The Great Boer Trek
When, in 1806, Cape Colony finally passed into the hands of the British government, it might well have seemed possible for the white inhabitants to dwell harmoniously together. The Dutch burghers were in race much the same men who had peopled England and Scotland. There was none of that strong racial and religious antipathy which seems to make forever impossible any lasting understanding between Ireland and her dominating partner.
The Boers were more devoid of Celtic fervors and fluctuations of temperament than the English themselves; in religion Protestant, by nature hard-working, thrifty, independent, they would naturally, it seems, have called for the good will and respect of their conquerors. But the two peoples seemed to have been keenly aware of each other's failings from the first. To the Boers, the English seemed prejudiced and arrogant beyond mortal privilege; the English told countless tales of the Boers' trickery, their dullness, their boasting, their indolence, their bigotry. The burghers had transplanted the careful habits of their home in the Netherlands to a different climate and new conditions. In South Africa they were still industrious and thrifty, and their somewhat gloomy religion was more strongly rooted than ever. Although they lived nomadic lives on the frontier, yet they had made themselves substantial dwellings within the towns; the streets were blossoming bowers of trees and shrubs; their flocks and herds increased, their fields produced mightily. In the courts of law they had shown conspicuous ability whilst acting as heemraden; they had made good elders and deacons in their churches, and good commandants and field cornets in war -- the ever-recurring conflicts with the Kaffirs.
Many observers have noted the strong similarity of thought and character between the Dutchmen and the Scotchmen. There is the same thrift which is often extreme parsimony, combined with great hospitality, the same dogged obstinacy, and the same delight in overreaching in all matters of business and bargain-driving. Moreover, their religious ideals bear the strongest resemblance one to the other. In his character as a colonist the Boer certainly showed magnificent qualities; he could work and endure and fight. But in spite of his dour sanctimoniousness, he was not a perfect person, any more than his brother Briton. The English missionaries objected to his treatment of the natives, but there was never any of the terrible cruelty practised that the Spaniards used toward the natives during their colonization of Mexico -- nor that of various French, English and Portuguese adventurers in Africa during the seventeenth century. But the fact remains that the entire race of Hottentots has been modified through the Dutch occupation; it is said that no pure-blooded Hottentot remains. This amalgamation was treated by the Boers as a commonplace thing. That habit of theirs of producing scriptural authority for all their acts must have begun with their settlement in Cape Colony.
The "bastards," as they were openly called, were well treated, brought up as Christians and to lead a tolerably civilized life. The English missionaries were filled with disgust at this state of things, and the Boers were denounced from missionary platforms throughout England. Undoubtedly the missionaries were right, but the Boers, alas, are not the only white race who have taken this patriarchal attitude toward the natives of the country they were engaged in colonizing. The missionaries in their other charges were fanatical and ridiculous; they described the Boers as cruel barbarians, because they would not allow the vermin-haunted Hottentots to join them at family prayers in their "best rooms." The Colonial office acted on these representations, and refused to listen to any complaints of the Boers. As they numbered less than ten thousand, and English emigrants were constantly pouring into the colony, the Boers were considered of little importance to the government; it was not imagined that they could do anything effectual in the way of resistance. In short, they, who had been the ruling race in the colony for over a century, were now a subject race; they were hampered and restricted on every side.
The first grievance of the Boers was the attitude of the English missionaries. Some of these were men of really high religious ideals, but most of them were politicians. Mr. Vanderkemp and Mr. Read, missionaries of the London society, who had taken black wives, and announced themselves champions of the black race against the white, had sent to England reports of a number of murders and outrages said to have been committed upon Hottentots by the Dutch colonists. By order of the British government fifty-eight white men and women were put upon their trial for these crimes in 1812, and over a thousand witnesses, black and white, were called to give evidence. Several cases of assault were proved, and punished, but none of the serious charges was substantiated. In 1814 a farmer, Frederick Bezuidenhout, quarreled with his native servant, and refused to appear at a court of justice to answer the charge of ill treatment. A company of Hottentots was sent to arrest him; he fired on them and they shot him dead. A company of about fifty men joined an insurrection under the leadership of Bezuidenhout's brother Jan, but a strong force of Boers aided the government in putting down this rebellion; all surrendered but Jan, who was shot and killed.
