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Social sciences: history

Grade 7

The great trek moves boundaries

Module 7

The battle of blood river

Approximately 468 Voortrekkers, 60 Zulu, three Englishmen and a few black helpers left for Mgungundlovu with 57 of the best wagons, oxen and horses. An English trader who knew the area very well, Alexander Biggar, took about 60 black helpers on foot to help Pretorius. Gates were made of oxhide to tie the wagons together. At night, the wagons were pulled into a laager for safety reasons. Horses and oxen were tied together with thongs in the centre of the laager. Small cannons were put ready. At night, the Trekkers sang religious songs to keep their spirits up. Sarel Cilliers led them in taking a vow, in which the Trekkers asked God for victory against the Zulu.

The commando’s route to Mgungundlovu

By the evening of 15 December, the two scouts who had gone ahead returned with the news that a Zulu force of approximately 15 000 men was on the way, a day’s journey away. Now Pretorius quickly had to select a place for a laager. The wagons were drawn up in a straight line parallel with a steep donga (3 m deep), perpendicular to the Ncome River, while the rest were joined to them in a wide semicircle. On the corners were small cannons, with the livestock in the centre of the laager.


At dawn on 16 December, the Zulu force under the leadership of Ndlela and Dambuza tried to encircle the laager with the well-known ox-head formation. The Voortrekkers were out of reach of the spears and their rifles and cannons checked every Zulu attack. Two hours later, the Trekkers ran out of ammunition and groups of horsemen were sent out to drive the Zulu off.

The Zulu had to flee. The victory of the Voortrekkers was mainly due to their thorough, tactical preparations, military ingenuity, and their modern weapons. It was definitely a setback for the Zulu, but it was not the end of their mighty empire.

Activity 1:

To distinguish between facts and opinions on the battle of blood river

[lo 4.1]

  1. Have a discussion about which of the sketches of the site of the Battle of Blood River is the most reliable. Then make your own sketch with the correct information.

b) To whose advantage or disadvantage would the following have been:

  • A battle at night
  • A flood on 10 December
  • Modern technology?

c) Work in pairs and answer the following questions about the Battle of Blood River:

  • Dingane and Pretorius had to visit Blood River today, they would see certain changes, as well as things which have stayed the same. Name two examples of each.

d) Draw up your own table in which you compare the following battles:

  • Vegkop,
  • Italeni and
  • Blood River

On 20 December the Voortrekkers came across a burning and deserted Mgungundlovu. However, eleven days later, they were led into an ambush by the Zulu in the dense, overgrown area near the White Umfolozi River. The 5 000 Zulu had to retreat after a day’s furious fighting.

During March 1839, the Voortrekkers and the Zulu started negotiations for land, but these failed. Meanwhile, the Zulu began losing confidence in Dingane, especially after the murder of Retief’s party. He then attacked the Swazi in an effort to expand his empire northwards. This effort failed and he was defeated by his half-brother, Mpande, who broke away with half the Zulu force. Mpande became the new Zulu Chief on 10 February and was immediately acknowledged by the Trekkers. Dingane was later killed by the Swazi.

The Voortrekkers founded the Republic of Natalia, with Pietermaritzburg (named after Retief and Maritz) as its capital.

Activity 2:

To be aware of different points of view on the great trek

[lo 3.2]

Are the following statements true or false? If false, give the correct facts:

  • Dingane was finally defeated by the Voortrekkers at Blood River.
  • After the Battle of the White Umfolozi, Potgieter’s commando was known as the Fleeing Commando.
  • The Voortrekkers should rather have trekked to Mpumalanga.
  • What do you think the true meaning of the Battle of Blood River is?


Assessment standards(ASe)
LEARNING OUTCOME 1: HISTORICAL ENQUIRY- The learner will be able to use enquiry skills to investigate the past and present
1.1 Access the sources
1.2 Use the sources
1.3 Communicate information from sources (reporting))
LEARNING OUTCOME 2: HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTANDING – The learner will be able to demonstrate historical knowledge and understanding
2.1 Understand chronology and time
2.2 Supply reasons why an historical event took place (causes, effects)
2.3 Differentiate between different periods (similarities, differences)
LEARNING OUTCOME 3: INTERPRETING HISTORY – The learner will be able to interpret aspects of history
3.1 Be aware of more than one view of the past
3.2 Distinguish between fact and opinion
3.3 Reconstruct the past


Activity 1

(a) Sketch 1


Vegkop Italeni Blood River
Date August 1836 10 April 1838 16 December 1838
Terrain Against a slope Densely vegetated ravine Alongside a donga and rivers
Leaders Trekker: Potgieter Trekker: Potgieter, Uys
Tactics Trekkers: Square-shaped laager with shooting cages Zulu lead Trekkers into a trap Trekkers: Laager with campsZulu: Ox-head
Results Ndebele defeated Voortrekkers defeated Zulu defeated

Activity 2

  • Untrue: Dingane eventually was killed by the Swazi
  • Untrue: After Battle of Italeni

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, History grade 7. OpenStax CNX. Sep 09, 2009 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11023/1.1
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