The introduction of British rule in the Cape Colony after 1806 resulted in wide spread dissatisfaction among the fiercely independent Afrikaners. This led to the major exodus of six main groups of Voortrekkers bound for unknown destinations in the hinterland from where they aspired to govern themselves and maintain their cultural identity and language.
Many of the Voortrekkers that left the British controlled Cape Colony chose Natal as their destination to establish an independent government. Their leader Piet Retief went to see Dingane to discuss the purchase of land. On 6 February 1838 Retief and his fellow burghers were murdered on the instruction of Dingane in his kraal Mgungundlovu. During follow-up attacks hundreds of Boers died at the hands of the Zulu at Blaaukrantz and Weenen. The new leader Gerrit Maritz died shortly after this and the Voortrekkers were left leaderless.
Andries Pretorius arrived in Natal November 1838, was chosen as leader and appointed as Kommandant General. Pretorius organised a commando with himself as leader and Karel Landman as second in command, with six commandants and about 464 Voortrekkers plus a large number of assistants and wagon drivers. The British Settlers from Port Natal, with about 120 assistants, accompanied them. They left for Zululand with 64 wagons and 2 or 3 cannons, from Zaaylager (near Escourt) in a northerly direction past the present Ladysmith.
On 9 December the Voortrekkers made a vow that if God gave them victory they would keep the day as a Sabbath and build a church as a memorial to Him. This vow was repeated every evening.
By the 15th of December the commando reached the Ncome River. That night they heard the Zulu impis so they drew up into a lager (historians differ as to whether it was a circle or D shaped). The site was strategically chosen With a donga on the Southern side and a hippo hollow in the Ncome River, East, both affording protection against an attack. The Zulu forces were forced to attack from an open plain on the north western side. Heavy rains made the area swampy and there were long reeds in the river.
The wagons were tightly bound to each other and thorn tree branches closed the openings between them. The canons were strategically placed in the direction from where the attack was anticipated.
The Zulu force consisted of 12 000 – 15 000 men and they were divided into 4 groups. The main force consisted of the more experienced impis, with two horns of younger impis at the flanks and a reserve impi at the back. The impi on the left flank had black shields and those on the right had red shields. The reserve impi had white shields. The strategy was that the two horns would encircle the lager and launch an attack after which the main impi would come in.
Early on the morning of the 16th December 1838 the left flank of the Zulu army, consisting of 3000 men attacked long before the right wing and the main force. They crossed the Ncome River and the donga and launched an attack from the Northwest. They were driven back and went to take up defence in the donga. This first attack lasted for and hour and a half.
The main attack came from the Southeast and consisted of the main force and the right flank, numbering 9 000 – 12 000 men. The right flank tried crossing the Ncome River north of the lager but fire from the lager prevented this. They then moved south to the drift in the river where the left flank had crossed earlier, with the main force following them. The attack was not successful but an attack from both sides could have been.
The Zulu forces continuously launched unsuccessful attacks and began to retreat by 11 o’clock. Andries Pretorius had the gate opened and sent the mounted burgers out. Many Zulu impis were killed while trying to cross the river, thus the name Blood River. The Zulu force was overpowered with about 3 000 impis killed while only 3 Voortrekkers were wounded, of which Pretorius was one.
On 20 December the Voortrekkers reached the kraal of King Dingane and found it burnt and deserted. On the nearby koppie Kwa Matiwane they found the remains of Retief and his men that had died on 6 February 1838. In Retief’s bag was the agreement signed by king Dingane.
A Nyawo tribesman assassinated king Dingane in the Gwaliweni Forest on the Swaziland border and so made it possible for the Voortrekkers to crown Mpande as king of the Zulu nation.