1. Trekboers
From The Great Trek by O. Ransford

By the end of the eighteenth century a new breed of men had evolved in South Africa— the trekboers. No people quite like them had ever existed before. Descended from white colonists who had settled at the Cape of Good Hope after 1652 when the Dutch East India Company established a staging post there, they had quickly espoused themselves to their strange new environment and became an integral part of Africa. The earliest colonists were of Dutch stock, but many settlers of German origin had joined them later, and after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 De Kaap had accepted a considerable infusion of French Huguenot refugees. By 1800 the white colonists numbered rather less than 40,000, and were so connected by marriage that they more resembled a gigantic family living on its ancient estate than a polyglot community scraping a livelihood from one of the world's most out-of-the-way places.

The first colonists dug in at the Cape, hemmed in on one side by the sea and on the other by tiered rows of mountains which divided them from an unknown continental interior; rather uneasily they realised that it must stretch all the way to Egypt and the Mediterranean. In their bridgehead at the butt end of Africa they felt themselves to be hostages not only to the tribesmen and savage animals which they knew must inhabit this interior, but also to the whims of their masters, the Council of Seventeen, who, from Amsterdam, governed the far-reaching empire of the Dutch East India Company.

The Seventeen ruled their subjects despotically. The rank and file of the white settlers at De Kaap were employed only as soldiers and producers of fresh fruit and vegetables from the Company's gardens to supply the crews of its merchantmen. They were excluded from all responsible and professional positions which the Seventeen invariably filled with Hollanders. At the completion of their contracts very few men could afford to pay their passage back to Europe, and after taking their discharge there was at first little hope of these `free burghers' finding employment except as tradesmen and tavern keepers. But in 1657, since difficulty was being experienced in obtaining supplies of grain from the local Hottentots, the Council at the Cape allowed a handful of settlers to set up as farmers (Boers in the Dutch tongue) along the Liesbeeck stream which ran into Table Bay beside the infant village of De Kaap.

This was a start; a few burghers could now cherish some form of independence and the number grew when the Administration presently found it expedient to encourage stock-breeding too among the Boers in order to supply passing ships with meat. And the cattle-Boers soon found it paid them to push beyond the immediate confines of the Dutch settlement in search of pasture.

For ground in the hinterland could be legally obtained from the Company which operated a system of quit rents; stock bred quickly here and there was always a market for fresh meat at De Kaap. Moreover, little capital was required to set up as a grazier; cattle could be bought inexpensively (usually for brandy) from the Hottentots. Hottentot labour was cheap and they made excellent herders, while an income could always be augmented by hunting. And the stock-breeders found it gloriously refreshing to be free from the petty regulations of the Company officials at the Cape.

But penetration of the hinterland was blocked by a series of formidable mountains rising up in gigantic steps, beautiful to look at but menacing in their immensity. And beyond the mountains lay lands which were the reliquary of all sorts of displaced peoples, animals and flora, and filled accordingly with unknown dangers. Only along the coast, both to the north and east of De Kaap, was there easy access to new grasslands, but on one side the graziers were soon led to arid regions and on the other, the east, to trackless forest lands.

The problem facing the cattle-Boers could thus be solved only by finding passes through the mountain barriers, and the more venturesome among them accordingly yoked double spans of oxen to their, great wagons, explored the valleys and kloofs which ascended succeeding escarpments, and broke at last into a new world. They came to a vast inland plateau which, although bounded on the west by the Namaqua Desert, appeared to extend indefinitely towards the north. It was true that areas of this high plain— the Great and Little Karoos—were mere herbages of scanty plants dependent on less than ten inches of rain each year and uninviting to stock farmers, but for the most part the plateau was luxuriant with the sweet grass which provided ideal grazing for cattle. There was little shade to be found there to be sure; a combination of deliberate grass burning, strong winds and dry cold winters did not encourage tree growth, but this disadvantage was more than off-set by the pasture's quality and the scarcity of human inhabitants. There were only scattered settlements of Hottentots and Bushmen living on the vast plains, and they could offer little resistance to the invasion of their lands by white men. Both races were yellow-skinned and spoke a click language suggesting a common origin, but whereas the Bushmen relied on hunting and food-gathering for their sustenance, the Hottentots were culturally more advanced, possessing large herds of cattle and sheep, and, perhaps because of better nutrition, they were generally of larger stature than the tiny Bushmen hunters.

