One result of the Afrikaners' defeat at Boomplaats was their renewed attempt to find a way of binding themselves into some form of political union. The main obstacle of course remained the Potgieter-Pretorius feud. The two men were still at loggerheads, perhaps more so. now than ever because their positions as regards the British differed: Potgieter's independence in the extreme north had been vaguely recognised by London, whereas Pretorius was a rebel with a reward on his head. In 1849 when a public meeting was called at Derdepoort in the hope of establishing a single government for the country, Potgieter refused to attend, and the Volksraad which was eventually elected there retaliated by abolishing his office as Chief Commandant.
But the increasingly hostile attitudes of the Bantu living inside the Transvaal made it essential to adopt some form of military organisation, and, in an attempt to appease all factions, the Transvaal Volksraad early in 1851 decided to appoint four separate Commandants-General. Potgieter was to serve in the Zoutpansberg and Andries Pretorius's son in the Magaliesberg, while two other burghers were appointed for the Lydenburg and Marico districts. It was an arrangement which made everyone unhappy: Potgieter remained aloof in the Zoutpansberg, the two officers at Lydenburg and Marico lacked prestige, while young Marthinus was but a shadow of his father. The end result was that the older Pretorius gradually gained the support of the majority of the Transvaalers and became their chief spokesman.
We must turn back at this point to examine the events which had occurred on the other side of the Vaal following the scrambling victory at Boomplaats.
The Orange River Sovereignty had again entered into troublous times. One cannot help feeling very sorry for Major Warden who had been re-established at Bloemfontein. He had hardly any funds at his disposal and only the backing of a handful of soldiers, yet Warden was expected to establish the fundamental institutions of government in an enormous territory, and his resources (and he) were simply not equal to the task. Warden was particularly plagued by boundary disputes with the Basutos, and when he dispatched a punitive expedition against Moshweshwe in 1851 it suffered a sharp defeat at Viervoet. The news was enough to turn the British Government's thoughts to ridding itself of the troublesome Sovereignty which Sir Harry Smith had so gaily annexed.
For a fundamental change had occurred in the political outlook at Whitehall. The early Victorians' thinking had been tinged with humanitarianism and there is no doubt that this had largely influenced their policy during the last two decades in southern Africa. But the old evangelical enthusiasm had burned itself out by now in Britain: the government had become dominated by materialism and obsessed with economy. At the Colonial Office it now seemed clear that the recent attempts to pacify the land beyond the Orange had brought only expense and military humiliation. Coincident with this feeling there had grown up a different attitude towards the emigrant farmers: during the first years of the Great Trek the British had held that the trekkers' `allegiance was inalienable and their independence a dream', but already by 1848 Whitehall had acknowledged Potgieter's de facto control of the northern Transvaal and it was becoming heartily sick of spending money and lives in an effort to control the other high veld Boers. The idea was gaining ground that it would be far wiser to let the Afrikaners go their own way, though at the same time enrolling them as allies to protect Cape Colony's northern frontier. Accordingly two rather mysterious bureaucrats, William Hogge and Mostyn Owen, were sent out to South Africa with instructions to curb Sir Harry's expansionist policies, and to find a way of withdrawing gracefully from the high veld. Reading the history books of the period, we find their names appearing constantly in the text; but we never discover very much about Hogge and Owen, and they leave us with an impression of faceless men fumbling about with a problem which is much too big for them. But in fact, if their political and historical perspectives are at fault, Hogge and Owen in their own way were a very efficient and a very shrewd couple, and they acted throughout their stay in South Africa in what they considered their country's best interests, even if it did mean breaking faith with the considerable number of white loyalists in the Sovereignty as well as with the Griquas enjoying Her Majesty's protection.
Smith at this time had become fully engaged in fighting yet another Kafir war on the Cape's eastern frontier, and he rather casually sent the two commissioners up to Bloemfontein with a free hand to deal with the territory's many problems.
Owen and Hogge soon came to the conclusion that the most dangerous eventuality would be renewed intervention by Pretorius in the Sovereignty's affairs, and they recommended that something should be done at once to prevent it. At the same time the two commissioners advised that the Cape Government would find it impossible to control the 10,000 or more trekkers now living in the Transvaal. Taking these two facts together it seemed that the logical course would be to appease Pretorius by removing the reward on his head and to gain his friendship at the same time by recognising the Transvaal's independence.
