1860-1899 | Battlefield butchery | Burning crops | Burning villages | Civilians slaughtered | Collective punishments | Livestock targeted

Colonial troops slaughter hundreds in Natal

Late nineteenth century photograph of Hlubi villagers.
Wellcome Images – CC BY 4.0 – via Wikimedia Commons.

14 December 1873

On 14 December 1873, John Colenso, the Bishop of Natal, wrote a letter to Frederick Chesson, the secretary of the London Aborigines Protection Society. He informed him that colonial troops had killed ‘hundreds of (Hlubi) men’ and that ‘hundreds of women and children’ had been taken prisoner, adding that a proclamation had been ‘announced that these (prisoners) were all to be distributed over the colony to white people who would apply for them as servants.’1

The massacre and detentions took place in the foothills of the Drakensburg mountains in Natal in what is today South Africa. They were described by one journal as ‘hunting down kaffirs (black Africans) like rabbits out of a warren.’  The slaughter of the men and subjugation of the surviving women and children was not considered  sufficient to deter those who had escaped from returning, so the abandoned huts and fields were burned to the ground and 5000 head of cattle seized.2 These barbaric measures, the settlers argued, were justified as a retaliation for the killing of three colonial soldiers and two African retainers in a skirmish in November, when Hlubi warriors had resisted an earlier armed incursion.

Sir Benjamin Pine, the Lieutenant-Governor of Natal, had immediately authorised a punitive expedition.  It was of no consequence to him that the Hlubi had been living peacefully in proximity with white settlers for many years, with Bishop Colenso noting that ‘not a single outrage (by the Hlubis) was committed, either before or after the expedition started, (against) any (settler) farm; not a horse or an ox was stolen as far as I know, and we surely should have heard if anything of that kind had been done.’3 Moreover, most of the Hlubi people, fearing the likely vengeance that the British would inflict, had already retreated from their farms, leaving only the weakest stragglers in the area.

When finally Colenso’s account of the massacre broke in Britain, the press focused on the failure of the colonial authorities to follow orders, subsequent to the punitive expedition, not to make a martyr of the Nlubi chief Langalibalele, by exiling him for life to Robben island.  Typically The Times while lamenting that ‘a certain number of the tribe have been killed under circumstances more agreeable to our notions of Kaffir than of English civilization,’ cautioned that ‘as their deaths happened while the Colony was in hot blood, it would be unjust to visit these offences with the severe condemnation which must be passed on what followed.’4

John Colenso, Bishop of Natal (Samuel Sidley – National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia) and Benjamin Pine, Lieutenant-Governor of Natal (Constitution Centre of Western Australia.)


  1. George W. Cox, The Life of John William Colenso Volume II, Richard Clay and Sons, London, 1888, p. 328 accessed online at url https://archive.org/stream/lifeofjohnwillia02coxg_0/lifeofjohnwillia02coxg_0_djvu.txt
  2. Unnamed journal cited in George W. Cox, The Life of John William Colenso Volume II, Richard Clay and Sons, London, 1888, p. 333 accessed online at url https://archive.org/stream/lifeofjohnwillia02coxg_0/lifeofjohnwillia02coxg_0_djvu.txt Also see Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa 1876-1912, Abacus, George Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003, p. 48,
  3. George W. Cox, The Life of John William Colenso Volume II, Richard Clay and Sons, London, 1888, pp. 328-329 accessed online at url https://archive.org/stream/lifeofjohnwillia02coxg_0/lifeofjohnwillia02coxg_0_djvu.txt
  4. Editorial in The Times, 17 November 1874, p. 9.

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