The Great Trek

I was asked the other day how long the Great Trek lasted for hopefully it was not because the person asking thought that I had been part of it. While I vaguely remember some of the history for school days I could not give an answer. So I decided to find a source of info and read up on it, here is what I came up with.

By 1836 the farmers in the Cape were starting to find life under British rule somewhat of a constraint but it was probably the abolishment of slavery and the unsatisfactory way that their owners had been compensated as well as the Anglicisation of the Cape Colony that prompted many to want to pack their wagons and look for greener pastures. While its generally agreed that the Great Trek started in 1836 there is evidence that shows the Trek was not a spur of the moment decision and that three clandestine expeditions were sent out in 1834 to investigate the hinterland, the first headed towards South West Africa, the second travelled North to the Zoutpansberg and the third headed North East to Natal.

It is generally agreed that the Great Trek started in 1836 with most of the people participating coming from Tarka and led by Andries Hendrik Potgieter. Travelling into the hinterland by trek Boers was to continue well into 1852 and probably involved no more than ten thousand white people - men, women and children, with a large number being children, as a matter of interest in 1849 alone twice as many people used the California trail in the USA, with the distances covered further than the trekkers in South Africa. If you take the effort to visit small platteland dorps or villages you will find that many of them have a “gedenkteeken” that celebrates 100 years of the Great Trek and many have wagon wheel racks in cement where the 1938 Trek wagons stopped or passed during that year.

While there were a number of Trek Leaders I decided that I would look into the life or Piet Retief, as he had camped not to far from Clarens in 1937, so he is in a way sort of an honorary Clarenite, just like Paul Kruger.

Retief was born in the Western Cape at Wagenmaakersvlei, he later moved to Stellenbosch due to financial problems and then on to Uitenhage and later still Grahamstown, were he tried for the umpteenth time to make a living as a general dealer, miller, baker, auctioneer, timber merchant and building contractor.(sounds like a number of Clarenites I know, myself included). In 1834 however he was declared bankrupt again and forced to hand over his estate. During the frontier wars of 1835 Retief had been a field commandant and was well liked and respected. Retief was hoping that after the war his financial conditions would improve, but they did not and he then made plans to leave Grahamstown which he did in February 1837 crossing the Orange River at Buffelsvlei in March of that same year with a party of 107 trekkers.

With Potgieter and Maritz feuding many trekkers wanted Retief as their leader so when he reached the new town of Winburg (60 kms from present day Bloemfontein) he received a tumultuous welcome. About 1000 wagons had gathered at Winburg and a general meeting was called were Retief was elected Governor and Commandant – General. Retief set out to negotiate with black chiefs and succeeded in signing treaties with Sekonyela, Moroka and Moshesh. Retief was determined to settle in Natal but others where against it as they saw the British interfering in the years to come. Retief sent out five scouting parties to find a crossing over the Drakensburg Mountains.

After waiting a number of months the advance parties arrived and advised him that their where a number of possible routes over the mountains. Retief immediately broke camp at the end of July and set off towards what would become Senekal and Paul Roux, eventually crossing near to Liebensburgvlei and stopping near the present day village of Clarens near to the Asrivier. Retief set up a larger of 30 wagons and with a small party of 15 men and 4 wagons set off to reconnoitre Natal. Retief and his small party also out spanned near to present day Kestell and spent some time in that area prior to finding a suitable route into Natal. Retief eventually chose the southernmost route for his decent in to Natal and has become known as Retief Pass. Many difficulties were experienced by Retief and his party as the route involved traversing steep slopes and this is when he came up with an idea to change the wheels on the wagons so that the large rear wheels were both on the lower slope side of the wagon and the small wheels on the upper side of the slope. Retief and his party were the first to cross the Drakensburg into Natal.

After crossing the Tugela River Retief reached Port Natal on the 19th of October 1837, the settlers living there were happy to see Retief as they lived in perpetual danger from Dingaan. Retief met with Dingaan at his royal kraal of Gungundhlovu, here Dingane agreed to grant trekkers land for settlement, on condition that Retief recovered stolen cattle that Sikonyela had taken from him. On the 2nd of November Retief sent word to his camp near Clarens that he was on his way back. During his absence the laager had decided to move to Kerkenberg near the head of Retiefs pass. When the decision was made to descend the pass all except one wagon made it safely to the bottom. After meeting up with Retief a decision was made to laager on the Tugela River and in December of 1837 Retief set of with 50 men to collect the cattle from Sikonyela, this was successfully completed and he returned to camp in early January 1838. Retief wanted to take back the cattle to Dingaan himself and together with nearly 200 men he did just that. Gerrit Maritz another Voortrekker leader was against this as he did not trust Dingaan after much deliberation Retief agreed to reduce the number of men in the commando to 66 volunteers. Retief and his men were welcomed at Gungundhlovo , they were asked to leave weapons in one area and then entertained by Dingaan, while there attention was diverted by the festivities Retief and his men were fallen on and taken to a nearby mountain where they were all put to death.

Dingaan sent out impi’s to complete the task of wiping out the interlopers in his territory, the impi’s spied on the location of the trekkers and on the night of the 16th of February 1838 they unleashed a simultaneous assault by over 10 000 warriors on the scattered camps of the trekkers along the Blaauwkrantz mountains, during theses attacks that lasted over 12 hours 40 men, 56 women, 185 children and over 200 servants were massacred..

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