South African Military History Society

Durban Branch July 1997 News Sheet No 270


Our DDH Memorial talk for June was given by fellow-member, Philip Everitt and covered 'THE SINKING OF HMS VICTORIA" off Tripoli in 1895. The whole disaster was a complete enigma. How two major battleships of the Royal Navy's Mediterranean fleet could collide on a clear summer's day with resultant loss of not only HMS Victoria~ but nearly half her crew, forever remains a mystery. Briefly our speaker outlined the enormous changes that had occurred in naval warfare from the time of Nelson nearly a century before. Ships had changed from timber, mufti-decked sailing vessels carrying over 100 guns firing broadsides to steel-hulled, steam-driven turreted battleships capable of firing heavy shells over long distances in all directions. These vast changes affected naval tactics radically and called for innovative thinking in all aspects of ship handling. It was thought by our speaker, that maybe on that fateful day, it had all got beyond the control of the Admiral in command and in trying to be too innovative, he had committed an error of judgement which even in terms of simple arithmetic was catastrophic. He ordered two lines of battleships steaming in-line-astern six cable lengths apart to turn 180 degrees inwards towards each other notwithstanding the fact that their turning circles were 4 cables! The resultant collision and subsequent capsizing of HMS Victoria caused the loss of half her crew including the life of Admiral Tron who went down with his ship saying "It is all my fault!" Fortunately some benefit did come out of this disaster: the Royal Navy sought to develop flag-officers who would be more critical of their superior officers' orders and not follow them with blind obedience.

Our main talk for the evening was given by our Cape Town-based, fellow- member, Alan Mountain and covered "THE BAPEDI AND THE SEKHUKHUNE CAMPAIGNS 1876 -1679".

The baPedi tribe lived in a flat bottomed valley between the confluence of the Steelport and Olifants Rivers and the Leolo mountains in what was then known as the north-eastern Transvaal. Their ruling dynasty, the Maroteng hegemony dated back to 1500 AD. However., in 1845 the Voortrekkers under Hendrik Potgieter established a settlement at Ohrigstad in terms of a treaty with the baPedi. Unfortunately this did not stop the beeped from stealing their cattle and very soon there were problems with grazing rights and labour. This situation festered for many years until in 1876 the ZAR was forced to wage war on the beeped under Sekhukhune. The Voortrekkers' main objective was to capture their capital, but it was so well defended that they had no option but to lay siege and try to starve the baPedi into submission. They harassed them in every way possible, including crop cultivation and the grazing of their cattle. The Voortrekkers, inter alia, demanded 2000 head of cattle as reparations, but Sekhukhune refused to pay. They had hoped for a quick peace, but this indecisive situation obtained until the British annexed the Transvaal in April 1877. This situation continued for the rest of that year, but early in 1878 the war was resumed - this time by the British under Theophilus Shepstone, who saw Sekhukhune as a thorn in the side of British Imperial ambition in Southern Africa.

The war was divided into three phases. The first phase was initiated by an attack on Sehukhune's sister, Lekgolane who after defecting, rejoined her brother fearing he would attack her. But the British underestimated the bePedi resistance and the action ended in stalemate.

The second phase took place in August 1879 after the completion of the Angle-Zulu War when the British tried to dislodge Sekhukhune with a force of 139 infantry and 338 mounted men - all regular Army. The bePedi ambushed them and using the rugged mountainous terrain thwarted the British advance so much that they were forced to retire to Fort Burgers. The third and final phase took place after the Zulu War in November 1879 when 3500 British regular troops and 3000 Transvaal levies combined forces with 8000 Swazi warriors to dislodge Sekhukhune from his strong- hold. While the British and Transvalers made a frontal attack the Swazi swarmed over their entrenched positions on the mountains at their rear. In a battle lasting over five hours the Swazi were trapped and defeated. However a number of baPedi were able to escape in the rain and misty conditions that prevailed, but Sekhukhune was captured and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment. However, he was released soon afterwards when the British withdrew from the Transvaal after the first Angle-Boer War.

Fellow-member, Bill Brady thanked both our speakers for a most entertaining and informative evening.


Details of the tour have been sent to those members who responded to our previous request and anybody else who is interested should contact Ken Gillings (031) 267 0008 immediately. It has been suggested that we as a Branch of the SAMHS should stay at the Kimberley Club but it is up to individual members to decide what accommodation, tours and lectures they would like to attend and book accordingly. Please note this tour will take. place from 8th-11th Oct 1997.


The result of the election of Offire bearers was as follows; Chairman: Ken Gillings; Vice Chairman: Paul Kilmartin: Secretary: Tania van der Watt; Committee Members: Bill Brady, Philip Everitt, Col Justin Hulme, Prof Mike Laing and Dave Matthews; Scribe: John Yelland

The venue for all meetings will be the 1st Floor lecture theatre, Dept. of Civil Engineering, University of Natal, Durban, which is housed in the building on the right of the Memorial Tower Building (opposite the entrance to the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre), commencing at 19h30 on the second Thursday in the month. Please bring your own refreshments and glass. VISITORS AND INTERESTED PERSONS ARE WELCOME TO ATTEND. Charge R2,00 - Students and Scholars free.
Tania van der Watt (Mrs)
Secretary: Durban Branch
Box 870 Hillcrest 3650
Telephone: (031) 764 2970

South African Military History Society /