Illustration

THE CONGELLA INCIDENT: NATAL 1842

BY ANTHONY R. TUCKER (Webified by Tim Besko)

Illustrations by GREG ROSE

This small skirmish and siege, fought in Natal, South Africa, determined who would eventually confront the mighty warrior nation of Zululand, the Boers or the British? By losing, the Boers' years of experience in native fighting Was ignored, and the inexperienced British forces finally took the responsibility of facing the Zulu Impi in 1879, with disastrous results.

The cruel (only by Western standards) Zulu King, Dingane, ruled from 1828-40. His brutal reign had come to an end when his half-brother Mpande, fearful for his life, fled to Natal with 17,000 followers. The Boers had helped Mpande defeat Dingane's supporters, because they thought he was a humanitarian who would rule via Western principles. Also, the Boers hoped in return for their aid, they would be granted land. It was not to be. Along the northern border of Natal, they began to occupy the marginal territory, but this region soon began to fill with Dingane exiles. Furthermore, in Natal trouble was brewing between the black refugees and the white settlers. The settlers had taken the liberty of claiming Natal as a Republic, and had divided it into three magisterial districts; Pietermaritzburg, Port Natal and Weenan

The Boers were prepared to have the blacks working on their farms, but they did not want or trust them living on their land or adjacent to it. They were also alarmed by the increasing number of black families squatting on whites' land. In August 1841, the Pietermaritzburg Volksraad (legislative assembly) voted to limit black families to five per Boer farm, the rest would have to be moved.

It was decided to settle these landless people in the unoccupied land of southern Natal. Unfortunately this land belonged to Chief Faku of the Pondo. He was not properly informed of the Boers' intentions, and he feared that he would have thousands of Bantu refugees "repatriated" to his land. Faku naturally refused the Volksraad's edict, in return the Boers threatened to have him hung. Faku's land though, was under the protection of British sovereignty, so he appealed to the Cape Colony for British protection.

The Cape authorities on examining the problem, issued a proclamation on 2 December 1841. It stated that the Boers had no right to claim independence and that they were still British subjects, therefore they had no right to interfere with Faku's land. On 28 January 1842, a British force moved from Peddie in the Cape up to the Umgazi River, not far from Port St. John. From there they were to act as a police force along the southern boundary of amaPondoland.

In March a Dutch trading ship arrived off the coast from Port Natal (Durban). Its captain rather misled the Boers into believing that, it came to a confrontation with the British, the Netherlands would support Natal. The Boers spoke a corruption of the Dutch language and they still considered the Netherlands as their Motherland. The Dutch trader boosted Boer Morale, but the Netherlands would certainly have no desire to challenge the nation that was emerging as the foremost power in the world.

The British Governor of Cape Colony, Sir George Napier, could see that trouble was brewing. If the Boers persisted with their policy it could lead to tribal rebellion, or even war between Natal and Zululand. To Napier there was only one solution, British troops would have to be sent into Natal to keep the "peace" and reassert British authority. Captain Thomas Charlton Smith was assigned the task. He would move up the coast of Natal and occupy Durban, in order to stop the Boers going against Napier's decision.

Smith's force would consist of; two companies of the 27th Foot, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (about 200 men) (1), contingents of; 4th Battery Royal Artillery, equipped with two field guns (2) and a howitzer plus 8 crew (3), 4 Royal Engineers (4) and about 31 Cape Mounted Rifles (5,6). In all a force of about 263 men. Their transport was to consist of some 60 wagons, which were also accompanied by 250 servants and relatives. Thus Smith's column would number in total about 513 people. Gathered at a fort in amaPondoland, north of Port St. John, Smith's force departed on 1 April 1842, with a journey of 150 miles ahead of them.

As the column plodded northwards, Captain Smith dispatched a messenger to Durban, to gain the support of local English settlers and ivory traders. The Pietermaritzburg Volksraad, alarmed by the Cape's response, sent letters to Napier pleading with him to leave then in peace. At Congella though, just south of Durban on the coast, the local Boer Commando Commandant, Andries Pretorius, resented the idea of British troops being sent. So he began to gather his Commando (7) in preparation to show the British that their interference was not wanted.

Due to foul weather and bad roads, it was not until the end of April that Smith's force began to approach Durban. Meanwhile, Pretorius at Congella, with probably 100-200 armed Boers, had no intention of openly provoking a confrontation with the British, nor had he the strength to. Finally when Smith reached Durban on 4 May, Pretorius and his forces slipped away into the surrounding countryside. Smith was greeted by the British settlers, who despondently informed him of the Boer force at Congella. Therefore, his first move before establishing a base from which to guard Durban, would be to flush the Boers out of their town.

