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The Great Trek

South Africa

The Great Trek (Afrikaans: Die Groot Trek) was an eastward and north-eastward migration away from British control in the Cape Colony during the 1830s and 1840s by Boers Dutch/Afrikaans for "farmers". The migrants were descended from settlers from western mainland Europe, most notably from the Netherlands, northwest Germany and French Huguenots. The Great Trek itself led to the founding of numerous Boer republics, the Natalia Republic, the Orange Free State Republic and the Transvaal being the most notable.


The Voortrekkers comprised two groups from the eastern frontier region of the Cape Colony, semi-nomadic pastoralists known as Trekboers, and established farmers and artisans known as Grensboere, or Border Farmers. Together these groups were later called Voortrekkers (Pioneers). While most settlers who lived in the western Cape (later known as the Cape Dutch) did not trek eastward, a small number did.

  The first colonists, who arrived in 1652 to set up a depot for the provision of ships under the auspices of The Dutch East India Company, were of Dutch stock.Many later settlers were of German origin and after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, French Huguenot refugees.  
  The community was also governed by The Council of Seventeen in Amsterdam, who governed the far-reaching empire of the Dutch East India Company.During the Napoleonic Wars the colony passed into the control of the United Kingdom. This was formally ratified in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna.  
  By 1800, white colonists numbered rather fewer than 40,000, and were so interconnected by marriage that they represented a giant family rather than a new polyglot community.

  Historians have identified various factors that contributed to the migration of an estimated 12,000 Voortrekkers to the future Natal, Orange Free State and Transvaal regions. The primary motivations included discontent with the British rule, its Anglicisation policies, restrictive laws on slavery and its eventual abolition, arrangements to compensate former slave owners, and the perceived indifference of British authorities to border conflicts along the Cape Colony's eastern frontier. Many contemporary sources argue that Ordinance 50 (1828), which guaranteed equal legal rights to all free persons of colour, and prohibitions on inhumane treatment of workers, spurred the Boer migrations.  
  However, some scholars argue that most Trekboers did not own slaves, unlike the more affluent Cape Dutch who did not migrate from the western Cape. The three republics subsequently founded by the Voortrekkers prohibited slavery, but enshrined racial separatism in their constitutions.  

Other possible factors included the desire to escape from relentless border wars with the Xhosa along the eastern frontier of the Cape colony. The migrants also sought fertile farmland, as good land was becoming scarce within the colony's frontiers. The Great Trek also resulted from increasing population pressures, as Trekboer migrations eastward had come to a virtual stop for at least three decades, though some Trekboers did migrate beyond the Orange River prior to the Great Trek.


Natal conflicts
During the Great Trek the Voortrekkers engaged in conflict with the Zulu of Natal.The Zulu launched large-scale hostilities after a delegation under the Trek leader Piet Retief was massacred by their chief, Dingane kaSenzangakhona on February 6, 1838.

Various interpretations of what exactly transpired exist, as only the missionary Francis Owen's written eye-witness account survived. Retief's written request for land contained veiled threats by referring to the Voortrekker's defeat of indigenous groups encountered along their journey. The Voortrekker demand for a written contract guaranteeing private property ownership was incompatible with the contemporaneous Zulu oral culture which prescribed that a chief could only temporarily dispense land, which was communally owned.

  Most versions agree that the following happened: Dingane's authority extended over some of the land in which the Boers wanted to settle. As prerequisite to granting the Voortrekker request, Dingane demanded that the Voortrekkers return some cattle stolen by Sekonyela, a rival chief. After the Boers retrieved the cattle back, Dingane invited Retief to his residence at Umgungundlovu to finalise the treaty, having either planned the massacre in advance, or deciding to do so after Retief and his men arrived.  
  Perhaps an earlier display of arms from horseback by Retief's men provoked the massacre. Dingane's reputed instruction to his warriors, ""Bulalani abathakathi!" Zulu for "kill the wizards" showed that he may have considered the Boers to wield evil supernatural powers.

After murdering Piet Retief's delegation, the Zulu impis ,battalions immediately attacked Boer encampments in the Drakensberg foothills at what later was called Blaauwkrans and Weenen. In contrast to earlier conflicts with the Xhosa on the eastern Cape frontier, the Zulu killed the women and children along with the men, wiping out half of the Natal contingent of Voortrekkers.

