Great Trek

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This article is about the migration in southern Africa. For other uses, see Trek (disambiguation).
Depiction of the exodus of farmers from the Cape Colony

The Great Trek (Afrikaans: Die Groot Trek) was an eastward and north-eastward emigration away from British control in the Cape Colony during the 1830s and 1840s by Boers (Dutch/Afrikaans for "farmers"). The migrants were descended from settlers from western mainland Europe, most notably from the Netherlands, northwest Germany and French Huguenots. The Great Trek itself led to the founding of numerous Boer republics, the Natalia Republic, the Orange Free State Republic and the Transvaal being the most notable.


The Voortrekkers comprised two groups from the eastern frontier region of the Cape Colony, semi-nomadic pastoralists known as Trekboers, and established farmers and artisans known as Grensboere, or Border Farmers. Together these groups were later called Voortrekkers (Pioneers). While most settlers who lived in the western Cape (later known as the Cape Dutch) did not trek eastward, a small number did.[1]

The flag of Cape Colony in South Africa (1875-1910)

The first colonists, who arrived in 1652 to set up a depot for the provision of ships under the auspices of The Dutch East India Company, were of Dutch stock.[2] Many later settlers were of German origin[3] and after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, French Huguenot refugees.[4] By 1800, white colonists numbered slightly less than 40,000 and were so interconnected by marriage that they represented a giant family rather than a new polyglot community. The community was also governed by The Council of Seventeen in Amsterdam, who governed the far-reaching empire of the Dutch East India Company.[2] During the Napoleonic Wars the colony passed into the control of the United Kingdom. This was formally ratified in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna.

Historians have identified various factors that contributed to the migration of an estimated 12,000 Voortrekkers to the future Natal, Orange Free State and Transvaal regions. The primary motivations included discontent with the British rule: its Anglicisation policies, restrictive laws on slavery and its eventual abolition, arrangements to compensate former slave owners, and the perceived indifference of British authorities to border conflicts along the Cape Colony's eastern frontier. Many contemporary sources[who?] argue that Ordinance 50 (1828), which guaranteed equal legal rights to all free persons of colour, and prohibitions on inhumane treatment of workers, spurred the Boer migrations. However, some scholars[who?] argue that most Trekboers did not own slaves, unlike the more affluent Cape Dutch who did not migrate from the western Cape. The three republics subsequently founded by the Voortrekkers prohibited slavery, but enshrined racial separatism in their constitutions.

A preparatory trek to Natal was planned called the "Kommissitrek" or Commission Trek that would lay the groundwork of the coming exodus from the Cape.

In January 1832, an Englishman, Dr. Andrew Smith and a Boer farmer William Berg were sent by the Cape Dutch Boer leaders to investigate Natal for its potential. On their return to the Cape, Dr. Smith was very enthusiastic, and even if he did not write up a proper report on his findings, the impact of discussions William Berg had with the Boers proved crucial. Berg stressed that Natal was a land of exceptional farming quality, was well watered and nearly devoid of inhabitants. In June 1834, the Boer leaders of Uitenhage and Grahamstown discussed a so-called Kommissitrek or “Commission Trek” to visit Natal and assess its potential as a new homeland for the discontented Cape Boers who were disenchanted with British rule at the Cape. Petrus Lafras Uys was chosen as trek leader.

In June 1834, Jan Gerritze Bantjes at Graaff Reinet got to hear about this exploratory trek to Port Natal to investigate the possibility of a new Dutch settlement there, and encouraged by his father Bernard Louis Bantjes, word was sent to Uys of his interest to partake in this great adventure. Bantjes wanted to help re-establish Dutch independence over the Boers and get away from British law at the Cape. J.G.Bantjes was already well known in the area as an educated young man fluent in both spoken and written Dutch or English and was, due to these skills, invited by Uys to join this voyage of discovery to Natal. J.G.Bantjes’ writing skills would be invaluable in recording events as the journey unfolded.

In early August 1834, Jan Gerritze set off with some travellers headed for Grahamstown 220km away, a three week journey from Graaff Reinet. Sometime around late August 1834 Jan Gerritze Bantjes arrived in Grahamstown and contacted Uys and made his introductions. There, Jan Gerritze met up with the other expedition team members, secured supplies and got ready for the long journey ahead.

On Monday, 8 Sept.1834, the Boer Kommissitrek of 20 men and one woman including a retinue of coloured servants, set off from Grahamstown for Natal with 14 wagons. Moving through the Eastern Cape, they were welcomed by the Xhosa who were at loggerheads with the neighbouring Zulu King Dingaan, and they passed unharmed into Natal. They travelled more or less the same route as Dr. Andrew Smith had taken two years earlier.