The white pioneers on the high veld were preceded by big game hunters and gangs of outlaws who plundered the indigenous people's herds, but for the most part the newcomers were farmers with their families who preferred the adventures of a roving life to the mannered, candle-lit world of De Kaap or the lush orchards of Paarl.

Although at first the Boers had not clearly distinguished between the yellow-skinned people with whom they made contact, it took the pioneers little time to discover that the Hottentots were prepared to, trade with them while the Bushmen were not. Essentially the Hottentots had led nomadic lives, constantly moving their stock in search of better pasture. Now they were inclined to settle round the white farmers' camps, bartering their cattle for beads, guns, tobacco, and brandy, and to find some security in return for their services as herdsmen and domestics. The Bushmen on the other hand would have nothing to do with the Whites. Their, inclination was to withdraw before them into the more inaccessible parts of the interior. Yet their presence was always felt and it was always a malevolent one, for they were quite incapable of resisting the temptation to raid the European pastoralists' stock. In general then the inter-reaction of the colonists with the Hottentots was peaceful, whereas that with the Bushmen was hostile.

The breakthrough by Europe into the hinterland of the African sub-continent exerted a profound psychological effect on the Dutch pastoralists. Here before them lay an apparently limitless homeland, a suddenly revealed heritage, whose freedom of space released them from physical and spiritual immobility. More and more Boers followed the pioneers into the interior where conditions suited them so well that they experienced a minor population explosion and formed the nucleus of a new nation. They were as nomadic as the Hottentots, or as the antelope they hunted. Trekking for them became a way of life. `The whole of Africa,' sighed the Governor at the Cape in 1699, `would not be sufficient to accommodate and satisfy' the trekboers, but a year later he was notifying the Seventeen with more satisfaction that `The Cape promises to grow by the increase of its own people, who, not knowing another fatherland, will not ... again depart.'

By the beginning of the eighteenth century thousands of trekboers were living permanently on grazing farms in the interior, some of them temporarily migrating each winter to the coast, so that their cattle might enjoy its sweet grass, but generally moving farther into the plains when their land was exhausted or when their journeys of exploration had revealed more attractive grazing or water. These people rarely put up permanent dwelling places; their homes were the wagons parked by a water point on the `loan places' they had registered with the Company. Their farms usually approximated to the conveniently-managed size (for Africa) of 6,000 acres, and they generally marked out this area in a rough and ready manner by trotting a horse from the wagon along all four points of the compass for half an hour.

The trekboers' livelihood depended primarily on stock-breeding, but where the ground was suitable they grew grain. They were not especially devoted to one particular farm; their attachment was reserved for the stock they owned and for the virgin land as a whole which Providence had opened up to them. Trekking was in the blood of these land Vikings; it lay in the very core of their nature. For they were possessed by a restless spirit which is called the trekgees and it drove them on continuously in search of new territory. They would move if they were annoyed by wild animals or hostile natives or by tax collectors, but more often they trekked for no more reason than a quenchless hope that better pastures lay beyond the next horizon. `Myn vrouw, wy moet trek', a Boer patriarch would say to his wife, and then their possessions were packed, the oxen put to the yoke again, and the wagons jolted slowly forwards with the axles groaning as the whip cracked over the oxen's straining backs. So common were these miniature migrations or trekkies that everyone in a Boer family exactly knew his task: the men would ride ahead to find the easiest going for the wagons and locate water for the night's resting place, the children and servants would lead the oxen as voorlopers, while the womenfolk took their ease in the wagons, looking out from under the tilts at the changing scenes of Africa. And every day the party would be five or ten miles farther away from Cape Town.

