The Battle of Salt River stands as a significant historical event, marking the first military encounter between Europeans and the indigenous ǃUriǁʼaekua in what would later become South Africa. The battle resulted in a massacre of Portuguese forces and a victory for the Khoikhoi.
Following their triumph in the Battle of Diu in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese fleet led by Francisco de Almeida fleet sought to replenish their water supplies in Table Bay near the Cape of Good Hope. There, they encountered the ǃUriǁʼaekua people and engaged in friendly trade. However, tensions arose when a group of Portuguese crew members visited a nearby Khoikhoi village ǃUriǁʼaekua, leading to conflicting accounts of what sparked hostilities. Some claim that the Portuguese attempted to steal cattle.
Upon being chased back to their ships, the Portuguese crew urged Almeida to retaliate against the ǃUriǁʼaekua. A lengthy debate among the officers ensued, with Almeida eventually agreeing to conduct a punitive raid the next morning. Historical accounts suggest that Almeida recognized his crew’s responsibility for the hostilities.
On the morning of March 1, 1510, Almeida allowed his captains, Pedro and Jorge Barreto, to lead a force of approximately 150 armed men to raid the Khoikohi village. The indigenous warriors, numbering around 170, launched a fierce counterattack using stones, fire-hardened wood-tipped spears, and poisoned arrows. They also skillfully deployed specially trained cattle, which acted as moving shields while they attacked the Portuguese.
The Portuguese faced a sudden and controlled close-quarters assault, leading to a chaotic retreat to the beach, now known as part of Salt River in Cape Town. During the retreat, Almeida and 64 of his men, including 11 captains, lost their lives. A few Portuguese soldiers managed to survive by retreating to the landing boats at the watering points.
The Battle of Salt River proved to be a significant military defeat for the Portuguese and resulted in stricter enforcement of their policy not to land ships in the region. Additionally, the Khoikhoi clans gained a reputation for their ferocity among European nations. This encounter marked a crucial moment in history, reflecting the early stages of black anti-colonial resistance in the region.