The trek avoided the coastal route, keeping to the flatter inland terrain. The kommissitrek approached Port Natal from East Griqualand and Ixopo, crossing the upper regions of the Umtumvuna and Umkomaas rivers. The travel pace was slow due to the rugged terrain, and since it was the summer, the rainy season had swollen many of the rivers to their maximum. Progress required days of scouting to locate the most suitable tracks to negotiate. Eventually after weeks of incredible toil, the small party arrived at Port Natal crossing the Congela river and weaving their way through the coastal forest into the bay area. They had travelled a distance of about 650 km. From Grahamstown. This trip would have taken about 5-6 months with their slow moving wagons. The Drakensberg route via Kerkenberg into Natal had not yet been discovered.

They arrived at the sweltering hot bay of Port Natal in Feb. 1835 exhausted after their long journey. At Port Natal the trek was soon welcomed with open arms by the few British hunters and ivory traders there such as James Collis including semi-invalid Allen (Rev.) Francis Gardiner (1794-1851), an ex-commander of the Royal Navy ship Clinker, who had decided to start a mission station there. The British had their camp near the Point sand banks in thick coastal forest overlooking the entrance to the bay. After congenial exchanges between the Dutch (Boers) and British sides, the party settled in and Richard (Dick) King (1813-1871) was invited to become their guide.

A romanticized depiction of the Great Trek.

The Boers set up their laager camp in what is now the Greyville race course area being more open where suitable grazing was available to the oxen and horses, and as far as possible from the foraging hippos in the bay. Several small streams running off the Berea provided fresh water for the trekkers. Alexander Biggar (1781-1838) was also at the bay as a professional elephant hunter and helped the trekkers with important information regarding conditions at Port Natal. Bantjes made notes suggested by Uys which were later used in his more comprehensive report on the positive aspects of Natal. Bantjes also made rough maps of the bay (this journal now missing) showing the potential for a harbour which could supply the Boers in their potential new homeland.

At Port Natal, Dick King who was there and could speak Zulu, was sent by Uys to Umgungunhlovo to investigate with Dingaan the possibility of granting them land to settle, when Dick King returned to Port Natal some weeks later, he reported that Dingaan insisted they visit him in person. Johannes Uys, brother of Petrus Uys and a number of comrades with a few wagons, travelled toward Dingaan’s capital at Umgungunhlovo, and making a laager of wagons at the mouth of the Mvoti River, they proceeded on horseback, but were halted by a full flooded Tugela River and forced to return to the laager.

The entire Grahamstown-Port Natal-Grahamstown round trip would have spanned a good 12-15 months with about 2-3 months spent at Port Natal and the region hunting and exploring as far as the Tugela River and inland to about where PMB would one day stand and almost to the Drakensberg. Port Natal then was a wild place of elephants, crocodiles and hippos, snakes and bush animals of all varieties including leopards and lions. Jan Gerritze Bantjes was one of the very first persons to have lived there, even if only for a short period. Bantjes would later return to Port Natal in Oct.1837, this time from over the newly discovered Drakensberg route together with Piet Retief.

The Kommissitrek with a good stash of ivory left Port Natal for Grahamstown in early June 1835 following more or less the same route back to the Cape, arriving at Grahamstown in October 1835 to a great welcome. On Uys’s recommendation, Bantjes set to work on the first draft of the Natalialand Report. Meetings and talks were held in the main church to much approval and the first sparks of Trek Fever began to take hold. From all the information accumulated at Port Natal, Jan Gerritze Bantjes drew up the final report on “Natalia or Natal Land” that acted as the catalyst which inspired the Boers at the Cape to set in motion the Great Trek away from the British at the Cape.

Other possible factors included the desire to escape from relentless border wars with the Xhosa along the eastern frontier of the Cape colony. The migrants also sought fertile farmland, as good land was becoming scarce within the colony's frontiers. The Great Trek also resulted from increasing population pressures, as Trekboer migrations eastward had come to a virtual stop for at least three decades, though some Trekboers did migrate beyond the Orange River prior to the Great Trek.

Natal conflicts[edit]

The Great Trek did not begin until 1838. During the Great Trek the Voortrekkers engaged in conflict with the Zulu of Natal. The Zulu launched large-scale hostilities after a delegation under the Trek leader Piet Retief was massacred by their king, Dingane kaSenzangakhona on 6 February 1838.

