Only fifty-four wagons had followed Retief towards the Berg during the September of 1837. The going was slow: pasture was hard to find because of grass fires and, since it was the lambing season, the sheep were only able to cover a mile or two a day. By the time these trekkers had come to the site of modern Bethlehem on 2 October the more faint-hearted among them were already talking of retreat and drifting back to the laagers on the Vet and Sand rivers. Sorely aware that his numbers were rapidly dwindling Retief waited several days for Maritz to join him, and then impulsively, when his wagons failed to appear, on 5 October decided to ride on with fourteen horsemen and four wagons to seek interviews first with the English settlers at Port Natal and then with the Zulu king. He left his stepson, Abraham Greyling, to bring along the nineteen wagons that still remained with his party.
Retief was on the threshold of the finest adventure of the Great Trek and of its direst tragedy. He was in an exalted mood and the season seemed to fit his feelings. For by the time his horsemen were breasting the raised rim of the high veld which leads to the Drakensberg, spring had come to South Africa. It was the transitory bloemtyd—the flower time. In this season the first rains fall; the earth softens with the push of new grass; and trees burst into leaf and blossom. And during this delectable time, on 7 October, Piet Retief came to the last jagged rampart of the Berg and looked down into Natal.
It was like seeing a new world, an Elysium made up of wandering streams and fertile pastures all falling terrace by terrace to the distant sea but intermingled with dome-topped hills and wooded valleys. 'From the height of these mountains,' exulted Piet Retief after resting his eyes on this Pisgah-vision, 'I saw this beautiful land, the most beautiful in Africa.' He was not exaggerating. The prospect of Natal from the Drakensberg's Mont-aux-Sources is one for the connoisseur of landscapes. Africa here has subdued itself and become peaceful. To Retief a century ago it must have looked fresh from the hand of God, a special creation empty of all signs of human habitation, alive only with immense and unhurried herds of game. It was a land to delight the heart of a farmer as well as that of an artist: to carry such game the grass must surely be good; to grow such trees the soil must certainly be deep; and here, unlike so much of Africa, there was no scarcity of water. This was surely the Canaan which had been promised to the trekkers by the Lord.
Only one sombre note was struck as the enraptured Retief down on Natal: one of his companions who had rioted the way the shadow of the Berg was marching across the paradise below mumbled something about a land so marked must lie under a curse. But if Retief heard him he paid no heed.
Next day the little party climbed down the Berg by the so-called Steps Pass which had been worn by game moving over a succession of terraces to their winter grazing. It was a difficult descent: a little later Retief wrote about it to his family whom he had left behind on the high veld:
'From Drakensberg to Part Natal,' he wrote, 'I have passed five nearly perpendicular acclivities—the first took us six hours with the wagons, the others less; in some places we greatly fatigued our horses in riding right and left to find a path to descend — as also in crossing large rivers and valleys, through which we, could not find a passage for a considerable distance: and as during the whole of that time we did not fall in with a single soul we were obliged to find our way in the best manner we could.'
Far behind him Greyling's wagons were tolling up towards the land's sudden drop. Not until 19 October did they reach the escarpment, and, since storms were lashing the Berg, camped in the lee of a weathered sand-stone cliff which led up to a lofty pinnacle. It was a delightful place to camp: sweet grass grew around in profusion, and the gentle slope was divided by huge boulders into separate apartments as though to ensure privacy for each wagon. Erasmus Smit in his journal noted
'Here we saw another of Nature's wonders, namely one or two loose rocks on or close to the high mountain, one of which was like a dark cave'; this cave, he goes on, consisted of 'three adjoining spaces ... which could with little difficulty be made into a church, or a place for religious gatherings'.
Smit soon afterwards did in fact hold a service in the cave and christened the eminence above it, the Kerkenberg or a church mountain.
