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 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'