The Afrikaner Great Trek, 1836—1854

By the mid-1830s dissatisfaction among the Afrikaner inhabitants of the eastern districts of the Cape colony was widespread. The 50th Ordinance of 1828 and the British parliamentary act of 1833 were depriving Afrikaners of their customary controls over labor. They had lost property in the frontier wars, culminating in the Xhosa invasion of December 1834. Above all, the British government seemed to be influenced by evangelicals who were challenging their engrained racial assumptions and practices with no sensitivity to their predicament.

During the early 1830s, some bold spirits among the Afrikaner population began to canvass the idea of trekking out beyond the colony and running their own affairs in their own way beyond British colonial limits. By 1836, reconnaissance expeditions had revealed a crucial consequence of the Mfecane—the existence of fertile and apparently unpopulated land in two localities: on the highveld beyond the Orange River and below the escarpment south of the Tugela River. During the next few years, several large, organized groups trekked out of the colony with their wagons, cattle and sheep, and personal possessions. By 1840, about six thousand Afrikaner men, women, and children had migrated—about one-tenth of the white population of the Cape Colony. Most of them were pastoral farmers from the eastern districts, which lost about one-fifth of their white population. Accustomed to mobility, they had the skills necessary for the migration. They took with them about as many Khoikhoi servants and former slaves—the unregarded members of their movement.

In the statement that Piet Retief sent to the Grahamstown Journal to explain their decision, he said that they hoped that the British government would “allow us to govern ourselves without its interference in future.” He added: “We are resolved, wherever we go, that we will uphold the just principles of liberty; but, whilst we will take care that no one shall be held in a state of slavery, it is our determination to maintain such regulations as may suppress crime, and preserve proper relations between master and servant.” That is to say, they intended to recreate the social and economic structure of the eighteenth-century Cape Colony, but—to ward off British reprisals—they disclaimed the practice of overt slavery. Retief’s niece, Anna Steenkamp, made this clear in her memoirs. Referring to the emancipation of the slaves she wrote: “It is not so much their freedom that drove us to such lengths, as their being placed on an equal footing with Christians, 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; wherefore we rather withdrew in order thus to preserve our doctrines in purity.”

During 1836, the first large groups of emigrants spread out on the grasslands on either side of the Vaal River, unaware of the power of Mzilikazi’s Ndebele kingdom and its aggressive strategy from its headquarters 120 miles west of modern Pretoria. The Ndebele, who had been attacked by Zulu impis and Griqua commandos from the south, decided to eliminate these new intruders who approached from the same direction. In October an Ndebele force of about 5,000 warriors launched an attack on emigrants near the Vaal River, who lost their livestock but saved most of their skins by lashing their wagons together in a circle to form a laager, which the Ndebele were unable to penetrate. During 1837, strengthened by new arrivals from the colony, the emigrants went on the offensive with mounted commandos. In January, they destroyed an Ndebele settlement, killing 400 people and regaining their livestock. In October, a commando about 330 strong attacked the Ndebele headquarters and sent the entire community fleeing northward across the Limpopo into modern Zimbabwe, where they eventually carved out a new “Matabeleland” at the expense of the Shona inhabitants.

The emigrants, meanwhile, had tried to organize themselves into a coherent community. That was not easy. They had left the Cape Colony in a series of trek parties, each of which was organized by a prestigious man and consisted of his kinsfolk, neighbors, and dependents. North of the Orange, those parties tended to amalgamate into larger groups under conspicuous leaders—Andries Hendrik Potgieter, Gerrit Maritz, Piet Retief, and Piet Uys—but the leaders quarreled and their followers took up their quarrels. Tensions were exacerbated when some of the men elected Retief as governor and chief commandant, and Maritz as president and judge. Potgieter and Uys, given no office, were aggrieved. There were also policy differences. Should there be personal rule or should control be vested in an elected body? Should they ignore Britain or negotiate for independence? Where should they found their permanent settlements?

Those rivalries led to a split. Potgieter’s people made their new homes in the highveld, while most of the others preferred Natal, with its better rainfall and its potential harbor. In October 1837, Retief went ahead with a small party to negotiate with a few British men who had been trading at Port Natal (modern Durban) to forestall British intervention, and with Dingane to ask for a grant of land and to prevent a Zulu attack. He found that the traders would welcome the emigrants, believing that their presence would increase their security. Dingane prevaricated, telling Retief to show his good faith by recapturing some cattle that had been stolen by a Sotho chief, Sekonyela, who lived back across the mountains on the plateau. Retief complied. He tricked Sekonyela into giving up the cattle, and in February 1838 he returned to Dingane’s headquarters with a cavalcade of seventy emigrants and thirty Coloured servants.

