History

POST RETIEF HISTORY

The San hunter gatherers were the first inhabitants of the aptly named Winterberg Mountains which boast numerous fine sites of Ancient Rock Art. These mysterious people were ruthlessly encroached upon and ultimately displaced by the the Xhosa pastoralists and the Trekboere who had both started moving into these fertile mountains by the end of the 18th Century. This meeting of such different and powerful cultures happened on the same turf we stride over today and was to have long lasting and often tragic consequences.

When the 6th Frontier War ravaged the Eastern Cape Province it was realised that there was a greater need for a more robust fortification against an increasingly sophisticated foe .Largely due to the relentless petitioning on behalf of the Winterberg farmers by veld kornet Pieter Retief  who owned a farm in the area , it was agreed to build the Queens Road that would link Grahamstown to the Winterberg and the government would as part of their plans also build as protection for the remote Winterberg farmers , a military fort POST RETIEF which  was then named in honour of Retief by Sir Benjamin D ‘Urban.

Construction of the fort, originally designed by Major Charles Selwyn of the Royal Engineers started in 1836. The post was built with stone quarried in the area and fine woods cut from the indigenous forests in the indigenous forests close by .  Built on a mound overlooking the Koonap River below and facing the majestic Katberg Mountain it ended up being a variation on Selwyn’s original design built on the farm owned by Retief himself. Retief was a contractor on the project and the profit he made was to fund his future plans. Shortly after its completion in 1837, Retief and 30 other wagons left from the Winterberg and the Cape Colony on the Great Trek. Piet Retief was later famously murdered by Zulu dictator Dingaan at Mgungundhlovu .

During its early years  the fort saw no action and was occupied by the farm’s owner Ann Edwards , an 1820 Settler widow  who ran a trading store from within the fort’s walls and  shared the fort with her five children . In 1846 Rev Joseph Willson came to share the space within the fort inadvertently starting the first Anglican parish in the country by his ministering to the remote Winterberg farmers from the Officers Quarters within the fort walls.

Post Retief saw itself playing an important strategic role during the infamous 8th Frontier War – the War of Mlanjeni 1850-53. This War was also known as the Bonte Oorlog due to its multiracial complexity and was the longest and most costly of all the Frontier Wars.

The 8th Frontier War burst into our area at Christmas 1850 with the cruel massacre of various farmers in the Kaalhoek area. For the next two years the area and those living within a day’s ride of the small military post lived lives of great anxiety, insecurity and fear. The war had become particularly brutal and the polite protocols of previous wars no longer existed.  After two years of frustrating warfare that showed little progress on either side it eventually came to its final frontier in the great forests of the Waterkloof – a battle fought in near impenetrable forests and extremes of weather in a gruelling African landscape.

Post Retief served as a strategic base supplying the campaigns of the surrounding areas and as a hospital for the wounded. Lieut Col. Fordyce of the 74th Highlanders, the highest ranking officer killed during the war was buried here and later exhumed for reburial at Grahamstown and then once more exhumed for expatriation to Kensal Green Cemetery in London. The old war graves lie a short distance below the post and the raised tomb of Ensign Ricketts is most notable. The remains of Piet Retief’s house (one of the five national monuments in the area) and the remaining adobe wall of Ann Edwards homestead still stand a short distance away in the poplar forest 150 years later.

During the 8th Frontier War the fort was held under loose siege for 3 months with the refugee farmers and what was left of their belongings and stock huddled together within the forts walls for their mutual protection , their farms lay looted and burned. The actual Siege of Post Retief , a siege within a siege , occurred in early February 1851 when the fort and its 60 occupants was held under tight siege for 4 days by rebels from the Kat River Settlement under Kiewiet , Van Beulen and English deserter Shaw formerly of the 7th Dragoons.

Further down the valley 1820 Settler John Joseph Smith’s fortified farm Haartebeestfontein was at the same time also under siege and eventually the tense situation was relieved after four gruelling days by commandos of 130 burghers  from Grahamstown and Somerset East , and a levy of 140 Fingoes   under commandants  Bowker , Pringle , Kruger and Seevogel .

Famous 19th Century painter Thomas Baines spent a few years here as official portrait painter for the 8th Frontier War. Some of his most famous works document the legendary battles fought in the area and a few of his pencil sketches illustrate his diaries which at length document his stay and experiences at the fort and in the surrounding territories during its most challenging times.

This frustrating, costly and protracted war was Britain’s first experience of Guerrilla Warfare under legendary Xhosa general Macqoma and it changed the rules of warfare forever. It saw England’s favourite General, Sir Harry Smith disgraced and dismissed and a British Government toppled.

When the war eventually was brought to an end by the questionable scorched earth policies of the British the small military post served as a police camp under Captain James Sweetnam of the Winterberg Greys until 1858 when it was once more abandoned. It then served as a trading store and private residence for widow Edwards until her death.

The military post POST RETIEF is worth visiting when in our mountains and is currently under preservation by the POST RETIEF RESTORATION TRUST.

(Written by Dr. Carl Kritzinger)