Meanwhile Retief was urging his wagons on towards Durban. From now on until the day of his death four months later his actions seem to be kindled by the fatal urgency of one about to die. It is as though he knows that there is much to accomplish in little time. Of course too this precipitancy was due to some extent to the realisation that until he could make a fait accompli of his settlement in Natal, unity would never return to the Maatschappij, whereas its successful accomplishment would at once bring the dissentient factions to heel. One suspects as well that Retief was anxious to stake out his own people's claim to the best land in Natal before Piet Uys turned up with his turbulent followers. And there is no doubt, too, that during the first days of October Retief was more than ever concerned to come to terms quickly with Dingaan since his trekkers' cause had been jeopardised by an unexpected event; a band of horsemen carrying guns and dressed in European fashion had that very week raided a Zulu cattle station below the Berg and carried off 300 beasts. Retief felt that it was important to reassure Dingaan immediately that the raiders were not white men, and this might well be difficult since the leader of the cattle-raiders had been at pains to incriminate the emigrants as culprits:
'While taking the cattle,' a missionary explained in a letter to his directors, 'he called to some of Dingaan's people who were at a distance, saying the party were Boers, and that others had gone to Natal; and that Dingaan might expect to be treated by them as Moselekatse had been.'
At all events Retief hurried over the 220 miles which separated him from Port Natal continually amazed as he went by the succession of ruined kraals he passed whose inhabitants had been killed or driven away: it has been estimated that at this time only 3,000 refugees were living (hiding would perhaps be the better term) in the whole of Natal south of the Tugela. Once arrived at the Port, Retief was relieved to discover that it had not been annexed by the British Government as he had feared, and on the whole the welcome he received from the settlers was satisfactory enough. The English traders and hunters living there were divided, like the trekkers, into two factions: while all of them were now on bad terms with Dingaan and only remained at the settlement on sufferance, one party was anxious to proclaim British authority over it; the other faction led by Alexander Biggar and John Cane looked forward to obtaining security through an Afrikaner occupation of the country. Thirteen settlers out of the thirty-eight at Port Natal went so far as to sign an address of welcome to Retief, and Biggar wrote thankfully to the Grahamstown Journal that
'The arrival of Mr Retief ... was hailed by us as a matter of no small moment. The conviction that we shall for the future be permitted to live in peace has infused a lively spirit among us. We can now proceed with confidence, and an assurance that our future exertions will no longer be cramped by doubts of our stability; but be rewarded by the fruits of our industry.'
There was much for Retief to do at Port Natal and he remained there until 27 October obtaining information about the surrounding country and the Zulu kingdom. But he found time to write to his people at Kerkenberg that the English settlers at the Port would place no obstacle in the way of the Boer emigrants occupying Natal and that no difficulty was to be expected from Dingaan who had already on four separate occasions alienated the country south of the Tugela to Europeans. One piece of information came to Retief as a surprise: that very month a missionary, the Reverend Francis Owen, had arrived at the Zulu capital and appeared to have been well received by Dingaan. This at least meant that there was a European at the king's court who could speak to him through an interpreter, and Retief took the opportunity of writing a letter for Owen to translate to the king. Owen read the letter to Dingaan on 26 October and noted afterwards in his diary that it had expressed the emigrant Boers'
'desire for peace and good understanding with the Zoolu [sic] nation: to effect which it was their wish to have, by means of their chief head, a personal interview with Dingaan; who would at the same time also arrange with Dingaan the place of their future residence which is to be in some part of the uninhabited country adjoining the Zoolu territories.'
Without waiting for an answer to his letter Retief set off for Umgungundhlovu the following day; with him rode four of his own men and two settlers from the Port who would act as interpreters. On the road he received a conciliatory letter dictated by Dingaan; it said that his soldiers had captured some sheep from the Matabele which he believed to be trekker property looted at Vegkop, and these he intended to return. This sounded promising enough and Retief rode into the Zulu capital certain that an easy success to his mission was not far away.
The Boers had never seen anything like Umgungundhlovu before; the king's 'Great Palace' was quite different from any other African kraal they had known. The town was set on a gentle slope above a stream named the Umkumbane and was surrounded by a palisade of mimosa poles fully two miles in circumference. Inside stood nearly two thousand huts, six rows deep, and according to Retief 'each capable of accommodating twenty warriors'. They surrounded an empty space of two or three acres where military exercises and ritual dances took place. At one end of this parade ground stood the king's private quarters which went under the name of the isigodhlo. Here too were the huts of his mother, those of same of his ninety wives, and a small enclosure especially reserved for the king's ablutions (it was much used since Dingaan bathed himself several times a day). Near by there was an artificial mound from which he could overlook the entire capital, and above all towered the king's hut which the Boers referred to as a palace. A more barbaric building could scarcely be imagined, and its rude magnificence certainly impressed Relief.