Accordingly the offer of a reward for Pretorius's capture was hurriedly withdrawn, and a little later he travelled down to the Sovereignty with considerable dignity in order to meet the British Commissioners encamped at the Sand river. There they held a strange haphazard sort of conference: Owen and Hogge had no precise instructions to follow, while Pretorius only represented a section of the Transvaalers and certainly could not speak for those of the Zoutpansberg district. But there within a marquee that had been hastily erected on the banks of the Sand river the three gentlemen drew up rickety chairs together and began to discuss the situation. In these days when we have grown accustomed for negotiations over any international dispute to last for weeks and months at a time, one is constantly surprised at the speed with which the Victorians conducted their affairs. For now within a single day the future of the Transvaal was settled, and a binding document signed. On 17 January 1852 by the terms of the Sand River Convention, Great Britain formally recognised the independence of the Boers living beyond the Vaal. 1n return Pretorius promised that in the Transvaal slavery would be outlawed and that he would not interfere in the Sovereignty's affairs.
Without question the Convention was a triumph for Pretorius. He returned across the Vaal to find himself acknowledged as the leader of the Transvaal by the majority of its burghers. The only rift was the continued opposition to him by the Potgieter faction. For the old feud between Potgieter and Pretorius went on and on, and by 1852 it had come to wear a curious air of permanency; indeed it had been inflamed again rather than allayed by Pretorius's diplomatic success at Sand river. Yet at this late date, when the Volksraad was summoned to hear Pretorius's report on the Convention, the two men were induced to meet again. Potgieter rode to Pretorius's stronghold at Rustenburg, and as judicous intermediaries flitted up and down he was persuaded to enter his rival's tent. An anxious crowd waited patiently outside, and presently it broke into a cheer when the tentflap was pulled back to reveal the two men standing with their hands clasped over a Bible. It was a tableau which has commended itself to all Transvaal artists. For the trek-leaders' ancient, almost visceral, dislike for each other had been publicly shrugged off and at last the Maatschappij had found a semblance of unity. Joyous hymns and psalms were sung to mark the solemn reconciliation, and in the excitement hardly anyone noticed that Pretorius and Potgieter had prepared more trouble for the future by declaring that the two joint posts of Commandant-General which they had assumed would descend to their heirs. They had quietly agreed to a pact which would allow their families to rule the Transvaal as a condominium after their deaths.
And time for both men was running out. In the August of 1852 Hendrik Potgieter led out his last war-commando, this time against the Bapedi. The strain of the expedition told heavily on him; on his return the old man sickened and sat waiting for the end among the thatched cottages of Zoutpansbergdorp. A pleural effusion developed, and three days before his sixtieth birthday Andries Hendrik Potgieter died. It was the Day of the Covenant, 16 December 1852. Only eight months later Andries Pretorius followed him to the grave. Their passing left an odd gap in the trekker republic on the high veld and it soon widened.
For already the bullet which was to kill one of the co-heirs had been moulded: Commandant Pieter Johannes Potgieter was shot to death in 1854 during an attack on Makapan's tribesmen. Marthinus Wessel Pretorius, however, lived on into the new century and we may note in passing that he received the unique honour of becoming President of both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
The British mood for disengagement in southern Africa persisted after the signing of the Sand River Convention; the members of the Cabinet had now lost all their enthusiasm for costly adventures in a distant subcontinent especially as a Napoleon was sitting in the Tuileries again and the Tsar was becoming difficult. The Cabinet's defeatist sights were focused now on the Sovereignty. Late in 1851 Lord Grey in the Colonial Office had shown which way the wind was blowing by upsetting Sir Harry Smith with a dispatch stating that `The ultimate abandonment of the Orange River Sovereignty must be a settled point in our policy.' A little later, and despite the Duke of Wellington's objections that Smith was one of the most illustrious officers in the British Army, the Government at London found that he had been `equally deficient in foresight, energy and judgment' and brusquely dismissed him as Governor. He was replaced at the Cape by the gentler figure of Sir George Cathcart, but if the Cabinet looked forwards to a lessening of tension in South Africa it was in for a disappointment. For Cathcart got it into his head that British prestige among the Bantu must be restored before withdrawal from the Sovereignty could be contemplated and anyway he rather fancied himself as the commander of the local military forces which he described as being as `perfect as he could desire and sufficient for all purposes'. He accordingly blundered into another war with the Basutos and his `perfect' army only narrowly escaped complete disaster at the Battle of Berea.
