The politics of race in South Africa is complex and sentimental. For South Africans, the Piet Retief massacre is important and weighty due to the sentiments associated with national histories.

The problem is not that historians give different recounts of the story. However, the issue appears to be a combination of property, propriety and affinity to heritage.

A section of the Voortrekkers tried to settle in what is now the KwaZulu-Natal area in the year 1837. The pathfinders or Voortrekkers were the Boers. They had moved from the Cape Colony that was under British control into the interior of Southern Africa in the 1830s in what is now known as the Great Trek.

A man called Piet Retief was the leader of one of the Voortrekker groups. The group tried to come into an agreement with the Zulu king, Dingane ka Senzangakhona, or King Dingane for short. Despite the warnings about the danger of the venture, Retief hoped to convince Dingane into ceding some portions of Zulu land to the Boers to use for the purpose of permanent settlement.

The Tugela-Umzimvubu region is the area that Retief desired from Dingane who was indeed willing to give away that region but on a condition. The condition was that Retief should recover and return a crucial number of cattle stolen by a rebel chief, Sikonyela.

Many historians have acknowledged that Retief did return to Dingane with some cattle. Also, Dingane seemed like a man pleased by the cattle that Retief was able to come back with.

Jan Gerritze Bantjes was Retief’s secretary and according to his records, on February 6, 1838,  Dingane and the Boer leader both signed a deed that ceded the lands to the Boers in the presence of six witnesses.

To give the impression of the commemoration of the significance of the agreement, King Dingane invited Retief, the whole of Retief’s family, and some Boers to a ceremony.

However when all the invitees had been gathered, Dingane ordered his soldiers to capture and kill all the Boers present.

The Zulus took the captured Boers to Kwa-Matiwane, a hillside and clubbed them to death. It is believed that Retief was the last Boer killed on that day with the Zulu keeping him alive to see all his kin die.

Over 100 Boers were killed on that day, their bodies left on the hillside to be scavenged by vultures, a style that the Zulu is known to have treated the corpses of their enemies.

A number of theories abound as to why a king would agree to cede away land, invite the other party to a celebration only to kill them

One of these theories postulates that Dingane saw the Boers as invaders. This is especially because, Retief in his correspondence with the king had sent letters that revealed that the people of Mthwakazi Kingdom in the Transvaal region (now Matebeleland) were sacked by Boers.

Some historians view the revelation of the sacking of the Mthwakazi as a veiled threat from Retief.

There is a suggestion by another theory that Dingane was displeased with the number of cattle Retief returned. Cattle symbolizes wealth for the Zulu and some think that King Dingane believed Retief kept some of the cattle for himself.

After the massacre, Dingane waged guerrilla attacks on other Voortrekker camps in the same year. Some months later, the Boers responded at Blood River in a battle that decisively crushed the Zulu.


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