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Great Trek 1835-1846

The Great Trek was a movement of Dutch-speaking colonists up into the interior of southern Africa in search of land where they could establish their own homeland, independent of British rule. The determination and courage of these pioneers has become the single most important element in the folk memory of Afrikaner Nationalism. However, far from being the peaceful and God-fearing process which many would like to believe it was, the Great Trek caused a tremendous upheaval in the interior for at least half a century.

The Voortrekkers

The Great Trek was a landmark in an era of expansionism and bloodshed, of land seizure and labour coercion. Taking the form of a mass migration into the interior of southern Africa, this was a search by dissatisfied Dutch-speaking colonists for a promised land where they would be 'free and independent people' in a 'free and independent state'.

The men, women and children who set out from the eastern frontier towns of Grahamstown, Uitenhage and Graaff-Reinet represented only a fraction of the Dutch-speaking inhabitants of the colony, and yet their determination and courage has become the single most important element in the folk memory of Afrikaner nationalism. However, far from being the peaceful and God-fearing process which many would like to believe it was, the Great Trek caused a tremendous social upheaval in the interior of southern Africa, rupturing the lives of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people. But this time the reports that reached the chiefs of the Sotho clans on the northern bank were more alarming: the white men were coming in their hundreds.

Threatened by the 'liberalism' of the new colonial administration, insecure about conflict on the eastern frontier and 'squeezed out' by their own burgeoning population, the Voortrekkers hoped to restore economic, cultural and political unity independent of British power. The only way they saw open to them was to leave the colony. In the decade following 1835, thousands migrated into the interior, organised in a number of trek parties under various leaders. Many of the Voortrekkers were trekboers (semi-nomadic pastoral farmers) and their mode of life made it relatively easy for them to pack their worldly possessions in ox-wagons and leave the colony forever.

After crossing the Orange River the trekkers were still not totally out of reach of the Cape judiciary - in terms of the Cape of Good Hope Punishment Act (1836), they were liable for all crimes committed south of 25 deg latitude (which falls just below the present-day Warmbaths in northern Transvaal).

The trekkers had a strong Calvinist faith. But when the time came for them to leave they found that no Dutch Reformed Church minister from the Cape was prepared to accompany the expedition, for the church synod opposed the emigration, saying it would lead to 'godlessness and a decline of civilisation'. So the trekkers were forced to rely on the ministrations of the American Daniel Lindley, the Wesleyan missionary James Archbell, and a non-ordained minister, Erasmus Smit.

The trekkers, dressed in traditional dopper coats (short coats buttoned from top to bottom), kappies (bonnets) and hand-made riempieskoene (leather thong shoes), set out in wagons which they called kakebeenwoens (literally, jawbone wagons, because the shape and sides of a typical trek wagon resembled the jawbone of an animal).

These wagons could carry a startling weight of household goods, clothes, bedding, furniture, agricultural implements, fruit trees and weapons. They were ingeniously designed and surprisingly light, so as not to strain the oxen, and to make it easier to negotiate the veld, narrow ravines and steep precipices which lay ahead. Travelling down the 3500 metre slope of the Drakensberg, no brake shoe or changing of wheels could have saved a wagon from hurtling down the mountain were it not for a simple and creative solution: the hindwheels of wagons were removed and heavy branches were tied securely underneath. So the axles were protected, and a new form of brake was invented.

The interior represented for the trekkers a foreboding enigma. The barren Kalahari Desert to the west of the highveld, and the tsetse fly belt which stretched from the Limpopo River south-eastwards, could not have been a very inviting prospect. Little did they realise that neither man nor animal would escape the fatal malarial mosquito. Yet the Voortrekkers ploughed on through treacherous terrain, eliminating all obstacles in their path, and intent on gaining access to ports beyond the sphere of British control, such as Delagoa Bay, Inhambane and Sofala. In order for their new settlement to be viable, it was crucial that they make independent links with the economies of Europe.

Trek and the 'empty lands'

The Empty Land Myth The Empty or Vacant Land Theory is a theory was propagated by European settlers in nineteenth century South Africa to support their claims to land. Today this theory is described as a myth, the Empty Land Myth, because there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support this theory. Despite evidence to the contrary a number of parties in South Africa, particularly right-wing nationalists of European descent, maintain that the theory still holds true in order to support their claims to land-ownership in the country.  Read article

Reconnaissance expeditions in 1834 and 1835 reported that Natal south of the Thukela and the central highveld on either side of the Vaal River, were fertile and largely uninhabited, much of the interior having been unsettled by the ravages of the Mfecane (or Difaqane as it is called in Sotho). The truth of these reports - many of them from missionaries - has long been a source of argument among historians, and recent research indicates that the so-called 'depopulation theory' is unreliable - the devastation and carnage by African warriors is exaggerated with every account, the number of Mfecane casualties ranging between half a million and 5-million.