'The king occupies a beautiful habitation,' he reported. 'The form is spherical and its diameter is 20 feet. It is supported by 22 pillars, which are entirely covered with beads. The floor is perfectly smooth, and shines like a mirror.'
The extensive African town below literally hummed with the activity of its people so that the Boers were reminded of a giant colony of black ants. Above all the noise rose the shouts of Dingaan's mbongos who continually called out the praises of their master in brazen voices which could be heard miles away.
There were large numbers of cattle in the kraal too that November: Dingaan had concentrated the pickings of the royal herd there to impress the Boers and set Owen scribbling in his journal that the king
'has lately been collecting an immense herd of oxen from distant parts of the country, for no other conceivable motive than to display his wealth to the Dutch'.
Wooded undulating country lay outside the royal kraal on the far side of the Umkumbane stream; about half a mile to the east of the town on its eminence rose a parallel ridge called Hlomo Amabuto, the soldiers' hill, for here it was customary far the Zulu impis to mobilise for war. Towards the north its crest led on to a spur known as Kwa Matiwane. This was Dingaan's execution place.
On Kwa Matiwane, between the black rocks which littered its slopes, grew a tangled mass of coarse grass, aloes, mimosa trees and strangely Byzantine euphorbias which lifted tap their branches to the sky as though they held sockets in which the candles of day might burn. The air of this Golgotha of Umgungundhlovu was foul with the sickly-sweet smell of putrescence. For Dingaan forbade the shedding of blood within his kraal and those he sentenced to execution were always dragged to Kwa Matiwane to be battered to death with sticks or to have their skulls shattered with the rocks that are strewn around on the hill. Some of the king's unfortunate victims, however, were made to suffer the more extreme form of Zulu torture here when a pointed stake two inches in diameter was rammed through the anus and up into the body and, thus skewered, they were left to die on these appalling slopes. The hill took its name from a chieftain named Matiwane who incurred Dingaan's wrath and was put to death by having wooden pegs forced up his nostrils into the brain. The event took Dingaan's fancy: he would often jokingly remark to his courtiers that while he ruled over the living in the town, Matiwane reigned over the dead on the hill across the stream; and gradually it became to be known as Kwa Matiwane—the place of Matiwane.
The corpses on this hill were never buried but lay left to scavenging beasts and birds, and this added to its horror. Even from a distance, vultures could be seen swinging incessantly in lazy circles over Kwa Matiwane, waiting for the next meal; indeed the vultures were so familiar with the procedure that they attended all the trials in the town as interested spectators and fluttered joyfully ahead of the prisoner when they saw him pinioned and led away to execution. The king called the repulsive birds his children and took pains to keep them well fed; after a particularly bloodthirsty exhibition of temper he would watch them happily on the hill as they squatted there, filled to repletion, their heads and scraggy necks sunk beneath wings clotted with gore, too sated when disturbed to do more than to run clumsily along the bloodstained ground flapping their great wings in an effort to rise.
Dingaan had come to the throne in 1828 after murdering his half-brother Shaka. He continued his predecessor's work of turning the Zulu nation into a military machine, but he lacked Shaka's warlike genius, and he did not personally lead his impis into battle. During the September of 1837 Dingaan learned that white trekkers were moving across the high veld; soon afterwards rumours reached him of their victory over the Matabele at Mosega. Only a little later scouts told him that the white men's wagons were approaching the Drakensberg passes and preparing to descend into what he considered to be his own domain.