Reading the pages of official records at the Cape and the rarely published reminiscences of the trekboers themselves one begins to take note of the slow adjustment of these cattle-farmers to their surroundings, and the growth of a certain expertise in enabling their herds to overcome local pestilences and grow prolific. They became particularly skilled in using and maintaining their key possessions— guns and ox wagons— and, spending much time in the saddle, they became the most competent horse-masters in the world. It would be entirely wrong to regard the trekboers as members of an exotic civilisation transplanted to the South African interior: these new-comers had become as much a part of Africa as its indigenous people and as the Bantu who, all unknown to them, were at the same time migrating southwards down the continent. As though to signify their allegiance to their new homeland the Boers began to speak of themselves as Afrikanders and then as Afrikaners, and thus distinguished their people from the townsmen who lived at the Cape. These Afrikaners of the interior were already remarkably isolated and self-sufficient. Every year, it is true, they would journey to De Kaap to renew their grazing licences, to arrange and contract marriages to buy essentials which they could not produce themselves, like gunpowder, cloth, coffee, liquor and agricultural implements, and to sell the products of their stock-farming and hunting— horses, cattle and sheep on the hoof, skins and hides, soap, beeswax and ivory.

But for the remainder of the year the Boers were cut off from all organised society; inevitably they became self-reliant and, it must be conceded, somewhat refractory to law. Because of their special circumstances these people grew increasingly resentful of the somewhat feeble attempts made by Company officials to impose their regulations on them. The instinct of these pioneers, who anyway could never see a mountain range without being certain that Paradise lay beyond, was to move farther and farther away from irritations of this sort, and in the course of four generations the trekboers, as family units or in small groups, advanced slowly and without co-ordination through the mountains and around the Great Karoo to all the lush pastures of the high veld south of the great Orange river. Here in the wilds they could enjoy the lekker lewe, the free and independent lotus life, which they so much cherished. It released them, for all intents and purposes, from the necessity of physical labour since they employed Hottentot hirelings as field workers, shepherds, herdsmen ` and domestic servants. It is true that some of the trekboers felt distress at being deprived of the regular religious ministrations of more settled communities, as well as of easy trading facilities, but at the more accessible farms at least even these needs might be catered for by itinerant pastors and by pack pedlars— the smouse of South African history— who carried in their donkey packs not only guns but needles, threads, buttons and all the multitudinous piece-goods which are the common denominator of Western civilisation.

The fabric of the Afrikaners' life and their character too were governed and developed by the soil and climate of South Africa, by the look and feel of the ground they farmed, by the gentle colours and contours of the veld, by the dark table-topped koppies which were dotted over it, and by the cordilleras of smoky-blue mountains that stared at them from the distance. Their life-style took on a special quality of its own. They made little attempt at comfort, much less at elegance. The huts they inhabited when a settled period allowed them temporarily to abandon the cramped quarters of an ox-wagon, were rough and unsubstantial, the so-called hart bees houses of pioneering South Africa. These were usually three-roomed; the floors were made of a mixture of clay and cattle dung, the walls of mud, the roofs of thatching-grass and reeds. Yet these edifices, which today would be condemned by any health authority, accommodated whole families: two or three men and their wives would crowd into a single house and in it would bring up a host of children. Furniture was of the simplest kind: seats and beds were no more than a wooden framework strung with unplaited riempies and covered with a rough mattress and karosses, while ox-skulls were used as stools on the stoeps [veranda]. Leather proved to be the most abundant and useful of their raw materials: tents, the riems which replaced the ropes of Europe, their shoes and even garments were made from this most practical of a rancher's by-products. The cattle-Boers fed well. Meat was always plentiful and it was embodied in the many dishes peculiar to the Afrikaners, which are drawn from Holland, Germany and France, all of them spiced with flavourings from the east that have been culled from generations of Malay slaves at the Cape. An early lunch was taken at 11 a.m. and supper at seven in the evening, but there was always coffee standing on the stoep for anyone who passed by, and a bed too if required. For although an English clergyman grumbled that the Boers' `Characters and manners are very simple, approaching to the rude', their dearest enemies could never reproach them for lack of hospitality.

