The Great Boer Trek Facts and History of the Boers in South Africa

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The great trek of the Boers was a result of many unresolved grievances with British rule. The British took control of the Dutch colony of South Africa in 1806. A clash of culture arose almost immediately. Prior to British rule, the Dutch or Boers established a colony in the early 1600’s based upon Calvinistic beliefs of the Dutch Reformed Church. Calvinism directly contributed to the way the Boers treated the natives. For 200 years the Boers believed they were the chosen people. Resentment towards British rule grew. The British began cutting away civil liberties. After many years of unresolved grievances, the Boers packed up and in one mass movement trekked into Zululand.

Calvinism and Afrikaners

The Boers Great Trek was an attempt to keep the culture of the Boers. Religion influenced how the Boers perceived their role in life. The only church established in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church, taught Calvinism.[1] Laws and lifestyles of the Boers adhered to these teachings. Calvinism taught predestination. Every landmark and every event that occurred related directly to the Bible. Passages in the Old Testament Bible mapped the Boers life. Draughts, plagues, the vastness of the South Africa and even the clashes with the natives reinforced the Boers faith that they were the Chosen People. [2]Every landmark and every event that occurred correlated with some passage in the Old Testament in the Bible. In 1779, a group of Boer cattle farmers found great heaps of stones that they concluded must be monuments left by the children of Israel naming the landmark Israelitische Kloof.[3] The Boers believed they had a covenant with God to fulfill his plan.

Religion played a significant part in justifying slavery as an institution in South Africa. For 200 years, the Boers made slaves from local natives. The mindset of the Boers believed in the curse of Ham. According to the Bible, Genesis 9:20, Noah cursed his son Ham’s son, Canaan for all eternity, “Cursed be Canaan, a slave or slaves shall he be to his brothers. Blessed by Lord my God be Shem, and let Canaan be his slave.” The Boers thought the curse was the black skin of Africans. [4] Hence, God ordained Africans to be subservient to the Boers. Slavery became an institution accepted as such and ingrained into South African society. [5]

British Rule of South Africa

Continued conflict with the British contributed to the need for the Boers Great Trek. When the British took over the Dutch colony of South Africa in 1806, conflicts of interest quickly arose. British missionaries opposed slavery. Continual harassment over the slavery issue caused deep resentment towards the British by the Boers. The Boers saw the British and more specifically the British missionaries as meddlesome. British missionaries carried rumors back to England spreading accusations of inhumane treatment including murder. These rumors stirred public outcry both in England and South Africa. Among the Boers, public outcry resulted in many unresolved grievances to the British government. Many of the accusations of inhumane treatment on the part of the Boers towards natives seemed trivial and meddlesome to the Boers. One such accusation by British missionaries denounced the Boers as “cruel barbarians because they refused allow the vermin haunted Hottentots (native tribes) to join their family prayers in their best rooms.” [6] Due to no representation in government, the Boers’ grievances fell on deaf ears. The very issue of no representation of the Boers became a major indignation to a people who had ruled South Africa for over 200 years. The oppressor became the oppressed.

As a result of public outcry in England, the British government rounded up fifty-eight men and women to stand trial for atrocities. Over a thousand witnesses testified. The outcomes of these trials resulted in acquittal for the more serious charges of murder as no substantiated evidence materialized. A few assault charges proved true and punishment to the offending parties duly carried out. Two years after the trials, Frederick Bezuidenhout, a Boer farmer, argued with his native servant. The servant brought charges against Frederick for mistreatment. When the trial came about, Frederick refused to appear. Frederick’s abstinence resulted in a company of natives being dispatched to forcibly bring him to justice. A skirmish developed in which Frederick was shot dead. The Boers mounted an insurrection to protest the shooting. British government quickly squashed the insurrection. All involved in the insurrection surrendered. To prevent future insurrections, Lord Charles Somerset, the governor of South Africa, ordered the suppression of newspapers and forbade public gathering. This act violated civil liberties fueling even more resentment towards British rule. [7]

Slagter’s Nek

After the execution known as Slagter’s (Butcher’s) Nek plans for the Boers Great Trek into the interior began. [8] Thirty-nine prisoners of the insurrection stood trial. Out of the thirty-nine prisoners, six received the death sentence while the remaining prisoners received some form of lesser punishment. The Boers outraged, besought Somerset for a reprieve. Somerset granted only one prisoner a reprieve. During the execution of the five remaining prisoners, the scaffold broke. All five prisoners unconscious were resuscitated. Friends of the prisoners who witnessed the event besought Somerset for a reprieve. Somerset refused. When events such as a rope breaking occurred during an execution, it was viewed as an act of God and Godís will that the life of the prisoner be spared.