It is not difficult to understand his reaction to the approach of the trekkers: no doubt had they been fewer he would have been pleased at the prospect of the windfall of trinkets and gadgets which they would be sure to shower on him, but now he must have been consumed with suspicion about their intentions and fearful of their military prowess. The king's mind was filled with a host of private demons: he saw shadows and treachery everywhere, and was convinced that he was haunted by Shaka's ghost which dwelt, he believed, in a hut near his own especially set aside for it; nor could he ever forget the epileptic African convict from Cape Colony who after seeking refuge with him prophesied that white men would bring an army into Zululand and take the country away from him. Accordingly after he received Retief's letter from Durban, Dingaan awaited his arrival with anxiety. He considered whether there was some peaceful way of preventing Retief settling in Natal, but in his heart of hearts Dingaan must have known all along that he would have to use guile and duplicity and even wholesale murder to avoid having these terrible fighting men as his close neighbours. He had no illusions about what this would mean. Dingaan once confided to one of the settlers at the Port,
'I see that every white man is an enemy of the black, and every black man an enemy of the white; they do not love each other and never will.'
This remark sums up as well as anything else his basic attitude to the trekkers. So now as he awaited Retief's arrival at Umgungundhlovu the king became obsessed with the idea of obtaining some of the horses and guns that 'spat out fiery pebbles' to which the Boers owed their power, and if he could not get them to destroy the emigrants by an unprovoked and treacherous attack.
One cannot help feeling a certain sympathy with his point of view about his danger from a trekker state beyond the Tugela, but only abhorrence at the way he intended to deal with the situation. For he had no scruples about using perfidy and massacre to gain his ends.
The Zulu king was a past-master of deceit as well as cruelty. He made deliberate use of terror to increase his stature in the eyes of his subjects. He was a monster who killed for the sake of killing. Even by the savage standards of contemporary Zululand his actions appalled his people. He seemed less concerned with governing them than with decimating his subjects. Dr Alexander Smith who visited Umgungundhlovu shortly before the arrival of the Commissie Treks was horrified by the reign of terror the king had imposed on Zululand.
'As a characteristic of his system of proceeding,' writes Smith, 'I may only mention that when I was in his kraal I saw portions of the bodies of eleven of his wives, whom he had only a few days previously put to death for merely having uttered words which happened to annoy him.'
But it is from the Reverend Francis Owen, who had the opportunity to observe Dingaan closely for four gruesome months, that we get the clearest impression of his behaviour.
'The King's cruelties,' he writes, 'do not proceed from rage but are perpetrated in cold blood when he is under no excitement; they are natural to him, common every-day occurrences.'
In the hut perched on top of the third hill a mile and a half from the Zulu town where Owen lodged uncomfortably with his family, the missionary was continually recording the savage scenes on Kwa Matiwane which it was impossible for him to ignore, and their very frequency is an indication of the inflationary tempo of horror which ruled Umgungundhlovu.
'Two persons were put to death yesterday,' he wrote on 22 November 1837 and adds bleakly that 'The day before yesterday one of the king's women was put to death.'
'Just as we were commencing our English service,' he jots down a little later, 'another execution took place on the hill opposite our hut.'
Towards the end of December the missionary sadly records that a woman had suffered death for being 'somewhat saucy to an induna'; three days later he notes that an induna had been executed and that now 'the ravens were devouring his carcase,' while that same week he was an unwilling witness when 'Two women were executed today for the alleged crime of witchcraft'. And so the killings on Kwa Matiwane continued.
There were other quirks in Dingaan's character beside his excessive cruelty and duplicity. In him the ordinary Bantu pride in cattle had been carried to preposterous lengths: according to Nathaniel Isaacs the king would amuse himself for hours at a time in watching the gorgeous royal herd of snow-white cattle dancing on the parade ground of Umgungundhlovu and performing military manoeuvres with a discipline which resembled that of trained soldiers. The king's other delight lay in his extensive harem:
'His sexual desires and natural propensity for corporeal desires,' observed the scandalised Isaacs, 'are unlimited; and a large proportion of his time is occupied with his females, either in dancing or singing, or in decorating their persons.'
His white visitors found this predilection all the more curious because the members of his seraglio were unprepossessing in the extreme. The Rev. George Champion who visited the king's 'Great Place' a little earlier than Retief, recorded that the queens were
'corpulent beyond description, their hips and necks loaded with beads of various sorts, and with no clothing on most, except a short coat round the loins' and he goes on to say 'They present in toto as they drag their load over the ground, and in this weather, an appearance which excites in a stranger both ridicule and disgust'.