Lord Charles Somerset, who drew a salary of ten thousand pounds a year, with four residences, was Governor at the time. He was arbitrary as a prince, and afterward suppressed a liberal newspaper and forbade public meetings. The prisoners taken were tried -- they were thirty-nine in number -- and six were sentenced to death, while the others all received some form of punishment. Somerset was entreated to annul the death sentence, but would do so only in one instance. The remaining five were executed in the presence of their friends, and the scaffold broke with their weight; they were all unconscious and were resuscitated. When they had been brought to consciousness their friends vehemently besought Somerset to reprieve them, but he was firm in his refusal and they were hanged again.
This event caused a lasting bitterness among the Boers; the place of execution is known as Slachter's Nek to this day. In 1823, the Dutch courts of justice were abolished with their landrosts and heemraden, and in the place of them English courts were established, with magistrates, civil commissioners and justices of the peace. The burgher senate was abolished, also, and notices were sent to the old colonists that all documents addressed to the government must be written in English. Soon after, a case was to be tried at the circuit court at Worcester, and one of the judges removed it to Cape Town because there was not a sufficient number of English-speaking men to form a jury, though the prisoner and the witnesses could speak Dutch only, and whatever they said had to be translated in court. The judges were divided in their opinion as to whether it were necessary for every juryman to speak English; in 1831 an ordinance was issued defining the qualifications of jurymen and a knowledge of English was not one of them. But in the mean time the Boers had been greatly embittered by their exclusion from the jury-box. They would not write memorials about it to the government, because they refused to write English.
During the years of English occupation the frontier aggressions of the Kaffirs were of frequent occurrence. The document called, "An Earnest Representation and Historical Reminder to H. M. Queen Victoria, in view of the Present Crisis, by P. J. Joubert," published a few months ago, contains this reference to the frontier wars: "Natives molested them [the Boers]; they were murdered, robbed of their cattle, their homes were laid waste. Unspeakable horrors were inflicted on their wives and daughters. The Boer was called out for commando service at his own expense, under command and control of the British, to fight the Kaffirs. While on commando, his cattle were stolen by Kaffirs. After, they were made to wait until troops re-took the cattle, which were afterward publicly sold as lost in the presence of their owners, the Boers being informed that they should receive compensation -- not in money or goods, neither in rest nor peace, but instead, indignities and abuse were heaped on them. They were told that they should be satisfied at not being punished as the instigators of the disturbance."
As far back as 1809, Hottentots were prohibited from wandering about the country without passes, and from 1812, Hottentot children who had been maintained for eight years by the employers of their parents, were bound as apprenticed for ten years longer. The missionaries were dissatisfied with these restrictions; both of them were removed by an ordinance passed July, 1828, when vagrant Hottentots began to wander over the country at will. Farming became almost impossible; the farm-laborers became vagabonds and petty thefts took place constantly.
Early in 1834, Sir Benjamin D'Urban, called "the Good," was appointed Governor. A legislative council was then granted the colony, but its powers were not great.
The Boers had never been greatly in favor (many opposed it strongly) of slavery, but they had yielded to the general custom and over three million pounds was invested in slaves throughout the colony in 1834. Sir Benjamin D'Urban proclaimed the emancipation of the slaves, who had been set free throughout the British Empire, in August, 1833. This freeing was to take effect in Cape Colony on the 1st of December, 1834.
The news of the emancipation was felt to be a relief, but the terms on which it was conducted were productive of unending trouble. The slave-owners of Cape Colony were awarded less than a million and a quarter for their slaves -- and the imperial government refused to send the money to South Africa; each claim was to be proved before commissioners in London, when the amount would be paid in stock. To make a journey of one hundred days to London was, of course, impossible to the farmers; they were at the mercy of agents who made their way down to the colony and purchased the claims, so that the colonist received sometimes a fifth, sometimes a sixth, or less, of the value of his slaves. The colonists had hoped that a vagrant act would have been passed by the Council when the slaves were freed, to keep them from being still further overrun by this large released black population, but this was not done.
