The battle which took place at Holkrantz (sometimes Holkrans), near Vryheid, in the early hours of 6th May 1902 remains controversial to this day. It is sometimes referred to as a ‘murder’, but is more accurately described as a major skirmish. The essence of the engagement was a pre-dawn surprise attack on 73 Boers of the Vryheid Commando under Veldkornet Jan Potgieter by 300 warriors of the abaQulusi clan of the amaZulu under Sikhobobo. 56 Boers were killed, three taken prisoner and 13 escaped. AbaQulusi losses were 52 killed and 48 wounded.
In most of the general histories of the Anglo-Boer War, the incident at Holkrantz receives little or no mention other than to state that it influenced Boer thinking in the peace negotiations under way in Vereeniging at the time. It appears to have influenced some delegates, but the overall impact is not clear. It did, however, have a major impact on the Boer farming communities in the Utrecht-Vryheid district of the Transvaal, where it is still to this day regarded by some as cold-blooded murder.
To the extent that the incident is covered in the history books, Pakenham’s two paragraphs being an example, it more often than not reflects the British or Jingoist view that the Boers had stolen abaQulusi cattle, insulted their chief, Sikhobobo (there are several different variations of these purported insults) and challenged the abaQulusi to come and get their cattle back. The latter, it is claimed, responded with alacrity and in some accounts the Boers were seen to be getting their just deserts. The most thorough and best documented examination of the incident, however, is by S J Maphalala in an article entitled ‘The Murder at Holkrantz (Mthashana) 6th May 1902’ After careful analysis of the data and available historical records, he concludes that blame for the incident lay largely with the British.
The crux of Maphalala’s argument is that not only were the abaQulusi under chief Sikhobobo part of the combined British force based in the Vryheid area, but that they had been encouraged to attack and arrest the Boers and take their cattle even though an armistice was in force. They were also armed by the British – part of the chain of events which led to the Holkrantz incident. After partially accomplishing these tasks, Sikhobobo and his men could not return to their kraals for fear of Boer reprisals and were protected in Vryheid by the British army, during which period they continued to raid farms and attack and kill isolated groups of Boers. Chief Sikhobobo and his men became known as ‘Mr Shepstone’s Commando’ due to being aided and abetted by A.J. Shepstone, the British appointed Magistrate of Vryheid.
General Louis Botha then instructed that Sikhobobo’s kraals were to be burnt with a view to placing the burden of responsibility and care for the wives and children of the abaQulusi on the British, and because some of the women were suspected of providing the British with information on Boer movements. Maphalala emphasises that the Boers allowed the women to take enough food with them to reach the British lines 15km away before burning the kraals. Homes in which there were sick or infirm individuals were not burnt and on occasion the Boers accompanied the women to Vryheid to ensure their safety. All Sikhobobo’s cattle were confiscated.
On 5th May Shepstone, having ascertained from spies the position of the Boers at Holkrantz, ordered Sikhobobo to attack them. This they did at 04h00 on 6th May, employing the traditional three-pronged amaZulu battle formation. The Boer commandos did not expect an attack from the British as an armistice was in force and so they were caught almost completely unawares. Some managed to fight their way out, but most were surrounded and killed. After the incident, a British commission of enquiry was convened and, after ignoring most of the crucial facts – not surprising given the sentiments of the time – concluded that the Boers had been killed because they had been ill-treating the amaZulu and thus brought reprisals upon themselves.
In conclusion, Maphalala notes that the attack was on the instructions of Magistrate Shepstone; that the British army should have prevented the attack; and that relationships between the amaZulu and the Boers had been relatively good prior to British interference. He makes no mention of any insults. The Boers themselves refuted that any ill treatment or attacks on their women by the amaZulu had taken place while the men were away on commando. Maphalala concludes that the abaQulusi were merely carrying out British orders at Holkrantz.
A monument to the Boers stands on the hill above the place where they were attacked and where the last of them retreated to. There is also a memorial plinth in the precincts of the NG Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church) in the nearby town of Vryheid, where many of the commando members would have regularly worshiped. No monuments have been erected to the abaQulisi who died in the incident.
Maphalala SJ 1977 ‘The Murder at Holkrantz (Mthashana) 6th May 1902’ Historia 22 (1) 41-46. This is the most balanced and best documented account of the event.
Some other references reflecting different viewpoints including the ‘jingo’perspective:
Hendey Brett The Battle of Holkrans http://www.angloboerwar.com/forum/8-events/177-the-battle-of- holkrans
Minnaar A de V 1989 ‘Zululand and the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902)’ Military History Journal 8 (1) 14 – 20 June [see Holkrans on p19]
Pakenham Thomas 1979 The Boer War Jonathan Ball Johannesburg p 567
Thompson P S 1994 ‘Isandlwana to Mome: Zulu experience in overt resistance to colonial rule’ Soldiers of the Queen 77: 11 – 15 June
Von der Heide Nicki 2013 Field guide to the battlefields of South Africa Cape Town Random House Struik pp 178 – 179 Wessels Elria 2002 ‘Die moord by Holkrans 6 Mei 1902’ Veldslae: Anglo-Boereoorlog 1899 – 1902 Pretoria Lapa Uitgewers [See Chapter 71 pp 29301]
The monument on the hill above the battlefield. The names recorded are the same as those at the NG Kerk in the town of Vryheid.
The memorial plinth in the precincts of the Vryheid NG Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church).
The historic perspective on the plinth.
The names of the 56 Boers who died as recorded on the plinth.