At the time of Retief's visit Dingaan was in his forties, and although running to fat he was well proportioned and still light enough on his feet to join in all the warriors' dances. Many of his white visitors found him an impressive figure, and would have been able to detect a certain dignity about his expression had it not been for the fact that he had three decayed black front teeth; Dingaan was very conscious of this defect and when speaking was for ever sliding his hand over his mouth to hide it.
When reading about Dingaan's rule the reader is constantly affronted and disgusted by the behaviour of this black reincarnation of Nero and one naturally begins to hunt about for reasons why a human being should behave so abominably. One must of course never forget the pressures to which he was exposed, nor that he had been brought up in a world of treachery and quick revenge. And it must be realised too that this untutored savage had nothing to guide his actions but his everlasting suspicions, a crude instinct for survival, and the sure knowledge that in the barbarous world in which he lived the slightest act of kindness would be interpreted as weakness and lead inevitably to his own destruction.
But even so Dingaan's penchant for cruelty bothers us, and when all has been said and done, we still come to the conclusion that there was something fundamentally wrong with the king's mind. He lived in a private world of egomania, and in it he attempted to rationalise his passion for killing by persuading himself that only by its gratification would his personal security be safeguarded. It is this facet of his psyche which has given to his reign its particular halo of terror. One wonders of course whether closer contact with the Europeans would have greatly altered Dingaan's conduct, but no white man who might have stilled the meaningless welter of brutality and bloodshed stayed permanently at his 'Great Place' until the Rev. Francis Owen turned up in Umgungundhlovu during the October of 1837. In any case the king regarded him not as a teacher but as an agent sent by Providence to supply his soldiers with the white men's arms: although the missionary had of course a certain value as an oddity it was only on this account that Dingaan was prepared to welcome the eager cleric.
Owen had bravely exchanged the comfort of a Yorkshire curacy for the Natal mission field, but very soon after disembarking from his comfortable boat he must have realised that he was hopelessly unfitted for the rough and tumble of African travel. He experienced a very bad time merely in getting to the king's kraal. Indeed that he ever succeeded in completing his overland journey from Algoa Bay to Umgungundhlovu was in itself something of a marvel. It had even begun badly: his Hottentot driver absconded on the second day out with the month's wages which the trusting missionary had paid him in advance, but somehow Owen got his wagons and his womenfolk along to Port Natal. There he engaged Richard king as a driver and a Zulu-speaking European boy named Hulley for his interpreter.
At his 'Great Place' Dingaan greeted this strange little party with clumsy politeness and assigned a near-by hill-top to it as a camping place. It was not a particularly happy choice: according to one of the traders from the Port, Owen's huts and wagons stood
'on top of a high hill where there is not a tree or twig, exposed to every blast of wind and as dreary a place as can be imagined'.
And what was worse the camp as we have seen faced directly on to the grisly hill of Kwa Matiwane.
As soon as he was installed Owen addressed himself to the task of Dingaan's conversion. Every day he would walk across to the royal kraal on the other side of the valley, and explain the mysteries of the Scriptures to the uncomprehending king. It was not rewarding work and we find the remorseful missionary becoming as he puts it 'occasionally but sinfully' subject to fits of depression. Sometimes in desperation Owen turned to other subjects than theology in his conversations with the king: several laborious hours were devoted to teaching him the art of painting and one day the missionary unaccountably took it upon himself to explain the mysteries of the diving bell to the puzzled monarch.
Dingaan submitted with surprisingly good grace to Owen's brave attempts at giving him religious instruction (although he took every opportunity to interrupt them with urgent requests for lessons in musketry, and supplies of guns and powder). And indeed a very strange atmosphere hangs over the harangues of the curate from Normanton and the counter-arguments of the Zulu despot, all of which Owen faithfully recorded in his journal. Reading this now one can hardly blame Dingaan for obtaining a very confused idea of the Christian ethic, but at the same time must confess that during the bizarre theological discussion which ensued he gave every bit as good as he received. After he had recounted the story of the Crucifixion, for instance, Owen tells us that
'Dingarn [sic] then asked if it was God that died. I said the son of God. Did not God die? he asked. I said God cannot die. If God does not die, he replied, why had he said that people must die? I told him it was because all peoples were sinners and death was the punishment of sin, but he would raise us all from the grave. This,' concludes the missionary sadly, 'gave rise to innumerable cavils.'
