View From the Hills

Letter from Colonel Theo Truter to the Secretary for Justice, Cape Town, written at Ntabelanga, May 26, 1921.

Further to my minute of the 23rd instant, I have the honour to submit my report for the information of the Honourable the Minister of Justice.

The prisoners were employed in digging the graves and the dead were collected for burial. By nightfall the casualties amongst the natives were ascertained to be dead, 163, wounded, 129, prisoners 95.

On 24th May at 8 a.m. I despatched one Troop of the 1st Regiment under Sergt. Johnson to occupy a ridge north east and overlooking Ntabelanga (this detachment was accompanied by a signaler with a heliograph). Two troops of the same Regiment were sent to hold the koppies at the entrance to the Poort at Bulhoek location.

At 9 a.m. the column moved from Potgieterskraal and passed through the Poort without opposition. I then took up a position on a slope south and overlooking Ntabelanga. From this slope the Isrealites were observed in various bodies carrying arms and in military formations. All of them were clothed in white smock and khaki shorts, which made them plainly visible. The main body which was apparently meant as a decoy were massed on the road leading from Kamastone location to Ntabelanga. Some Israelites were observed on the ridge west of main body above referred to. Another column of Israelites was stationed to the west and in rear of main body. Another large party of Israelites was massed in rear and west of last mentioned body. Another detachment of Israelites was massed at the foot of a large koppie immediately west of Charles Ngijima's small location, opposite Ntabelanga village.

At 10.30 a.m. the Helio with Sergt. Johnson's party reported a large body of Israelites massed in the thorn bushes in the end of the river near the village. The river bed was about in the centre in line with very high banks and difficult to negotiate.

I discussed the position with General Van De Venter and Cols. Davis & Woon. In the meantime small parties of scouts had been pushed out to our front and flanks, and a high and precipitous koppie was selected by Capt. Halse with ten men on our right flank.

This party was later re-inforced by a Maxim gun detachment and a further twenty men. The Artillery came into action behind the troops on the rise already referred to.

Before making a general advance a final chance was given to the Israelites to prevent resistance by them. I despatched Sergt. Wicks and Boucher, both competent native linguists to the main body of the Israelites with the following message:- "What are your intentions. Will you allow us to come in and do as we intend to do, or do you intend to fight." After despatch of Sergt. Wicks I made the following disposition of the troops:-

Lt. Col. Woon i/c of the 2nd Regt. was ordered to cross the river and deploy, some distance away from and in front of the main body of Israelites.

Lt. Col. Davie i/c 1st Regt. was ordered to detach a troop to protect Lt. Col. Woon's left flank. The remainder of Lt. Col. Davis' Regt. was ordered to deploy from Lt. Col. Woon's right flank to the kopie held by Capt. Halse on the extreme right flank of the column.

Capt. Simson's party was in the centre of line along the river bed and on both banks. Lt. Col. Woon was ordered to dismount his Regiment, leave the horses with the horse holders and advance with two squadrons in the front line and one in support. The troops as they dismounted to fix bayonets, and in case of attack the centre troop only was to fire one volley and in case that did not have the desired effect, he was to take such action as circumstances directed. At 11.20 a.m. Sergts. Wicks and Boucher returned with following reply from the Israelites:- 'Jehovah will not allow you to burn our huts, to drive our people away from Ntabelanga or arrest the two men you wish to.' Sergt. Wicks again asked if they were going to fight. They replied 'that is for you, not for us to know.'

I noticed that while Lt. Col. Woon's two squadrons were drawn up in line, that there was considerable delay in advancing and thinking that the Israelites might be induced to lay down their arms, I despatched Lt. Col. Trew - my Staff Officer - with a message to Lt. Col. Woon to call on the Israelites to lay down their arms and surrender, and in that event to arrest them.

Lt. Col. Woon subsequently reported that three natives, obviously leaders, despatched themselves from the main body and approached him. The spokesman of this party asked him what his intentions were. He replied that he intended to enter the Israelite village and informed him that resistance on the part of the natives would be met with force. The spokesman then said 'if that was his intention they would fight.' He added that if troops advance they would be opposed and that the Israelites would fight, adding if there is a fight, God will fight with us on our side. Col. Woon repeated advice to lay down arms. They then asked if the Col. had anything to add and on being informed that what Col. Woon said was final, they said 'it is finished.'

Lt. Col. Woon remained halted until these three natives returned to their main body. The natives then immediately began to deploy and advanced towards his line at a run, brandishing swords and assegais. He then ordered the centre troop of 25 men to fire one volley. Lt. Col. Trew had just arrived at the front line, but too late to deliver my message. This had not the required effect, the natives continuing to advance in a most determined manner, despite some losses.

Lt. Col. Woon then ordered the whole of the front line to open five rounds rapid fire. As soon as the firing commenced, smoke fires were made on the ridge above our left flank and also on top of the Doornberg peak, and also smoke was seen coming from the river bed. A native in a red cloak was seen on the ridge to the left of the position. This was supposed to be "Enoch" the prophet. These smoke fires were apparently a signal for a general advance on the troops by the Israelites, who rushed at all the police positions, simultaneously, brandishing their weapons. There was also firing from the top of the koppie above Charles Ngijima's Location on Sergt. Johnson's party. Firing then opened along the whole line on the attacking natives. Most determined attacks were made all along the line by the natives. In the centre position it actually resulted in a hand-to-hand struggle, where trooper Dunn was stabbed in the stomach and a troop horse killed by an assegai thrust. This attack was repulsed and the natives went along the river bed northwards swung to their right and joined by another party of natives made a most determined attack on the koppie on the extreme right.