Commissie Treks

The Boers Great Trek began with the Boers talking and making plans to flee British oppression. In order to complete the planning stage it was necessary to obtain some kind of comprehension of what the free territories outside the Cape colony. Scouting parties known as Commissie Treks went west into what is now Namibia and north into the Transvaal and Natal. These scouting parties returned with very promising reports citing fresh water, ample grazing terrains, plentiful games and vacant land. In addition Natal had an excellent port. [9]

As the Boers continued talking and making plans for the Great Trek, flare-ups with the British occurred regularly and grievances continued to fall on deaf ears. Land prices increased around the Cape colony. British missionaries continued meddling. The British issued an emancipation act freeing all the slaves. Emancipation of the slaves became a major issue with the Boers as it coincided with the harvest. Several years of draught also contributed to the decision to proceed with the Great Trek.

The Boers planned to trek to Natal occupied by the Zulus. Events occurring in Zululand help pave the way for the Boers Great Trek.

The Trekkers: Deceit: Massacre

The Boer Trek proceeded as planned in 1834. The migration from the Cape took two routes under the trusted and respected commandants, Pieter Retief, Gerrit Maritz and Potgieter. One route went northwards and then east.. The second route went eastwards towards the coast. The two migrating groups converged at the Vet River; a tributary of the Vaal River near the mission station of Thaba Ntshu and called the place Winburg. Here is where the Boer trekkers established the laws of the new land. One of the laws forbade any connection to British missionaries. This law would affect events to come.

Lured by the reported beauty and fertility of Natal, many of the trekkers wished to settle there. [12] Retief began negotiating with the Zulu chief, Dingane, to buy land in Natal. A British missionary who lived in the area warned Retief of Dingane’s treachery. Because the warning came from a British subject, it was dutifully ignored, Retief proceeded. [13]

The Zulu tribe massacred many trekkers that night. However, some Boers managed to rally and form a defense line. The line of defense used by the Boers incorporated a laager. This laager made by lashing many wagons together in a circle filling all spaces between and under the wagons with thorn-trees formed an impregnable fort. From this advantage point, Boers maintained rapid and skillful fire because the women kept the spare guns reloaded. Boers being expert marksmen made every shot count. Zulu casualties and dead mounted to unbelievable numbers. Not many Zulus got close enough to inflict any casualties on the Boers. Documented battles between Boers and Zulus report Laagers defended by a few hundred men, women and children could subduing over 5000 Zulus. This particular night, the Zulus caught many Boer Trekkers unprepared and unable to form a Laager in time. Zulus massacred all groups of Boers that did not form laagers. These massacres, called Weenen or the place of wailing, took place near present day Estcourt. [16]

Word of the massacres reached the Cape. Upon hearing of the massacres, the British sent word to the Boer Trekkers to return to the Cape. Astonishingly, the women of the surviving Trekkers refused to return. After the Boers established settlements, the British annexed Natal. Thus pushing the Boers west into the Transvaal. [17]

In South Africa, colonization resulted twice in cultural clashes. The Dutch colonizing South Africa in the early 1600 resulted in many conflicts with the natives. Consequently, the Boers made slaves of the natives. The Boers did not think they were wrong for making slaves of the natives. In 1806, the British took over the colony and made the Boers submit to British laws and customs. Anglicization did not work. The oppressor became the oppressed. Conflicts and resentment grew to a point where the Boers had no other recourse but to flee. Events occurring in Zululand directly contributed to the success of the Trek. If not for the Mfecane, the Boers would have been unable to settle in Natal due to the mass population of the Zulu.



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