It was hardly surprising considering the number of people Dingaan had put to death: nothing for him could have been more horrifying than the prospect of their resurrection. Not unnaturally then the king returned a little later to this thorny subject.
'Dingarn asked me how many days Jesus Christ had been dead', we read in another of Owen's journal entries and he adds the king's sage comment after being told: 'If only three days, said he, it is very likely he was not dead in reality but only supposed to be....'
Dingaan could be very touchy on the subject of death. When the tactless Owen one day 'reminded him that the great must die as well as the small', the king immediately told me 'the sun was down and I might go', and so drew this particular audience to a swift conclusion.
But the king's apparent interest in theology was of course no more than a cover for his intention of procuring fire-arms through Owen. On one occasion he persuaded the missionary to obtain a supply of gunpowder for him from Port Natal. This however caused much soul-searching on Owen's part, and he brusquely refused the next request. Dingaan in return then so forgot his manners that he sent up some warriors to search the missionary's quarters in case he was concealing arms there.
And now into this unhappy place of treachery and blood, rode Piet Retief and a handful of companions. The drawn-out contest between the Boer and Zulu was about to begin. It was 7 November 1837. Four hundred miles away at Kapain, Potgieter at that very moment was completing the final rout of the Matabele. By the curious symmetry of history the two schismatic factions of the Great Trek had simultaneously reached a climax in their courses.
After Retief's horsemen arrived in Umgungundhlovu. Dingaan kept the Governor waiting two days before he would see him. He was trying to make up his mind about his reply to the inevitable request for land. Whatever course he took he ran the risk either of losing prestige with his own people, or, alternatively, of antagonising his white visitors. Dingaan's chief indunas Tambuza and Ndlela were all for murdering Retief at once while he and his men lay within their power. The king in his dilemma could not turn to the white settlers at Port Natal for their advice since now they were openly hostile to him, while Mr Owen seemed only concerned with giving him Bible lessons or instruction in painting. Dingaan therefore decided to play for time and for the present put on a show of friendship and entertainment. For several days he accordingly had four thousand of his warriors amuse the Boers with dances and military exercises, and they marvellously impressed his visitors. We find Retief himself writing enthusiastically to his wife that
'Their sham fights are terrific exhibitions. They make a great noise with their shields and kerries, uttering at the same time the most discordant yells and cries. In one dance the people intermingled with 176 oxen, all without horns and of one colour. They have long strips of skin hanging pendant from the forehead, cheeks, shoulders and under the threat, which are cut from the skin when calves. These oxen are divided into twos and threes among the whole army, which then dances in company, each with its attendant oxen.'
Only an the third day did Dingaan receive Retief. The king was seated on a chair which had been fashioned from a single block of wood and he wore a strange head-dress with a veil and tassels of light cord covering his face as though he hoped to study the Boers without revealing his own thoughts. It seems that the king had expected to meet Piet Uys who had ridden into Natal three years before with the Commissie Treks and he was surprised to find a different white man awaiting him. His first discouraging words to the Governor, were 'You are too small for a captain'. Then Dingaan listened in silence to Retief's explanation that he had come to purchase land which was lying waste south of the Tugela. It was some time before the king replied, and then only with a half-anticipated accusation. Retief's men, he said, only the month before had rustled a herd of royal cattle and. driven them up the Berg, and he silenced the Governor's indignant denials by pointing out that the thieves had been mounted, carried guns, and were dressed in Boer fashion. At last Retief was able to break in to tell Dingaan that he believed the culprits to have been Manthatisi's Tlokwa, the so-called Wild Cat people, led by her son Sekonyela who was known to affect the white men's clothes.
Dingaan's reply is interesting for the light it sheds on his shrewdness; he said that the best way for Retief to prove the Boers' innocence in the affair was to ride in Sekonyela's country with a commando and ten Zulu herders who would be able to recognise any royal cattle there. If they identified the beasts, then Retief must arrest Sekonyela and bring him back with his stolen cattle to Umgungundhlovu. Once this task had been completed Dingaan gave an assurance that he was prepared to cede the land between the Tugela and Umzimvubu to the emigrant Boers; he then went as far as to put his mark on a written declaration to this effect, conveniently ignoring the fact that in the past he had already granted this same country to the British Crown as well as to three other Europeans at Port Natal.
