In May 1842 British forces under Capt. T. C. Smith occupied Port Natal for the purpose of making an end to the republic of Natalia. The protests of the Volksraad and Commandant-General Andries Pretorius he rejected. His camp was situated under the Berea on the Point side of the Umgeni River, where he had dug himself in well. He had about 240 men, with Capt. Lonsdale and 4 lieutenants, under his command.
Messengers sent over the Drakensberg
At a large gathering Pretorius asked the burghers who were willing to fight to stand on one side. They were unanimous that their freedom should be defended. In the beginning there were not as many able-bodied men as Smith had under his command. Messengers were sent out, even over the Drakensberg, to obtain reinforcements. In the night of 23 May Smith decided to make a surprise attack on the Boer laager, about 3 miles (5 km) distant from his own camp. At 1i o’clock that night 123 soldiers of the 27th Regiment, the Royal Artillery and the Cape Mounted Riflemen left the camp with two six pounder guns, drawn by oxen. Owing to the thick bush they went along the beach, where the tide was rising. Unfortunately for the attackers the moon rose high. Pretorius had placed ‘De Wacht der Ouden’ (the guard of old men), about 30 elderly men, near his women’s camp and had himself joined them. His brother Bart and Comdt. Gert Viljoen with 150 mounted men were between the laager and the British camp, but away from the beach. When Smith moved along the beach, he therefore ran into ‘De Wacht der Ouden’. The veterans heard the gun carriages and ox teams approaching and were ready for them. Pretorius gave order to shoot the draught oxen and capture the guns. Smith’s Zulu spies had informed him of the women’s camp, the main laager and the mounted guard, but did not know of the guard of veterans.
The defenders were well hidden in the thick bush, while the attackers were advancing along the bare, moonlit beach. When the muzzle loaders were fired, the effect was deadly. Within a few minutes 49 British soldiers fell, of whom 17 were killed. The terrified oxen caused so much confusion that they had to be cut loose. The artillery then started firing grape-shot, but not one of the Boer veterans was hit, either by cannon or small-arms fire. When the British retreated, the burghers captured the two guns. The retreat was impeded by the tide and some of the fleeing soldiers were drowned. Adulphe Delegorgue, the French traveller and writer who lived in a small house quite near the mounted guard of Bart Pretorius and Comdt. Viljoen, later sharply criticised Pretorius’s leadership and called him a coward because he did not storm the British camp. There were, however, very good reasons for this. In the first place the cavalry behind Delegorgue’s house found it extremely difficult to reach the scene of the fighting in the night, owing to the dense bush. But the chief reason why the camp could not be taken without many casualties was that the British muskets were fitted with bayonets, so that the burghers, who had no bayonets, could not have broken through the line of regular soldiers in a hand-to-hand fight.
Pretorius immediately began the siege. In the night of the 25th his men took the schooner Mazeppa in the bay by surprise, shot the guards and captured 16 soldiers and 9 civilians. The booty was large: Goo in cash and 56 wagon-loads of goods as well as an 18-pounder cannon. Smith, however, was fortunate in getting away Dick King, together with an outrider, to Grahamstown to summon reinforcements. In order to gain time and dig in, Smith bluffed the credulous Pretorius with negotiations. Pretorius was very considerate, not only as regards the wounded and the military obsequies, but also in allowing the removal of women and children from Smith’s camp, which suited the British commissariat very well. Smith had put his men on half-rations from the beginning. These consisted of a handful of biscuit crumbs and dried horse-meat. Later the ration was reduced and varied with oatmeal. The Boers dug trenches up to 50 yd (46 metres) from the camp, which they bombarded with cannon and small arms, but Smith was so well dug in that he suffered only 9 casualties during the siege – 5 dead and 4 wounded. The siege lasted a month and Smith would not have been able to stand it much longer. Hunger was his greatest trouble during the month, and not the 651 cannon-balls that fell in the camp.
During the siege Joseph Cato, brother of the well-known George who was captured by the Boers, carried out an exploit that equalled Dick King’s. He escaped with the Mazeppa from among the Boers and sailed to get help. King’s ride, however, was so successful that the schooner Conch and the frigate Southampton were able to land the soldiers asked for at Port Natal on 26 June. Their commander was Lt. Col. A. J. Cloete, who relieved the British camp and took over the command in Natal, exactly a month after the battle.