By John Tiffany
The Great Trek or Voortrek is the central event in the history of South Africa, beginning in the mid-thirties of the 19th century and petering out in the early forties. This great northward exodus of the Afrikaner people, reminiscent of the American wagon trains to the West, involved thousands of cattle and sheep farmers who fled British tyranny. They left the frontier districts of the Cape Colony, and founded the independent republics of Natal, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.
The struggle of the Afrikaner or Boer people since the 17th century when they arrived in South Africa from Europe was, like that of Americans, a struggle for freedom from foreign tyranny, and for self-determination. In particular, the capture of the Cape of Good Hope by the invading British in 1795 and events on the frontier of the eastern Cape Colony in the early 19th century caused a dramatic spread northward and eastward by the Boers.
The Boers (the word comes from the Dutch for “farmers”) were predominantly Dutch to start with, and spoke the Dutch language, but over the centuries their language changed to become a uniquely South African tongue of the Indo-European language family. Other white ethnic groups, notably the French, joined with the Boers and readily became acculturated. Many Huguenot surnames are still notable among the Boers today. Even some English speakers became Boers, but for the most part, the English settlers in South Africa formed a separate group from the Boers.
It was the Napoleonic wars that brought the British to South Africa as rulers and settlers. Between 1795, when the British first occupied the cape, and the Second Anglo-Boer War (called by the Boers the Second War of Freedom) of 1899, the Boers increasingly regarded the British as meddlesome interlopers.
The first event to signal the approaching discord between what were then called the “white races” of the Boers and the British occurred in 1815, four months after Waterloo.
An Afrikaner named Cornelius Fred erick (Freek) Bezuidenhout, 55, living alone on a remote farm, was ordered to answer charges of ill treating a Hottentot servant. To a Boer, especially a trekboer (i.e., an individualistic Boer pioneer), such matters were outside the purview of the law.
Unwilling to risk his property while traveling to the nearest village, Bezuiden hout ignored the summons. A number of locally enlisted Hottentot soldiers were sent by the British authorities to arrest him, and in the ensuing struggle he was killed.
A body of armed burghers, led by his brother Johannes Jurgen (Hans) Bezuidenhout, 57, set out in pursuit of the Hottentot soldiers, bent on revenge. But they were captured by a troop of British Light Dragoons, led, rather ironically, by a loyalist from America, Jacob Cuyler, a man devoid of any idealism, who reacted with arrogant displeasure and vindictive fury to anyone who dared to oppose his will and commands.
Johannes Bezuidenhout was shot dead in the capture. His wife, who helped by loading his gun, was also killed.
The surviving Boers were put on trial for insurgency. All admitted their guilt, and five were hanged on March 9, 1816 at the place where they had assembled, Slachter’s Nek, an appropriately ominous-sounding name.
These frontier Boers were huge and heavy men. Cuyler had taken the precaution of ordering the ropes doubled, but as the platform fell away under their feet the ropes suspending four of them snapped. As one Boer twitched in his dying spasms, the others got dazedly to their feet and rushed toward the British magistrate, begging for mercy. Their relatives flocked around, calling also for mercy. However, Cuyler, in typically British style, went ahead and ruthlessly hanged the unfortunate wretches a second time. The atrocity of the botched hangings was to become a source of permanent, festering hatred of the British by the Boer people. “Slachter’s Nek” be came a synonym for the unforgettable and unforgivable. “British” became a synonym for enemy.
Memories of Slachter’s Nek, the threat of political equality for the non-whites, and other instances of what the Boers regarded as British interference in their affairs all built up a head of steam in the Boer consciousness, which finally erupted after 1834, following the abolition of slavery, with inadequate compensation for the owners.
It is often forgotten by liberal writers that slavery was legal and then abruptly was not; many farmers were ruined, and the money they had borrowed to invest in their labor was, in effect, expropriated. No wonder they were fed up and ready to leave the country.
Worn out by the wars against the Kaffirs (the local black tribes), the burghers were dismayed to find the British government—a government that had withdrawn, in the heat of battle, the licenses of hawkers to sell gunpowder—was now slow to pay up on military requisition notes and was firmly resolved not to hear of such novel proposals as compensation for war losses, delay in the payment of taxes, or a reduction of the amount of taxes due.
News came that the eagerly awaited slave compensation would be paid out, not in the colony, but in London. And hard on the heels of that report came rumors (which soon turned out to be true) that Queen Adelaide Province was to be given back to the Kaffirs. Furthermore, the Boers were to be recalled from the Stormberg lands.
The decision to pay compensation for freed slaves in London made a certain amount of sense from an exclusively British point of view: Slaves were being freed in the West Indies simultaneously, and West Indian plantation owners were generally in the habit of visiting London rather often, so for them it was no great inconvenience. But many Boers, less favorably situated, could not possibly afford to travel to London to collect the money.
