What Was the Great Trek?
The Great Trek is the name given to the mass exodus of Afrikaner settlers from South Africa’s Cape Colony between 1835 and 1843 by Boere (Dutch/Afrikaans for “farmers”). The migrants were descended from settlers from western mainland Europe, most notably from the Netherlands, north-west Germany and French Huguenots.
In those years 12,000 “voortrekkers”-men, women and children-with their cattle, sheep and ox-wagons moved out from the Cape towards the High Veld area around the Vaal River in protest against British rule and what they regarded as the spread of “liberal” ideas.
Originally the Cape was colonized by the Dutch under the control of the Dutch East India Company. By the 1660s there were roughly 2,000 settlers in the Colony, employing more than 1,000 slaves. These settlers were mainly Dutch and German.
By the end of the 18th Century the white population numbered about 15,000 people, who by that time had developed their own language-Afrikaans, a variety of Dutch-and their own customs. Of this white, Afrikaner, population about half were known as voortrekkers. These people lived a semi-nomadic life. They farmed wherever they could find good grazing and moved from area to area, constantly pushing forward the frontiers of white expansion.
The Cape was conquered by the British in 1795 during the Napoleonic wars. British settlers were introduced to the colony and soon these settlers began to agitate for a more liberal administration. English became the official language and by 1838 slavery was abolished.
To the Boers this was the final straw. Declaring that the British had “placed their slaves on an equal footing with Christians, contrary to the laws of God”, they decided to shake off British influence and commenced their exodus. Thousands of families moved off in their covered wagons, taking their colored servants with them.
During their journey, the trekkers encountered fierce resistance from the native Zulu warriors. Their wagons were constantly ambushed and their leader, Piet Retief, was killed. The trekkers, however, had the advantages of rifles and superior military techniques and in 1838 defeated the Zulu at the Battle of Blood River.
The trek also resulted in the defeat of Mzilikazi and the subsequent expulsion of the Northern Ndebele people to present day Zimbabwe and the defeat of the Zulu king, Dingane. The trekkers settled in the territory previously occupied by the Zulu and established a new state of their own, the Republic of Natal.
But in 1842 the British took over Natal, whereupon the voortrekkers took to their wagons again and moved back north on the Vaal River. The British decided to recognize the independence of the voortrekkers who established a series of Boer republics, including the Natalia Republic, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal being the most notable.