17th February 1838

Laagered at the base of the Koppie alongside the Malanspruit River were the Rensburg family wagons, about 10 in total. Opposite their laager was the laager of the Harmse and Van Loggerenberg families, and a little way from them was the laager of the Pretorius and Malan families (Where a house stands today.).

In the lead up to the Battle at Rensburg Koppie which took place on the 17th February 1838, Piet Retief and some other men had gone to meet with Dingaan (Shaka’s brother), lured there to his kraal with the promise of land and the return of some Boer cattle. Before leaving Retief had a meeting with men in charge of the security of the area. The man in charge of the security of the Bloukraans area – Gert Maritz – was in attendance. At the meeting plans were made, to gather all the Boers into specific laager areas, making them easier to defend, should Retief not return by a certain date, as they feared a Zulu attack.

Retief and his men, on route to meet with Dingaan, were murdered whilst spending the night at Chief Ngungundlovu’s Kraal.

When Retief did not return by the specified date, Maritz sent out scouts who carried word to all the laagers about the fear of the Zulu attack, and the plans for defence. All the families at the Rensburg Koppie site were supposed to join the other families at Zaailaager in Estcourt. Only the Malan family heeded the warning. The rest remained behind.

A young man of 16 years old, Marthinus Oosthuize, and his mother were camped on the outskirts of Zaailaager, and in the early hours of the morning on the 17th February 1838, his mother woke him, telling him that she had heard gunfire and wished to go to the main wagons. On taking her to the main laager he realized that his favourite horse, Blackie, was missing. Given that horses were not only a form a wealth but also his only mode of transport, he decided that once he had taken his mother to the Laager, he would go off in search of his horse.

Following the horse’s trail he came up over the Hills to the West of the Koppie, where he heard gunfire and was signaled from the top of the Koppie for help.

At approximately 9:00am on the morning of 17th February 1838 the Zulu Impi attacked the remaining laagers at Rensburg Koppie. The unconfirmed estimate of Zulu Impi soldiers was around 1500. The Boers totaled approximately 20 women and children and 10 men. The Impi that attacked, were part of the main force, which attacked the centre of the Bloukraans area at dawn. They had marched/run on foot from Zululand to launch the attacks. The Zulus attacked in the traditional Shaka war maneuver of the horn formation. The force that attacked the Rensburg Koppie area was a horn, of a horn, of a horn. The original attack force was immense. The Impi were in traditional battle gear and carried the large body size shields and short stabbing spears.

The Impi reached the laagers of the Harmse and Van Loggerenberg Families first. Marthinus, coming up over the hill, receiving the signal for assistance, acted on it. He came closer and realized that the Boers needed more gun powder and shot, in their hasty retreat up the Koppie they had not taken enough with them.

He galloped up on his horse and rode through the stragglers of the impi force. Their Induna (Head Soldier), along with the second in command, was at the back of the attack force. His name was recorded as Captain Mazimdada.

Galloping through the back ranks of the impi, Marthinus, holding his musket and firing backwards over his shoulder without looking, shot the Induna dead. Taking up his second musket, with a similar lucky shot, he shot the second in command also.

The Zulu people are a very superstitious people. Having witnessed this young mans incredibly powerful magic, they fell back and allowed him free passage into the Harmse and Van Loggerenberg wagons to find the ammunition he needed. Whilst rummaging through the wagons he heard a young girl crying.

It was the eleven-year-old daughter of Johannes Van Rensburg who had been visiting the other families at the time of the attack.

Unsuccessful in his attempts to find the ammunition he needed at this laager site he needed to move to the next laager belonging to the Pretorius family. He took the girl and put her on the back of his horse. The Impi held Marthinus in such awe that they did not touch him, but pulled the girl off the back of his horse and stabbed her to death. Hers is the only marked grave at the battle site today, although it does not give her name.

Marthinus continued on to the Pretorius wagons. By now the Impi had all turned and crossed the river and were launching their attack on the Rensburg Koppie where the remaining Boers had all retreated.

The Koppie was the perfect defensive position. The only place an attack could come from was the front as there is cliff face around the other three aspects of the Koppie. The fact that the Zulu no longer used the long throwing spear was also to the Boers advantage as the Zulu had to first climb up the rock face at the front to get close enough to stab their opponents, so they could be picked off one by one as they did so.

The down side of the Boer’s defence was the front-loading muskets they used for defence. It required assistance in loading, someone loading one, whilst another is being fired, and after so many shots the barrels would overheat and explode rendering the firearm useless.

Having found the ammunition in the Pretorius wagons, Marthinus crossed the river and galloped towards the base of the Koppie. He needed to go straight down the middle of the Impi to get there. The Boers fired on each side of him so making a path, but again the superstitious Impi parted to allow this man with god like powers through and did not challenge his ride.

He rode up the West side of the Koppie and delivered his precious cargo, and then stayed with the Boers and continued the battle. The battle did not last much longer. The Impi retreated from the battle. No one is entirely sure why. They had the numbers and the time. The theory is that they believed that Marthinus was a supernatural being and cold not be beaten, so they decided to honour his superiority, and not rail against it, and so they retreated.

At the end of the battle the unconfirmed number of dead was around approx 300 people who are believed to be buried to the east of the base of the Koppie. The local people call the place “Sewula” – “The Place of Falling” – The people fell there, and today so does the river water in a beautiful waterfall that plunges into a spectacular gorge where Sewula Gorge Lode now stands.

Johannes Van Rensburg stayed at the Koppie until the August of 1838 where he officiated at, and paid for, Marthinus Oosthuize’s wedding. He then moved on to Mooi River.

Marthinus Oosthuize later moved to the town of Weenen where he lived for many years, before moving to the farm “Enon” in Winterton where he died. He told the story of the battle every year before his death at the Koppie site on "The Day of The Vow".

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Sewula Gorge Lodge, Estcourt, KZN - The Battle of Rensburg Koppie      Copyright © 2015.