By that time, most of the emigrants were already trekking across the mountains with their wagons and their livestock and settling on the fringe of Zulu territory. Moreover, Retief had sent Dingane a message boasting of the emigrants’, victory over Mzilikazi’s people. Pondering these events, the Zulu king and his councillors concluded that the emigrants were threatening their vital interests. They decided to make a preemptive strike to end white settlement in their vicinity. On February 6, 1838, after Dingane may have put his mark to a treaty purporting to cede the land between the Tugela and the Mzimvubu rivers, he lured Retief’s party, unarmed, to a final beer drink, where his warriors clubbed them to death. Zulu impis then attacked the emigrants’ encampments around the sources of the Tugela River, killing 40 more white men, 56 white women, 185 white children, and over 200 Coloured servants and capturing about 35,000 cattle and sheep.

During the next few months, the Zulu seemed to be masters of Natal. In December, however, having received reinforcements from the Cape Colony, the emigrants mustered a powerful commando, five hundred strong. Led by Andries Pretorius, it trekked with fifty-seven wagons toward the heart of the Zulu kingdom. Every white member of the commando possessed at least one gun, and the expedition also had two small cannons. As they advanced, they formed a laager at night by lashing their wagons together. On 15 December, they laagered in a strong defensive position on the banks of the Ncome River. The next day, a vast Zulu army—perhaps ten thousand strong—launched a series of attacks. The Zulu displayed the utmost courage in the face of devastating fire from the emigrants’ guns and cannons. Eventually, they retreated, leaving about three thousand dead around the laager. The commando lost not one member. Blood River, as Whites call the Ncome battle, was a classic example of the superiority of controlled fire, by resolute men from a defensive position, over Africans armed with spears, however numerous and however brave.

In response to that decisive defeat, the Zulu kingdom split—a process that was typical of Nguni political culture. Dingane’s brother, Mpande, opted for collaboration with the invader. In 1839 his regiments, accompanied by a commando of Afrikaner emigrants, defeated Dingane’s forces and sent the king fleeing northward, where he was killed by the Swazi. Mpande then acquired control of the Zulu kingdom in the area north of the Tugela River.

Following up their victory, most of the emigrants settled in Natal, spreading out wherever good pastures and perennial water were found. By 1842, a community of some six thousand men, women, and children had laid claim to almost all of the fertile land between the Tugela and the Mzimkhulu. A committee drew up a constitution, creating a Volksraad (peoples’ council) of twenty-four men, with legislative, executive, and judicial authority. The Volksraad in turn appointed a military commandant and sketched out a scheme of local administration under landdrosts, heemraden, and veldkornets, as in the Cape Colony before the British innovations. That, however, remained a blueprint rather than a reality. The embryonic Natal Republic lacked capital and administrative personnel and was hampered by further quarrels among would-be leaders.

In the emigrants’ efforts at statemaking, one crucial issue went without question: they limited citizenship to the members of their community of Dutch-speaking people of European descent who had quit the Cape Colony to found an independent state. Other people of European origin were to be treated with suspicion, but if they gave proof of their loyalty a few might safely be absorbed. Their community, however, was not a complete society. It was the dominant part of a society that included servants of African, Asian, and mixed descent. Those they assumed to be of a separate species. Indeed, they often referred to them as skepsels (creatures) rather than mense (people). That was what custom prescribed, self-interest demanded, and (for those who were religious) what God ordained. That was how it had always been and always must be in South Africa.

To satisfy their labor needs, the commandos against Dingane did as commandos had been wont to do in the Cape Colony: they seized African children. After the defeat of Dingane, however, thousands of Africans flooded into Natal. Many of them were returning from what are now Pondoland and East Griqualand to the home areas from which Shaka had ejected them. By 1843, it was estimated that the African population of the republic had increased from ten thousand to fifty thousand; and still the influx continued. Greatly outnumbered, the emigrants were not able to establish their version of law and order. Not for the last time in South African history, a white minority was faced with the problem of reconciling its need for security with its dependence on the labor of conquered peoples. In December 1840, Pretorius led a commando with African allies southward to intimidate the nearest African chiefdoms in that direction, and during 1841, the Volksraad decreed that not more than five African families should live on one farm and that “surplus” Africans should be removed to the south. Although the emigrants lacked the means to give effect to that decision, it was the beginning of the end for their Natal Republic.

