|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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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