Various interpretations of what exactly transpired exist, as only the missionary Francis Owen's written eye-witness account survived.[5] Retief's written request for land contained veiled threats by referring to the Voortrekker's defeat of indigenous groups encountered along their journey. The Voortrekker demand for a written contract guaranteeing private property ownership was incompatible with the contemporaneous Zulu oral culture which prescribed that a chief could only temporarily dispense land, which was communally owned.[6]

Most versions agree that the following happened: Dingane's authority extended over some of the land in which the Boers wanted to settle. As prerequisite to granting the Voortrekker request, Dingane demanded that the Voortrekkers return some cattle stolen by Sekonyela, a rival chief. After the Boers retrieved the cattle back, Dingane invited Retief to his residence at Umgungundlovu to finalise the treaty, having either planned the massacre in advance, or deciding to do so after Retief and his men arrived. Perhaps an earlier display of arms from horseback by Retief's men provoked the massacre. Dingane's reputed instruction to his warriors, "Bulalani abathakathi!" (Zulu for "kill the wizards") showed that he may have considered the Boers to wield evil supernatural powers. After murdering Piet Retief's delegation, the Zulu impis (battalions) immediately attacked Boer encampments in the Drakensberg foothills at what later was called Blaauwkrans and Weenen. In contrast to earlier conflicts with the Xhosa on the eastern Cape frontier, the Zulu killed the women and children along with the men, wiping out half of the Natal contingent of Voortrekkers.

On 6 April 1838 the Voortrekkers retaliated with a 347-strong punitive raid against the Zulu (later known as the Flight Commando), supported by new arrivals from the Orange Free State. They were roundly defeated by about 7,000 warriors at Ithaleni, southwest of uMgungundlovu. The well-known reluctance of Afrikaner leaders to submit to one another's leadership, which later so hindered sustained success in the Anglo-Boer wars, was largely to blame.

On 16 December 1838 a 470-strong force of Andries Pretorius confronted about 12,000 Zulu at prepared positions.[7] The Boers reputedly suffered only 3 injuries without any fatalities, while the blood of 3,000 slain Zulu turned the river red with blood, so that the conflict afterwards became known as the Battle of Blood River. The Boers' guns offered them an obvious technological advantage over the Zulu's traditional weaponry of short stabbing spears, fighting sticks, and cattle-hide shields. The Boers attributed their victory to a vow they made to God before the battle: if victorious, they and future generations would commemorate the day as a Sabbath. Thus 16 December was celebrated by Boers as a public holiday, first called "Dingane's Day," later changed to the Day of the Vow. It is still a public holiday, but the name was changed to the Day of Reconciliation by the post-apartheid ANC government, in order to foster reconciliation between all South Africans. However, the Day of the Vow is still celebrated by Boers today.[7]

After the defeat of the Zulu forces and the recovery of the treaty between Dingane and Retief from the latter's skeleton, the Voortrekkers proclaimed the Natalia Republic.[8] This Boer state was annexed by British forces in 1843.[9]

Due to the return of British rule, emphasis moved from occupying lands in Natal, east of the Drakensberg mountains, to the west of them and onto the high veld of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, which were unoccupied due to the devastation of the Mfecane.

In fiction[edit]



Geknelde land (English: Afflicted land) (1960)
Offerland (English: Land of sacrifice) (1963)
Gelofteland (English: Land of the covenant) (1966)
Bedoelde land (English: Intended land) (1968)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Cape Colony". Explow. Retrieved 21 June 2012. 
  2. ^ a b Walker, Eric (1968). "Chapter II". A History of South Africa. Longmans. 
  3. ^ Walker, Eric (1968). "Chapter IV". A History of South Africa. Longmans. 
  4. ^ H C Viljoen. The Contribution of the Huguenots in South Africa.
  5. ^ Bulpin, T.V. "9 - The Voortrekkers". Natal and the Zulu Country. T.V.Bulpin Publications. 
  6. ^ du Toit, André. "(Re)reading the Narratives of Political Violence in South Africa: Indigenous founding myths & frontier violence as discourse". p. 18. Retrieved 2009-08-18. 
  7. ^ a b "Battle of Blood River". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2010-05-21. 
  8. ^ Bulpin, T.V. "11 - The Republic of Natal". Natal and the Zuku Country. T.V.Bulpin Publications. 
  9. ^ Bulpin, T.V. "12 - Twilight of the Republic". Natal and the Zuku Country. T.V.Bulpin Publications.