The Gun

The Gun

The gun is an example of an early South African heavy flintlock weapon which was powerful enough to dispatch big game such as Lion, Elephant and Cape Buffalo. It is of the type known a “Bobbejaanboudt” (literally, “baboon’s haunch”, from the shape of the stock).

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This gun was built locally, around 1830, most likely in a frontier workshop, perhaps Grahamstown.
The lock was definitely imported but the barrel was probably forged locally. It shows refinement, the barrel having a well-defined external profile and a calibre of 8-bore, with an ivory foresight.
The bore is rifled with straight rifling. The purpose of straight rifling was to act as gutters to collect fouling residue and allow for quick reloading whilst being charged by an irate Cape buffalo.
The trigger is (strangely to me) a double–set type. I think this is odd because a hair trigger and a very nervous shooter lining up for that second urgent shot are not necessarily a good combination.

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The gun is almost one and a half metres long (1.47m to be precise), which makes it long enough to be reloaded while on horseback with the butt resting on the ground. It weighs 15 lbs. (that’s about 7kg.)

This gun itself of great historical interest but what adds to that is the inscription carved on the stock suggesting it was used in the Battle of Blood River on 16th December, 1838.

This is the story of that battle and the events leading up to it.


I have not been able to obtain an accurate translation of the inscription on the stock. This is made difficult because it was inscribed before written Afrikaans was standardised in written form. It appears to be a condensed history of the gun. In particular, the phrase “ook op Denggann Staag” appears to align with the Afrikaans “ook op Dengaan se Dag”, meaning “also on Dengaan’s Day”. This suggests a link with the Battle of Blood River.

Historical Context of the Battle

Officialdom had a way of annoying people whose territory they were encroaching on. Not the least of these were the Boers, white farmers who were descended from the original Dutch and Huguenot settlers in the Cape Town area in the latter 1600s. (“Boer” simply means farmer). The Boers were largely cattle farmers and had established large pastoral holdings in the interior of southern Africa. First the Dutch East India Company followed by the British (who arrived in the Cape around 1795) set about attempting to regulate farming and, of course, raise taxes. The Boers, staunchly independently-minded and self-sufficient, resented the intrusion and moved further into the interior, attempting to keep out of range of the British. However, the Boers started encountering many inhabitants of the Xhosa tribe, who were also cattle farmers wanting grazing land, and so conflict was inevitable. The numbers of Xhosa at the time were also bolstered by large numbers of fugitive tribesmen coming south and west as a result of the activities of the Zulus. Those events were central to the story but were not evident to the Boers at the time. The British were also moving into the Eastern Cape area from Port Elizabeth from about 1820 and they also encountered the Xhosa tribes. This resulted in a series of frontier wars, which also had strong impacts on the attempts of the Boers to get on with farming. Small wonder then that they saw the need to move further north in search of less contested land.

Ox Cart

The Voortrekkers travelled in wagons like this drawn by oxen. The wagons could be dismantled for transport over difficult terrain and then re-assembled.

The Boer migration, known as the Great Trek (“Groot Trek”) starting in 1836, was carefully planned, making use of knowledge of the interior from scouting parties. The “Voortrekkers”, as they became known, moved to the north (towards what is Gauteng today), and north-east towards the already established port of Durban (1835) in the present-day Natal or Kwa Zulu. This group of Voortrekkers realised the importance of port access for their economic development. Piet Retief, the leader of this group of Voortrekkers, had noticed that large tracts of land they had been passing through were uninhabited, and would be perfect for cattle farming. He knew also that the land was part of Zulu territory and decided to meet and negotiate with Dingane, the Zulu chief. Had he known why the land was uninhabited, he might not have been so keen on the meeting.

To appreciate how Dingane and the Zulus came to power in the region we need to take into account the rise of the Zulu nation. Originally, the Zulus were a small tribe of around 10,000 settled around the area in which the port of Durban was later established. Of great historical importance was the rise of the Zulu chief Shaka and his role in developing the Zulu nation into the huge empire that it became. Shaka was the son of a chieftain, but born illegitimately (in terms of local custom) around the 1780s. So he was brought up in obscurity. Despite this, he showed great talent as a tough fighter. He trained himself to be the measure of the natural environment, and would run barefoot all day, semi-naked through rock-strewn ground and thorn bush, while denying himself any rest, food or drink, until the end of the day. Drafted into a militia, he quickly came to the attention of the chief not only for his fighting prowess but also his sharp intelligence, particularly in military matters. He rose quickly in seniority and acquired enough power to redesign the fighting force.

Zulu Warrior He started by adapting weapons to suit hand-to-hand fighting much more effectively (short stabbing spears which were not thrown, clubs, and shields designed to hook the opponents’ shields aside). He also vastly improved their military tactics. Shaka knew about firearms but made no effort to acquire any since by his reasoning the shooters could be easily overcome while they were reloading.

He had the troops train all day as he had done, barefoot and devoid of any comforts. Some historians claimed his army could cover fifty miles in a day, but this is disputed. The point is, they could move relatively quickly, which put them at an advantage. He also developed systems of logistical support. Finally, his crowning achievement was to create the “bull horn” military formation. The troops were divided into four formations. The “chest” (3) advanced full on to the enemy (1). The two formations on either side, the “horns” (2) moved to encircle the enemy. The rest, the “loins” (4) were ready at the rear to cut off escape for Attack Formation any of the enemy getting through the “horns”. Shaka’s army could carry out these complex manoeuvres in a well-co-ordinated way through officers using hand signals and messengers. It would be no exaggeration to say that Shaka’s military genius was in the class of Julius Caesar.

