Afrikaners left the Cape Colony (in present-day South Africa) in large numbers during the second half of the 1830s, an act that became known as the "Great Trek" and that helped define white South Africans' ethnic, cultural, and political identity. In line with Afrikaners' belief in a separate existence, developing tensions between these settlers, British authorities, and African communities drove the "Boers" to quit the Cape and found their own exclusive republics. It was not unheard of for the Boers to leave the Cape in search of an existence far removed from an administration that they perceived as oppressive. This leave-taking stretched back to the period before Britain's initial arrival in 1795. After its arrival in 1652, the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC) had attempted to force its employees and those to whom it had granted landholdings to do business solely with the company. Officials also expected settlers to willingly pay taxes supporting company operations. Many people refused, deciding instead to relocate beyond the VOC's grasp.
British authorities were more efficient at tax collection, thereby appearing more domineering than the VOC. Moreover, when Britain assumed de facto control of the Cape in 1806, administrators replaced the Dutch system with their own. The British also slowly replaced locally known authorities with their officials, thereby severing the Boers' (farmers') link with the administration.
With politics in flux, settlers and Africans were increasingly at odds over territory, as evidenced by the string of Xhosa wars that began in 1779. British administrators had no qualms about supporting African states when appropriate. Although they were not wedded to African rights, officials certainly did not want to encourage free movement across the land that could fuel still more trouble between settlers and the African communities.
Boer anger grew in 1815 when the British hanged five Afrikaner settlers for starting a rebellion. The rebels claimed that the British favored African rights over those of Afrikaners when officials attempted to arrest a man for beating his African servant. The fact that British missionaries had lobbied the government to protect African rights was a cultural insult to the neo-Calvinist Boers and their beliefs in a divinely chosen society built upon racial and religious purity.
When the British government outlawed slavery in the British Empire in 1833, it promised to compensate former owners, but only at one-third the assessed value of the slaves. Claimants had to travel to London in order to petition for compensation. It was the efficient British administration, the clash of cultures, and the division of Europeans over African policies that helped cement Afrikaners' decision once again to move beyond the grasp of the Cape-based government.
Piet Retief (1780–1838) published a manifesto in the Grahamstown Journal appealing to those Afrikaners who had suffered long enough in the Cape. Following the Voortrekkers who, in 1835, had left the Cape to scout for ideal territory, families began moving north to the highveld (part of the central South African plateau) in 1836, crossing the Orange River and even the Vaal River still farther to the north. Disagreements over a proper government and the best areas in which to settle led some of the trekkers to push east across the Drakensberg range into modern Natal. In both cases trekkers came into contact with African states, and competition for land ensued. In October 1836, Ndebele led by Mzilikazi (1795?–1868) launched an attack near Vegkop, killing livestock but not overrunning the Boers' defensive laager (a protected camp). The Boers countered in 1837, and by the end of the year had driven the Ndebele north over the Limpopo River.
In Natal, Zulu King Dingane (1795–1840) wiped out a party of Boers under Piet Retief. Afrikaner reinforcements arrived from the Cape and the highveld, meeting the Zulu at the Ncome River on December 16, 1838. The river ran with African blood as the Zulu attack withered under the sustained Boer fire. Blood River Day would go on to become a significant holiday on the Afrikaner calendar. With the defeat came civil war among the Zulu, finally enabling the Boers to begin implementing their own administration. They established the Natal Republic, with six thousand people settling in the fertile valleys around the Tugela River.
Although the Boers successfully implanted themselves in the areas that would become the Orange Free State and the Transvaal republics, their good fortune did not last in Natal. Britain would not accept potentially hostile settlers with a market savviness controlling coastal ports. Moreover, the Boers' racial policies had the potential to cause trouble among the rising African population. If the British intended to control trade, they would have to control Natal. In 1843 the British government annexed the territory, thereby driving many of the settlers back over the Drakensberg mountains.
The Great Trek enhanced the developing Afrikaner mythology. By 1854 the Boers had successfully established two republics north of the Cape Colony, thus legitimating efforts to separate themselves from an oppressive higher authority. With its images of a dedicated spiritual people working to establish a society based solely upon their beliefs, it is no wonder that the event was celebrated and recreated a century later.
As in other nations in the 1930s, South Africa suffered from the effects of economic depression. In unstable times, the Afrikaners sought to reaffirm their existence. This was made easier by the centennial celebration of the Great Trek. Families joined in a recreation of the trek and a number of celebrations highlighting Afrikaner culture. The Ossewabrandwag (Ox-Wagon Guard), a cultural organization created in 1939, also exploited the image of a people trekking to their homeland in the struggle to be free.
When apartheid was under threat of collapse in the 1980s, the mythology of the Great Trek resurfaced again with the creation of new commando organizations designed to protect the state against a growing African nationalist insurgency. Groups such as the Afrikanerweerstandbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) also harkened back to the days of racial purity and struggle against an oppressive foe. As the Great Trek symbolized the life of the Afrikaner, it also symbolized the purely idealistic efforts to create a separate neo-Calvinist state. This was impossible in a nation dependent upon African labor and a relationship with the outside world. Especially as colonialism ended, bringing independence to African states, it became painfully obvious that such visions of racial purity and exclusivity were unrealistic.
Fisher, John. Paul Kruger: His Life and Times. London: Secker and Warburg, 1974.
Shillington, Kevin. History of Southern Africa. Harlow, U.K.: Longman, 1987.