Alright folks, it’s time for another history lesson! You might remember from school, or from playing Oregon Trail, that during the 19th-century hundreds of thousands of Americans loaded up their wagons and headed west to the American frontier, to strike out new homes for themselves and fulfill “Manifest Destiny.” As it turns out, around the same time thousands of South Africans were making similar wagon journeys across their country. These were the Voortrekkers who undertook the Great Trek during the 1830s and 1840s.
In the first half of the 19th century, most South Africans of European descent lived in the Eastern Cape, which was under English control. Spread across the Eastern Cape were descendants of the Trekboers, the Dutch and Huguenot farmers who originally ventured out into the frontiers of the Cape to establish farming communities. These communities continued to speak Dutch (which by then was beginning to morph into Afrikaans) and practiced the faith of the Dutch-Reformed Church. They bristled at the encroachment of English language, customs and law.
Living on the borders of the Cape colony, the Boers frequently clashed with African tribes over land and livestock. The British Government, hoping to appease the tribes, accused the Boers of instigating an unjust conflict. Worst of all (from the Boers’ perspective), the English outlawed slavery and then did not compensate the Boers for their “loss of property.”
These reasons, among others, spurred large groups of Boers to load up their wagons and begin a trek east. These journeys took many years. They had to take apart and hand carry their wagons and belongings over the ridges of mountains. Along they way they faced disease, hunger and fighting against local tribes.
When the Voortrekkers arrived in the areas of Bloemfontein and Natal, these deeply religious people believed it to be the promised land given to them by God. The lands were devoid of people and perfect for agriculture, so here the first Boer Republic was established.
In reality, the land was empty of people because the Zulu empire had recently conquered them, killing or scaring away the local inhabitants. The arrival of the Voortrekkers led to further conflict, including two of the most famous incidents from the Great Trek.
The first was the massacre of Piet Retief. After arriving in Natal, a group of Voortrekkers negotiated with the Zulu King Dingane for a land treaty in February 1838. The King, however, did not trust these newcomers and had other plans. When a delegation, led by Piet Retief, came to collect the treaty, Zulu warriors killed all 100 unarmed Boers and their servants.
The second important incident was the Battle of Blood River. A group of commandos, hoping to punish Dingane and reclaim the treaty land, went to battle against the Zulu. On 16 December 1838, 464 Voortrekkers and their servants (armed with guns) defeated King Dingane’s armed force of approximately 10,000 men (armed with spears).
These battles and the whole of the Great Trek became important parts of the Afrikaner national identity. In 1937, construction began on a massive granite monument to commemorate the sacrifices and bravery of the Voortrekkers. It opened in 1949 to a huge crowd of Afrikaners, dressed as Boers and bursting with national pride. These were the early days of a newfound nationalism which led to the rise of the National Party and the introduction of the Apartheid system in South Africa.
Despite the complex historical implications, the monument stands as a striking memorial to the men and women who followed their own version of manifest destiny and help shape the history of South Africa.