All in all Retief had received a pretty tough assignment in the projected capture of Sekonyela, and it is not difficult for us to realise the way the king's mind was working when he framed it. His suggestion afforded every chance of involving the Boers in a shooting war with the Wild Cat people; on the other hand if Retief succeeded in securing Sekonyela, Dingaan would get his cattle back and the opportunity too of punishing the Batlokwa chief by confiscating his guns and horses which would make his impis a good deal stronger if he had to fight the Boers. Either way he would gain valuable time. But Retief had no hesitation in agreeing to these terms, and a little time later he rode out of Umgungundhlovu and turned his horse towards the Berg, certain that his mission had been successful and that to all intents and purposes Natal was his for the taking.
Meanwhile Retief's followers at Kerkenberg had been living through an anxious time. For three weeks they had heard rumours that English soldiers had occupied Port Natal and then more frightening ones which whispered that Retief and his men had all been slain by Zulus. But they were heartened by the way other trekkers were regaining their confidence in Retief's dream and now were trickling along to join them at Kerkenberg: one day some of Maritz's parry in their gaily painted wagons rolled into the camp, and Maritz was said to be close behind them.
Then on 11 November 1837 the two messengers Retief had sent off to Kerkenberg during his journey to Umgungundhlovu rode into camp carrying welcome advice from their leader as well as all sorts of luscious tropical fruits. The English settlers at the Port, Retief had written, were friendly and he was optimistic that the Zulu king would cede the country below the Tugela to him for settlement. The letter ended by saying there was no reason now why the trekkers should not descend the Berg.
In a spontaneous outburst of relief and happiness the emigrants gathered together that evening to discuss the future, and then in their exhilaration stepped out their familiar measures to the Afrikaner songs which still delight us. On the next day, 12 November, which happened to be her father's fifty-seventh birthday, Deborah Retief went blithely to the rocky shelter in which Erasmus Smit held his church services and there, where an immense overhanging rock rears itself up as though striving to embrace its smaller fellow from which it has been sundered in some ancient earthquake, she wrote her father's name and the date in green paint on the cave wall. Her writing still survives as one of the more poignant relics of the Great Trek.
At the camp all was now activity. No time was to be wasted in getting down the Berg. While some men sweated to improve the descent roads, hurling boulders down the hill, axing trees and bushes, and levelling the hollow places which would break the back of any vehicle, others worked on the wagons, dismantling some of them completely, changing round the wheels on others so that the larger pair was in front, and tying huge logs to their sterns to act as brakes. Then with only two oxen yoked in front and whole teams of men straining at the back on riems to keep them on an even keel, the empty wagons one after the other were skidded down the mountainside. Behind them walked the women and children, while the infirm and invalids were carried along in stretchers. By 14 November twenty wagons were standing safely on the plain below, and Erasmus Smit was rejoicing in his diary that
'only one wagon, that of our friend W. Prinsloo, overturned at the beginning of the descent. A set of chains was broken but nothing else';
Smit here was being a trifle optimistic, for we find someone else lamenting that in his wagon 'a beautiful set of chairs was broken'.
But the impossible was being achieved: six more wagons came down the mountain-side on the following day, and thirteen the next. By the end of the week sixty-six wagons were already below the Berg and rumbling towards the head waters of the Tugela river. The traffic grew even heavier after the good news from Retief reached more of the trekkers waiting on the central plain and soon a hundred wagons a day were being worked down the five practical passes which had been discovered.
Meanwhile Retief was riding back towards them. On the way he called in at Mr Champion's mission station and the missionary warned him that Dingaan might be leading the trekkers into a trap. The sanguine Retief answered that he expected no trouble and added a shade condescendingly that it took a Dutchman rather than an Englishman to understand a Kafir. When the clerical Cassandra gently reminded him that he was an American, and not an Englishman, Retief waved this objection aside with the remark that the difference was far too small to notice.
