Battle of Bhambatha and the Death of Bhambatha Zondi

In 1906, following the Anglo-Boer War, the Colony of Natal was plunged into rebellion when several tribes refused to pay a Poll Tax that was introduced by the Colonial Government, headed by Prime Minister The Hon Charles Smythe, to help reimburse the somewhat depleted Treasury.

There were, of course, several other factors that contributed towards the uprising.

One of the amakhosi (chiefs) who had thrown his weight behind the resistance to the payment of the Poll Tax was Bhambatha Zondi. Bhambatha, son of Mancinza Zondi, was born in the Mpanza Valley between Greytown and Keate's Drift, KwaZulu-Natal, in about 1865. A somewhat controversial character, he had been convicted on several occasions for debt, cattle theft and, early in 1906, for participating in a faction fight .

When the time came to pay the tax on 22 February 1906, Bhambatha was faced with a dilemma; he was apparently prepared to pay, but one of his indunas (Nhlonhlo) informed him that the majority of the tribe refused to do so, and would resort to armed resistance if necessary. The magistrate in Greytown, Mr Cross, received a report informing him that he would be killed if he went to Mpanza, so he instructed Bhambatha to travel to Greytown.

On 22 February, the tribal elders arrived in Greytown while Bhambatha remained in a wattle plantation overlooking the town, apparently trying to persuade Nhlonhlo to change his mind, but, according to the elders, he was suffering from a stomach ailment (which could have been a case of 'butterfly nerves', which we have all experienced in difficult circumstances).

The result was that Bhambatha was deposed as inkosi of the amaZondi, and he fled to the Usuthu umuzi (homestead) of King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo. According to Bhambatha's wife, Siyekiwe, King Dinuzulu ordered Bhambatha to return to Natal and carry out an act of rebellion, a claim that was subsequently vehemently denied by the King at his trial.

Bhambatha then readied his tribesmen for combat. His inyanga (war doctor), Malaza, prepared some muthi (medicine) at an umuzi on the late Mr George Buntting's farm, Fugitive's Drift. According to tradition, body parts of a child were used in the recipe, resulting in immunity to the white men's bullets (which would turn into water). The site of this umuzi is quite close to Mzinyathi Cottage on Mr David Rattray's farm, Fugitive's Drift.)

On the first occasion that the muthi was put to the test, the action at Mpanza on 4 April 1906, none of the Rebels was killed or wounded, lending credence to Malaza's claim. Four members of the Colonial forces were killed  and three were wounded . Those killed were buried on the farm, Burrups between Mpanza and Greytown. This action resulted in Bhamhatha and the amaZondi hecoming totally involved in the uprising and his name being given to the Rebellion.

The back of the 'Bambata Rebellion' was broken on 10 June 1906 in the Battle of Mome Gorge, in the heart of the Nkandla area of Zululand. According to official sources, Bhamhatha was killed while walking up the Mome stream Shortly before the shelling of the Dobo Forest by the Natal Field Artillery, a 'native levy' on the left bank of the Mome noticed a solitary unarmed rebel making his way upstream, walking in the water. On the right hank, just behind the rebel, was another 'levy'. The rebel left the water to move along the right bank having observed the former 'levy', but not the latter. The latter, then on the same bank as the rebel, thrust his spear into the rebel with such force that the blade was bent and could not be removed. The rebel collapsed and the 'levy' was joined by the other, who raised his spear to finish off the victim. Then the rebel suddenly grabbed the spear with both hands and tried to wrest it from his grasp. Both 'levies' were attempting to overpower the rehel when a member of the Nongqayi (the Natal Native Police) arrived and shot him in the head.

It was only on 13 June - three days after the battle - that a party under Sgt Calverley was sent back into the gorge to obtain proof of Bhambatha's death. This same rebel's hody was found, already in an initial stage of decomposition, and identified as that of Bhambatha. The head was removed, placed in a saddlehag and taken to Nkandla, where it was identified. Official reports emphasise the respect shown for the head, and only a selected few were permitted to view it.

Identification in the gorge was based upon a description of Bhamhatha's features beforehand - a gap between the two middle upper teeth; a slight beard rather under than in front of the chin; a scar immediately below one eye and another on the cheek opposite; a high instep. According to Capt J Stuart, these features were confirmed by the two Zulu informants at Nkandla, and also by two of Inkosi Sigananda Shezi's tribesmen, as well a prisoner who had linked up with Bhambatha. All confirmed that it was Bhambatha's head .

This Article was written by Ken Gillings and was accessed on The South African Military History Society website on on 6 June 2014.

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