This kind of historical inaccuracy strengthens the trekkers' claim that the land which they occupied was 'uninhabited and belonged to no-one', that the survivors of the Mfecane were conveniently spread out in a horseshoe shape around empty land. Probably in an attempt to justify their land seizure, the trekkers also claimed to have actually saved the smaller clans in the interior from annihilation, and defeated the 'barbarous' Ndebele and Zulu warriors.

Africans did indeed move temporarily into other areas, but were soon to reoccupy their land, only to find themselves ousted by Boer intruders. For example, in Natal the African population, estimated at 11000 in 1838, was increased by 'several thousand refugees' after Dingane's defeat at the hands of his half-brother Mpande two years later. In 1843, when the Republic of Natalia was annexed by the British, the official African population was put at 'between 80 000 and 10 0000 people'. But even this may have been an underestimation.

Trekker communities and technology

Military prowess was of paramount importance to the trekker expedition. It had to be, for they were invading and conquering lands to which African societies themselves lay claim. Bound by a common purpose, the trekkers were a people's army in the true sense of the word, with the whole family being drawn into military defence and attack. For instance, the loading of the sanna (the name they gave to the muzzle-loading rifles they used) was a complicated procedure and so the Boers used more than one gun at a time - while aiming and firing at the enemy with one, their wives and children would be loading another.

Armed with rifles on their backs and a kruithoring (powder horn) and bandolier (a bullet container made of hartebeest, kudu or ox-hide) strapped to their belts, formidable groups of trekkers would ride into battle. Bullets were often sawn nearly through to make them split and fly in different directions, and buckshot was prepared by casting lead into reeds and then chopping it up. Part of every man's gear was his knife, with a blade about 20 centimetres in length. When approaching the battlefield, the wagons would be drawn into a circle and the openings between the wheels filled with branches to fire through and hide behind. When they eventually settled down, the structure of many of the houses they built - square, with thick walls and tiny windows - resembled small fortresses.

The distinction between hunting and raiding parties was often blurred in trekker society. Killing and looting were their business, land and labour their spoils. When the trekkers arrived in the Transvaal they experienced an acute labour shortage. They did not work their own fields themselves and instead used Pedi who sold their labour mainly to buy arms and ammunition.

During commando onslaughts, particularly in the eastern Transvaal, thousands of young children were captured to become inboekselings ('indentured people'). These children were indentured to their masters until adulthood (the age of 21 in the case of women and 25 in the case of men), but many remained bound to their masters for much longer. This system was akin to child slavery, and a more vicious application of the apprenticeship laws promulgated at the Cape in 1775 and 1812.

Child slavery was even more prevalent in the northern Soutpansberg area of the Transvaal. It has been suggested that when these northern Boers could no longer secure white ivory for trade at Delagoa Bay, 'black ivory' (a euphemism widely used for African children) began to replace it as a lucrative item of trade. Children were more amenable to new ways of life, and it was hoped that the inboekselings would assimilate Boer cultural patterns and create a 'buffer class' against increasing African resistance.

Dispossession and land seizure

The trekkers' first major confrontation was with Mzilikazi, founder and king of the Ndebele. After leaving the Cape, the trekkers made their first base near Thaba Nchu, the great place of Moroka, the Rolong chief. In 1836 the Ndebele were in the path of a trekker expedition heading northwards and led by Andries Hendrik Potgieter. The Ndebele were attacked by a Boer commando led by Potgieter, but Mzilikazi retaliated and the Boers retreated to their main laager at Vegkop. There in October, in a short and fierce battle which lasted half an hour, 40 trekkers succeeded in beating off an attack by 6000 Ndebele warriors. Both sides suffered heavy losses - 430 Ndebele were killed, and the trekkers lost thousands of sheep and cattle as well as their trek oxen. But a few days later, Moroka and the missionary Archbell rescued them with food and oxen.

Gert Maritz and his party joined these trekkers in Transorangia (later the Orange Free State) and in January 1837, with the help of a small force of Griqua, Kora, Rolong and Tlokwa, they captured Mzilikazi 's stronghold at Mosega and drove the Ndebele further north. The trekkers then concluded treaties of friendship with Moroka and Sekonyela (chief of the Tlokwa).

When Piet Retief and his followers split away and moved eastwards to Natal, both Potgieter and Piet Uys remained determined to break the Ndebele. At the end of 1837, 135 trekkers besieged Mzilikazi 's forces in the Marico valley, and Mzilikazi fled across the Limpopo River to present-day Zimbabwe. He died there, to be succeeded by Lobengula, who led a rather precarious life in the area until he was eventually defeated by the forces of the British South Africa Company in the 1890s.

