The Piet Retief massacre carries for South Africans the sort of weight of sentiments national histories tend to have, particularly because of the politics of race in that country.
The problem is not that historians recount the story differently. However, the issue seems to be a combination of propriety, property and affinity to heritage.
In 1837, a section of the Voortrekkers tried to settle in what is now the KwaZulu-Natal area. The Voortrekkers, or pathfinders, were the Boers who embarked on what is known as the Great Trek from the Cape Colony under British control into the interior of Southern Africa in the 1830s.
One of the Voortrekker groups, led by a man called Piet Retief, tried to come into an agreement with the Zulu king, Dingane ka Senzangakhona, or King Dingane for short. Retief, in spite of warnings about the danger, hoped to convince Dingane into ceding some portions of Zulu land to the Boers for permanent settlement.
The area Retief wanted is the Tugela-Umzimvubu region. Dingane was indeed willing to give away that region but on condition that Retief was able to recover and return a significant number of cattle stolen by a rebel chief, Sikonyela.
Historians generally agree that Retief did return to Dingane with some cattle. For what it’s worth, Dingane seemed like a man pleased by what Retief was able to come back with.
According to records taken down by Retief’s secretary, Jan Gerritze Bantjes, Dingane and the Boer leader both signed a deed that ceded the lands to the Boers. Each party also had three witnesses to the February 6, 1838 agreement.
In what seemed like the commemoration of the significance of the agreement, Dingane invited Retief, Retief’s family, and some Boers to an occasion. But when all had been gathered, Dingane ordered his soldiers to capture and kill all the Boers present.
The captured were taken to Kwa-Matiwane, a hillside, and were clubbed to death. Retief is believed to have been the last Boer killed on that day with the Zulu keeping him alive to see all his kin die.
Some 100 Boers were killed on that day and their bodies were left on the hillside to be scavenged by vultures, much in the fashion that Dingane is known to have treated the carcasses of their enemies.
Why would a king agree to cede away land, invite the other party to a celebration only to kill them? A number of theories abound.
One of these theories is that Dingane saw the Boers as invaders especially because, in his correspondence with the king, Retief sent letters that revealed that the people of Mthwakazi Kingdom in the Transvaal region (now Matebeleland) were sacked by Boers.
The revelation of the sacking of the Mthwakazi is read by some historians as a veiled threat from Retief.
Another theory suggests that Dingane was actually not pleased with the number of cattle Retief returned. Some think that Dingane believed Retief kept some of the cattle, beasts symbolizing wealth for the Zulu, for himself.
After the massacre, Dingane waged guerrilla attacks on other Voortrekker camps in the same year. Months later, the Boers responded at Blood River in a battle that decisively crushed the Zulu.