South Africa in the early 19th Century was a pioneering community, with its own “Wild west” frontier. Land hungry Dutch settlers - The Boers - had been moving inland ever since the first settlement of the Cape was founded in 1652. By the time the British seized the colony in 1795, frontier Boers were already hunting down indigenous peoples and ‘Bushmen’ in northern border areas. When the British tried to enforce a humanitarian native policy in the 1830’s, the stubbornly independent Boers trekked further away into the boundless interior. There they clashed with other fiercer African peoples of ‘Bantu’ stock and suffered an appalling massacre at the hands of the ferocious young Zulu nation. The Boers avenged themselves for this defeat, and then founded their own independent republic: by the mid 19th century they were ready to defy any British attempt to subject them once again to imperial rule.
On a mild spring day in 1795, the Prince of Orange was worrying about a piece of paper before him. The shock of exile still fresh and he had not yet recovered fully from a hurried channel crossing as he fled from the invading armies of revolutionary France. His country was under foreign occupation and was no longer known as the Dutch republic; the conquering French had re-christened it The Batavian Republic. He was now being requested by the British, to sign away his colonies to prevent them falling into the hands of the French. The British were especially interested in “The Cape” in South Africa, which commanded the route to the growing empire in the east. Eventually after pondering the matter for some time he signed the paper.
By that small movement of the pen he not only gave Britain a base on the route to India, he set in train, events which soon transformed the Cape from a mere trading post to a nation in its own right. Despite the fact that the Portuguese had been first on the spot in 1496, they did not develop the Cape in any way and only used it as a supply point for Portuguese ships on their way to the East Indies. When the Portuguese trading empire fell into decline the rising Dutch merchants took over and built up an even larger trade in pepper and silk with the east. They too, used the Cape as a supply point for their big mercantile shipping. Despite the efforts of the Dutch East India Co. To limit the settlement, it grew. Children were born and grew up knowing no other country. Thinking it was theirs, they wanted to govern it themselves. Most of the people were farmers and the Dutch word for farmer being ‘b-o-e-r’ they became known as the Boers. The Boers would not accept the fact that they were simply the branch office of a commercial enterprise, claiming the right to make their own laws and sell their produce to anyone who called at the Cape.
On June 11th 1795, nine British men-of-war dropped anchor in Simon’s Bay and sent ashore a message that they had come to take over until France had been dealt with after which they would immediately leave. The Boers saw this as a good moment to make a bid for complete independence. They collected their guns and came down to the beaches to resist the invasion of their country. So began what could be called the first Boer War.
After a month of skirmishing, the Boer militiamen realised that they were outclassed by the red coated professionals and so they dispersed and made their way back to their farms. The British hoisted the Union Jack over the castle in Cape town and set about convincing the Boers that they bore them no malice.
Sometime later in very early 19th century, the Boers who now regarded themselves more as South Africans than Europeans in south Africa did not care for the title of ‘Boer’ and styled themselves ‘Afrikaners’ a proud name meaning Men of Africa.
The Afrikaners God was a stern disciplinarian of the old testament; he demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. To the Afrikaners it was made apparent that just as he had chosen the Israelites as his chosen people, he had now selected the Afrikaners by some strange divine destiny to be the rulers in South Africa. They were followers of John Calvin, one of the Protestant reformers of the 16th century, who had been in the forefront of the movement that smashed the supremacy of the Roman Catholic church. The Afrikaners believed that they were ordained by God to be rulers in the Cape. It was a reassuring philosophy but it was soon put to the test. The British compelled by events in Europe, sailed once again back into Simon’s Bay in 1806, this time with sixty-three ships . War had broken out once more between France and the rest of Europe. Napoleons fleet had been defeated at Trafalgar but he was still supreme on the continent and potentially dangerous. The British, in order to forestall any attempt by Napoleon, to seize the Cape seized it themselves. This would make the British, masters of the southern oceans and enable them to protect the route to their Indian Empire.
Although the Afrikaners had mustered a force similar in size to that of the British, for some reason the governor decided to offer no serious opposition and the British quickly gained control. The British sent 6,700 troops to occupy the Cape in 1806, and when peace came to Europe in 1814, they paid £6 million compensation to the Dutch.
London wished to settle some of the country with its own people, and in 1820, 4,000 men women and children, mostly with state-aided passages, arrived off the southern African coast . The governor’s remarks of the inland settlement area of Albany, to where the new settlers were being directed, were less than truthful, describing it as ‘a most fertile and beautiful area - a succession of parks’. This was quite untrue, he had in fact never been there and intended to use the new settlement which lay in an area of continual racial unrest as a barrier against raiding tribesmen. When the newcomers arrived to take up their land grants they found a wild land where lions, leopards and hyenas prowled, the ground was sour, and the wheat harvest failed in four successive years, hopelessly ruined by a virulent crop disease (rust) or devoured by plagues of locusts.
Quite naturally the Afrikaners resented the introduction of the new British settlers to the land which they had believed to be theirs for many years. The Afrikaner was extremely proud of what little tradition he had, and of his custom and language. Over the years, they had began adapting to the peculiar nature of this country and the self-reliant life of the open spaces.
