Thursday, May 14, 2020

Where is Ndongeni?

Stanley - Thursday

Where is Ndongeni?

I doubt whether a single reader of this blog will know what the question means. I suspect readers will wonder whether it is in South Africa - a reasonable thing to do since the name has an African sound and I was born in South Africa.

However they would be wrong. Ndongeni isn't a place. It is the name of a person who has been forgotten because he was Black and not White.

The story starts with the arrival of settlers in 1820 from the United Kingdom into what was then the Cape Colony, tempted by offers of farms on the frontier and, maybe, by the good weather. One such family were the Kings. They didn't stay for very long and resettled around Port Natal, today's Durban. 

Port Natal

Port Natal

One of the King's children was Richard Phillip 'Dick' King, who seemed to enjoy a typically frontier existence. He accompanied a local priest into the interior, where he met the Zulu chief, Dingane. He hunted with friends, and on several occasions drove wagons between the British settlement and the frontier town of Grahamstown, nearly 1000 kms (600 miles) away, through often hostile territory.

This was also the time of the Voortrekkers, about 15,000 farmers (boers) who left the Cape Colony in their ox wagons to escape the nasty Brits, who had recently abolished slavery. One group of boers had arrived in the vicinity of Port Natal with the idea of setting up a Boer Republic, called Natalia. 


They hoped to negotiate the right to settle in the area with Dingane, but Dingane was having none of it and killed one of the Boer leaders, Piet Retief, and his delegation. An American missionary heard of the murders and sent word back to Port Natal. Dick King was sent to warn the Boer settlements as well as to find his son, George, who was with one of them. 

Zulus fighting the intruders

The only way Dick could get there was to walk, and I've no idea why someone didn't lend him a horse. But he walked 200 kms (120 miles) in four days, arriving just after the first settlement had been attacked by the Zulus. He then walked to the second Boer encampment, arriving just in time to help its defence. Sadly, his son, who was still further inland, was killed by yet another Zulu attack. Eventually over 600 boers died from the attacks. Needless to say, Dick's feat (feet?) earned him quite a reputation.

Four years later, the boers had established their republic of Natalia and now wanted to expel the British from Port Natal. The boers wanted that as their own port. The British sent a garrison to defend Port Natal, but it was badly mauled by the boers at the Battle of Congella. The British retreated to their tented camp and set about defending themselves from the boers through use of trenches and earthworks. The situation was grim, and Dick was asked to ride for help. 

He was given a bay called Somerset, and he and his sixteen-year old servant Ndongeni, riding bareback on a white, set off on their 960 km journey, which, in addition to riding through hostile lands, necessitated fording 120 rivers. After about 300 kms, Ndongeni's legs were in such bad shape that he couldn't continue.

It took Dick 10 days to reach Grahamstown, including a couple of days when he was too sick to ride. He rode the whole way on Somerset, a horse that had had no special training. Through the incredible endurance of both man and horse, the British were able to arrange a force to sail to Port Natal, and the besieged garrison was relieved.

The people of Port Natal rewarded both Dick and Ndongeni with farms, realising the role both had played in saving their settlement. Today, there is a magnificent sculpture of Dick King astride Somerset on Durban’s Esplanade on Margaret Mncadi Avenue.  

Dick King on Somerset

But where is Ndongeni?

Not only does he not have his own sculpture, but virtually nobody in South Africa knows anything about him.


  1. Is there a movement to do something about it? Or is that too political?
    But Somerset? What a horse.

  2. Might makes right. Or is it right makes might? Either way, "it" tends not to make statues to politically inconvenient concepts.

  3. Ndongeni went the way of Tenzing Norkay (now partially recognized) and Matthew Henson (still obscure). People of color--how often does their vital contribution go unrecognized, unlauded.

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