step was taken by the leader of the party which involved the whole in ruin; for he divided his force, and sent part of it to oppose this body which was advancing mg, which induced the enemy to make a desperate rush, by which they succeeded in getting between the divisions, and destroying the whole party, with the exception of four Englishmen and about five hundred Zulus, who succeeded in making their escape to Port Natal

    There were two of the Natal Zulus who, when they saw the imminent danger in which they were placed, threw themselves upon the slain and counterfeited death. One was quite a young man and the other of a more advanced age.                                  

   In this situation they heard a spy of Dingaan's,  who had arrived when the battle was over,say to the captains: "The farmers are approaching from that mountain." And the reply was: ' What is the use of going up to them?

   The white dogs have nearly killed us all; and, if we go to the other dogs, they will finish us."  The dead and wounded were then examined; and, some of the enemy coming near the spot where the two men were lying, one of them said: "Some of those are not dead let us cut them open;" upon which the young man jumped up, and was immediately killed; but the other lay still, and escaped to tell the story.

    When we who were at Port Natal received intelligence of this shocking occurrence, we kept a sharp look-out, and had our spies on every hill, one of whom at length brought us information of the near approach of a large body of Dingaan's men, who seemed to take their time, and did not travel quickly. When the spy had left they had lit their fires; and, it appears, had encamped for the night on the banks of the Umgeni River.

   Providentially, the "Comet" (brig), Capt. Rodham, was then lying in Natal bay, within the bar; and on board that vessel all the Europeans got that evening, leaving the Natal Zulu, many of whom had gnus, to make for themselves the best shift they could.

   The following are among those who got on board the (brig) The Rev. Mr. Owen, Mrs. Owen, and Miss Owen; Mrs. Champion, Mrs. Adams, the Rev. Mr. Grout, Dr. Adams, Capt. Gardiner, Rev. Mr. Champion, Mrs. Rodham, Mr. Biggar, senior, Mrs. Gardiner, Dr. and Mrs. Towey and child, Charles Adams, Jane Williama, Mr. and Mrs. Dunn and children, Mr. and Mrs. Miller, Mr. and Mrs. Pitman, Mr. and Mrs. Heyward and children, Mr. sad Mrs. Hull and children, Mrs. Wood (my mother), Mr. Richard King, Mr. Ogle, George Duffy, Jas. Brown, and myself.

    The next morning several of us went towards the shore in a boat, and perceived that the Zulus were occupying Natal.  Having approached very near the shore, one of the captains called out to us and said, "We have killed the principal people of Natal, and now only want Mr. Ogle !"

Upon which Mr. Ogle, who was in the boat, stood up, and said, "Do you want me?" And, on being answered in the affirmative, he replied, "Then you shan't get me."

The same captain then, addressing me, said: "Who are you?" "Do you not know William," said I, "who was so long with the king?" ~ he replied; "Come here, I want to speak with you" To which I answered, "I am not such a fool as that yet!" We then rowed back to the ship.

   The Zulus kept possession of the place for nine days, and then returned to Dingaan, after having destroyed everything that came in their way. Some of our party having landed, sent out spies, and found that the enemy had left the place in earnest. Only eight or nine of us remained at Port Natal, the others thinking fit to proceed with the "Comet" to De Ia Goa Bay, whither she was bound, and from thence to the Cape in the same vessel.

When we landed we found that some of oar Zulus had shot numbers of the enemy. Two we found lying dead, dressed in my mother's gowns, with full sleeves, and in stockings, without shoes. Others had shawls on; some had blankets, others sheets rolled round them; while some had ladies' waist-bands tied round their heads, etc.  

Sundry articles of provisions such as flour, coffee, sugar, fat, and plums-were taken from Mr. Ogle's house and thrown on the ground, into which they had poured a keg of French brandy, and having stamped it with their feet, left it for him.

We remained but a fortnight longer at Natal, and then my mother and I left it, in company with Mr. and Mrs. Edwards and family, for Graham's Town.                                    

______The End__________

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