The Great Trek

South Africa Table of Contents

Dutch speakers denounced these actions as striking at the heart of their labor and land needs. Those living in the eastern Cape, most of them among the poorer segment of the Dutch-speaking population, were particularly impassioned in their criticisms, and many decided to abandon their farms and to seek new lands beyond the reach of British rule.

Beginning in 1836, Boer families, together with large numbers of Khoikhoi and black servants, gathered up their belongings and traveled by ox-wagon up into the Highveld interior to the north of the eastern Cape frontier. (Travel farther east was blocked by the Xhosa.) All told, some 6,000 Boer men, women, and children, along with an equal number of blacks, participated in this movement in the late 1830s. Fewer Boer families migrated from the western Cape, where they were more prosperous on their grain and wine farms and therefore less concerned about land shortages and frontier pressures. The exodus from the Cape was not organized in a single movement at the time, but it was later termed the Great Trek by nationalist historians, and its participants were called Voortrekkers (pioneers).

The first groups of Voortrekkers moved into the southern Highveld, skirted the powerful Lesotho kingdom of Moshoeshoe to the east, and pastured their herds on lands between the Orange River and the Vaal River. A large group moved farther north to the grasslands beyond the Vaal River into territory where Mzilikazi had recently established a powerful Ndebele state. Competing for the same resources--pasturelands, water, and game--the Voortrekkers and the Ndebele soon came into conflict. In 1836 the Voortrekkers fought off an Ndebele attempt to expel them from the Highveld. In the following year, the northern Voortrekkers allied with the Rolong and the Griqua, who were known for their fighting skills. This time the northern Voortrekkers succeeded in defeating Mzilikazi and forcing him and most of his followers to flee north into present-day Zimbabwe, where he conquered the Shona and established a new state.

The majority of Voortrekkers, however, neither settled between the Orange and the Vaal nor trekked to the north, but moved northeastward around Lesotho and traveled down toward the sea into Zulu-ruled areas of southeastern Africa. The leader of this group, Piet Retief, attempted to negotiate with Dingane for permission to settle in relatively sparsely populated areas south of the Tugela River. Dingane was at first receptive to Retief's entreaties, but then, apparently fearing that the introduction of European settlers would undermine his authority, he had Retief and seventy of his followers killed while they were at his capital in February 1838. Dingane then sent out Zulu regiments to eliminate all Voortrekkers in the area; they killed several hundred men, women, and children and captured more than 35,000 head of cattle and sheep.

Not all of the settlers were killed, however, and in December the survivors, reinforced by men from the Cape Colony, marched 500 strong to avenge the deaths of Retief and his followers. Commanded by Andries Pretorius, the Voortrekkers pledged that they would commemorate a victory as a sign of divine protection. They then met and defeated Dingane's army at the Battle of Blood River. Their victory is celebrated each year on December 16, the Day of the Vow.

The Zulu kingdom split into warring factions after this defeat. One group under Mpande, a half-brother of Shaka and Dingane, allied with Pretorius and the Voortrekkers, and together they succeeded in destroying Dingane's troops and in forcing him to flee to the lands of the Swazi, where he was killed. The Voortrekkers recognized Mpande as king of the Zulu north of the Tugela River, while he in turn acknowledged their suzerainty over both his kingdom and the state that they established south of the Tugela. The Voortrekker Republic of Natalia (the basis of later Natal Province) was established in 1839, and by 1842 there were approximately 6,000 people occupying vast areas of pastureland and living under a political system in which only white males had the right to vote.

The British, however, feeling that their security and authority were threatened, annexed the republic as Natal. They did not want the Dutch speakers to have independent access to the sea and thereby be able to negotiate political and economic agreements with other European powers. They also feared that harsh treatment meted out to Africans--such as Voortrekker attempts to clear the land by removing Africans from the Republic of Natalia--would eventually increase population pressures on the eastern Cape frontier. Although acquiescing in the annexation, the great majority of the Voortrekkers effectively abandoned Natal to the British and moved back to the Highveld in 1843. The British, having taken Natal for strategic purposes, then had to find a way to make the colony pay for its administration. After experimenting with several crops, they found that sugar grew well and could be exported without deteriorating. Attempts to force Africans to endure the onerous labor in the sugar fields failed, however, and in 1860 the British began importing indentured laborers from India to provide the basic work force. Between 1860 and 1866, 6,000 Indians (one-quarter of them women) were brought to the colony on five-year contracts.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress