The Battle of Vegkop – 20 October 1836
(Author’s Note): This account of the Battle of Vegkop is a verbatim translation from the book of E.J.G. Norval, “Bloed, Sweet en Trane.” I have not edited the work in any way, and present it as is.
I have done this, mainly because it is an excellent piece of work, with reliable sources up to a point, and has, to my knowledge, never been translated into English. Some of the accounts do differ with respect to the same incidents, but it must be remembered that a man like Sarel Cilliers were interviewed at a very late stage in his life, when his memory were most likely at fault, hence the confusion on Hendrik Potgieter’s presence at the battle..
Various accounts of earlier attacks on Trekker parties on the banks of the Vaal River had been omitted here, and will be added at a later stage. Comments and explanations added in brackets and italics are my own, and do not imply any form of editing on my part. Any mistakes in the English version are my own.
The words Trekkers, Boere, Voortrekkers and burghers are all used in Norval’s narrative, and all refer to the same people.
Sarel Cilliers and his party laagered on the southern slopes of the Heuningkoppie, close to the Heuning Spruit, which was just south of the laager. Due to the Matabele attacks, several Trekker families had by now gone back to the area of Thaba ‘Nchu in the northern Free State. Several historians dispute the fact that Hendrik Potgieter was present at the battle. Sarel Cilliers never even mentioned him in his writings, and created the impression that he alone led the fight. According to Potgieter’s sons, however, he played a definite role in the battle. Paul Kruger also wrote much later that Sarel Cilliers led the Trekkers in this battle. (Kruger was only eleven years old at the time-author).
In fact, Gerdener states that Potgieter and his people were next to the Modder River, while Malan had a much more scathing opinion, and stated that Potgieter and his party also fled back to Thaba ‘Nchu after ignoring calls for help received from Sarel Cilliers and his party at Vegkop. Malan wrote that Potgieter and Cilliers’s treks moved south together, reaching the Renoster River, where Potgieter and his trek broke away towards the Vals River. Duvenhage is of the opinion that, if Potgieter did flee, he would have been accused of cowardice, and it is therefore highly unlikely, especially because he would never have been chosen as Chief Commandant later.
J.H Hattingh, Anna Steenkamp (I have a copy of her diary – author), Maria Minnaar, Anna S. Coetzee, Preller, Erasmus Smit and Theal mentioned in their personal papers and writings that Potgieter was indeed at the Battle of Vegkop. (Norval writes at this point that a Professor van der Merwe did prove that Potgieter was indeed at Vegkop – author.) Potgieter sent out daily patrols of six to ten men. The intention was to find out what the Matabeles were up to. A few days later two friendly Bataung informed them that they saw a large Matabele army on its way to the Vaal River. J.G.S. Bronkhorst also writes about two Mantati (Mantatese – Afr.)who warned the Trekkers about three days before the impending attack.
A messenger was now sent to the Trekkers along the Vals River to call for assistance. Potgieter apparently hoped that these groups would come to his assistance, but it appeared that they also fled back to the Free State. (Norval mentioned Blesberg – Thaba ‘Nchu again – author.) Mzilikazi in the meantime set out between 5000 and 6000 warriors under Kalipi, after the wagons. They had to kill all the men and bring the women, children and wagons to him. Bronkhorst, however, estimated them to be 9000.
At Vegkop the Trekkers, mainly Sarel Cilliers’s party, had already laagered their 50 (could have been 51 – author) wagons. According to Meintjies and Cloete the laager consisted of two concentric squares, but eye-witnesses like Bronkhorst and Lukas van Vuuren maintained that it was shaped in a circle. In the middle of the laager there was indeed a second, central laager. (It gets a bit confusing here, as several writers give different figures here – author). Lukas van Vuuren and Duvenhage say four wagons, Jansen says six, Sarel Cilliers and Malan say seven, and Anna Coetzee says eight. The central redoubt was provided with hardened animal hides and timber as protection against assegais.
According to Potgieter and Theunissen, the main laager consisted of 40 wagons in a square, with two wagon forts, or shooting hides, built out on the corners like ramparts. This construction could enable the Trekkers to sweep the front of the wagon laager with crossfire. The long grass in front of the laager was brushed flat by means of chasing oxen with thorn trees tied to them over it. Camel thorn branches were tied to tent roof height on the outside of the wagon circle and between the wheels and the spaces between adjacent wagons. These branches were tied to the wheels and disselbooms with chains and rawhide. According to Van der Merwe the outer wagon circle consisted of 46 wagons, with a circumference of 625 and a diameter of 198 feet.
According to Duvenhage’s reckoning the laager had a diameter of 66, and a circumference of 210 paces. Poles were knocked into the ground on the inside of the wheels, and the wagons were bound to it and each other, with rawhide and chain, to afford added stability to the laager. Shot were cast, as well as solid bullets. An X was carved across the bullet points to add more stopping power. (This practice of making dum-dum bullets would become highly controversial in later conflicts-author). Tin eating utensils were also melted and the bullets and shot dipped in it. This practice added an extra layer of harder metal around the lead projectiles.
The number of able-bodied men in the laager is still in dispute. Differences of opinion on this abound, and numbers are given from 33 to 40 men. Potgieter’s sons were not sure, and gave a figure of 36, or 37, J.G.S Bronkhorst gave a figure of 35, and Sarel Cilliers’s son was of the opinion that there were 33 able-bodied men and seven young boys who could handle a rifle. Among them were the 11 year – old Paul Kruger, who would one day become the president of the ZAR, and Sarel Cilliers’s son.
Nicholaas Potgieter, Jan Cilliers and Joachim Botha were sent out on the day before the attack, to confirm the news on the approaching Matabele Army. They returned that same night with positive confirmation, and Nathan wrote that the Matabele camped about ten miles from the laager. The Voortrekkers could see their fires. That night the Trekker guards spent an anxious night, peering into the dark and listening for any suspect sounds. Early the next morning a patrol of 20-25 men, according to Anna Coetzee, but 33 according to Sarel Cilliers and 35 men according to Bronkhorst rode out to meet the Matabele. Among these men were Hendrik, Jacobus and Hermanus Potgieter, Sarel Cilliers, JP Botha, Piet Botha and Hermanus Steyn.
They found them an hour and a half later, on horseback, or approximately nine km (according to Bruwer-author) in a northerly direction from the laager. According to Sarel Cilliers’s son 33 men rode out to meet the Matabele, leaving only seven men to hold the fort. (Seven boys?-author).
The date of the battle also seems to be disputed, and some uncertainty does exist here. The date given on the monument (Hofstede) is the 2nd, A.D. and S.J. Cilliers have it as the 4th and the 16th respectively, Preller, Coetzee and Meintjies as the 19th, and Bronkhorst as the 29th. Professor van der Merwe’s account states that the most likely date was the 20th.
When the commando encountered the approximately 5000-6000 Matabele, one man was sent back to the laager to warn them. The patrol approached to about 50 paces from the Matabele and held in their horses. Potgieter and Cilliers approached the Matabele with a white flag. They were sitting on their haunches behind their shields, eating breakfast. The idea was to talk to them by means of a Coloured interpreter. “No one shoots until we have spoken with the buggers,” (Geen een skiet alvorens ons nie met die swernote gepraat het nie) Potgieter warned the men. The Trekkers lifted their hats in the hope that the Matabele would understand this to be a sign of peace.
“Why did the Matabele come to rob and to kill?” (Waarom het die Matabele gekom om te moor en te plunder?) the interpreter asked the black masses in front of him. The warriors responded by jumping to their feet, shouting, “Mzilikatzi!” and attacked by throwing knobkieries (fighting clubs) and assegais. (Norval used the word Umziligaze here-author). Potgieter shouted to his men to fire, and the first salvo from their muzzle-loaders stopped the warriors, but only briefly. Soon the two horns were rushing out to encircle the Trekker men.
Apparently seven men’s nerve broke at this stage, and they fled, leaving the rest in the lurch. The Trekkers now employed their shoot-and-flee tactic, all the while falling back to the laager. This method entailed the Trekker shooting off his rifle, mounting his horse and falling back, while loading the rifle in this process. Loading was a time-consuming process, and this had to occur while the rider was on the horse. Powder was poured down the barrel from the front, the musket ball was added, (when time was not of the essence, what was called a vetlappie, or cotton, small piece of cloth soaked in fat or oil, was pushed down on the powder, before the ball was added-author) and pushed down the barrel with a ramrod, powder added to the pan, and the hammer pulled back, ready for fire. The rider then turned his horse around, charged the enemy again, dismounted, discharged his weapon, and turned around, mounted his horse, to repeat the entire process again.
