South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

The Great Trek

And now we must go back again to the time of Glenelg and Sir Benjamin d'Urban in order to give an account of how the other states of South Africa came into being. For over three centuries the story of South Africa has been the story of the Portuguese on the east coast and of the British and Dutch in Cape Colony. Looking through the records and the old books of travel we find occasional expeditions north of the Orange, and there are also little Independent settlements, chiefly of English adventurers or shipwrecked sailors on the coast of Natal, but that is all. The real history of European settlement in Natal and north of the Orange dates from the second quarter of last century.

There has been a great deal of ink spilt over the causes of the emigrations into the wilderness known as the Great Trek. By some the trekking Boers have been described as heroes, who left everything they valued for the sake of freedom from injustice and oppression; by others they are described as themselves tyrants who fled because they were not allowed to enslave and murder the black races. It is at least safe to say that neither view is right.

The causes, like most human motives, were mixed. The chief, no doubt, was land-hunger. The colonists were multiplying rapidly, and each of them required a farm of at least five thousand acres—usually more. They found a solid Kafir wall blocking their way to the east, with a wedge of British settlers making things still tighter. Then there was the protection given by the British magistrates to Hottentot servants, as we have seen in the case of the Slachter's Nek rebellion. There was also the protection of the Kafirs and their raids upon the farmers. There was the commando system. There was Glenelg's folly. There was the liberation of the slaves. There was the abolition of the Heemraden. There were faults of local government. There were also wild stories: the Boers were to be turned into Roman Catholics, they were to be made to serve in English regiments and ships of war. There was the desire to be free of it all; to be on the open veld where there was no one to worry or interfere. There were a hundred and one reasons.

And so with the people who went. Some were good and some were bad. Some were fugitives from justice like Triechard. Some were wild caterans of the same breed as the Bezuidenhouts, up to any mischief; and some were very decent, respectable, God-fearing burghers, who only wanted pasture and peace and freedom from interference.

So they trekked, in small parties and in great, some with a few wagons, some with hundreds, and great herds of cattle that covered the whole landscape. They went north, over the Orange River to the west of Basutoland, ever north until they reached the Vaal, and some went north of that, far north almost to the Limpopo. Hundreds of miles they travelled, with their flocks and herds, like Arabs or the Israelites of old, going only a few miles a day and staying long where there was good grass. It was a pleasant life, with their wealth about them, their great gipsy wagons to live in, the blue sky above them, and the rolling veld on every side.

One party of about fifty under Jan van Rensburg got into the Zoutpansberg, and nothing certain was ever heard of them again, though it is believed that they were murdered by the natives. Another party under Triechard—a brave pioneer—actually descended from the Zoutpansberg down the steep mountain terraces that fringe the great central plateau to the sea at Lourenr o Marques, their object being to open communication with a port. Only a few escaped from the fever-stricken swamps of the low country to tell their story.

Wave after wave of the emigrant farmers swept north. Game was plentiful, grass was good, but of natives there were strangely few. The country was under the sway of a branch of the Zulu nation, one of the most destructive powers the earth has ever known, comparable only to the Mongol hordes that swept over Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. The farmers who had spread over the veld in fancied security soon came in contact with this terrible power. Many were murdered and a large part of their cattle stolen before they could defend themselves. And then began such a war as had never before been seen in Africa. The Boers were few, the Matabele many. Moselekatse, the great chief, had, after the custom of his people, organised all his fighting men into regiments of a thousand or so strong. They were magnificent fighters, strong, athletic, brave. With their long oxhide shields and heavy iron-headed assegais, they charged in close order like a Roman phalanx, and hitherto they had swept down all their enemies like grass.

Battle of Blood River


But the Boers had three advantages: their guns, their horses, and their wagons. When they met the Matebele in the open, they rode up to within range, fired a volley, and rode away again to reload, and then repeated their tactics. The savages yelled and hurled their spears, but never could get near the enemy, and were as helpless as a flock of sheep. On the other hand, if they attacked a Boer encampment, they found the wagons lashed together in a circle with branches of thorny mimosa twisted through the wheels. As they charged the Boers fired at them from their wagons, every shot taking effect in the dense masses, while the women loaded the empty guns behind their husbands. Even if the warriors reached the wagons, it was only to be shot down while making a vain attempt to break through, and their only chance of doing mischief was to throw their assegais blindly into the centre of the circle. Thus Moselekatse, the great chief of the Matabele, and his captains, were defeated in several battles, and at last fled, never stopping until he reached the country north of the Limpopo, henceforward called Matabeleland. The Boers were left in possession of a vast country which their enemies had swept almost bare of inhabitants.