But what really disgusted the Boers was that they learned they were being accused of causing the war, when it was the Kaffirs who had invaded the lands of the white people, and not the other way around. Unjustifiable odium was being poured upon the Boer folk by a distant government that was spurred on by greedy and dishonest persons under the cloak of religion, whose testimony was believed in England despite all evidence to the contrary.
For some time, Boer men had been allowed to go in search of pasture beyond the Orange River into the territory known as Philippolis, ruled at the time by East Griqua chief Adam Kok III. (The Griquas were a branch of Cape Coloreds, partly white and partly Hottentot.)
Some of the Boer men went even farther north, into the Basuto borderlands. In the Griqua and Basuto country, their flocks increased rapidly. Moreover, hunters told of still finer land, clear of Negroes, Hottentots, Coloreds and Bush men, far beyond the Griqua territory.
The interior was not entirely un known. Hunters, traders, missionaries, trekboers and others had already gone beyond the Orange, beyond the Vaal, even as far as the Limpopo River. There was good reason to believe that vast tracts of land in the north and in Natal had been swept clear of inhabitants by the ferocious Negro tribes of the Mantatis, Matabeles and Zulus.
The Christian Boers were offended by the British placing of them on an equal footing with the animist blacks, “contrary to the laws of god and the natural distinction of race and religion, so that it was intolerable for any decent Christian to bow down beneath such a yoke, where for we rather withdrew in order to preserve our doctrines in purity,” as Voor trekker Anna Steenkamp expressed it.
More than the men, it was the Boer women who most keenly resented the British intrusion into their affairs. Their household arrangements were upset, with Hottentot servants and slaves flitting from one mistress to another. Mantati refugees in the north, and stray Fingos in the east did not fill all the gaps and were even more incompetent than Hottentots. Besides, were these colored folks to compete with their own sons for land, to stand on an equality before the law with them?
It was an outrage to that sense of racial superiority which was naturally stronger in the bearers of children than in the mere begetters of them.
The migration called the Great Trek was a deliberate move by thousands of men and women, frontier farmers for the most part, who left hearth and home in their ox-drawn covered wagons, similar to the American Conestogas, at great personal sacrifice to put as much distance between themselves and the tyrannical British government as possible.
Just like the Western pioneers in their wagon trains, the Boers would circle their wagons when camping in hostile territory to form laagers for self-defense against the local savages.
In retrospect, we can see that the Boers might have been better off to have followed another American pattern and waged a war of revolution against their British overlords, for the British government, while it at first let them go, was soon to follow them to impose its tyranny. But there was no way at the time of foreseeing the troubles that lay ahead in the shape of the Boer wars, with all their attendant horrors.
The emigrants were to launch a new military tradition for the Boers—they be came resolute, organized, and matchlessly disciplined, as they had to be in order to contend with the savage new enemies they faced: the Zulu and Ndebele, themselves fierce warriors who believed in full-face charges rather than evasive guerrilla tactics. They also did not hesitate to kill Boer women and children, given the opportunity.
The reasons for the exodus included the deep and growing gulf in all religious and political questions between the British and the Boers, the liberal tendencies of the Brits toward the blacks and coloreds, the exclusion of the Afrikaners from participation in the government, and basic differences between Boer and British culture. A stubborn British contempt for anything non-British, coupled with British liberalism and power politics, contrasted with the Afrikaner’s urge for individual freedom.
Between 1835 and 1843 some 12,000 Afrikaners, about one-fourth of those living in the Cape Colony, hitched their oxen to covered wagons, and, with their wives, children, servants, cattle and sheep, escaped from British control without resorting to violence.
Piet Retief, destined to become a leader of the trekkers, drafted and published a manifesto promising:
“Wherever we go . . . we will uphold the just principles of liberty; but, while we will take care that no one is brought by us into a condition of slavery, we will establish such regulations as may suppress crime and prepare proper relations between master and servant. We solemnly declare that we leave this country with a desire to enjoy a quieter life than we have hitherto had. We will not molest any people, nor deprive them of the smallest property; but if attacked we shall consider ourselves fully justified in defending our lives and effects. We propose . . . to make known to the native tribes our intentions, and our desire to live in peace and friendly intercourse with them . . . We quit this Colony under the full assurance that the English Government has nothing more to require of us, and will allow us to govern ourselves without interference in future.”
The Great Trek had begun, and a goodly portion of one of the two white tribes of southern Africa was on the move.
By this time, white men were familiar in Transorangia and even in the remoter parts of the high veldt. Many trekboers already lived in the vicinity of the Orange River.