As one account would have it, with inter-tribal conflicts of the early nineteenth century, Shaka saw the opportunity for the Zulus to conquer the neighbouring tribes. So devastating was his conquest that large parts of the country side became depopulated as the survivors fled. This included the area seen by Piet Retief and his group. The period became known as the Mfekane (“the hammering”), the implications of which are felt to this day, as large numbers of people were displaced to avoid the Zulus. (Some historians maintain that the Mfekane was entirely due to Shaka but others dispute this, and ascribe the troubles to general intertribal warfare or the exaggerations of those later wishing to justify the apartheid era). In the meantime the Zulu tribe grew by assimilation to become the foundations of the Zulu nation. Shaka by this time had become ruthless to the point of murdering his own people if he felt displeased in any way. With the death of his mother, he unleashed a reign of terror in which some 7,000 Zulus died. The Zulus responded, with his half-brothers, Dengane being one, assassinating him in 1823. Dengane (sometimes spelled Dingaan, Dingane, or in the case of the inscription on this gun, Denggaan) assumed leadership.

Shaka’s legacy was profound. In only 12 years of rule he created a nation of 250,000 people and an army of more than 50,000 from small tribal beginnings but at the cost of destroying the way of life of Bantu-speaking people. Some historians suggest that up to two-million people died in the upheavals (although this figure is disputed). It resulted in the consolidation of many smaller tribes into four major tribes, the Zulu, the Basuto, the Matabele, and Swazi, along with major changes in territorial occupation throughout the region.

Antecedents and Consequences of the Battle

These events formed an important context for what was about to happen to Piet Retief and his negotiating party. Another piece in the jigsaw was that the Voortrekkers had split into two streams, Piet Retief’s group heading towards Natal, as mentioned before. The other stream under Potgieter went north towards the present day Gauteng to be as far away as possible from the British. On the way they were attacked by the Ndebele tribe (connected with the Matabele, now a significant presence in Zimbabwe) and although heavily outnumbered, defeated the tribesmen by use of firearms.

stock Dingane had heard about this, so when he was informed that Piet Retief was coming to meet him he welcomed him openly but secretly feared him. Retief and his party left their weapons at the entrance of Dengane’s camp as a sign of goodwill and the negotiations appeared to go well. A treaty (in English, ironically) was signed ceding land between two rivers, the mountains and the sea. As Retief and his party got up to leave, Dengane gave the order for their execution.

That done, his fighters located where Retief and his party had left their families and attacked them. Many were killed and their cattle driven off. Within a few days however, the main body of the Voortrekkers arrived and immediately set about planning vengeance. Their first retaliations were not successful, and the Zulus, in reaction to what they saw as incursions into their territory, also ransacked the port of Durban.

The Voortrekker leader, Pretorius, planned retaliation more meticulously. First he raised a militia of 464 well-armed men (supported by an unknown number of black servants), with horses, a number of wagons and a small cannon. Before departing, he ensured that those remaining were protected within the laager. The laager was a Voortrekker innovation. Wagons were drawn into a loose circle with gaps filled using planks and thorn bush. Oxen and horses were taken inside. Effectively, the laager was a mobile fort.

Pretorius had heard that the main Zulu force was to the north. His forces arrived at the Ncome River and set up the laager for the night on a slight rise, bounded by the river on one side. The night passed quietly and peacefully.

But in the morning, they found themselves surrounded by a vast throng of some 10,000 Zulu warriors. They had arrived without making a sound, such was their skill and discipline. When the Zulus attacked, the Boers responded with firearms like the one featured in this article, and their small cannon. They set up so that there were something like three guns to a man, and reloading was done in relays. By this method, the Boers were able to keep up a withering fire, so that after two hours, the Zulus were weakened sufficiently to allow a couple of wagons to be rolled back to enable the Boer cavalry to go on the offensive.

The attack

The Zulus lost the cohesion they needed to fight effectively and were routed. Some 3,000 bodies surrounded the laager. Four Boers were wounded. Such was the carnage that the river turned red with blood, hence this battle being referred to as the Battle of Blood River. It was also commonly alluded to as Dengane’s Day, which corresponds to the inscription on the gun stock. The Voortrekkers, being very religious, also ascribed their victory to divine intervention in response to their prayers and so referred to it as the “Day of the Covenant”. The day, 16th December, was commemorated annually from that time until recently, when it was renamed the “Day of Reconciliation”.

Dingane and his survivors fled. He was later killed by his half–brother Mpande, who sued for peace with the Voortrekkers. Retief’s body was found, together with a copy of the treaty.

The Treaty

The Treaty

Views on the significance of this battle are mixed. The Boers saw it as a clear case of divine intervention. At least it bought them some time. One thing is certain; without firearms, the outcome would have been very different. The Zulus were down but not out, as the British found to their cost at Isandhlwana, in 1879.


ABOVE: Another example of the Bobbejaanboudt in a South African museum, together with other firearms in typical use at the time.

BELOW: This is a picture of the actual cannon that was used.... Note that the cannon was mounted on a set of wagon axles.