The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 16 No 6 - December 2015

Part One: Attacks at the Vaal River and Liebenbergskoppie,
21 and 23 August 1836

By Johannes J Retief

'You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day' - Psalm 91.5 (NKJV)


Since the early nineteenth century, some Dutch-speaking inhabitants of the Cape Colony became progressively more alienated from the British government, and eventually decided to leave and determine their own future. By mid-1836 some of these Emigranten (emigrants) had crossed the Vaal River, attracting the attention of Mzilikazi, King of the Ndebele. He attacked a group of hunters as well as two small parties of Voortrekkers near the present town of Parys. At Kopjeskraal the Voortrekkers made use of a laager to ward off the assault, but the Liebenbergs were less fortunate, with about 26 being massacred. In total, 46 Voortrekkers lost their lives, and the survivors had to seriously reconsider the future of their undertaking.


During the last decades of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, large-scale, forced migration of the indigenous inhabitants occurred in the interior of Southern Africa. Known as the Difaquane (Sotho: hammering) or the Mefecane (Zulu: scattering, crushing), it may be described as a process whereby smaller tribes were attacked and annihilated or assimilated by stronger tribes in the territory north of the Gariep (Orange) and the Umzimvubu Rivers. As a result, large numbers of refugees roamed the plains and attacked other groups in order to survive. The human suffering was indescribable. The entire process was characterised by destruction, confusion and general chaos (Giliomee and Mbenga, 2007, pp 124-138; Pretorius, 2012, pp 108-116).

In what is known today as Kwazulu-Natal, King Shaka rose to power in 1816. He became ruler of the Zulu kingdom, amongst other means, by forcibly assimilating various neighbouring tribes. Shaka introduced a form of conscription, as well as new weapons and tactics for his full-time impis. With this formidable military power, he kept the region between the Umzimvubu and the Limpopo rivers in a state of turmoil, which, in 1822, spilled over the Drakensberg onto the Highveld.

One of Shaka's military commanders, Mzilikazi, after a disagreement with the king, decided to expand his own territory. An able warrior leader, and initially with about 300 members of the Khumalo clan, Mzilikazi went northwards and later westwards, eventually settling in the Marico Valley. On his way, he annihilated various tribes and established what became known as the Ndebele kingdom, by incorporating survivors, fugitives and refugees (Becker, 1968, pp2-8; Pretorius, 2012, p112).

By the mid-1830s, a new migration was about to begin, this time by white people from the south. Some trekboere (migrating farmers) had moved to the Trans-Gariep on a temporary basis since 1821, when experiencing shortages of pasture in the Cape Colony due to drought, locusts or trekbokke (migrating antelope). They considered themselves British subjects and returned to the Cape Colony when conditions became favourable. This time, however, organised groups entered what is now the Free State, with no intention of returning to the Cape Colony. This movement was later known as the Great Trek and the participants as the Voortrekkers. They had become disillusioned with the government to such an extent that they decided to be free to determine their own destiny (Van der Merwe, 1937).

During 1834 three exploratory expeditions, called 'kommissies' (commissions), had investigated the interior, and some returned with favourable reports for possible settlement. As a result of the Difaquane, large areas of the land beyond the Gariep were seemingly unpopulated. The Sixth Frontier War, which commenced in December 1834, provided the final incentive for the Great Trek (1834-1854).

The Ndebele

King Mzilikazi established his military capital at Mosega (a site which lies 15 km south of the modern town of Zeerust) in 1832. In the vicinity he had fifteen military kraals, as well as his royal kraal at Kapain in the Marico Valley, 64 km north of Mosega (VDM, 1986, pp 210-214). He allowed some American missionaries to settle at what would later be called Zendelingspost (missionaries' post), a kilometre or two south of Mosega (Kotze, 1950, pp124-126).

Mzilikazi had made numerous enemies during his rise to power. For this reason he created vast, depopulated areas of influence adjacent to his kingdom, in particular the region to the south. It was from this direction that he was attacked in 1831 and severely treated by the Griquas under Barend Barends, assisted by some Korannas under Jan Bloem (Becker, 1968, pp6-7). From this encounter Mzilikazi acquired a healthy respect for an enemy using horses and guns. He therefore instituted a rule, that visitors to Kapain should approach from the south-west using the Kuruman road, and never from the south (Giliomee and Mbenga, 2007, p134).

As a warlord, Mzilikazi had adopted the military system developed earlier by King Shaka. The Ndebele impis made use of the short-handled, broad-bladed stabbing-assegai (iklwa) (ca 122 em) and the large body-shield (ca 137 to 183 cm by 76 cm). Each warrior also carried a few throwing assegais (umkhonto) (ca 135 em) (Smail, 1969, p40). During the attack the impis used the formation 'horns of the bull' (impondo zankomo), where the warriors formed up in close column. When advancing on the enemy, the flanks, consisting of the younger warriors, would separate to the right and left, forming the horns (izimpondo) of the bull. The main force and the reserve, consisting of experienced fighters, constituted the head (isifuba). The objective was to encircle the enemy and then to attack vigorously (Becker, 1968, p2).

The Voortrekkers

Towards the end of 1835, two small trek parties, led by 'Lang' Hans van Rensburg and Louis Tregardt respectively, left the Cape Colony and trekked north up to the Soutpansberg region. The van Rensburg trek was massacred by Soshangane, while the Tregardt trek, decimated by malaria, eventually reached Delagoa Bay. The first significant trek was led by Andries Hendrik Potgieter, a resolute and single-minded farmer. He had left the Tarka ward in the district of Cradock at the end of 1835. His group consisted mostly of extended family and friends, and included 35 able-bodied men. Potgieter's party grew along the way and in the vicinity of the present Smithfield, he was joined by the trek of Sarel Celliers from the ward Nu-Hantam, in the later district of Colesberg. They referred to themselves as 'Emigranten' (emigrants) and were referred to by others as 'emigrant farmers'.

Potgieter, a veteran of the Fourth (1811-1812) and Fifth (1818-1819) Frontier Wars, was elected as leader of the combined trek, with the title of commandant. The trek reached Blesberg (Thaba Nchu), where it stayed for a few months. Potgieter wanted to get away from British influence as far as possible, and set out from the Sand River with a kommissie of eleven prominent leaders on 24 May 1836. His objective was to explore the land north of the Vaal (Eligwa) River and to make contact with Tregardt (VDM, 1986, pp 1-2). During his absence, members of the Potgieter trek had spread northwards and by August 1836, two groups with 40 wagons had crossed the Vaal River near the present town of Parys in the Free State.

It was the declared intent of the Voortrekkers to live in peace with the black tribes, and initially there was no conflict (Preller, 1930, pp78-81). Van Rensburg and Tregardt had reached the far north without any trouble. The Potgieter trek passed the Griquas at Philippolis unmolested. At Blesberg, Potgieter had made friends with Moroka II, chief of the Barolong, and made peace with some other tribal chiefs, such as Sikonyella and Makwana. These people had all been victims of Mzilikaze and considered the Voortrekkers as their allies. In spite of these considerations, the Voortrekkers were prepared for all possible occurrences. They grew up at or near the turbulent eastern and northern frontiers of the Cape Colony, where attacks from the Xhosa or San (Bushmen) were a daily reality.

The Voortrekkers were well aware of the value of a horseman with a gun. Their principal weapon was a flintlock, flash-pan, muzzle-loading musket that fired a round lead ball by means of black powder. The guns were either single or double-barrelled, and four, six, eight or ten pounders, meaning four rounds weighed one pound et cetera. The loading process was cumbersome at best, but could be expedited during emergencies, when accuracy was sacrificed in order to obtain a higher firing rate (Lategan, 1974, pp102-117).

In the defence, ox-wagons were formed into a circle, called a laager, and the openings closed up with the branches of thorn-trees, if possible (de Jongh, 1976). A second gun proved to be invaluable during such events, when women and children loaded one gun, while the other was being fired. For defensive purposes, lopers (buck-shot) were frequently used. They consisted of 10 to 12 smaller lead balls sewn into linen bags. At short range they had a devastating effect.