The four principal native groups on the high veldt at this time were the Ndebele or Matabele, whose chief was Mzilikazi, the Basotho (Basuto) nation under Chief Moshoeshoe, the Tlokwa (Btlokua) under Sikonyela, and the various bands of Griquas. After the Zulus, the Ndebele were the second most powerful black nation in southern Africa.
Although the British authorities were familiar with the custom of always requesting permission to enter a chief’s territory, it does not appear that they warned the trekkers that they should do the same. The early Voortrekkers did not follow this custom.
The first wagon trains managed to escape the attention of the scouts of Mzilikazi after they had crossed the Vaal River, and continued safely northward to the Limpopo. The trekkers who followed immediately after were not so lucky. The Ndebele attacked the Voortrekkers and mercilessly dispatched the women and children as well as the men.
The trekkers then came together under the leadership of Hendrik Pot gie ter, 45, a man rich in cattle, and defeated the Nde bele in two battles, but Mzili kazi’s warriors drove off all their livestock.
In their brief but bloody encounters with the Ndebele the trekkers under Potgieter quickly perfected the style of warfare that was to be the Boer strategy for the rest of the century, easily adaptable to fighting the British army as well as black men.
In their first defense against the Ndebele, at a hill later to be called Vegkop on October 19, 1836, 40 Boer men, with their women and children, faced an onrushing army of several thousand warriors. Fifty wagons were drawn into an outer laager, lashed together end-to-end with chains, with thorn bushes jammed under and between them and between the spokes of the wheels to prevent attackers creeping through. Each man had a spare gun or two, which his wife could load for him and while they waited they cast a large supply of bullets, small so as to slip down the barrel easily and nicked across so they would split up in flight.
Their horses they could bring within the laager, but the sheep and even the irreplaceable draft oxen must take their chances in the open.
Women and children were placed inside an inner circle of four wagons forming a square that was roofed over with planks and rawhides. But the laager was used only as a final retreat. The men rode forward on their horses carrying their long, heavy, large-caliber muskets, called snaphaans, which they loaded and fired from the saddle with unexcelled accuracy.
By riding to and fro in front of the advancing enemy, several miles from the laager, and remaining out of range of flying spears, they tried to bring down as many as possible before retiring to the wagons. These were tactics highly suitable to the open country in which they were fighting.
The Ndebele fell in heaps at Vegkop. Their spears could not penetrate the quadruple layer of canvas covering the wagons, while a blast from a musket of splintering bullets could take down a half-dozen warriors. Also the muskets had twice the range of a spear toss—100 yards versus 50.
When the Ndebele drew off, the Boers waited, and while they waited they picked off such warriors as lay on the ground sweating. Dead men do not sweat, so these were either the wounded or the wily waiting close to the wagon-ring for the next rush. In any case the defenders could not afford to take risks. A dead Ndebele was the best Ndebele under the circumstances. There would certainly be no Boer survivors if the warriors broke into the laager.
Eventually Potgieter and half a dozen of his best men rode out and drew the enemy on again. Once more the Ndebele charged the laager, and once more they were shot down. Finally they turned and fled, taking, however, the captured beasts with them. The Boers had lost two men and none of their women and children. One in three men had been wound ed. The Ndebele losses were uncounted, perhaps a thousand or so dead.
But the Boers were not satisfied. Mzilikazi must be punished and the captured beasts taken back.
Just after New Year, 1837, a punitive expedition set out: 107 Boers and 40 Griquas and Korannas all mounted and fully armed, plus 60 Barolongs on foot to drive the cattle. Moving swiftly through the empty country, they fell upon the Ndebele kraals at Mosega at dawn.
The Ndebele warriors fought well, but could not stand up to the guns. They lost 400 men and then fled, leaving the Win commando, the victors, to burn the kraals at their leisure and retire with more than 7,000 cattle and some wagons that had also been lost, and three forlorn American missionaries who had been among the Ndebele (and having little success in their efforts to Christianize them). The trekker losses amounted only to four of the Barolongs.
By the middle of 1837, some 5,000 Boers had trekked across the Orange River; by the middle of the 1840s, an estimated 14,000, roughly one-fifth of the white population of South Africa. At Thaba Nchu, they established a provisional government for themselves.
Opinions were divided among the trekkers as to where their ultimate destination should lie. A large body of them decided to follow the man they had chosen as their supreme leader, Piet Retief, across the nearly impassible Drakensberg Mountains into Natal, a beautiful province, where they would have an outlet to the sea.
On February 6, 1838, a tragedy unfolded: Retief and his hundred-man treaty party were massacred by the treacherous Zulu chief Dingaan (Dingane). Here is how it happened.
When the Voortrekkers showed up in his area and settled on his lands without waiting for permission, Dingaan stalled for time. Some cattle had been stolen from him, he told Retief. Get them back, and we’ll talk, he said, in effect.