In 1834, the first band of emigrants left the colony -- forty-five men under a leader named Louis Triechard, from the division of Albany. He was a violent-tempered man, and so loudly opposed to the government that Col. Harry Smith offered a reward of five hundred cattle for his apprehension. He left then at once, being of the class of Boers on the frontier who lived in their wagons, as though they were ships at sea, and had no settled habitation. His party was joined, before it left the colonial border, by Johannes Rensburg. Together they had thirty wagons. They traveled northward. All but two of Rensburg's party were killed, and those of Triechard's party who escaped the savages reached Delagoa Bay in 1838, after terrible hardships, where they received great kindness from the Portuguese. But their sufferings had been so great that only twenty-six lived to be shipped to Natal. But before the emigration reached its height another Kaffir war came on. There was a tremendous invasion of savages, between twelve and twenty thousand warriors, who swept along the frontier, killing, plundering and burning. December, 1834, under Col. Harry Smith a large force was raised; they marched into Kaffirland, and defeated and dispersed the invaders, who were compelled to sue for peace. As a security for the future, Sir Benjamin D'Urban, who was also at the front, issued a proclamation, declaring British sovereignty to be extended over the territory of the defeated tribes as far as the Kei River. But while the people were still suffering from the effects of the invasion, an order came from Lord Glenelg -- who became Secretary of State for the Colonies in April, 1835 -- peremptorily ordering that the new territory must be immediately given up, on the ground that it had been unjustly acquired.
The Boers now felt that no security existed for life or property on the frontier; all the support of the British government was given -- with a philanthropy stimulated by the missionaries -- to the black races as against the Boer farmers. The feeling had now become general among them that they must escape British rule at any cost. They left their homes and cultivated fields and gardens -- the homes of over a century's growth -- and started into the wilds. Purchases of the vacated property were not frequent; a house sometimes was sold for an ox; many of them were simply left, with no sale having been made. All over the frontier districts the great wagons set out, loaded with household goods, provisions and ammunition, to seek new homes farther north. Each party had its commandant and was generally made up of families related to each other. When the pasturage was good, the caravans would sometimes rest for weeks together, while the cows and oxen, horses and sheep and goats, grazed. General Joubert declares that they were followed as far as the Orange River by British emissaries who wanted to be sure that they took no arms nor ammunition with them. However, he adds, the Boers were able to conceal their weapons -- a fact that seems a very modern instance, indeed.
North of the Orange River the colonists regarded themselves as quite free, for Great Britain had declared officially that she would not enlarge her South African possessions.
The emigrants were ridiculed for leaving their homes for the wilderness -- "for freedom and grass," and were called professional squatters. One English writer said: "The frontier Boer looks with pity on the busy hives of humanity in cities, or even in villages; and regarding with disdain the grand, but to him unintelligible, results of combined industry, the beauty and excellence of which he cannot know, because they are intellectually discerned, he tosses up his head like a wild horse, utters a neigh of exultation, and plunges into the wilderness."
The number of "trekkers" has been estimated at from five thousand to ten thousand. The tide of emigration (they went generally in small bands) flowed across the Orange River and then followed a course for some distance parallel with the Quathtamba Mountains. By this route the warlike Kaffirs were evaded, the only native tribes passed through being small disorganized bodies. Near the Vaal River, however, resided the powerful Matabele nation, under the famous Moselekatze, a warrior of Zulu birth, who had established himself there and brought into complete subjection all the neighboring tribes.
One band of emigrants under Commandant Hendrik Potgieter, a man of considerable ability, arrived at the banks of the Vet River, a tributary of the Vaal. Here he found a native chief who lived in constant dread of Moselekatze, who sold to Potgieter the land between the Vet and the Vaal Rivers, for a number of cattle, Potgieter guaranteeing him protection from Moselekatze. After a while, Commandant Potgieter, with a party, went to explore the country, and traveled north to the Zoutpansberg, where the fertility of the soil seemed encouraging. They also believed that communication with the outer world could be opened through Delagoa Bay, so that the country seemed to offer every advantage for settlement. In high spirits they came back to rejoin their families, but a hideous surprise awaited them; they found only mutilated corpses. Expecting an immediate return of the Matabele who had massacred his people, Potgieter made a strong laager on a hill, by lashing fifty wagons together in a circle, and filling all the open spaces, except a narrow entrance, with thorn-trees. Presently the Matabele returned, and with great shouts and yells stormed the camp, rushing up to the wagon-wheels and throwing assegais. But the Boers, with their powerful "roers," or elephant-guns, kept such a rapid and skilful fire, while the women kept the spare guns reloaded, that the Matabele were forced to retire, but they drove with them all the cattle of the party. They left one hundred and fifty-five dead, and one thousand one hundred of their spears were afterward picked up.