  On April 6, 1838 the Voortrekkers retaliated with a 347-strong punitive raid against the Zulu later known as the Flight Commando, supported by new arrivals from the Orange Free State. They were roundly defeated by about 7,000 warriors at Ithaleni, southwest of uMgungundlovu. The well-known reluctance of Afrikaner leaders to submit to one another's leadership, which later so hindered sustained success in the Anglo-Boer wars, was largely to blame.  
  On December 16, 1838 a 470-strong force of Andries Pretorius confronted about 12,000 Zulu at prepared positions.The Boers reputedly suffered only 3 injuries without any fatalities, while the blood of 3,000 slain Zulu turned the river red with blood, so that the conflict afterwards became known as the Battle of Blood River. The Boers' guns offered them an obvious technological advantage over the Zulu's traditional weaponry of short stabbing spears, fighting sticks, and cattle-hide shields.  
  The Boers attributed their victory to a vow they made to God before the battle: if victorious, they and future generations would commemorate the day as a Sabbath. Thus 16 December was celebrated by Boers as a public holiday, first called "Dingane's Day," later changed to the Day of the Vow. It is still a public holiday, but the name was changed to the Day of Reconciliation by the post-apartheid ANC government, in order to foster reconciliation between all South Africans. However, the Day of the Vow is still celebrated by Boers today.








After the defeat of the Zulu forces and the recovery of the treaty between Dingane and Retief from the latter's skeleton, the Voortrekkers proclaimed the Natalia Republic.This Boer state was annexed by British forces in 1843.Due to the return of British rule, emphasis moved from occupying lands in Natal, east of the Drakensberg mountains, to the west of them and onto the high veld of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, which were unoccupied due to the devastation of the Mfecane.


Andries Wilhelmus Jacobus Pretorius

Andries Wilhelmus Jacobus Pretorius 27 November 1798 – 23 July 1853 was a leader of the Boers who was instrumental in the creation of the Transvaal Republic, as well as the earlier but short-lived Natalia Republic, in present-day South Africa.
Early life and Education
Born in 1798, Pretorius received his education at home and grew up to become a farmer, like his parents, in Graaff-Reinet in the Cape Colony. He was a descendant of one of the earliest Dutch settlers in South Africa and a "descendant of two East Indian slave women, Catharina van Bengale on his mother’s side, and Helena van Malabar on his father’s side."

Discontented under British rule, he left his home and joined the Great Trek to the north. By way of the Orange Free State, he crossed the Drakensberg into Natal, arriving in November 1838, when the emigrants lacked a recognized leader following the death of Piet Retief in February. They chose Pretorius as commandant-general, and he quickly collected a force to avenge the deaths of Piet Retief and his party, who had been killed by the Zulu king Dingane's forces in February under treacherous circumstances.

  On 16 December 1838, Pretorius' force of some 500 men was attacked by over 10,000 Zulus. With superior weaponry and tactics, the Boers beat them off, killing an estimated 3,000 warriors in what became known as the Battle of Blood River.Boers memorialized the day as "Dingane's Day" until 1910. It was renamed "Day of the Vow", later "Day of the Covenant", and made a public holiday by the first South African government. After the fall of apartheid in 1994, the new government kept the day as a public holiday as an act of conciliation to Boers, but renamed it "Day of Reconciliation".  
  In January 1840, Pretorius with a commando of 400 burghers, helped Mpande in his revolt against his half-brother Dingane. He was also the leader of the Natal Boers in their opposition to the British. In 1842, Pretorius besieged the small British garrison at Durban, but retreated to Pietermaritzburg on the arrival of reinforcements under Colonel Josias Cloete. Afterward, he exerted his influence with the Boers to reach a peaceful solution with the British, who annexed Natalia.  
  Remaining in Natal as a British subject, in 1847 Pretorius was chosen by the Boer farmers to present their grievances to the governor of Cape Colony. They were concerned about the continuous migration of natives who were assigned locations to the detriment of Boer land claims. Pretorius went to Grahamstown to seek an audience with the governor, Sir Henry Pottinger, but he refused to see Pretorius or receive any communication from him. Pretorius returned to Natal determined to abandon his farm and move beyond the British dominions.  
  With a considerable following, he was preparing to cross the Drakensberg when Sir Harry Smith, newly appointed governor of the Cape, reached the emigrants' camp on the Tugela River in January 1848. Smith promised the farmers protection from the natives and persuaded many of the party to remain. Pretorius departed, and, on the proclamation of British sovereignty up to the Vaal River, fixed his residence in the Magaliesberg, north of that river. He was chosen by the burghers living on both banks of the Vaal as their commandant-general.

At the request of the Boers at Winburg, Pretorius crossed the Vaal in July and led the anti-British party in their "war of freedom", occupying Bloemfontein on 20 July. In August, he was defeated at Boomplaats by Smith and retreated to the north of the Vaal. He became leader of one of the largest of the parties into which the Transvaal Boers were divided, and commandant-general of Potchefstroom and Rustenburg, his principal rival being Commandant-General A. H. Potgieter.