Meanwhile, Retief and his followers continued marching towards Port Natal (later Durban). After Retief's fateful encounter with Dingane, chief of the Zulu, and the ensuing Battle of Blood River, the trekkers declared the short-lived Republic of Natalia (1838). They formed a simple system of goveming, with Pretorius as President, assisted by a volksraad (people's assembly) of 24 members, and local government officials based on the traditional landdrost and heemraden system. In 1841, an adjunct council was established at Potchefstroom, with Potgieter as Chief-Commandant. The trekkers believed that at last they had found a place in the sun....

But the British would not recognise their independence. In December 1838, the Governor, Sir George Napier, a determined military man who had not allowed the loss of his right arm in battle to ruin his career, sent his military secretary, Major Samuel Charters, to occupy Port Natal, which effectively controlled Voortrekker use of the harbour. Three years later, when the Natal Volksraad resolved to drive all Africans not working for the whites southwards beyond the Mtamvuna River (later the border between Natal and the Transkei), Napier again intervened. He was concerned that this would threaten the eastern frontier of the Cape, and so instructed Captain Thomas Charlton Smith to march to Port Natal with 250 men. Smith, who had joined the Royal Navy at the age of nine and was a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, tried to negotiate with Pretorius, but to no avail.

On the moonlit night of 23 May 1842, Smith attacked the Boer camp at Congella but Pretorius, who had been alerted, fought back. The trekkers proceeded to besiege the British camp. One of their number, Dick King. who became known as the 'saviour of Natal', evaded the siege and rode some 1000 kilometres on horseback to seek reinforcements in Grahamstown. In June a British relief force under Lieutenant-Colonel Abraham Cloete arrived on the scene and Boer resistance was crushed. On 15 July the volksraad at Pietermaritzburg signed the conditions of submission.

Although most trekkers had travelled into Natal or into the far north with the main expeditions, some had remained on the fertile land above the junction of the Caledon and Orange rivers, and gradually began to move north-eastward.

The trekkers' pioneer in this area was Jan de Winnaar, who settled in the Matlakeng area in May-June 1838. As more farmers were moving into the area they tried to colonise the land between the two rivers, even north of the Caledon, claiming that it had been abandoned by the Sotho people. But although some of the independent communities who had lived there had been scattered, others remained in the kloofs and on the hillsides. Moshoeshoe, paramount chief of the Sotho, when hearing of the trekker settlement above the junction, stated that '... the ground on which they were belonged to me, but I had no objections to their flocks grazing there until such time as they were able to proceed further; on condition, however, that they remained in peace with my people and recognised my authority'.

The trekkers proceeded to build huts of clay (instead of reed), and began planting their own food crops (no longer trading with the Sotho). This indicated their resolve to settle down permanently. A French missionary, Eugene Casalis, later remarked that the trekkers had humbly asked for temporary rights while they were still few in number, but that when they felt 'strong enough to throw off the mask' they went back on their initial intention.

In October 1842 Jan Mocke, a fiery republican, and his followers erected a beacon at Alleman's drift on the banks of the Orange River and proclaimed a republic. Officials were appointed to preside over the whole area between the Caledon and Vaal rivers. Riding back from the drift, they informed Chief Lephoi, an independent chief at Bethulie, that the land was now Boer property and that he and his people were subject to Boer laws. They further decided that the crops which had been sown for the season would be reaped by the Boers, and they even uprooted one of the peach trees in the garden of a mission station as indication of their ownership. In the north-east, they began to drive Moshoeshoe's people away from the springs, their only source of water. Moshoeshoe appealed for protection to the Queen of England, but he soon discovered that he would have to organise his own resistance.

Land seizure and dispossession were also prevalent in the eastern Transvaal where Potgieter had founded the towns of Andries-Ohrigstad in 1845 and Soutpansberg (which was later renamed Schoemansdal) in 1848. A power struggle erupted between Potgieter and Pretorius, who had arrived with a new trekker party from Natal and seemed to have a better understanding of the political dynamics of southern Africa. Potgieter, still anxious to legitimise his settlement, concluded a vredenstraktaat (peace treaty) in 1845 with Sekwati, chief of the Pedi, who he claimed had ceded all rights to an undefined stretch of land. The precise terms of the treaty are unknown, but it seems certain that Sekwati never actually sold land to the Boers.

Often in order to ensure their own safety, chiefs would sign arbitrary treaties giving away sections of land to which they in fact had no right. Such was the case with Mswati, chief of the Swazi, who, intent on seeking support against the Zulu, in July 1846 granted all the land bounded by the Oliphants, Crocodile and Elands rivers to the Boers. This angered the Pedi, who pointed out that the land had not even been his to hand over.