The Afrikaner men impressed all visitors with their physique. The Boers, wrote one English traveller, `living principally on gross animal food are exceedingly tall and large', and over and over again we find some reference to the sheer physical energy of these bearded giants as well as, it must be admitted, to the deplorable stoutness of their wives. Large families were the rule here in the African hinterland: it was usual for men to marry while still in their teens, and quite common for their wives to bear fifteen children. An almost biblical reverence was paid to the head of the family, and sons thought nothing odd about remaining under the patriarchal roof after marriage.

These first Afrikaners undoubtedly lived in an intellectual backwater, almost completely cut off from the flow of new ideas which were invigorating Europe during the Age of Reason. Many of them were unlettered and illiterate, but it would be wrong for us to conceive of them as being not concerned with education: on many farms meesters from Europe were retained to teach the children. Because they were set apart from the rest of the world, the Boers had no reason to learn any language other than their spoken taal, a variation of Dutch, nor did they feel themselves as lacking in mental stimulation; they had reached the happy state of living in balance with nature; the veld was their world and everywhere they could see the quiet seasons' slow wonders unfolding before them. These very circumstances bred self-reliance; their little wants from the outside world were satisfied by a smouse or an annual trip to the Cape; for the rest they had only to look to the products of the veld. `These farmers,' wrote Edward Blount after visiting them, `live without concern; for they have everything themselves; their slaves and their sons are their masons {and} their blacksmiths....' Life for them had taken on a special rhythm of its own. Reaction to all problems was unhurried, something to be discussed at length. They walked slowly round their difficulties, inspecting them from every side, but once they had decided on a solution they stuck to it with rigid obstinacy.

The country which they had inherited suited them above all others. People either love the South African high veld or they avoid it, and despite all the calls it made on their fortitude, the Afrikaners ' were only truly happy there. When reading the accounts left by travellers in the interior at this time, one can sense the almost Rousseauesque simplicity with which these cattle-Boers lived, and can understand their descendants' nostalgia for it which they display to this day. Certainly in the trekboers it bred the tight cohesiveness of those who have lived on the dangerous frontiers of European expansion into the wilds, and this is perhaps as strong a tie as can unite any community.

For recreation the Boers had the best hunting in the world at their very doorstep. Game abounded. 'Abundant', `excessively plentiful', `teeming' and `immeasurable' were the sort of adjectives used by travellers from the Cape when they described the huge herds of antelope they saw grazing the veld two centuries ago. Besides the buck there were innumerable elephants, giraffes and ostriches as well as beasts of prey like lion and leopard. Inevitably the Afrikaners became magnificent marksmen, and because ammunition was hard to come by they took care to make every shot effective. These people enjoyed the simple pleasures: when they gathered together and especially at the periodic Nagmaal or Communion the frontier folk revelled in music, card games, community dancing, field sports and the neighbourhood's gossip. But life was not all pleasure. The white farmers were continuously involved in coping with adverse natural phenomena like droughts or in fighting off the aboriginal people who raided their stock. To deal with the latter, loose military formations called commandos were mustered from time to time. The frontiersmen made splendid light cavalry and they suited their tactics perfectly to the vast spaces they inhabited. The commandos were able to live off the country without difficulty and would take the field for weeks at a time. The men depended on a single weapon— the flintlock or snaphaan which was as long as a pikestaff— and a singular style of fighting— charging their perfectly trained horses right up to an enemy group, firing from them without dismounting, retiring to reload, and then returning to repeat the attack. These tactical movements came to them almost naturally, and were developed with great skill. The reloading of guns was an especially complicated procedure: the Boers had to pour a measured quantity of gunpowder from a powder flask down the barrel of their snaphaan, push a plug of wadding down behind it with a ramrod, follow this with a leaden slug the size of a marble and a second plug to hold it in place; next the hammer had to be primed and only then could the flintlock be fired. Yet these men were capable of doing all this at a gallop and so quickly that they could fire several shots every minute. The spear of the Hottentot and the poisoned arrow of the Bushmen were no match for the muskets of these formidable gunmen unless they were foolish enough to get involved in hand-to-hand fighting. Discipline in the commandos admittedly was slack; there was no suggestion among the Boers of the military tautness which a modern soldier would regard as proper to a fighting unit; `There was a commandant of the forces,' a French traveller explained after serving on commando, `but as a matter of form only in whom no right of punishment was recognised, and whose command anyone would obey only if they thought fit.' The Afrikaners trained their servants to fight alongside them, and they could when the occasion arose muster a considerable force. In 1774 we read of a `general commando' numbering about a hundred `Christians' and 150 'Bastards and Hottentots' which took the field against hostile Bushmen, killing 500 of them and taking 250 prisoners who were destined to become apprenticed servants to the farmers.