The British authorities learned of those developments with mixed feelings. During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, British politicians were averse to incurring the cost of further territorial expansion, since the British navy was unchallenged and British commerce was capable of dominating competitors in foreign markets. Moreover, Southern Africa, with its small white population and its powerful African kingdoms, still had few attractions for British enterprise. Before Afrikaners began to emigrate from the Cape Colony the British government had rejected several requests from Natal traders and Cape merchants to annex Natal. The initial activities of the emigrants did not alter the government’s mind.

Events in Natal did eventually lead to a change, however. Chief Faku of the Mpondo, threatened by Pretorius’s southern sweep, appealed through his Wesleyan missionary for British protection; and the British colonial secretary came to the conclusion that if the emigrants were not brought under control, they might acquire protection from a rival European state and cause widespread disorder among the African population, thereby destroying the prospect of stability on the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony. That strategic impulse coincided with pressures from commercial and evangelical organizations. Accordingly, in 1842 a small British force occupied the harbor, and in the following year a special commissioner exacted a submission from members of the Volksraad in their Pieter-maritzburg headquarters, bringing Natal into the British Empire. He included a stipulation “that there shall not be in the eye of the law any distinction of colour, origin, race, or creed; but that the protection of the law, in letter and in substance, shall be extended impartially to all alike.” As that stipulation indicated, the evangelical lobby was still effective in British politics in the early 1840s.

After the British annexation, nearly all the emigrants trekked back from Natal across the Drakensberg to the highveld, where they founded several distinct settlements at places chosen for the availability of water, timber, pasture, and good soil. The Potgieters, anxious to make a complete break with the British, were trying to establish a viable settlement below the escarpment northeast of the Vaal River, from which they could open up a regular line of communication with the outside world via the Portuguese settlement on Delagoa Bay. They were not successful. The lowlands of the eastern Transvaal and the Limpopo River valley were breeding grounds for anopheles mosquitoes and tsetse flies, which took a heavy toll of the emigrants and their cattle. Other emigrants, including Pretorius and his followers, made their new homes in the western highveld, around Pot-chefstroom. Still others settled south of the Vaal River.

The emigrants considered the highveld grasslands they were occupying to be theirs by right of conquest from Mzilikazi’s Ndebele. After the Ndebele fled, however, Sotho and Tswana people whom they had recently displaced percolated back to their home areas, and Sotho and Tswana polities that the emigrants had confined to the periphery of the highveld began to expand. Mobilized and concentrated, the emigrants, with their guns, horses, and wagons, had been more than a match for the Ndebele; but when they then dispersed to reestablish themselves as pastoral farmers, they encountered conditions like those in Natal. They lacked the means to control the growing African population in their midst, let alone the African polities that surrounded them.

The entire highveld region became a scene of divided loyalties and endemic conflict. The area between the Vaal and the Orange rivers was particularly confused. Besides the scattered emigrants, there were people of mixed descent, known as Griquas, who had been pushed out of the Cape Colony, a number of white farmers still loyal to the colonial government, and, by far the most numerous, Tswana and Sotho peoples regrouping from the disasters of the Difaqane.

To compound matters, each population suffered internal cleavages. The Potgieters and the Pretoriuses were at odds with one another and with other emigrant factions. The western Griqua state of Andries Waterboer was rivaled by an eastern Griqua state under Adam Kok. Moshoeshoe’s kingdom of Lesotho was struggling to establish control over the fertile grasslands north of the Caledon River and to incorporate their Sotho and Tswana inhabitants. Conflicts among these peoples were exacerbated by rivalries among several European missionary societies that were active in the area and espoused the cause of the leaders they regarded as their clients: the London Missionary Society, which worked among the Griqua; the Paris Evangelical Society, which had stations in Moshoeshoe’s Lesotho; and the Wesleyan Missionary Society, active among Moshoeshoe’s African rivals.