There was no uniform legal system or concept of ownership to which all parties interested in the land subscribed. Private land ownership did not exist in these African societies, and for the most part the land which chiefs ceded to the Boers was communally owned. Any document 'signed' by the chiefs, and its implications, could not have been fully understood by them. Misunderstandings worked in the favour of the Boers.

Large tracts of land were purchased for next to nothing. For example, the northern half of Transorangia went to Andries Potgieter in early 1836 for a few cattle and a promise to protect the Taung chief, Makwana, from the Ndebele. The area between the Vet and Vaal rivers extended about 60 000 square kilometres. This means that Potgieter got 2000 square kilometres per head of livestock! Also the 'right of conquest' was extended over areas much larger than those that chiefs actually had authority over. After Mzilikazi 's flight north in November 1837, the trekkers immediately took over all the land between the Vet and Limpopo rivers - although Mzilikazi's area of control covered only the western Transvaal.

But it was only after the Sand River Convention (1852) and the Bloemfontein Convention (1854) that independent Boer republics were formally established north of the Vaal and Orange rivers respectively.

Reader’s Digest. (1988). Illustrated History of South Africa: the real story, New York: Reader’s Digest Association. p. 114-120.

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The great treks : the transformation of Southern Africa, 1815-1854

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Related links, tydskrif vir geesteswetenskappe, on-line version  issn 2224-7912 print version  issn 0041-4751, tydskr. geesteswet. vol.49 n.4 pretoria  2009.

Was die Groot Trek werklik groot? 'n Historiografiese ondersoek na die gevolge en betekenis van die Groot Trek

Was the Great Trek really great? A historiographical inquiry into the consequences and significance of the Great Trek

Pieter de Klerk

Vakgroep Geskiedenis, Noordwes-Universiteit (Vaaldriehoekkampus), E-pos: [email protected]

Sedert die laat negentiende eeu het historici die gevolge en betekenis van die Groot Trek bespreek. Daar kan verskillende hooftendense in die interpretasies onderskei word. Daar is eerstens die vroeë beskouing dat die Trek die beskawing in suidelike Afrika uitgedra het. Tweedens is daar die siening van Afrikaanse historici dat die Groot Trek die totstandkoming van die Afrikanervolk moontlik gemaak het. Derdens het lede van die liberale skool van historici die Trek beskou as 'n ontvlugting van progressiewe Britse beleidsmaatreëls in die Kaapkolonie; dit was 'n ramp vir die ontwikkeling van Suid-Afrika. Vierdens is daar die siening van die radikale skool dat die Groot Trek 'n fase was in die uitbreiding van kapitalisme en kolonialisme in Suid-Afrika. Vyfdens is daar die resente opvatting dat die Groot Trek net een van verskeie migrasies in Suid-Afrika was en nie uitgesonder kan word as van besondere betekenis nie. Sesdens beskou latere Afrikaanse geskiedskrywers die Trek as 'n gebeurtenis met uiteenlopende gevolge. Dit blyk dat historici steeds beïnvloed is deur tydsomstandighede in hul beklemtoning van bepaalde gevolge van die Trek. Sommige van hul stellings oor die langtermyngevolge van die Trek is spekulatief en kan moeilik gestubstansieer word. Gesien binne die perspektief van die huidige tydsgewrig was die Groot Trek primer deel van 'n omvattende proses van verwestering en modernisasie in suidelike Afrika. Alhoewel dit nie as dié sentrale gebeurtenis in die geskiedenis van Suid-Afrika gesien kan word, soos vroeër dikwels beweer is nie, is dit tog een van 'n klein aantal sleutelgebeurtenisse in die geskiedenis van die land.

Trefwoorde: Groot Trek, Voortrekkers, Suid-Afrikaanse geskiedenis, historiografie, Afrikanernasionalisme, Afrikanasionalisme, liberale historici, radikale historici, kolonisasie, kapitalisme, rassebeleid.