The Afrikaners were above all a deeply religious people. Brought up as Calvinists, they followed a rigid but vital creed which owed more to the Old Testament than to the New. They believed the Bible to be the true and single medium between themselves and God; no human intermediaries were in consequence required, and the authority of each church rested upon its congregation and not on a priest. It followed that these people saw nothing wrong in criticising the preachers who ministered to them, much less the Company executives who attempted to maintain some temporal control over the emigrants. Yet at the same time this closed community of farmers placed great stress on the regular and proper celebration of the Church's offices: the Boers would travel for days on end to have their children baptised or to attend the annual Nagmaal of their district.

The teachings of John Calvin, misconstrued though they might be, convinced the Afrikaners that the Lord had deliberately separated the peoples of the world into different races and that it was no part of their duty to attempt to bring them together. And so, although the Dutch Reformed Church, no less than their physical isolation, was a tremendously strong unifying factor, at the same time its tenets inclined to make them intolerant of the coloured people who shared their land. For did not the Bible speak of the Children of Ham who were condemned to perpetual servitude and did it not forbid them to consort with the heathen? These men and women grew genuinely into the belief that the white men were `the highest image and likeness of the Lord' and so endowed that the creative plan of Providence intended them for the loftiest positions in the world. But these early South Africans went further: not only did they feel intensely that they of all people enjoyed a special relationship with God, but they conceived that in their daily actions they were reliving the story of the Bible. The historian, Dr George McCall Theal, put the cause of this concept very well when he wrote that each Afrikaner lived `under such skies as those under which Abraham lived. His occupation was the same, he understood the imagery of the Hebrew writers, more perfectly than anyone in Europe would understand it, for he spoke to him of his daily life. ...' Such beliefs might lead the Boers into harmful rigidities but they also gave them immeasurable strength as a people and allowed them to defend themselves against the rigours of their environment with all the relish of Old Testament prophets who knew that the Lord was on their side.

It took determination and great courage to overcome all the hazards which the trekboers met in the wilds, and there is something to be greatly admired in the way these descendants of a sea-faring people adapted themselves to their new land environment, especially when it stands in such vivid contrast to the fatalistic acceptance of a subsistence economy by the indigenous races who had occupied it for centuries. Inevitably their lives and a philosophy of the white man's superiority encouraged the growth of rugged individualism in the Afrikaners. They were not exactly truculent, but they became un usually impervious to reasoned argument, and side by side with this attitude there developed an obstinate resentment and contempt for all forms of governmental authority. It sometimes seemed more than fortunate that their haphazard migrations were all the time taking the trekboers farther and farther away from the Company officials at Cape Town.

The trekboers' slow advance through the extremity of Africa may have been sporadic and casual but it went on with the inevitability of an incoming tide, each individual trekker party representing a wavelet which lapped across another section of the wilds. And their expansion had a different quality from anything which had occurred before. These pioneers were not inspired by the explosion of an ambitious will, by the lure of a rich country's plunder, or by the drag of newly discovered gold. Their advance was a communal quest for increased freedom combined with a feeling for seclusion, a resentment of authority and an abiding curiosity about the veld which lay beyond the next line of hills. It went on year after year, decade after decade, through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Generally speaking it was directed in two main streams. One went north close to the Atlantic coastlands and then, as the country became more arid, turned eastwards to skirt the southern limits of the Great Karoo. The second and stronger flow passed eastwards, with the water of the Indian Ocean glittering on the right hand, until the great forests round the Brak river deflected it through the Little Karoo and down the Langekloof towards the Gamtoos river, or in some cases farther inland between the folded Langebergen and Zwartbergen Mountains to fan out in fine grazing country along the reaches of the upper Sundays river. Here the two streams converged on each other, and mingled together in the country south of the great orange river.