It was on 27 November that Retief rode into his camp which had been set up at a place called Doornkop close to the site of modern Chieveley. There were a score of other encampments near by: by this time it was estimated that close an a thousand Boer wagons were scattered about in the vicinity.
Retief tarried at Doornkop for a month making arrangements for his foray against Sekanyela. He was concerned about a number of other things. One was Piet Uys who he suspected would resent his arrangement with Dingaan and might try to make a deal of his own with the king. Accordingly he sent a rather hooded message to Umgungundhlovu which read:
'I think it probable that before my return you will be troubled on account of the request I have made of you, and the promise you have given me. I also think it possible that more may be told the king about me and my people than can be shown to be true....My wish is that you will not please, before my return, hearken to anyone who may come to trouble you about the land in which I wish to live.'
Only on 28 December, after Retief had been cheered by news of Potgieter's success at Kapain, did he lead a fifty-man commando to Wild Cat country and up to the flat-topped mountains named Imperani overlooking modern Ficksburg. Here Retief by arrangement met Sekonyela in the garden of 'the chief's missionary', Mr Allison.
There is something rather distasteful about the manner in which Retief now proceeded to deal with the unsuspecting Batlokwa chief. His actions at Imperani seem entirely out of character; certainly they infuriated the missionary, and when he later at Retief's request held a service for the Boers, he took as his text the prophetic words 'He who sows wickedness, reaps wickedness.'
The generally accepted account of Retief's encounter with Sekonyela says that the Governor told the chief that he had bought him some costly presents including an amulet especially manufactured for great rulers, and when the grateful Sekonyela obligingly held out his arms, one of the trekkers, Bezuidenhout, snapped a pair of handcuffs on them. Another version of the affair is hardly more edifying: it has Retief explaining to Sekonyela about the way in which Europeans deal with malefactors, at the same time producing the handcuffs with the words 'So that you should well understand the way they are used, allow me to put them on your wrists'.
At all events Sekonyela was secured and then told that he would not be released until he had handed over the cattle he had stolen from Dingaan. And in fact the Boers fined him far more heavily: as Retief informed the king in a letter a little later
'to punish Sekonyela he had made him deliver up 700 head of cattle and also 63 horses and 11 guns, for without these he could not have accomplished his theft'.
It was rather a flimsy excuse and it held in it the seed of trouble. For Retief had neither the intention of giving up the extra cattle, the horses and guns to the king, nor of delivering Sekonyela to him for punishment.
Sending on Dingaan's cattle to Umgungundhlovu with the Zulu herders, Retief returned to Doornkop delighted with his successful stratagem. More trekkers had arrived from the high veld during his absence. Gert Maritz himself was now camped below the Berg as well as Andries Pretorius who was paying a visit to the Maatschappij, and Piet Uys who had somehow been persuaded to pledge his allegiance to the United Laagers.
Retief had already decided on making a show of force when he paid his second visit to Umgungundhlovu to conclude his business with Dingaan, but there was an uneasy feeling among some people in the camp that things had gone too well, that the Zulu king was quite unpredictable, and that the friendly atmosphere in his capital might have evaporated. One old man called Malan went round telling everyone that he had dreamed of a wholesale massacre, and the ailing Maritz was insisting that since his days were nearly over it would be far better if he and one of two companions interviewed the king rather than risk the person of the Governor. But Retief brushed all suggestions of this sort aside and called for volunteers to accompany him to the Zulu capital. Nearly every man in the camp seemed to want to go on what appeared to be a joy-ride. In the end Retief selected sixty-seven men and three youths (including his own fourteen-year-old son) to ride with him, and in addition he took along Thomas Holstead from the Port to act as interpreter, as well as thirty coloured servants. On 25 January 1838 this company clattered off along the road to the Tugela and Zululand. It was the warm, green rainy season and how easy it is for us even after all these years to visualise that cavalcade again; the men are laughing and talking together as they ride, and every now and then a handful of the youths will gallop off to course some buck, but for all their gaiety somehow one knows that right from the start the party carried with it sure and certain tragedy. Yet not one among those horsemen had any premonition of what lay before them, and no one remebered Maritz's gloomy words as he saw them off:
'I say to you that not one of you will return.'