The Great Boer Trek

Stephen Crane

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


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


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 theMatabele 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


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.