Progress was slow but it was steady; by 1745 the west bank of the Gamtoos was settled; in 1760 Jacobus Coetzee had ventured across the Orange in search of ivory and he was followed a little later to the great river by farmers who halted on its banks or established themselves on the Zeekoe river (this river was in 1798 officially recognised as the Cape boundary by Governor Van Plettenberg when he set up a marker there). In 1770 there was already a handful of farmers living in the Sneeuwbergen which, like the Stormberg and Nieuwveld Mountains, formed one of the scarps of the great interior plateau. Two years later the trekkers had reached Bruintjes Hoogte and were entering the valley of the Great Fish river. In a hundred years the descendants of the farmers who had been given smallholdings on the Liesbeeck stream had moved forward until some of them were living more than five hundred miles from De Kaap. ( see map)

Then quite suddenly the migration stopped. In the north the trekkers were brought to a halt by the aridity of Namaqualand; to the north-east their progress was opposed with increasing ferocity by the Bushmen of the Sneeuwbergen region; and farther south the Boers' expansion ended because it clashed with another migratory movement. It made contact with black men moving in the opposite direction from the forest lands of central Africa, a multitude of strong virile people which was spearheaded by the warlike Xhosa tribe. This was by no means the first meeting of white and black man in southeastern Africa. Although travel beyond the Gamtoos was for long officially prohibited, hunting parties from the beginning of the century had pressed ahead of the trekboers towards the Great Fish river. Their men were not averse to rustling cattle from the Hottentot settlements they passed on the way, but in 1702, near the present town of Somerset East, they collided with a more formidable people, the Xhosa, who were prepared to fight to protect their herds. In 1736 there was another encounter during which these tribesmen exterminated a party of white hunters who had ridden as far as the Keiskama river. But now, fifty years later, the Bantu began to make contact with white men who had come east not to hunt but to make permanent homes for themselves on land which the tribesmen regarded as their own. The collision resulted in fighting and then in a sort of stalemate, the Great Fish river becoming a rough-and-ready frontier between white trekkers and Bantu migrants. The river was not a particularly formidable obstacle; during the dry season no more than a trickle of water flowed down it. It was an unsatisfactory boundary for another reason: dense bush grew along the river's banks and provided excellent cover for the cattle rustlers of both races. Yet it became a genuine frontier; it divided two entirely different cultures, and a traveller even today who visits the Fish river is conscious of a curious paramesic feeling, of a sense that here began the long struggle between the black and white peoples of southern Africa which still remains unresolved.

After the first clashes, when the two races settled down uneasily on either side of the Fish, periodical raiding of each other's herds occurred, the whites driving eastwards as far as the Buffalo and Kei, the blacks destroying farms even as far as Plettenberg Bay and Knysna.

But with the Orange and Fish rivers providing them with frontiers of a sort, the trekkers by the end of the eighteenth century had succeeded in establishing themselves in a territory which was larger than France. Already as a people they were moulded into a remarkably uniform pattern; they had developed the taal into a new language, Afrikaans, which was a simplified version of the High Dutch spoken by their forebears but with added words of German, Portuguese and Bantu origin; they had quite cut off their ties with Europe and were tending to do so with their seat of government at the Cape. The officials there, attempting to reassert their authority in the distant districts, appointed magistrates to Swellendam and Graaff Reinet, but this only increased the tension between the frontiersmen and the Company's servants at the capital. Open revolt flared up in 1795: numbers of trekboers withdrew their allegiance from the Company and set up two republics of their own. But that same year by the curious symmetry of history, Great Britain decided to occupy the Cape in order to defend the sea routes to India during the war with France. Quite suddenly the Afrikaners realised that their lekker lewe was threatened by a far more exacting enemy than the Dutch East India Company: it was menaced now by the needs of an expanding British empire and by the agitation for racial reform by missionaries who had followed the red-coats to the Cape.

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