Every Trekker, his rifle and his horse, were a tight, mobile combat unit which could be moved across the battle zone where it was needed the most. He was like the centaur of Greek legend: the man an extension of the horse, and the rifle an extension of the man. At short range the muzzle-loaders were devastating, each discharge stopping more than one man. According to Sarel Cilliers he repeated this maneuver 16 times while rushing to the laager. Van der Merwe is of the opinion that at least 200 Matabele were killed during this stage. Close to the laager the men ran out of ammunition, and gave their mounts free rein to gain time for any last minute preparations.
The men arrived at the laager at approximately 12 noon. A number of panicking burghers then sped past the laager, leaving their friends and family to their fate. The existing accounts of the battle differ as to the number, mentioning a figure from two to seven men. The discrepancy could have stemmed from the fact that there was more than one desertion. Hendrik Potgieter’s sons recall that three men about-turned and fled from right in front of the laager. According to Jansen and van der Merwe five men fled in front of the laager, but two changed their minds and returned.
The three men, mentioned in various accounts and recollections, who deserted their families at that critical stage, were Floris “Kort Floris” Visser, Marthinus van der Merwe jr, and Louw Du Plessis. The three deserters rejoined the laager on the evening after the battle. Some writers are of the opinion that they only came back with their tails between their legs (druipstert-author) three days later. (I can only imagine their reception-author). According to Lucas Janse Van Vuuren there were only 37 able-bodies men left in the laager after this desertion. The only gate (poort in Afr. -author) to the laager was a chopped-off thorn tree, which was now opened to let the riders in. The horses were also brought in, but the rest of the livestock were left to their fate.
One part of the Matabele horde singled out and slaughtered about 80 draught oxen. The entire Matabele impi now divided into three groups, and settled across the Heuning Spruit, while eating the meat raw. Some made threatening gestures towards the laager, while others honed their assegais.
The 150 men, women and children now stared a life-or-death struggle in the face. The women anxiously cast the last of the ball shot, working it into little cloth bags of 10-12 each. The men were worried, as there was too little ammunition for an extracted fight. An added worry was a young boy called Barend Liebenberg, who was still in the field with a herd of sheep. Every man now placed a bowl filled with shot, musket balls and powder at the ready where he was going to defend. Musket balls, with the X sawn into one side, which made it break up into four pieces when it hit the target, fitted neatly into the barrels. Every man’s two or three rifles stood ready and loaded, for the attack. Some waited for the Matabele under the wagons, while some were on the axle trees and on top of the wagons.
Approximately 30 men and seven boys waited in the laager. In front of them stood about 6000 Matabele warriors, the best shock troops of Mzilikatzi, the “Path of Blood.” In front of the laager was a sea of savages, dressed in monkey and oxen tails tied to their arms and legs. Everyone had a multi-coloured shield, knobkieries, short stabbing assegai and several throwing spears. In the laager, some of the women were almost hysterical with fear, and Sarel Cilliers had to use sharp words to calm them down.
“Nobody makes a sound when they attack us. It will only incite the enemy if the women and children are screaming,” (Niemand maak ‘n geluid as ons aangeval word nie, anders sal dit net die vyand aanspoor as die vrouens en kinders skreeu), Sarel Cilliers cautioned.
Together, under Cilliers’ lead, they requested help from the Almighty, and he read to them from Psalm 50, verse 15. Long, tension-filled minutes passed by under the warm sun while the Trekkers waited to see what the Matabele would do.
According to some accounts, the people waited anxiously for several hours, but other accounts stated that the Matabeles attacked immediately. An exact version of the battle is not possible, but a probable version can be pieced together from the various accounts available. According to some writers the Trekkers hoisted a piece of white cloth on a bullwhip. This was followed by the hoisting of a white shield. Cilliers asked Martha van Vuuren to start singing Psalm 130, verse 1, when the guard shouted that the enemy is coming. (Die vyand kom!). The Matabele surged to their feet and surrounded the laager in rows three to four deep. According to van der Merwe stayed at 300 paces and sat down again. They removed their hide sandals and honed their assegai blades.