The Afrikaners did not know what lay in the hinterland, but there were bound to be places which could support the kind of life they wanted and to which the British would have no inclination to follow. ‘Let them keep the Cape’. The Afrikaners would imitate the Israelites and go in search of a land of milk and honey. There seemed indeed to be such a land. Up the east coast towards Natal, and inland beyond the Orange and Vaal Rivers, a generous rainfall made the countryside seem a promised land in comparison with the arid grasslands near the Cape. The last straw for the Afrikaners, in the 1830’s was when Britain decreed that all slaves were to be given complete freedom and by 1838 a sum of £3 million had been provided to compensate the slave owners. This was a shock to the Boers who had always treated their slaves with the same exceptional care that they gave to all of their property.
In the final analysis the freeing of the slaves was not a significant factor in deciding the Boers to trek, since of the Afrikaners who owned most slaves, only 2% joined the trek. In effect the final unbearable challenge was the fact that the slaves were to be regarded on an equal footing with Christians, which according to the Afrikaners was contrary to the law of God. It was time for any true Afrikaner to pack his wagon and be off.
The wagons were in general, approximately 12 feet long, and 4 feet wide. The 5 foot rear wheels were twice as large as the front ones. But all the wheels were tremendously strong to withstand the rough terrain over which they would travel. A large box at the front which contained personal possessions, clothing and of course - the Bible - whilst another box at the back was for provisions; occasionally there were two further boxes were slung one on either side. Over the wagons body was a cover made of several layers of completely waterproof canvas. The wagon was drawn by a carefully chosen team of oxen each of which had a name and a special place in the traces.
From 1836 to 1838, the years of the Great Trek, nearly a quarter of the European [population of the Cape colony, some 10,000 men women and children began the trek to escape British domination. Most had been unable to sell their farms and had simply abandoned them, together with most of their possessions.
The trekkers moved north east in trains of various sizes their herds of cattle, sheep and goats trailing along behind. The British watched this mass migration with amazement and even awe but they did not consider the odds in favour of survival in the wilderness were great.
There was, during the trek, the emergence of some natural leaders. One, Anderies Potgieter was able to fit out a train of 50 wagons and provide them with an armed escort of 40 men. He, himself was a most impressive patriarchal figure, deeply religious with an enormous family, the result of marrying five times.
Perhaps the most commanding figure and certainly now the legendary embodiment of the great trek, was Piet Retif. This deeply thoughtful man was 57 when he decided to leave his home. He later published a manifesto which became the guiding principle of the Boers.
Once across the Orange River which flows east to west across South Africa the Voortrekkers were beyond the farthest reaches of British jurisdiction and some decided to go no further whilst others divided into two main groups and pressed on in different directions, one veering eastwards towards Natal and the other pushing north to the next great natural obstacle the Vaal River.
Eventually the party heading for Natal arrived safely, after a hair-raising crossing of the Drakensberg Range of mountains, but they were not alone in their promised land for Natal was dominated by the Zulu nation, soon to become the implacable foe of the Afrikaners.
SHAKA, the son of a Zulu Chief Senzangakona succeeded on the death of his father. And, as an experienced and highly intelligent warrior standing an impressive six foot three inches, he immediately revolutionised the military tactics of the Zulus i.e. A formless mob, He subjected his soldiers to rigorous training and iron discipline. Her made military service compulsory and organised his army into regiments.
Shaka fought not for victory alone but for extermination and Bantu warfare passed from the ancient mild skirmishing to a new level of viciousness. Shaka, who's army now numbered 40,000 ranged farther and farther afield until within a few years he had broken the entire clan structure in Natal, sending a wave of refugees pouring south to fetch up against a frontier of the Cape Colony in the Transkei Although Shaka was not directly responsible, the disorder he touched off spread to the inland plateau where the clan structure also collapsed into chaos. In a period in the early 1820’s over 2 million Bantu died and the old structure of small tribal groups was swept away. Two giant clans grew from the ashes., of the old communities, the Basuto and the Matabele.
He replaced the ‘light’ throwing assegais with stout ‘stabbing’ assegais, which like the Roman short-sword was hefted underhand and compelled close hand-to-hand fighting. Through rigorous training marches he produced an infantry that could cover 60 miles a day at a time when European armies considered 15 miles a day a good march.
The British set about a ‘charm offensive’ with the Boers to prove to them that they were there to further the general good of the colony, and gave further evidence of their good intentions by removing many of the previous restrictions on internal trade that had been imposed by the Dutch East India Co., lifted the duty on imports, reduced taxation and cancelled some crippling monopolies which had artificially inflated the home market. The settlement at that time, consisted of 16,000 white people of Dutch, German, French and Huguenot extraction. The Huguenots fleeing from religious persecution in France at the end of the 17th century, had been a particularly valuable addition to the culture of the colony and had introduced vineyards. There were also 17,000 slaves mainly imported from the Dutch East Indies
His original Dutch language had become a much more simplified ‘patois’ ‘Afrikaans’ absorbing many Malay and native Bantu words, even if religion had changed a great deal from the form in which it had been practised in Holland. To have his customs and beliefs set aside or disregarded touched him where he was most sensitive and prepared to fight. As British control hardened all court proceedings were conducted in English, which the majority of the Afrikaners could not and did not wish to speak; also such schools as there were English was the only language used. The new clutch of decrees gave coloured men the same rights to land tenure as whites forbade field-labour on Sundays regardless of harvest time and abolished previous laws against vagrancy. An increasingly ominous rumble of discontent was welling up in the Afrikaner communities. Many indeed, were already planning to trek north. There grievances, joined with the everlasting need for more land, drove the Afrikaners to consider more seriously than ever before the habitual remedy when the neighbours have become to closely crowded or restrictive; to pack their wagons and trek in search of freedom.