In the Cape Colony, the Voortrekkers were part of the Commando System, that had been used for more than 120 years, at the beginning of the Great Trek. Males were conscripted for service during the Frontier Wars by both the VOC and the British Governments. They served under their elected veldkornets (for wards) and commandants (for districts). Every man had to supply his own horses and gun, while the government provided flint-stones, lead metal and gun powder (VDM, 1937, pp25-35). It was therefore quite natural for leaders like Potgieter (and later others) to be elected as commandant, to handle any perceived security threat.

The attack on the Erasmus camp

On 28 June 1836, Stephanus Petrus Erasmus, left as leader of a party of eight men from his farm Mooiplaats in the extreme north-eastern corner of the Cape Colony. As veldkornet for the new ward of Kraairivier, between the Kraai River and Stormberg Spruit, he duly obtained permission from Colonel Henry Somerset, Commandant of the Eastern Frontier, to go hunting across the Gariep River. These men undoubtedly hunted, but it is also evident that Erasmus used the opportunity to investigate the possibilities for emigration. Among them, the party had several servants, five wagons, 50 horses and 80 oxen (Markram, 1992, pp197-201).

On the morning of Sunday, 21 August 1836, Erasmus and his son Pieter left their camp site on the northern side of the Vaal River and went hunting. The camp was situated at Coquis Drift (later Forsmanns Drift, today known as Scandinavia Drift), about 50 km south of the modern town of Potchefstroom. His other two sons and Johannes Claassen went to collect antelope that had been killed the previous day. Carel Kruger remained in the camp, while the whereabouts of Pieter Bekker and his son, are unknown.

Ndebele attacks at the Vaal River, August 1836
(Potgieter & Theunissen, 1938, p50).

While Erasmus and his son were hunting, 500 to 600 Ndebele under Khaliphi, Mzilikazi's supreme commander, attacked the camp. They had departed from Mosega on 15 August, on orders from Mzilikazi. When the hunters returned that evening, they found their camp surrounded by pillaging warriors. The Ndebele attempted to ambush them, but they managed to escape. Father and son immediately set off on a journey that would take five hours in day-time (50 km), in the direction of Parys, where some Voortrekker families of the Potgieter Trek were camping.

Unknown to Erasmus at the time, Pieter Bekker and his son had also escaped. When Erasmus returned to his camp site six days later, he found the corpses of five of his servants. All five of his wagons were missing, and were later seen by the American missionaries at Mosega. The Reverend Venable interviewed three coloured servants who were taken captive. The servants claimed that the sons of Erasmus (Stephanus Junior and Daniel), as well as Carel Kruger, were initially kept alive by the Ndebele, so that they could demonstrate how to inspan the oxen. They were executed on orders of Zetini, the second-in-command of Khaliphi, when they tried to escape along the way. Erasmus never saw his two sons or Carel Kruger again. Johannes Claassen was also presumed dead, as nothing was ever heard of him either (VDM, 1986, pp6-8).

Battle at Kopjeskraal

The Voortrekkers were camping in two groups: the Liebenbergs a few kilometres to the north and the main laager of Hendrik Potgieter a few kilometres to the southwest of Parys (see map). Early on the morning of Monday, 22 August 1836, Erasmus and his son Pieter reached the south-western group, in the area later known as Kopjeskraal. Potgieter was away with the kommissie to locate Tregardt, but members of the Kruger, Steyn, Bronkhorst and other families were scattered in the vicinity, as they had no suspicion that the Ndebele were about to attack. The news that Erasmus brought was devastating. The dispersed families congregated and immediately formed a circular laager with their wagons. Gaps between the wheels were blocked with branches of thorn-trees (Markram, 1992, p204). The Liebenbergs were also warned, but apparently did not regard the information as urgent (VDM, 1986, pp10, 14).

Erasmus had requested assistance to search for his missing sons and to retrieve his wagons. Early the next morning, he set out with eleven men. After about an hour, they encountered an impi of approximately 500 Ndebele. The enemy attacked immediately and the few Voortrekkers had to retreat fighting and they were able to return to the laager unharmed. Sources of that period provide very little information on the battle that followed. It lasted from around 10:00 to 16:00, with 35 male defenders. It is not known who led this valiant band, but Potgieter had appointed Johannes Lodewikus Petrus Botha to act during his absence. The Ndebele at the time were unaccustomed to the laager as a Voortrekker defensive tactic. They attacked repeatedly, but the laager, combined with fire-power, held out against them (De Jongh, 1976).