Cilliers alleges that he instructed everyone that he will fire the first shot, but according to A.H. Potgieter junior, his father fired the first shot. Duvenhage was of the opinion that the battle started at 1100 hours. Cilliers took his place at the left of the laager entrance (poort) with two rifles, and waited for the enemy. In front of one regiment, on Cilliers side, a huge, light-coloured Matabele shouted wildly and jumped up and down. According to Theunissen and Potgieter, Jacobus Potgieter, Hendrik’s brother, waved a red cloth in the air to draw out the attackers. Other eye-witnesses allege that mrs Botha, wife of Johannes Botha, waved a red cloth to the Matabele as a signal that blood will flow.
The Matabeles hoisted a red shield in answer, and with wild shouts and whistling, the host rose its feet and charged the laager. The air was filled with dust, kicked up by huge numbers of feet. Add to that the sound of shouting warriors and the drumming of weapons on shields. The first shot was fired with the attackers about 20 to 30 meters from the laager. The commander of the host, in front, was shot down by Cilliers. The noise of the muzzle loaders, blending in with the shouting, was overwhelming. A thick cloud of blue smoke soon hung over the laager. It restricted visibility and mixed with the dust kicked up in the laager by the panic-stricken horses.
After a sharp skirmish of about half an hour, the Matabele suddenly fell back with a wailing sound. They sat down out of range of the muzzle loaders. According to A.D. Cilliers, son of Sarel Cilliers, the fight ended abruptly when the Matabeles suddenly turned around and fell back, out of range of their rifles. “Come and attack us again, you old women with blunt teeth,” (Kom val ons weer aan, julle klomp ou meide met stomp tande) Jacobus Potgieter challenged them.
“Come out from behind your houses with wheels and fight us,” (Kom uit agter julle huise op wiele en veg dan teen ons) the Matabeles shouted back.
According to A.H. Potgieter junior his father and about seven or eight men walked out of the laager entrance to provoke the Matabele into an attack. The other men took positions on the wagons and chests, guns in hand. Potgieter and his group fired a volley on the sitting Matabeles and fell back to the laager. Behind them a horde of furious warriors attacked the laager again, before being shot back a second time. According to A.H. Potgieter junior this group of daredevil Trekkers repeated this tactic a few times, until the Matabele changed their own. He stated that a few Matabele warriors played dead on the battlefield after their comrades had retreated. They hoped to catch the Trekkers in the laager unaware. The defenders, however, soon saw that these warriors were sweating in the sun, and Potgieter alleges that his father gave the command to go out between attacks and finish off these wounded and sweating Matabele warriors.
They soon fled when their ruse was discovered and Trekkers started shooting at them. Van der Merwe was of the opinion that this account of Potgieter was written many years later, and probably not accurate. It had, however, been documented that the entire host now charged the laager and rained their assegais on it. Many of these projectiles now hit human and animal alike. Some of the horses got loose, and were running through the laager.
Hundreds of assegais were stuck like porcupine quills in the sand inside the laager. Sarel Cilliers later said that Piet Nieuwenhuizen’s wagon was struck by assegais 72 times. Meintjies was of the opinion that this was the final effort of the Matabeles. Theunissen and Potgieter’s account stated that the big assegai attack was followed up by a last and desperate attempt to overwhelm the wagons.
The forward Matabeles tried to pull the thorn branches between the wagons away. They tried to cut the leather thongs around the branches, and did succeed to move wagons up to 30 cm outside the circle. Others placed their shields on the thorn branches and tried to walk on it. Those that were not shot down crawled in between the branches, under the wagons. One Matabele crawled under a wagon up to the son of Hans Grobler and stabbed him in the calf. Grobler then shot him under the wagon. Stephanus Fourie hit a warrior in the stomach who had climbed on top of a wagon with a load of musket balls. The mortally wounded warrior hit the boy Lucas Janse Van Vuuren with his assegai in the shoulder just before he fell.
One warrior reached the back of an ox-wagon and he hurled one assegai after the other into the laager. The wife of Lucas Bronkhorst saw him and shouted a warning to Stephanus Fourie. The warrior’s mates were handing assegais to him, which he flung into the laager. Fourie shot the warrior from the wagon and he fell into three of his own assegais. He had, however, already wounded some of the men and animals. Another warrior slipped from a wagon and got his legs entangled in the wheel spokes, where he was found later.