Great Britain gradually got sucked into the area because of initiatives taken by a succession of Cape colonial governors who hoped to stabilize the northern frontier of the colony by establishing client states. In 1834, Governor Sir Benjamin D’Urban had made a treaty with the West Griqua chief, Andries Waterboer. In 1843, Governor Sir George Napier made treaties with Adam Kok of the East Griqua and Moshoeshoe of Lesotho, giving them small salaries in return for their commitment to maintain order in their territories and defining Moshoeshoe’s territory in terms that accepted his contention that he was the overlord of most of the lesser African chiefdoms north of the Caledon River. The next governor, Sir Peregrine Maitland, went a step further. He amended Kok’s treaty to allow emigrants to acquire land in the northern part of his territory.

Sir Harry Smith—the epitome of British military arrogance and naivete—took the final step. .In 1848, having annexed Xhosa territory between the Keiskamma and the Kei rivers and having misled both Pre-torius and Moshoeshoe about his intentions, he issued a proclamation annexing the entire area between the Orange and the Vaal rivers, for the “protection and preservation of the just and hereditary rights of all the Native Chiefs” and “the rule and government of Her Majesty’s subjects, their interests and welfare.” That area, which became known as the Orange River Sovereignty, included not only numerous emigrants but also nearly all of Lesotho. The British government reluctantly accepted Smith’s fait accompli, noting his assurance that the territory would be financially self-supporting. The attempt to raise a local revenue in fact produced no more than £12,000 a year, with the result that only a handful of officials and a puny military detachment were stationed there.

Major Henry Warden, the British administrator of the sovereignty, made a bad situation worse. Succumbing to pressures from emigrants and Wesleyan missionaries, he imposed new internal boundaries that treated the lesser African chiefdoms as independent from Moshoeshoe. But in’ 1851, when Warden patched together a force of emigrants and Africans to give effect to this decision, Moshoeshoe’s Basotho won a convincing victory at Viervoet.

The British government then started to withdraw from the highveld. First, it recalled Smith and sent out two commissioners, who negotiated an agreement with Pretorius, granting independence to the emigrants in the territory north of the Vaal River (January 17, 1852). Next, Smith’s successor, General Sir George Cathcart, warned London that to rule the sovereignty effectively would require a permanent garrison of two thousand troops and a greatly increased civil establishment, which he knew the British government would not provide. But before abandoning the territory, Cathcart believed that, as a matter of honor, Moshoeshoe should be humiliated. In December 1852, he led a military expedition into Lesotho. His troops captured over four thousand head of cattle, but the people resisted fiercely, killing thirty-eight British soldiers. On the night of December 20, Moshoeshoe sent Cathcart a skillfully phrased face-saving message: “I entreat pace from you—you have shown you power,—you have chastised,—let it be enough I pray you; and let me no longer be considered an enemy to the Queen.” The next day, Cathcart decided to withdraw, rather than attempt to assault the stronghold of Thaba Bosiu. The British government then empowered another special commissioner to negotiate a withdrawal fromthe sovereignty with men who would accept the responsibility for governing the territory. That was done on February 23, 1854.

In those two agreements, known as the Sand River and Bloemfontein conventions, the emigrants achieved their major political goal—independence from Britain. That was not all. Both conventions stated that the new governments would not allow slavery in their territories. They also said that the new governments would be permitted to buy ammunition in the British colonies, but the Sand River Convention added that “all trade in ammunition with the native tribes is prohibited both by the British Government and the emigrant farmers on both sides of the Vaal River.” The Bloemfontein Convention declared, moreover, that the British government had no alliances with any “Native Chiefs or tribes” north of the Orange River except Adam Kok and that “Her Majesty’s Government has no wish or intention to enter hereafter into any treaties which may be injurious or prejudicial to the interests of the Orange River Government.” In London, the philanthropic lobby was in decline and the cabinet had concluded that jostling communities in the Southern African interior lacked the resources to warrant the cost of administration. The pendulum had swung hard over since the early 1840s, from a declared policy of protecting black Southern Africans from disruption by turbulent British subjects, to a policy that amounted to an alliance with independent white communities against their black neighbors.

The emigrants were free and independent. When Afrikaners began self-consciously to fashion a national historical tradition toward the end of the nineteenth century, they referred to the emigrants as Voortrekkers, and their movement as the Great Trek. In 1854, however, they were still poor, scattered, disunited, politically inexperienced, and virtually surrounded by Africans.