Since the late nineteenth century historians have discussed the consequences and significance of the Great Trek. G M Theal, who wrote an authoritative multi-volume history of South Africa, described the Trek as a unique event in the history of modern colonisation. He, together with scholars such as G E Cory and M Nathan, saw the importance of the Great Trek especially in terms of the expansion of Western civilisation and Christianity into the eastern parts of South Africa. During the period between approximately 1900 and 1980 many Afrikaans- speaking historians were strongly influenced by Afrikaner nationalism. They linked the Great Trek to the birth of the Afrikaner nation. Some historians, such as G S Preller and C Beyers, saw the Voortrekkers as people who were already conscious of their identity as a nation and wanted to become free of British dominance. Later historians, such as G D Scholtz, C F J Muller and F A van Jaarsveld, believed that Afrikaner nationalism only developed after the Great Trek, but that the Trek prevented the anglicization of the Boers in the Cape Colony and therefore made possible the development of an Afrikaner nation. W M Macmillan, E A Walker and C W de Kiewiet, three prominent members of the liberal school of historians, also regarded the Great Trek as a very important event in the development of South Africa, but thought that it had mainly negative consequences. In their opinion, the Voortrekkers had escaped from the economic and political changes in the Cape Colony with the aim of preserving an antiquated way of life. In the Boer republics, and later in the Union of South Africa, the racial policies of the Dutch colonial period were continued, instead of the liberal racial policies practised in the Cape Colony under British rule. Some contemporary historians still accept major elements of the early liberal interpretations. Authors with a Marxist viewpoint, such as D Taylor and W M Tsotsi, also regarded the Voortrekkers as representatives of a pre-capitalist economic system, but at the same time saw them as the vanguard of the imperialist advance in Africa; the Voortrekkers were conquerers and the oppressors of the indigenous population. P Delius, T Keegan and others, however, viewed the Voortrekkers as being part of the expanding capitalist system in Southern Africa. Since the 1960s a number of historians argued that the Great Trek should not be seen as a central event in the development of South Africa. A R Willcox and N Parsons emphasized the similarities between the Great Trek and the Mfecane. N Etherington, who is critical of traditional views of the Mfecane as a dispersal of peoples in Southern Africa caused by the rise of the Zulu kingdom under Shaka, viewed the Great Trek as one of a number of "treks" by various groups during the period 1815-1854. According to him the Great Trek was not larger or more significant than the other migrations and therefore does not deserve to be called "great". During the last four decades several Afrikaans historians pointed out that the Great Trek had a number of diverse consequences. From the perspective of the history of the Afrikaners there were various negative consequences. As a result of the Trek, the Afrikaners remained politically divided for many years. Furthermore, the Trek resulted in the cultural and economic isolation of the Boers. The Great Trek increased the conflicts between the Boers and indigenous tribes, but, on the other hand, stimulated trade between black and white groups. It would appear that in their various interpretations of the consequences of the Great Trek historians were influenced by the circumstances of their own time. Consequences which during a certain period seemed very important are now no longer regarded as particularly significant. De Kiewiet, for instance, pointed out in 1941 that the Great Trek connected the future development of the whole of South Africa with the Afrikaners, but today the Afrikaners are no longer the politically dominant group. Interpretations of the signifance of the Great Trek have also been strongly influenced by philosophical and ideological views. Afrikaner nationalists, African nationalists, Marxists and liberal historians have emphasized different consequences. While the view of the liberal school that the Great Trek caused the continuation of non-liberal racial policies had been influential for a long time, it was challenged by later scholars who regarded racism and apartheid as products of capitalism and colonialism. Some statements on the long term consequences of the Great Trek are speculative and cannot be proved or disproved. Among these are the proposition of several Afrikaner historians that the descendants of the Voortrekkers would have been completely anglicized if they had remained in the Cape Colony; and the statement by De Kiewiet that the Great Trek had prevented the development of separate white and black states in Southern Africa. The Great Trek was an important phase in the Western colonisation of South Africa. Early historians such as Theal saw the colonisation process as a positive development. For African nationalist writers, however, colonisation meant primarily the oppression of the indigenous peoples. Political decolonisation did not bring an end to the process of westernisation and modernisation in Africa, and the dominant political and economic system in South Africa today is mainly of Western origin. The Great Trek was a key event in the history of South Africa, comparable with events such as the British conquest of the Cape Colony in 1806 and the transfer of political power to the black majority in 1994.

Key concepts: Great Trek, Voortrekkers, South African history, historiography, Afrikaner nationalism, African nationalism, liberal historians, radical historians, colonisation, capitalism, racial policy

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1  Vergelyk Etherington (2008:323-324, 332). 2  Vergelyk Saunders (1988:9); Smith (1988:31). 3  Vergelyk Theal (1887:357); Van Jaarsveld (1963:52). 4  Vergelyk Muller (1963:54-55); Van Jaarsveld (1974:55); Smith (1988:47-48). 5  Vergelyk Muller (1963:53-54); Thompson (1985:180); Van Jaarsveld (1992: 28). 6 Majeke, Introduction, ongenommerd; vgl. Van Jaarsveld (1974:101); Muller (1974:37); Saunders (1988:137). 7 Vergelyk Van Jaarsveld (1984:58-65); Saunders (1988:154-161); Smith (1988:139-144). 8 Vergelyk die kritiek van Saunders (2002:300-307). 9 Vergelyk ook Muller (1974:20-21; Visagie (2005:2).