Young boys fought shoulder to shoulder with old men, like the 85 year-old Bart Harmse, to beat off the attack. Women like Betta Badenhorst loaded fiery hot rifles for their men, while the others repulsed Matabele warriors trying to get into the laager with boiling water and axes. Two women fought shoulder to shoulder with their husbands, firing their rifles through the openings between the wagons. Sara Swanepoel saw a warrior crawling out from under a wagon and attacked him with an axe, amputating his hand. According to Van der Merwe it was Elisabeth Bronkhorst who chopped the warrior’s hand off at Piet Botha’s wagon, and the writer (Norval) was of the opinion that Sara also amputated the arm of a warrior who tried to negotiate the thorn branches under her wagon on his shield.
One of the two warriors was found dead in the field later, with his amputated limb in a small puddle of water. Another woman chopped open a warrior’s head with an axe, while another one’s head was crushed with a stone when he tried to penetrate the laager. The 11 year-old Petronella Zacharia Botha and her 15 year-old sister Sophia stood next to their father, J.P Botha, loading and handing his guns to him. Elizabeth Botha’s servant stood with a tent pole at the ready.
No Matabele warrior succeeded in getting into the laager. They broke off the attack late that same afternoon after they had collected all the domestic animals around the laager. They disappeared between the koppies in a northerly direction while making hissing noises and threatening gestures. A number of burghers moved out to count the dead warriors, and according to Sarel Cilliers the Matabele left 430 dead behind.
There were numerous wounded warriors. Janse van Vuuren wrote that there were 437 dead Matabeles. The sweating wounded warriors were singled out and finished off with their own assegais. The dead Matabele that were accounted for during the pursuit earlier were not counted. The Trekkers lost two dead and 14 wounded. (15 according to S.J. Cilliers, 16 according to A.D. Cilliers and 11 according to Lucas Janse Van Rensburg.). Two horses were also killed in the battle, with 14 wounded, but according to Gerdener 7 horses were killed and J.G.S. Bronkhorst was of the opinion that 12 were badly wounded.
The two dead Trekkers were Nicolaas Johannes Potgieter (brother of A.H. Potgieter) and Petrus Johannes Botha. (Possibly son-in-law of A.H. Potgieter). Sarel Cilliers had an assegai wound above his knee. According to Hofstede he plucked it out to kill his attacker with it. Other wounded were Lucas Rudolf Janse van Vuuren, (shoulder) Hans Grobler, junior (leg wound – calf) Martha Kruger, (head wound) a Van Staden (assegai through mouth) and Marthinus van der Merwe (mouth – nature of wound not known – author). Other badly wounded included some women and children, but their names are unknown.
The two dead men were buried that same day. Sarel Cilliers led the service. The Trekkers later collected all the assegais. According to Sarel Cilliers they picked up 1134 assegais. The blades were broken off, some melted down for late use, and the rest buried.
Different versions of the rest of the events on that day exists. According to Sarel Cilliers the Trekkers pursued the Matabele on horseback immediately after the fight at the laager and killed 200 more. They could not recover any of their livestock. According to D.F. Kruger a patrol was sent after the Matabeles the next day, but J.G.S. Bronkhorst wrote that the pursuit only commenced three days later. It seems that none of the looted livestock was recovered.
They did find about a thousand dead and skinned animals in the wake of the retreating Matabele army, and thus had to go back empty-handed. The Trekkers lost between 40 000 and 50 000 goats and sheep, a hundred horses and between 4 600 and 6 000 oxen and cattle. This resulted in the laager being unable to travel further.
Hendrik Potgieter’s personal loss was about 5000 sheep, 300 cattle and a hundred oxen. The wagon canvas were in shreds, but the three-layered canvas was enough to prevent the assegais from going through. One of the wagons had 375 assegai holes in its canvas hood. After the battle the nine year-old Barend Liebenberg who was looking after sheep outside the laager, returned unharmed, to the great delight of the people in the laager. All he had with him to defend himself, was a sjambok. According to Janse (Maybe Jansen? I could not find a Janse in his bibliography – author) a number of children were playing next to a spruit with their bows and arrows eight days after the fight when they happened upon a wounded Matabele warrior who had been left behind.
The boys started shooting arrows at the warrior, who defended himself with his shield. They divided into two groups and attacked the warrior from both sides. When they later informed their parents that they had killed a wounded Matabele warrior, they received a hiding for their trouble. (page 105)