The machine gun opened fire at this point and repulsed the attack. Lt. Chisholm was detailed with a party to occupy the crest of the hills immediately to the north east of the koppie held by Capt. Halse to prevent the natives who, it was noticed, were trying to break through at that point. This he very effectively prevented. The rushes by the natives were so determined that even the wounded after falling were observed to get up and rush forward again, many of them being killed by the bayonet and revolver fire - Lt. Col. Woon has personally to shoot two natives with his revolver. This accounts for the heavy proportion of killed and wounded. The firing lasted about ten minutes at various portions of our front. Firing ceased immediately attack was broken. General Van De Venter and myself then galloped up to the koppie held by Capt. Halse and I gave orders to clear and make sure of the right flank position where the heaviest fighting had taken place before allowing Lt. Col. Woon to advance on the village.

During this advance the arms were taken from the dead and wounded. In some cases the latter attempted to kill members of the disarming parties. Some prisoners were taken unwounded to during this advance. General Van De Venter and myself accompanied the right flank to the outskirts of the village. I despatched Lieut. Lloyd Lister with a small party to the village to ask Enoch if they still intended to resist. Enoch could not be found and all resistance was found to be at an end.

In the meantime, Lt. Col. Woon's regiment had advanced and seized the height above the village. I ordered a search party to go through the village and seize all arms, which was done. A considerable number of all description of weapons were discovered and seized, and some 94 natives were arrested.

The line from west to east was about a mile and a half of rough and broken country and from west to north about another mile, making the whole front a line of approximately 2.5 miles interspersed with dongas, rivers, deep kloofs and bush, which made it very difficult to assess casualties immediately, which were then assessed at approximately 130.

The ambulance party under Major Welsh now attended to the wounded assisted by the women of the Location; who were allowed to give water and succour to the wounded at various points. I met the Secretary for Native Affairs and arranged with him for a census to be taken next day, in order to get an idea of the number of women and children who had to be dispersed to their homes.

I left a strong body at the Israelite village to guard the prisoners and keep everything secure.

Very shortly after resistance was at an end, Enoch was discovered hiding in one of the huts in the village and arrested. Shortly afterwards his brother Charles Ngijima was discovered wounded in the leg and taken to the casualty station for attention. As it was getting late and nothing further could be done, I withdrew the rest of the force and marched to camp, which I established on the slope from which we deployed in the morning.

I wish to bring to notice especially the steadiness and good discipline of the force in action and of their behaviour in camp.

On the 25th the day was devoted to searching through kloofs, bushes and dongas for wounded and bringing in the wounded. I also sent out patrols in various directions to scout the country in the immediate vicinity of location. The ambulance party under Major Welsh, U.D.F. assisted by the District Surgeon, Dr. Cranke, worked right throughout the night attending to the wounded and on through the whole of the day and I cannot speak too highly of their devoted attention to the wounded, none of them spared themselves in any way and they worked like Trojans.

The prisoners were employed in digging the graves and the dead were collected for burial. By nightfall the casualties amongst the Israelites were ascertained to be dead, 163, wounded, 129, prisoners 95.

Enoch Mgijima was sent to Queenstown and lodged in gaol. During the day with the assistance of the Automobile Club of Queenstown, whose members kindly volunteered the use of their cars, and with hired ox transport for the severe cases, the bulk of the wounded were moved to Queenstown hospital were I had already despatched the District Surgeon to make the necessary arrangements.

The burial of the dead was completed towards dusk and the natives were allowed to hold a burial service over the graves. A troop was left at the village to guard prisoners for the night. The rest of the Force returned to camp after their work was done. General Van De Venter and his Staff Officer left during the morning.

The 26th of May was spent in completing the Registration of the women and children and arrangements were made by Magistrates and Native Affairs Department for their dispersal. As regards the remaining wounded some 17 cases were despatched in hired wagons and arrangements are being made to despatch the remainder to-day.

On the whole the health of the Force of Police was good. The only casualties being a few cases of influenza and cold, the nights being particularly severe.

During the morning I sent the Artillery to Queenstown to entrain for Pretoria.



- Letter from Col Theo Truter to Secretary for Justice, May 26 1921, National Archives, Pretoria, Jus. Vol. 288, Ref. 2/853/20


back to the Enoch Mgijima memorial page

"You take your orders from the government. I take mine from Jehovah."
Enoch Mgijima
Captured Israelites, 1921
Picture © Museum Africa


Historical documents: Clues to a terrible tragedy

In this lesson plan, learners are encouraged, through their study of historical documents, to explore the reasons for a religious group risking their lives to defy General Smuts's government in 1921. Learners will also be asked to think about why the government and its police used violent force against the so-called Israelites.

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
A selection of photographs of the Bulhoek Massacre, courtesy of Museum Africa.
Artwork Photo Gallery
Photographs of the memorial and Church of God and Saints of Christ congregants, taken at an unveiling ceremony.
The Bulhoek Massacre part 1
Extract from a documentary on the Bulhoek Massacre, focusing on the controversy over the number of casualties
The Bulhoek Massacre part 2
In the decades since the Massacre, the church has grown in strength, and today has chapters throughout Eastern Cape