The assault was beaten off, but at a price. A son of Christiaan Harmse (Christiaan Junior), who had been tending livestock in the veld, was overrun and killed with an assegai, as were some coloured shepherds and servants. Adolf Bronkhorst was killed during the attack. The Ndebele casualties are unknown, but the American missionaries at Mosega gave an estimated number of fifty (Kotze, 1950, p165). Their losses would have been severe, since the Ndebele were brave fighters.

At about 10:30, a curious, if not ominous incident occurred. Some horses, as 'well as an in-spanned team of oxen, dragging a wagon-shaft between them, arrived from the direction in which the Liebenbergs had scattered. A youth, Rudolph Bronkhorst, had been dispatched earlier by his mother to warn them against a possible attack. He was never seen again, but his horse returned later, riderless and with an assegai wound in its hindquarters (VDM, 1986, p110).

Two eye-witnesses (Johannes van Vuuren and Diederick Kruger) gave evidence before the Bloemhof Commission in 1871, that the attack took place at Rietpoort farm, which was registered in 1854 (VDM, 1986, pp35-36). The map on p 214 shows that the farm is adjacent to Kopjeskraal. This map was drawn in 1938 according to local oral tradition, supplied by three residents, and indicates that the attack actually occurred at Kopjeskraal farm (Potgieter and Theunissen, 1938, Preface). This battle is also known as the 'Vaalrivierslag' (Battle at the Vaal River).

Voortrekker graves at Kopjeskraal.

Massacre at Liebenbergskoppie

The impi who attacked the Erasmus' camp, dispatched his wagons to Mosega and pursued him and his son. At some point the impi split, the main group proceeding towards the Potgieter laager, while a smaller group headed for a conspicuous little hill, 5 km north of the modern bridge over the Vaal River at Parys. Today this hill is known as Liebenbergskoppie. In 1836 it was the focal point where the patriarch Barend Gotlieb Liebenberg Senior and his extended family were encamped with nine wagons. He came from the ward Onder-Seekoeirivier, in the later district of Colesberg. Barend Liebenberg's family consisted of his wife, four sons and a daughter, all married with children. Christiaan Liebenberg was away with the Potgieter kommissie, but the camp was also occupied by Mr MacDonald, a schoolmaster, who was single.

Liebenbergskoppie as seen from the south-west.

Information regarding the Ndebele attack on the Liebenbergs is scarce, incomplete and sometimes contradictory. The Liebenbergs were evidently overrun while in-spanning their wagons, in preparing to flee to the Potgieter laager, before daybreak on Tuesday, 23 August 1836. The in-spanned team of oxen with the wagon-shaft, that arrived at Kopjeskraal, gives an indication of this.

Hermanus Jacobus Potgieter, brother of the Voortrekker leader, and some others returned from the kommissie prematurely and witnessed part of the events. A few Liebenberg men saw the advancing Ndebele and set off on horseback, dismounted, and began firing. The horses became frightened by the battle-noise, broke loose and returned to the camp. Outnumbered and in the open, these Voortrekkers had to make a stand or flee, but in either case, they were killed. The Ndebele warriors then proceeded to ransack the Liebenberg camp (VDM, 1986, pp14-17).

Fatalities among the Liebenberg family included all six of the men. They were Barend Liebenberg Senior, his sons Hendrik, Stephanus and Barend Junior, his son-in-law Johannes du Toit, as well as the schoolmaster MacDonald. The wives of Hendrik Liebenberg and Johannes du Toit were also killed, the latter dying of wounds the next day. In addition, six children and twelve coloured servants were murdered that day, bringing the total death toll to 26. Miraculously, some of the women and children escaped. The wife of Stephanus Liebenberg, Hester Pienaar, and her four children were on their in-spanned wagon, ready to go, when the attack began. Her eldest son, Barend Johannes, was tending sheep. Startled by the battle-noise, the oxen ran off, but were intercepted by the warriors. At that moment Hermanus Jacobus Potgieter and five men charged the Ndebele, causing them to scatter. Hester and her younger children escaped, but the young Barend Liebenberg was never seen again.