When Captain Smith moved into Congella he naturally found it abandoned. He then moved his column north along the shore and camped on the plain east of Berea Ridge, with Congella only 5km to the south. Smith's men proceeded to build a fort to cover Durban, which was only one mile inland. The empty Fort Victoria, on the head of the northern peninsula, which was used to guard the entrance to Durban Bay, was also occupied. While the British were busy, Pretorius and his men reoccupied Congella.

The British troops constructed a rectangular earthwork with a stockade. The three guns were placed with one in each southern facing corner and the third in the middle of the north facing wall. Now all that Smith could do was await further orders, or a development from the Boers.

At Pietermaritzburg, the Volksraad was still alarmed, they certainly did not want war on their hands. They even tried to get Pretorius to withdraw, but he refused until the position of the British was clarified, namely by whose authority were they there? Pretorius' force had swelled to about 300-400 men, as more and more Boers rode in from the surrounding districts and the Transvaal.

The Cape Mounted Rifles informed Smith that the Boers were increasing in strength, so he decided that a show of force might encourage them into disbanding. He rode forth with a contingent of 100 men from the 27th Foot, only to be met by Pretorius with a similar number of Boers. The Boer leader informed Smith that he would not budge until he had clear orders from Pietermaritzburg regarding the present situation. Then, when Boer horsemen began to harass the British in their camp, Smith realized there was going to be trouble.

Several days later two merchant ships, the PILOT and MAZEPPA, arrived with supplies for the British, including two more field guns (8). Pretorius, seeing the landing and fearing the increasing British strength, decided to act. Collecting some men, he seized and drove off Smith's draught animals before they could move the supplies to the fort. Smith was naturally infuriated and decided he would deal with the Boers once and for all. He would drive Pretorius from Congella and hold it, to ensure the Boers would not have a local base from which to harass his. It was decided the British would attack Congella late at night with artillery support.

The moonlit night of 23 May was chosen for the attack. The Royal Artillerymen were to place their howitzer in a flat bottom boat, and row it out into the bay, from where they could bombard the town. Also, one field gun was limbered up to escort the 123 men (9) of the 27th Foot and the Cape Mounted Rifles chosen for the assault. Pretorius though, was not be caught napping, for his spies soon informed him of the 8ritish troop movements. He had 150 mounted Boers (10) between Congella and the British fort, and they were ordered to disperse amongst the mangrove trees and buildings. Pretorius then ordered his men not to open fire until the British were within point-blank range.

Smith realizing the danger of the moonlight, ordered his men to fan out into open order. He then proceeded to advance on Congella. The moonlight illuminated his men as they plodded towards the outskirts of the town. Everyone must have been rather unnerved by the silence as they neared the trees on the edge of the town. Then suddenly a cry rose up, followed by a ragged volley from the trees, and a dozen red coats fell to the ground. Some of Smith's men struggled on, others hit the deck, but all along the tree line the 300 or so Boers continued shooting. Smith's men could not see their targets and those firing were too spread out to be of much effect. The artillery would be needed.

Out in the bay disaster struck. The boat with the howitzer floated out too far and grounded on a sandbank. With their gun out of range, the crew could only watch the flashes on the shore helplessly. The field gun also came to grief. Alarmed by all the firing, the oxen bolted and broke their traces, leaving the gun stranded in a useless position.

Smith had one chance left, if he could form up his men and volley the trees, it might flush out the Boers. As the order was given and his men struggled to form up, the Boer fire continued to cut them down. Smith had no option but to withdraw. The British retired and the Boers harassed them all the way back to the fort. By daybreak Smith had suffered 33 wounded and 17 killed (11). Pretorius lost only one man (12).

Once the British were back inside their fort, the Boers placed pickets all around it. Smith was summoned to surrender on the 24th, he refused, but a 24-hour truce was granted. Captain Smith was now trapped with about 500 people. Reinforcements would be needed if the Boer blockade was to be broken and Pretorius driven from Congella.

A volunteer, George Cato, was sent out to the merchantmen in order to persuade the Natal trader and experienced bushman, Richard King, to go for help. He agreed, and at midnight on the 25th with a young Zulu, he rowed to Salisbury Island towing two horses. The pair set off on the 600-mile journey to Grahamstown, in the Cape Colony. Evading Boer Pickets, King made the trip in 9 days. Stationed at Grahamstown was a company of the 27th Foot. Their commanding officer hurriedly embarked then on a ship called the CONCH, and sailed for Durban. A messenger was also sent to Cape Town for further reinforcements.

