As Edgar Brookes and Colin Webb remark in their history of Natal, in the immediate aftermath of the Mfecane the region must have looked like Paradise. Daniël Bezuidenhout, a trekker, noted that the lush area lay ‘waste and unoccupied’.
Piet Retief thought that the Boers and the Zulu could live side by side, but Francis Owen, a missionary who lived near Dingane and had some first-hand experience of him, told him that the king would never grant land to the trekkers. Retief responded that it was imperative that the Zulu learn to trust the Boers. He was by nature a risk-taker and was now prepared to take the greatest gamble of his life. Owen warned him not to go near Dingane with a commando, but he summarily dismissed the advice. ‘It takes a Dutchman,’ he reportedly replied, ‘not an Englishman’ to understand a black person.
When Retief accompanied by a few men approached Dingane in October 1837 to sign a treaty, the king indicated that he would consider granting the extensive area between the Mzimvubu and Thukela (Tugela) rivers, on condition that Retief recovered cattle stolen from him by Sekonyela, the Tlokwa chief.
As the negotiations proceeded, Retief made mistakes that lengthened the odds against him. He told Dingane of the severe punishment the trekkers had inflicted on Mzilikazi, and Dingane’s councillors who accompanied Retief and his men to Sekonyela noticed how disrespectfully they treated the chief. ‘Would Dingane be treated the same way?’ they asked. The answer was: ‘We shall treat Dingane in the same way should we find him to be a rogue.’
All this helped to heighten Dingane’s sense of grave insecurity. In the early 1830s Jacob Hlambamanzi, an interpreter with some knowledge of the Eastern Cape, told Dingane of the sequence of events he could expect: ‘At first the white people came and took a part of the land; they then increased and drove them further back, and have repeatedly taken more land as well as cattle.’ There was a long-standing Zulu oral tradition that when Shaka was killed, he said to Dingane: ‘You kill me thinking you will rule, but the swallows will do that’, meaning the white people because they built houses with mud.
Dingane was afraid of trekkers armed with guns, who were approaching his kingdom after destroying the Ndebele. His efforts to acquire more guns had failed. Retief had refused his pleas to hand him Sekonyela’s guns and horse. The small number of English hunters and traders in Port Natal did not represent a threat, but 1 000 Voortrekker wagons that had spread out in the Upper Thukela valley by the end of 1837 did. Retief displayed an extraordinary faith in the possibility of a treaty with Dingane that could somehow resolve matters to the mutual satisfaction of both sides.
Stockenstrom told Piet Retief that he could not understand how the Voortrekkers could survive as whites in Africa except by remaining under the British government and its system of law and order, however temporarily defective. He expressed his astonishment that the trekkers seemed to prefer the protection of Dingane and Mzilikazi – the two major chiefs in the deep interior – to that of the British government.
After the ruinous Sixth Frontier War Stockenstrom proposed a treaty system (see Stockenstrom, Godlonton and Bowker) to settle conflicts in place of the old military solutions. For him treaties could only work if a key principle was observed: the acknowledgement of the right to the territory of its then actual possessors. Hand in hand with this had to go the recognition of the power and status of the indigenous chief and a commitment to the preservation of the polity he controlled. The system could work, provided the British government was prepared to put major resources behind it and stand up against the lobby of English merchants, speculators and soldiers intent on dispossessing the Xhosa.
The final years of the 1830s had brought the Cape Colony to the end of an epoch. In 1836 Stockenstrom had formulated the fundamental choice before the European colonists: ‘We must have either extermination [meaning the dispossession and breaking up of African chiefdoms] or conciliation and justice: a middle course is ruin.’
The developments between the end of 1834 and the end of 1838 represented the middle course that Stockenstrom wanted to avoid. There was the descent into largescale killing and massacre – the Sixth Frontier War, the battles of the Voortrekkers and Ndebeles, the massacre of Retief and some seventy men in Dingane’s place and 500 more of his followers at Weenen, and the death of 3 000 Zulus at the hands of Andries Pretorius and his men at the Ncome River, later called Blood River.
The latter events are described in Part Two because they can only be understood within the context of the conditions created by the Mfecane, which was also characterised by the ‘crushing’ of adversaries and large-scale dislocation of people. When the Voortrekkers arrived in the deep interior the rebuilding of African polities had just begun.
White and black would discover that they had to co-exist because neither had the means to overwhelm the other.