It was a task of Hercules, and the chief could not have expected the Voortrek kers to achieve it.
But Retief knew who had taken the cattle. It was Sikonyela, the Tlokwa chief, who ruled in the upper valley of the Caledon. He was a formidable potentate possessed of a few guns and horses, son of Ma-Ntatisi, queen of the once dreaded Mantatis. Earlier, Boer scouts had reported seeing 50 of Sikonyela’s men, armed with guns and clothed more or less like white men, riding up the slopes with cattle, sheep and horses looted from Chief Dingaan.
Retief did this favor with ease, handcuffing Sikonyela by trickery, holding him prisoner for three days, and showing up at the royal kraal with the stolen herd. He also carried in a satchel a document ready for the Zulu king’s signature. Arrogantly, the document demanded all of the land from the mountains to the sea and from the Tugela River to the Um zimvubu, including Port Natal. Dingaan asked that the guns and horses taken from Sikonyela be turned over to him, and this Retief refused, twice, which undoubtedly enraged the king, although he hid his feelings well.
There had been several warnings that the king was up to no good, but Retief chose to ignore them.
Dingaan determined to have the Retief party, under promises of safe conduct, killed, then go after the other Boers and try to wipe them out as well. He received the Retief party courteously on February 4, 1838, even putting his mark on the parchment to convince them of his good faith, and entertained them with vast amounts of beer and regimental dancing displays. After three days of this, he invited the Boers to take a parting drink with him, and persuaded them to leave their guns outside.
His fiercest soldiers, a regiment of young Zulus called the Wild Beasts, had been summoned to the kraal and told to amuse the Boers by singing and dancing. Suddenly the king stood up and yelled, “Kill the wizards!”
Three thousand warriors who had been hidden in the rings of huts that lined Dingaan’s great palisade rushed in and grabbed the Boers. The Retief party —some 66 Voortrekker volunteers and 30 Khoikhoi servants—were dragged to the execution hill and killed.
Missionary Francis Owen described the event:
“I turned my eyes and behold! an immense multitude on the bloodstained hill nearly opposite my hut. About 9 or 10 Zoolus to each Boer were dragging their helpless unarmed victim to the fatal spot, where those eyes which awakened this morning to see the cheerful light of day for the last time, are now closed in death . . . Presently the deed of death being accomplished the whole multitude returned to the town to meet their sovereign, and as they drew near to him set up a shout which reached the [mission] station and continued for some time.”
On February 17, several Afrikaner laagers were savagely attacked at the Blou krans (Blaauwkrans) River. People were slain without distinction as to age or gender, and cattle were stolen. White infants had their brains dashed out against the wheels of their burning wagons. Eighty-five adult Boers and 148 children died that day, along with 250 Khoikhoi servants. Two young girls of about 10 or 12 years who somehow managed to survive were found to have 19 stab wounds in one case, 21 in the other.
The killing of their wives and children, first by the Ndebele and then by the Zulu, fastened in the minds of the trekkers and their descendants an image of the black man as a brutal enemy that became permanently established in their reactions to him.
However, Dingaan’s men missed the laager of Piet Retief entirely, and Gert Maritz’s group managed to fight off the attack and even dispatch a small expedition to recover some of the stolen cattle.
On December 16, Andries Pretorius, 39, led 462 Afrikaners and two English men against 10,000-12,000 of Dingaan’s warriors to inflict a devastating revenge that nearly broke the Zulu power, at a small river that was appropriately re named Blood River. The Battle of Blood River has become a symbol of determined Afrikaner resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. The Day of the Covenant, as it was called, or Dingaan’s Day, became the central date in the Boer calendar and was passed down to the trekkers’ descendants as the spiritual feast day on which to repledge their national will.
The battle lasted around two hours, at the end of which an estimated 3,000 Zulus lay dead around the laager. The remainder were forced to flee back into Zululand. Three Boers were slightly wounded, none killed. In addition to having a deed from the treacherous Zulu king, Natal was now theirs by right of conquest.
Several thousand independent people had hauled their wagons across seemingly impassable country, established their own independent re public and defeated the powerful Zulu nation in a classic battle without a single loss to themselves. It was seen as a sign from God that they were indeed a chosen people.
Barthorp, Michael, The Anglo-Boer Wars: The British and the Afrikaners: 1815-1902, Blandford Press, London, New York, Sydney, 1987.
Mostert, Noël, Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People, Alfred A. Knopf, Publishers, New York, 1992.
Vatcher, Jr., William Henry, White Laager: The Rise of Afrikaner Nationalism, Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, New York, Washington, London, 1965.
Walker, Eric Anderson, The Great Trek, 2d ed., Adam and Charles Black, London, 1938.