The emigrants in the laager were left without the means of transportation, and very little food, while they had lost forty-six of their people. But fortunately they were near the third band of emigrants under Commandant Gerrit Maritz, who encamped near the mission station at Thaba Ntshu, and now sent oxen to carry away Potgieter and the others. Also a native chief, Marroco, brought them milk and Kaffir corn, and pack-oxen to help them away. It was resolved to revenge the massacre, to follow up Moselekatze and punish him. One hundred and seven Boers mustered for this service, besides forty half-breeds, and a few blacks to take care of the horses. A deserter from the Matabele army acted as guide. The commando surprised Mosega, one of the principal military towns, and killed four hundred. Then setting fire to the kraal, they drove seven thousand head of cattle back to Thaba Ntshu. Potgieter's party then formed a camp on the Vet (they called it Winburg), which was joined by many families from the colony. Another band soon reached Thaba Ntshu, under Pieter Retief, a man of great intelligence. June 6th, 1837, a general assembly of Boers was held at Winburg, when a provisional constitution, consisting of nine articles, was adopted. The supreme legislative power was intrusted to a single elective chamber, termed the Volksraad, the fundamental law was declared to be the Dutch, a court of landrost and heemraden was created, and the chief executive authority was given to Retief, with the title of Commandant-General. One article provided that all who joined the community must have no connection with the London Missionary Society.
New bands of emigrants were constantly arriving, and some of them wished to go into Natal, although the condition of the camp at Winburg was very satisfactory. Pieter Uys, one of their leaders, had visited Natal before, and had been impressed with its beauty and fertility. Retief finally decided to go and see for himself if Dingaan, the Zulu chief, would dispose of some land below the mountain.
While he was gone, a second expedition against the Matabele set out, consisting of one hundred and thirty-five farmers, under Potgieter and Pieter Uys. They found Mosega with twelve thousand warriors, brave and finely trained, but at the end of nine days' warfare, Moselekatze fled to the north, after a loss of something like one thousand men. Commandant Potgieter now issued a proclamation declaring that the whole of the territory overrun by the Matabele, and now abandoned by them, was forfeited to the Boers. It included the greater part of the present South African Republic, fully half of the present Orange Free State, and the whole of Southern Bechuanaland to the Kalahari Desert, except that part occupied by the Batlapin. This immense tract of land was then almost uninhabited, and must have remained so if the Matabele had not been driven out.
Much has been written of the beauties of Natal, with its shores washed by the Indian Ocean, its rich soil, luxuriant vegetation and noble forests. When Pieter Retief first saw it from the Drakensberg Mountains, it was under the despotic rule of the Zulu chief Dingaan, who had succeeded Tshaka, the "Napoleon of Africa," the slayer of a million human beings. A few Englishmen, who were allowed to live at the port, gladly welcomed the emigrants, and took them to Dingaan's capital, called Umkungunhloon, acting as guides and interpreters. There was an English missionary clergyman living there, called Owen. Dingaan received them graciously and supplied them with chunks of beef from his own eating-mat, and huge calabashes of millet beer. But when Retief spoke about Natal, the despot set him a task, such as one reads of in folk-lore legends. Retief might have Natal for his countrymen to live in, if he would recover a herd of seven hundred cattle that had been recently stolen from him by Sikouyela, a Mantater chief. Retief accepted the condition, and actually made Sikouyela restore the cattle, which he drove back to Dingaan. The Boers at Winburg felt distrustful of Dingaan, and dreaded to have Pieter Retief trust himself again in the tyrant's hands. But in February, 1838, Retief started with seventy persons, armed and mounted, with thirty attendants. Again Dingaan received them hospitably, and empowered the missionary Owen to draw up a document granting to Retief the country between the Tugela and the Umzimvooboo. But just as the emigrants were ready to leave, they were invited into a cattle-kraal to see a war-dance, and requested to leave their arms outside the door. While sitting down they were overpowered and massacred, the horror-stricken Owen being a witness of the sight.