  In 1851, Boer malcontents in the Orange River Sovereignty and the Basotho chief Moshoeshoe I asked Pretorius to come to their aid. He announced his intention of crossing the Vaal to "restore order" in the Sovereignty. His goal was to obtain an acknowledgment of the independence of the Transvaal Boers from the British. Having decided on a policy of abandonment, the British cabinet entertained his proposal.

The government withdrew its reward of 2000 pounds, which had been offered for his capture after the Boomplaats battle. Pretorius met the British commissioners near the Sand River. On 17 January 1852 they concluded the convention by which the independence of the Transvaal Boers was recognized by Britain.

Pretorius recrossed the Vaal River, and on 16 March he reconciled with Potgieter at Rustenburg. The followers of both leaders approved the convention, although the Potgieter party was not represented. In the same year, Pretorius paid a visit to Durban with the object of opening up trade between Natal and the new republic.

In 1852, he also attempted to close the road to the interior through Bechuanaland and sent a commando to the western border against Sechele.Pretorius died at his home at Magaliesberg in July 1853. He is described by Theal as "the ablest leader and most perfect representative of the Emigrant Farmers." In 1855, a new district and a new town were formed out of the Potchefstroom and Rustenburg districts by his son, Marthinus Wessel Pretorius, who named them Pretoria in honour of the late commandant-general. Marthinus Wessel Pretorius was the first president of the Transvaal Republic.



Pieter Mauritz Retief


On 12 November 1780 – 6 February 1838, was a South African Boer leader. Settling in 1814 in the frontier region of the Cape Colony, he assumed command of punitive expeditions in response to raiding parties from the adjacent Xhosa territory. He became a spokesperson for the frontier farmers who voiced their discontent, and wrote the Voortrekkers' declaration at their departure from the colony.


He was a leading figure during their Great Trek, and at one stage their elected governor. He proposed Natal as the final destination of their migration and selected a location for its future capital, later named Pietermaritzburg. Following the massacre of Retief and his delegation by Zulu king Dingane, the short-lived Boer republic Natalia suffered from ineffective government and succumbed to British annexation.


Charl Sarel Arnoldus Cilliers
(1801 – 1871) 
  Was a Voortrekker leader and a preacher. With Andries Pretorius, he led the Boers to a huge victory over the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River in 1838.  
  In particular, Cilliers lead the Voortrekkers in a vow which promised that if God would protect them and deliver the enemy into their hands, they would build a church and commemorate the day of their victory as if it were an annual Sabbath day, which their descendants would also be instructed to honour.

  He was a prominent member of the Gereformeerde Kerk  (Reformed Church), an offshoot of the Dutch Reformed Church. He is described as being a short, stout man, and was believed to have been very religious. He joined the Great Trek at the age of thirty-five.  
  The town of Kroonstad was, according to folklore, named after a horse belonging to Cilliers, which drowned in a stream Kroonspruit where the town is situated.


There is a Sarel Cilliers Museum as well as a statue of him on the site of the Dutch Reformed Church in Kroonstad. Numerous streets and roads in Kroonstad and throughout South Africa are named after him.


Andries Hendrik Potgieter
known as Hendrik Potgieter 19 December 1792 - 16 December 1852
Was a Voortrekker leader. He served as the first head of state of Potchefstroom from 1840 and 1845 and also as the first head of state of Zoutpansberg from 1845 to 1852.

Potgieter was born in the Tarkastad district of the Cape Colony, the second child of Petronella Margaretha and Hermanus Potgieter. He grew up to be a wealthy sheep farmer and fought in the Fourth and Fifth Frontier Wars. However, like many other Boers farmers of Dutch, French, and German descent living in the Cape Colony  he decided to leave the colony in 1834. Delayed by the Sixth Frontier War, Potgieter and a group of Voortrekkers under his leadership left in 1835.

Other treks under Louis Tregardt and Johannes Hendrik Janse van Rensburg had preceded him. The Voortrekkers' spiritual leader, Sarel Arnoldus Cilliers, later joined Potgieter's trek.

  Potgieter and his party moved inland to the present Free State, where they signed a treaty with the leader of the Barolong, Moroka. The treaty stipulated that Potgieter would protect the Baralong against the Matabele raiders, in exchange for land. The tract of land was from the Vet River to the Vaal River.The Matabele leader, Mzilikazi, was threatened by the white incursion into what he saw as his sphere of influence, which led to the Matabele's attack on the Potgieter laager in October, 1836, at Vegkop, near the present-day town of Heilbron.  
  The attack was beaten off, but the Matabele made off with most of the trekker oxen, crucial draught animals for the wagons. The combined trek groups of Piet Retief and Gerrit Maritz came to Potgieter's rescue. Moroka also helped with oxen. His group joined up with Retief and Maritz at Thaba Nchu, where they formed a Voortrekker government and decided to move to Natal. Potgieter was not in favour of this plan and stayed behind in the Free State.