Pieter de Klerk is professor in Geskiedenis aan die Vaaldriehoekkampus van die Noordwes-Universiteit. Hy het aan die Potchefstroomse Universiteit vir CHO (tans bekend as die Noordwes-Universiteit) en aan die Vrije Universiteit van Amsterdam gestudeer, voordat hy in 1971 die graad D.Litt. in Geskiedenis aan eersgenoemde inrigting verwerf het. Hy is in 1968 as junior lektor in Geskiedenis op die Potchefstroomkampus van die PU vir CHO aangestel en is sedert 1983 aan die Vaaldriehoekkampus verbonde. Hy is die outeur van 'n aantal boeke en artikels op, hoofsaaklik, die volgende terreine: die teorie en filosofie van geskiedenis, historiografie en vergelykende geskiedenis. Hy het verskeie voordragte op internasionale en binnelandse vakkonferensies gelewer en was redaksielid van enkele akademiese tydskrifte.

Pieter de Klerk is professor of History at the Vaal Triangle Campus of North-West University. He studied at the Potchefstroom University for CHE (presently called Northwest-University) and at the Free University of Amsterdam, before he obtained the degree D.Litt. in History in 1971 at Potchefstroom University. In 1968 he was appointed as junior lecturer in History at the Potchefstroom Campus of the PU for CHE, and since 1983 he has been a staff-member at the Vaal Triangle Campus. He is the author of a number of books and articles focusing largely on the following fields of expertise: the theory and philosophy of history, historiography and comparative history. He has presented several papers at international and national academic conferences and has served on the editorial boards of a number of scholarly journals.

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South Africa: The Great Trek 1836–46

South Africa: The Great Trek 1836–46

The Great Trek is the name given to the exodus of 12,000–14,000 Boers from British Cape Colony. Frustrated by the colony’s Anglicization policies, restrictions on slave labour and population pressures intensified by drought and increasing inward migration, they chose to look for better grazing pastures elsewhere. After crossing the Orange River, the trekkers split, northwards or eastwards. After a series of skirmishes, the northern trekkers achieved decisive victory over the Ndebele at Mosega in 1837 and created the independent republics of Transvaal and Transorangia. The eastwards Boers defeated the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River and declared the republic of Natal. The British Government annexed Natal in 1843, but recognized the inland republics in 1852–54. However, they sought to restrain the Boer expansion by simultaneously granting recognition to two native protectorates in Griqua and Basuto. These territories harboured many Boer settlers, becoming a source of future contention.

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he term ‘Boer Trek’ was first coined by Neil Parsons in his New History of Southern Africa (Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1982). At the time of the migration of Boers from the eastern Cape Colony to beyond the Orange TRiver in the late 1830s , it was neither a single ‘trek’ (from the Afrikaans ‘to pull’ a wagon), nor was it very great. It was perceived to be a continuation of the long-established Boer search for new land that could be settled without too much resistance from its local African occupants. They left the Colony in groups, sometimes with family connections, always under the ‘protection’ and ‘guidance’ of some leader figure. There were many different motives, and hence different directions in which they aimed. It took them two decades to form into two reasonably cohesive, racially-defined, ‘republics’. At the time, these ancestors of modern ‘ Afrikaners ’ regarded themselves as simply ‘volk’, who spoke a colloquial dialect of Dutch, known locally as the taal.

It was not until the early 1870s that ‘Boer’ intellectuals in far-off Cape Town began to refer to themselves as ‘Afrikaners’, and the language that they spoke as ‘Afrikaans’. This was a deliberate attempt to retain something of their historic roots in the face of the Anglicising culture of the Cape Colony’s British rulers. This had become important in the light of the British granting of internal ‘self- government’ to the Colony in 1872, with English as the official language of the whites-only parliament in Cape Town.

In 1875 a Dutch Reformed Church minister in the Cape Colony, Stephanus du Toit, founded an association dedicated to the preservation and official recognition of the ‘Afrikaans’ language. The following year Du Toit launched Die Afrikaanse Patriot, the first Afrikaans-language newspaper. In 1877 he published a history of the Afrikaners, in the Afrikaans language, ‘Geskiedenis van Ons Land in die Taal van Ons Volk’. This became a story of a people whose unique culture was forged in the face of British oppression, and it was this book which first portrayed the Boer migrations out of the Cape Colony as ‘The Great Trek’. Du Toit’s portrayal drew parallels with the Biblical ‘Exodus’ from Egypt in search of the ‘Promised Land’. In the evolving mythology of Afrikaner nationalism , the Boer republics north of the Orange River became part of God’s plan for the Afrikaners, thus making the ‘Great Trek’ a key event in the evolution of Afrikaans culture.

© Kevin Shillington, History of Africa (Fourth Edition), 2019.

The historiography of the Boer trek received a boost by the English-language historian, Eric Walker, whose The Great Trek (A & C. Black, London) was published in 1934. The publication of a second edition, in 1938, was timed to coincide with the centenary of the ‘event’. This was commemorated by Afrikaners on a vast scale (with monuments to match) in 1938. By this time the ‘Great Trek’ had come to be regarded within South Africa as the defining event of the country’s history.