Immediately after the massacre, Dingaan sent out his forces against all the emigrants on the eastern side of the Drakensberg. Before daylight they attacked the encampments at Blaanwkrauz River and the Bush-man River -- ten miles apart. It was a complete surprise and a terrible slaughter of the Boers, although a brave defense was made. The township which has since arisen near the scene of the conflict still bears the name of Weemen -- the place of wailing.
As soon as the emigrants on the west of the Drakensberg heard of the disasters, they formed a band of about eight hundred men to punish Dingaan for his treachery. But they were led into ambush, and finally defeated by the Zulus, and forced to retreat after a tremendous loss of life. The condition of the emigrants was now one of terrible distress and privation. They had many widows and orphans to provide for. The Governor of Cape Colony sent word to them to return, and there were many who felt willing to go, but it was the women of the party who sternly refused to go back; they preferred liberty, although that liberty had cost them so dear. In November, 1838, Andries Pretorius arrived in Natal from Graaff Reinet and was at once elected Commandant-General. He organized a force of four hundred and sixty-four men and marched toward Umkungunhloon. He took with him a sufficient number of wagons to form a laager; wherever the camp was pitched it was surrounded by fifty-seven wagons; all the cattle were brought within the inclosure, the whole force joining in prayers and the singing of psalms. The army made a vow that if victorious they would build a church, and set apart a thanksgiving day each year to commemorate it. The church in Pietermaritzburg and the annual celebration of Dingaan's bear witness that they kept their pledge. They were not fighting for revenge. On three occasions the scouts brought in some captured Zulus, and Pretorius sent them back to Dingaan to say that if he would restore the land he had granted Retief he would enter into negotiations for peace.
Dingaan's reply came in the form of an army ten thousand or twelve thousand strong, which attacked the camp on December 16, 1838. For two hours the Zulus tried to force their way into the laager, while the Boer guns and the small artillery made dreadful havoc in their ranks. When at length they broke and fled, over three thousand Zulu corpses lay on the ground and a stream that flowed through the battle-field was crimson. It has been known ever since as the Blood River.
Pretorius marched on to Umkungunhloon as soon as possible, but Dingaan had set the place on fire and fled.
Dingaan, with the remainder of his forces, retired farther into Zululand. There, soon after, his brother, Pauda, revolted, and fled with a large following into Natal, where he sought the protection of the Boers. Another and final expedition was made against Dingaan in January, 1840, the farmers having Pauda with four thousand of his best warriors as an ally. By February 10th, Dingaan was a fugitive in the country of a hostile tribe, who soon killed him, and the emigrant farmers were the conquerors of Zululand. On that day Pauda was appointed and declared to be "King of the Zulus" in the name and behalf of the Volksraad at Pietermaritzburg, where the Boers established their seat of government as "The South African Society of Natal."
Four days afterward, a proclamation was issued at the same camp, signed by Pretorius and four commandants under him, declaring all the territory between the Black Imfolosi and the Umzimvooboo Rivers to belong to the emigrant farmers. "The national flag was hoisted," says a chronicler, "a salute of twenty-one guns fired, and a general hurrah given throughout the whole army, while all the men as with one voice called out: 'Thanks to the great God who by his grace has given us the victory!'"
Now that the "trekkers" had freed South Africa from the destructive Zulu power, and had driven the Matabele away, they wished to settle in Natal, and rest from the nomadic existence that had so long been theirs. But the British now came forward to hunt them on again. The Governor of Cape Colony, Sir George Napier, proclaimed that "the occupation of Natal by the emigrants was unwarrantable," and directed that "all arms and ammunition should be taken from them, and the port closed against trade."
What followed -- the British bombardment of the port, the Dutch surrender, are well-known facts of history. May 12, 1848, Natal was proclaimed a British colony, and the emigrants again took to their wagons, crossing the Vaal.