On 6 May 1902 at Holkrans near Vryheid, men of a Zulu tribe, the abaQulusi, attacked a Boer commando that had been burning the homes of Zulus in the vicinity, destroying their crops and taking their livestock. There were heavy casualties on both sides, but the abaQulusi prevailed and retrieved their stolen cattle. This unusual battle came late in the war and was the first in which an indigenous impi clashed with one of the main protagonists of the war, the Boers. Histories of the Anglo-Boer War have mostly paid it scant attention. It has become a little-known footnote in a war of great battles and political events that that marked the acme of Imperial Britain and changed the course of history in South Africa.
In the December 2000 newsletter of the Durban branch of the South African Military History Society it was revealed that the military historians Ken Gillings, S B Bourquin and Tania van der Watt had researched the Battle of Holkrans with the view to publishing an article in the S A Military History Journal. Unfortunately for the historical record of the war, the issues relating to this battle were so controversial, the project was abandoned. Ken Gillings did, however, address the Durban branch of the SAMHS on the subject and the salient points of his talk were recorded in its newsletter, which can be accessed on the Internet. They are further abbreviated here.
In the dying days of the Boer War a stalemate existed in the occupied Boer territories of Utrecht and Vryheid. The British occupied the towns and patrolled near them, but the Boers still held sway in outlying areas, where they lived off the land. This brought them into conflict with the abaQulusi tribe. After several Boer farmers were murdered, General Louis Botha instructed his commandos to destroy abaQulusi settlements in the area.
A commando under Jan Potgieter raided and destroyed the abaQulusi settlement at Holkrans on the night of 3 May 1902. Potgieter allegedly insulted the local abaQulusi chief (Inkosi Sikobobo) and challenged him to come and retrieve his cattle. Sikobobo responded by attacking the Boer camp at Holkrans early in the morning of 6 May 1902. The abaQulusi overran the camp and most of the commandos were killed. Those that escaped the initial onslaught fought desperately and a few did get away. A total of 56 Boers were killed and three young boys were taken prisoner. The abaQulusi took back their cattle as well as all the Boer horses and their provisions. By the time avenging commandos arrived, the abaQulusi had dispersed.
That is essentially how history books have recorded the events of this battle, but it is worth adding Ken Gillings’ final assessment:
“This action crippled the Boer Forces in Northern Natal and, coming as it did, at a critical stage in the peace negotiations, it had a major effect on the “Bittereinders”. When Gen. Louis Botha was told of the disaster, he felt that it was pointless to continue the struggle when even the black population was turning against them. It is for this reason that this incident, arguably, can be described as one of the most decisive actions of the Anglo-Boer War, in that it was a major factor in getting the leaders of the Boer Republics to accept the final peace Treaty of Vereeniging on 31 May 1902.”
Not surprisingly, the Battle of Holkrans is better and more bitterly remembered by Afrikaans South Africans than other elements of this so-called “Rainbow Nation”. The bitterness is reflected in a website that lists the Boer casualties as having been “murdered”, not “killed in action”. (As an aside, it would be interesting to know how the compiler of that website would categorize the 68 men of the Imperial Yeomanry who were killed by the Boers while sleeping in their tents at Tweefontein on 25 December 1901.)
It is not only the galling fact that the enemy at Holkrans were Zulus that so upset the Boers then, and their descendents later, but also because 56 of the 73-strong commando were killed. There can have been few, if any, battles in the Boer War in which such a high proportion of men from a single unit were killed in a short engagement. The effect on the Boer inhabitants of the sparsely inhabited Vryheid district must have been devastating.
While there were many other reasons for the Boers to regret and resent the British victory in the Boer War, the Holkrans incident must have been especially significant to the inhabitants of the districts of Utrecht and Vryheid.
It would be interesting to know if there are other members of this forum who believe that the significance of the Battle of Holkrans has been generally under-estimated.
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A most interesting post, Brett,
I must admit to having not given much thought to the impact of Holkrans on the will to resist. Your post had me reaching for my books and typically Holkrans is covered by just a paragraph or two. Considering the history of the 'disputed area' which was such a pawn in the build up to the 1879 War I would imagine that Holkrans must have been particularly devastating and may very well have been a fatal blow to the will of many local 'Bittereinders' to keep on resisting. I would be very interested in hearing the opinions of those more knowledgeable on this battle.
It's good that you highlight this engagement because it appears to have a very small profile, if any, in most Boer War publications.
You are right to question its importance too. General Botha described Holkrans as 'the foulest deed of the war' and the Natal Mercury likened the attack to that on Piet Retief saying it was 'one of the darkest tragedies ever enacted on South African soil.
In terms of the timing, do you think the preparations for the peace talks where already underway when the attack was sanctioned? It does seem strange that Botha would order an attack so close to the peace talks except if it was perhaps in retaliation for past attacks on the Boers by the blacks?
The fact that Gillings et al abandoned their Holkrans research project is an indication of its complexity and sensitivity. Although the ABW was supposed to be a "white man's war", the black tribes of South Africa were increasingly involved, mostly to undertake menial tasks, but also as scouts and spies, and even as armed men in action (e.g. the Zululand Police).
The Boers and Zulus had a history of conflict and distrust dating back to 1838 and, although the Boers did not want the Zulus fighting on the British side in the ABW, they did little or nothing to endear themselves to the Zulus in the Utrecht and Vryheid districts and in adjacent Zululand. There were sporadic raids by commandos into Zululand from early in the war, but there was never a strong independent military response by the Zulus to Boer activities that adversely affected them.
Consequently, I believe that when General Botha ordered the scorched earth policy aimed at the abaQulusi, it never occurred to him that they would respond militarily. Similarly, if Potgieter did indeed insult the abaQulusi and challenge them to take back their cattle, he expected no more than a docile response. The Boers have probably always expected the worst from the Zulus, but it was a serious miscalculation by Potgieter not to have an effective early warning system at Holkrans.
This disaster must have awakened a nightmare scenario to Botha and other Boer leaders and, to avoid a possible apocalypse involving both Brits and blacks, the peace process was brought to a conclusion.
I came across these three pictures of two monuments relating to Holkrans whilst looking for something else altogether. I thought they would round off the story.
The caption for the last picture says:
A marble memorial commemorating the Holkrans incident stands in the grounds of the Dutch Reformed Church in Church Street, on it appear the names of the 56 Boers who were murdered. Most of the Boers were re-interred here on 20 January 1905. Veld-Cornet J.H. Potgieter's and L. Potgieter's remains were transferred to the same place on 6 May 1972. The remains of J.H. Labuschagne, the last of the 56 Boers to be re-interred under the memorial, were moved in 1976. On 6 May 1962 a plaque commemorating those who escaped or were captured was unveiled by P. B. Pratt and P.J. Fourie - two of the survivors still living exactly 60 years later.
The word "murder" will always be used by Afrikaners in association with this incident, not least because it was, like Pearl Harbour in 1941, a sneak attack. However, in the original post, I mentioned the Boer attack on a sleeping camp at Tweefontein and I am sure that they regarded this as a legitimate act of war.
It would be interesting to know if there were other such attacks during the Boer War. Does anyone know of other examples?