It was not until the late 1960s that the role of the ‘trek’ in southern African history got a serious re-assessment and the mineral revolution , that started with diamond mining at Kimberley in 1870, began to replace the Boer trek as the key pivotal moment in the region’s history. The two-volume Oxford History of South Africa , edited by Leonard Thompson and Monica Wilson and published in 1969 was the first major work to mark this shift in focus – the two volumes being divided along the year 1870 (OUP, Oxford, 1969). The trend was followed by successive textbooks during the 1980s so that the mineral revolution now marks a standard turning point in South African history: see, D. Denoon and B. Nyeko, Southern Africa since 1800 (2nd edition, Longman, London, 1984); N. Parsons, A New History of Southern Africa (Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1982, 2nd edition, 1993); K. Shillington, History of Southern Africa (Longman, Harlow, 1987, 2nd edition, Longman Botswana , Gaborone, 2002); and C. Hamilton, B. K. Mbenga and R. Ross (eds), The Cambridge history of South Africa , Volume I, From Early Times to 1885 (CUP, 2010).

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The Great South African Trek

C.H.N. Routh records the travels and travails of the Boer pioneers

Heresies in history die hard; and the worst kind of school text-book, oversimplified and written down to the intelligence of the weakest pupils, helps to perpetuate popular errors. “Palmerston (we learn) fought the first Chinese War to force opium on to China,” or “The object of the Continental System was to starve out Great Britain. ...” A heresy that bears a charmed life teaches that the Great South African Trek was brought about by the abolition of slavery in 1833. The contention is that fury at the British government’s interference in the Boer way of life by this attack on their cherished system of slave labour, resentment at the financial losses incurred through inadequate compensation, and irritation at the inefficient machinery by which that compensation was to be paid, moved the frontier Boers to leave the colony in order to preserve slavery. Evidence is wholly against this reading. No doubt abolition increased the general irritation and added its quota to the growing resentment against the British government, but abolition itself would never have caused the Great Trek, and it cannot be regarded as the primary cause for the emigration.

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  6. The Voortrekkers: Story of the Great Trek and the Making of South Africa

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  1. Great Trek 1835-1846

    The Great Trek was a movement of Dutch-speaking colonists up into the interior of southern Africa in search of land where they could establish their own homeland, independent of British rule. The determination and courage of these pioneers has become the single most important element in the folk memory of Afrikaner Nationalism.

  2. Great Trek

    Great Trek, the emigration of some 12,000 to 14,000 Boers from Cape Colony in South Africa between 1835 and the early 1840s, in rebellion against the policies of the British government and in search of fresh pasturelands. The Great Trek is regarded by Afrikaners as a central event of their 19th-century history and the origin of their nationhood.

  3. Great Trek

    The Great Trek ( Afrikaans: Die Groot Trek [di ˌχruət ˈtrɛk]; Dutch: De Grote Trek [də ˌɣroːtə ˈtrɛk]) was a northward migration of Dutch-speaking settlers who travelled by wagon trains from the Cape Colony into the interior of modern South Africa from 1836 onwards, seeking to live beyond the Cape's British colonial administration. [1]

  4. The great treks : the transformation of Southern Africa, 1815-1854

    The great treks : the transformation of Southern Africa, 1815-1854 by Etherington, Norman. Publication date 2001 Topics South Africa -- History -- Frontier Wars, 1811-1878, South Africa -- History -- Great Trek, 1836-1840 Publisher New York : Longman ... Pdf_module_version 0.0.19 Ppi 300 Rcs_key 24143 Republisher_date

  5. Was the Great Trek really great? A historiographical inquiry ...

    W M Macmillan, E A Walker and C W de Kiewiet, three prominent members of the liberal school of historians, also regarded the Great Trek as a very important event in the development of South Africa, but thought that it had mainly negative consequences.

  6. (PDF) The Great Treks: The Transformation of South Africa, 1815-1854

    The Great Treks: The Transformation of South Africa, 1815-1854 Norman Etherington 2003, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute See Full PDF Download PDF Related Papers 2012 • Norman Etherington

  7. The Great Treks: The Transformation of South Africa, 1815-1854

    The Great Treks: The Transformation of South Africa, 1815-1854 | Request PDF The Great Treks: The Transformation of South Africa, 1815-1854 Authors: Irving Hexham Norman Etherington...

  8. history. The older books, expressing what has been called 1 the

    The Great Trek is the most romantic episode in the history of South Africa. It proceeded from a deliberate intention to break away from citizenship in a British colony and to found a new community beyond the reach of the Government so repudiated. It involved personal

  9. Was the Great Trek really great? A historiographical inquiry into the

    Pieter de Klerk Abstract Since the late nineteenth century historians have discussed the consequences and significance of the Great Trek. G M Theal, who wrote an authoritative multi-volume...