The eldest daughter of Christiaan Liebenberg survived and recovered from 21 stab wounds. The wives of Barend Liebenberg Senior and Christiaan Liebenberg were severely wounded, but they both also survived. Three children of Christiaan Liebenberg and all four of Hendrik Liebenberg escaped with their lives. A rescue party later found four children of Johannes du Toit unharmed; they had hidden themselves in a wagon (VOM, 1986, pp21-22).

The aftermath

Following these unprovoked attacks, the Voortrekkers were in a serious predicament, griefstricken by the loss of so many relatives and friends and vulnerable to another attack. They had also lost a 'considerable number' of their livestock, which had been taken and arrived at Mosega with Khaliphi's impi on 31 August (Kotze, 1950, pp165-6).

The Voortrekkers remained in their fortified laager at Kopjeskraal for about one week, to ensure that there were no Ndebele in the vicinity. In the meantime, they buried the victims of both attacks at Kopjeskraal (see photograph above). They crossed the Vaal again around 31 August, and trekked further south to join other Voortrekkers at the Rhenoster River.

There was more than one motive for the actions of Mzilikaze. The main reason seems to have been greed; the large herds of cattle brought by the Voortrekkers were a temptation, according to the American missionaries (Kotze, 1950, pp164-5,170). No doubt, too, Mzilikaze considered the region north of the Vaal River as his sphere of influence, where he controlled all movement, and the fact that these people came from south, rather than via the route from Kuruman, may certainly have added to their status as enemies (VOM, 1986, pp42-44).

The attacks at the Vaal River turned out to be a severe set-back for the entire Trek movement. The destiny of the Trek had to be reconsidered. After Potgieter's return on 2 September, his trek split in two, one section going south to the Vals River and from there to Blesberg and, the other, east along the Rhenoster River towards a hill by the name of Ooornkop, later to become well-known as Vegkop (VOM, 1986, p47).


The author wishes to thank Jeanne-Marie van den Berg and the late Koos Strauss for assistance with this article.

A note on sources Primary documents from the period covering the first few years of the Great Trek are very scarce. In an attempt to reconstruct the events that happened during the spring of 1836, a close scrutiny of all available documents is required. A researcher and professor of history at the University of Stellenbosch, Or P J van der Merwe, did just that. He compared all available contemporary sources as well as secondary documents and memoirs. While looking for corroborating evidence, he also investigated contradictions, as well as later documents possibly having a common origin. From this extensive investigation he was able to obtain some of the facts, as far as it was possible to do, 150 years after they occurred (Van der Merwe, 1986).


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De Jong, C, 'Die walaer in verskillende lande en tydperke' in Military History Journal, Volume 3, Number 6, December 1976, pp 194-7.

Du Plessis, Hans, 'Die romansier en die verlede: die skrywer se hantering van historiese materiaal in die skep van die historiese roman "Die pad na Skuilhoek" in LitNet Akademies Jaargang 8 (3) - Desember 2011). Also at:

Giliomee, H, and Mbenga B, New History of South Africa (Cape Town, Tafelberg, 2007).

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Markram, W J, 'Stephanus Petrus Erasmus: Grensboer Pionier en Voortrekker, 1788 - 1847', (unpublished MA thesis, University of Stellenbosch, 1992).

Potgieter, Carel en Theunissen, N H, Hendrik Potgieter, (Johannesburg, Afrikaanse Pers Beperk, 1938).

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Smail, J L, With Shield and Assegai, (Cape Town, Howard Timmins, 1969).

Van der Merwe, P J, Die Noordwaartse Beweging van die Boere voor die Groot Trek, 1770 - 1842, (Stellenbosch, Sun Press, Second Special Reprint, 2006, originally published in Cape Town by Die Burger Boekhandel, 1937).

Van der Merwe, P J, 'Die Matabeles en die Voortrekkers' in Argiefjaarboek vir Suid-Afrikaanse Geskiedenis, Nege-en-veertigste Jaargang - Deelll, (Pretoria, Die Staatsdrukker, 1986).

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