In the meantime, Pretorius was determined to eject Smith and his forces from the fort. In the early hours of 26 May, the Boers launched a surprise attack. The British, however, were quickly alerted to the danger and their firepower drove off the Boers. In compensation for this rebuff, Pretorius sent 100 Boers (13) to confront Fort Victoria out on the point. The little fort had a garrison of about 18 soldiers and 7 civilians. When the sergeant in charge was summoned to surrender, he refused. There then followed a firefight in which two soldiers and one civilian were killed and two soldiers were wounded. The sergeant surrendered and the Boers captured all his stores and an 18-pounder (14). Pretorius also seized the supplies lying on the beach and then ordered his men to row out and capture the ships. A triumphant column of 56 loot-laden wagons and 25 prisoners (15) was then dispatched to a worried Pietermaritzburg.

Pretorius, realizing it would be difficult to force the British from their fort, decided to negotiate. He offered surrender, but Smith asked for a truce until 31 May, during which time he could consider the possible terms of surrender. Pretorius also offered Smith the ships, in which he could evacuate his men. The Captain though, only agreed to send the women and children out to one. The British were almost out of food, rations being cut to a quarter. During the lull, Smith strengthened his fort by surrounding it with a wagon laager. The Boers' position was no better. At the end of May, Commandant Mocke arrived with reinforcements. Pretorius now had 600 men to feed, with not enough powder to launch another major attack.

Out in the bay, the ships' captains had been taken prisoner, but not the crews. On 10 June, George Cato slipped the 91-ton MAZEPPA, with 25 women and children on board, out to sea. The Boers angrily fired on the vessel but no one was injured. Smith continued to remain defiant and the Boers remained inactive.

Then on 24 June, the CONCH sailed into the bay, followed on the 26th by the frigate H.M.S. SOUTHAMPTON. She anchored outside the bar with 5 companies of the 25th Foot, The King's Own Borderers, under Colonel Josias Cloete, on board. With the CONCH's contingent, the relieving force numbered nearly 700 men. Boers began to congregate on the headland, but the SOUTHAMPTON moved close to the bar and fired a broadside at the force of 350 Boers, who soon scattered.

Many Boers were disheartened by the arrival of so many British troops, and some began to slip away. Pretorius again vainly tried to rush the fort, failing this he deployed his men to face the British landing. At about midday on Sunday, 26 June 1842, the CONCH sailed towards the shore with 135 men on board and another 85 towed in 4 long-boats (16). The British troops landed and the Boers withdrew without a fight, they did not want war, not yet. Some fled to the high veld, others to the Weenen district. The siege had lasted about 34 days.

Finally, on 15 July 1842, Colonel Cloete was invited to Pietermaritzburg where the Boers submitted to British sovereignty in return for amnesty. The following year, 1843, Britain annexed Natal and the stage was set for the Zulu and Transvaal Wars.

NOTES

1) A theoretical strength of 2 Captains, 4 Subalterns, 2 Colour-Sergeants, 8 Sergeants, 4 Drummers and 200 rank and file including Corporals.

2) Probably 7-pdr. Rifled Muzzle Loaders (RML).

3) Smail, p.82.

4) Ibid.

5) Ibid.

6) Morris, p. 154.

7) Boer Commandos were mounted detachments of varying strengths commanded by Field Coronets and Corporals.

8) Possibly 18-pdrs.

9) Smail, p.82.

10) Ibid.

11) Selby, p.91. The figures for these casualties vary considerably. Becker puts them as high as 94, while Selby is the most conservative with 50.

12) Morris, p.157.

13) Smail, p.82.

14) Ibid.

15) Morris, p.158.

16) Smail, p.82 and 85.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Becker, P., RULE OF FEAR, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DINGANE, KING OF THE ZULU, London, 1964.

Holden, W.C., HISTORY OF THE COLONY OF NATAL, London, 1855.

Morris, D.R., THE WASHIN6 OF THE SPEARS, THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ZULU NATION, New York, 1965 and London, 1972.

Rowell, T., NATAL AND THE BOERS, London, 1900.

Selby, J., SHAKA'S HEIRS, London, 1971.

Smail, J.L., LAND DF THE ZULU KINGS, London, 1981.

Tucker, A.R., "The Congella Incident," SOLDIERS OF THE QUEEN, JOURNAL OF THE VICTORIAN MILITARY SOCIETY, No. 29/30, 1982.