  10. The Great Treks: The Transformation of Southern Africa 1815-1854

    The mass migration of the Boer farmers from Cape Colony to escape British domination in 1835-36 - the Great Trek - has always been a potent icon of Afrikaaner nationalism and identity. For African nationalists, the Mfecane - the vast movement of the Black populations in the interior following the emergence of a new Zulu kingdom as a major military force in the early 19th century - offers an ...

  11. PDF 'Translating' the Great Trek to the Twentieth Century: Re

    TRANSLATING' THE GREAT TREK 1 1 7 While the actual Voortrekkers "did not attempt to create a single nation-state in the interior of South Africa," Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido concede that the Great Trek "has been at the heart of much Afrikaner nationalist myth-making" (15). According to Isabel Hofmeyr, the history of

  12. Great Trek

    Great Trek. Afrikaners left the Cape Colony (in present-day South Africa) in large numbers during the second half of the 1830s, an act that became known as the "Great Trek" and that helped define white South Africans' ethnic, cultural, and political identity.In line with Afrikaners' belief in a separate existence, developing tensions between these settlers, British authorities, and African ...

  13. South Africa: The Great Trek 1836-46 -The Map Archive

    South Africa: The Great Trek 1836-46. $ 3.95. Map Code: Ax00124. The Great Trek is the name given to the exodus of 12,000-14,000 Boers from British Cape Colony. Frustrated by the colony's Anglicization policies, restrictions on slave labour and population pressures intensified by drought and increasing inward migration, they chose to look ...

  14. 'Translating' the Great Trek to the twentieth century : re

    The events that later became known as the Great Trek stand for a decisive phase in the colonial history of southern Africa, a phase that led to a substantial increase of the white presence in areas that were formerly controlled by blacks. Furthermore, the Trek has been presented as one of the cornerstones on which the Afrikaner 'nation' was erected, and it features prominently in the ...

  15. The Great Trek (Ch20).Pdf

    The Great Trek Text.Indd; The Great Trek (Ch20).Pdf; The Implementation of Apartheid; The Settlers of South Africa and the Expanding Frontier; Thel a F R I M BROEDERBOND 1927; Rhodesian Sunset Factional Politics, War, and the Demise of an Imperial Order in British South Africa; A South African Diary: Contested Identity, My Family - Our Story

  16. The Great Trek in South Africa

    The Great Trek in South Africa started in 1835 when over a time span of three years more then 12,000 Boers (farmers) left the Cape Colony. They trekked (moved) into the interior by ox wagon, in search of land where they would be free and beyond British control. In time, after facing many hardships, these farmers started to build a unique ...

  17. The Great Treks: The Transformation of Southern Africa 1815-1854

    The Great Treks: The Transformation of Southern Africa 1815-1854 Norman Etherington Routledge, Jun 6, 2014 - History - 394 pages The mass migration of the Boer farmers from Cape Colony to...

  18. PDF Timeline: an overview of South African modern history and key events in

    The Great Trek begins Dutch-speaking settlers migrate from the Cape Colony into the interior of South Africa, away from the boundaries of the British colony. These 'Voortrekkers', descended from Dutch, German and French settlers come to be known collectively as Afrikaners or Boers ('farmers'). They seize strongholds from various

  19. The Great South African Trek

    C.H.N. Routh | Published in History Today Volume 1 Issue 5 May 1951. Heresies in history die hard; and the worst kind of school text-book, oversimplified and written down to the intelligence of the weakest pupils, helps to perpetuate popular errors. "Palmerston (we learn) fought the first Chinese War to force opium on to China," or "The ...

  20. (PDF) The Next Great Trek? South African commercial farmers move north

    The next Great Trek? South African commercial farmers move north Ruth Hall, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), University of the Western Cape, South Africa, email [email protected] Abstract This paper analyses the shifting role of South African farmers, agribusiness and capital elsewhere in the Southern African region and ...

  21. PDF The next Great Trek? South African commercial farmers move north

    4.2. AgriSaMoz. Another current project of AgriSA Africa is the establishment of 'AgriSaMoz', an association of South African commercial farmers in Mozambique, launched in May 2011 at a function in Pretoria with senior government politicians and officials from both countries in attendance to affirm their support.

  22. [PDF] The next Great Trek? South African commercial farmers move north

    By early 2010, the commercial farmers' association Agri South Africa (AgriSA) was engaged in negotiations for land acquisitions with the governments of 22 African countries. This essay is the product of a scoping study to document and analyse major land acquisitions by South African farmers and agribusinesses, and the processes through which ...