  In 1838, after Piet Retief and his party were killed by Dingane, and other Voortrekker parties were attacked at the Bloukrans and Bushman Rivers, Potgieter and another leader, Pieter Lafras Uys assembled a military force. To prevent schism and discord, the new Voortrekker leader in Natal, Maritz, diplomatically pronounced that both Uys and Potgieter were to be in command. However, a struggle between the hot-headed Uys and Potgieter ensued.  
  The divided force was lured into an ambush by the Zulus at Italeni, and both Uys and his son Dirkie, were killed. The surrounded and outnumbered force fled. Potgieter was criticized for his actions, and the force was called "Die Vlugkommado" or Flight Commando. He was further accused, unjustly, of causing the death of Uys by deliberately leading the force into the ambush. He left Natal for good soon afterwards and moved to the Transvaal.  
  Potgieter subsequently went on to found Potchefstroom named after him by the banks of the Mooi River, and served as its first head of state of the Potchefstroom Republic between 1840 and 1845. Later, in 1845, he also founded Ohrigstad originally named Andries-Ohrigstad after Potgieter himself and George Ohrig as a trading station. Owing to a malaria outbreak, the town had to be abandoned. The inhabitants, including Potgieter, moved to the Soutpansberg area, where he founded the town Zoutpansbergdorp which means 'Salt Pan Mountain Town', later renamed Schoemansdal.


After the 1842 annexation of Natal by Britain, many Natal Trekkers moved to the Free State and the Transvaal. These newcomers and their leader, Andries Pretorius, refused to accept the authority of Potgieter, and a power struggle developed. War was averted, and in 1848 a peace treaty was signed in Rustenburg. Potgieter died on 16 December 1852, in Zoutpansbergdorp. A number of African chiefs who held him in very high regard came to pay their respects before his death.


Petrus Lafras Uys more commonly known as Piet Uys (1797 - 1838) was a Voortrekker leader during the Great Trek.

He was born in Swellendam, the third son of six of Jacobus Johannes Uys (nicknamed Koos Bybel (Bible) because of his religious beliefs. In 1823 Piet Uys moved to a farm in the Humansdorp area near Uitenhage together with his father.

  Uys married a cousin, Alida Maria Uys, in 1815. The couple had three sons. He was described as a "well-spoken, intelligent man" with a wide circle of friends, including the Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Benjamin d'Urban and Colonel Harry Smith. His conduct during the Cape Frontier wars led him to assume a leadership role at the relatively young age of 37. As a result of this, Uys was chosen to lead the "Commission Trek" to Natal in 1834, where he visited Port Natal and may also have met Dingane.

  After this successful scouting expedition, the party returned to Uitenhage in February 1835. The subsequent favourable reports of the Commission Treks resulted in many farmers leaving their farms and trekking into the interior of Southern Africa, in what later became known as the Great Trek. Uys sold his own farm in December 1836 and left the Uitenhage area with his party of 100 Voortrekkers as they became known in April 1837.  
  On 29 June of the same year, the Uys Trek arrived at the combined Voortrekker laager at the Sand River where, unbeknownst to them, Piet Retief had been elected Governor and a constitution drafted. Uys refused to accept either and insisted that, once they had reached Natal, democratic elections should be held. He also proposed a constitution based on that of the United States of America.  
  Uys then received a request by Andries Potgieter to help him against the Matabeles and their leader, Mzilikazi, who had recently defeated him. A commando led by Uys responded, and their combined forces eventually drove the Matabeles into what is now the country of Zimbabwe, opening up the Highveld area for future settlement.  
  On their return to the laager, the men found that Retief had already left for Natal. Uys and Potgieter subsequently travelled with a scouting party to Natal to visit Retief, but left for what later became known as the Orange Free State after being made to feel unwelcome.  
  However, after the massacare of Retief and his men by Dingane and the subsequent Zulu attacks on the Voortrekker laagers in Natal, commandos led by Uys and Potgieter rode to their aid. During the subsequent Battle of Italeni both Uys and his second son, Dirkie, were killed. Uys was to be the only Voortrekker leader to be killed in battle during the Great Trek.  

Soon afterward ensued the Battle of Blood River.

Uys and his son Dirkie are remembered in the Voortrekker Monument.

Gert Gerrit Maritz (1798 – 23 September 1838) Was a Voortrekker pioneer and leader



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