The defeat came as the final straw. The British Government was determined now to disannex the Sovereignty as soon as time and the retention of a remnant of dignity allowed. Sir George Russell Clerk was sent out to effect the withdrawal and he took over from the thoroughly discredited Major Warden in Bloemfontein in August 1853. He had come at an unfortunate time. The country was drought-stricken; the clouds held no promise of rain, only of hot winds and dust, and the heat pressed down on Clerk's aching head. If we are to believe his reports the farmers in the Sovereignty were leading miserably squalid lives, and he wrote home to the Cabinet: `The more I consider the position of the territory, the more I feel assured of its inutility as an acquisition. It unquestionably has some attractions; the herds of game are abundant; the Dutch settlers and their families rarely live on anything else whatever ... But it is nevertheless a vast territory (that)...answers no really beneficial purpose; it imparts no strength to the British Government, no credit to its character, no lustre to its Crown.' In short Clerk assured Whitehall that retreat from the Sovereignty would be no loss. Somehow or other he then mustered a 'well-disposed' group of burghers who he sturdily announced represented the opinion of the farmers in the Sovereignty and by the Convention of Bloemfontein signed on 23 February 1854 half thrust and half bestowed independence upon them as a ruling Council of the Orange Free State. The Union Jack outside the little town's fort was solemnly lowered and the Batavian tricolour hoisted in its place. Great Britain for the first but by no means the last time in its history had pulled out from governing an African territory. Adam Kok and the Griquas had been abandoned to the Boers for the sake of expediency; British citizens, under protest, were deprived of their British citizenship; and as though to mark the sadness of the occasion at the flagpole outside Bloemfontein fort, a trooper on parade there collapsed and died.
The British had abdicated from all responsibility on the high veld; it now finally belonged to the Afrikaners. The trekkers after two decades had attained most of their aims. The wild impossible dream of Hendrik Potgieter all those years before had at last come true. The emigrants whom he had led over the Orange that February day in 1836, and the Boers who had followed them into the wilds now owned more land than they needed; their twin republics had been recognised as independent States and they were at liberty to go their own way, free to order their own constitution, and able to conduct the affairs of all the peoples who lived within their borders. By this time 18,000 Boers were scattered through the Transvaal and the Orange Free State; most of them lived on farms but there were 2,000 burghers now concentrated at Potchefstroom, 800 in Rustenburg, 400 in Lydenburg and 200 in the white cottages which clustered at Zoutpansbergdorp like a group of startled nuns. Two Afrikaner nations had been born from the pains of the Great Trek, and during their conception the two most powerful Bantu States in southern Africa had been utterly defeated.
In the twin Volksraads there was a strange exhilarating air of new beginnings. There were bound to be difficulties and disappointments in store to be sure, but on the whole there was great room for hope. Natal it must be admitted seemed to be irrevocably lost now by the Afrikaners, and in a sense the two high veld republics were still dependent on British goodwill since England controlled the coast and was in a position at any moment to exert pressure on the interior.
And there were other awkwardnesses to be faced in the years ahead. The Afrikaners, as even the most sanguine among them would admit, had their short-comings. They were a wilfully quarrelsome lot and their feuds had been perpetuated by the continued rivalry of the Pretorius and Potgieter families. The two republics were economically poor and politically inexperienced. The Africans living inside their frontiers had been only temporarily subjugated, while the republics were surrounded by an ocean of independent tribesmen who were potentially hostile. In particular the old problem of the Basuto frontier, which had led to so many difficulties during the time of Smith and Cathcart, was still unresolved and it was bound to lead to difficulties with Moshweshwe in the future. And always in the background loomed the shadow of the Pharaonic Great Britain that at any time might resume its imperial aspirations.
Which indeed she did in 1877 when the British Cabinet reversed its policy and annexed the Transvaal. Although by the employment of brilliant military tactics during the First War of Liberation fought in 1880-81 the Transvaalers regained their independence, the noose around their country was tightened during the next decade after much of Bechanaland had been annexed to Cape Colony and the remainder declared a British protectorate, while Cecil Rhodes dashed all hope of expansion to the north by occupying Mashonaland and Matebeleland. And before the century was out the two high veld republics were to fight yet another war against Great Britain which ended in their defeat and annexation.
But these visitations were undreamed of in 1854. The trekkers deserved their ease. As they withdrew from the hubbub of past events and sat contentedly on the stoeps [verandas] of their new farm houses, contemplating the herds and flocks which filled the veld to its distant horizons, a hush fell over the twin republics. Nothing moved now across the Orange river drifts. There was no dust stirring on the long road which led northwards to the Zoutpansberg. The air above the houses in the little village of Bloemfontein and Pretoria danced in the silent heat. No horsemen clattered into Potchefstroom with news from the outside world, and the huts at Ohrigstad were fast becoming reclaimed by the bush. Birds were swinging high over the quiet battlefield of Boomplaats, and grass covered the wagon tracks Louis Tregardt had made over the Berg. Even the hill of Vegkop slumbered peacefully above its great plain forgetful of the tumult on its October day of greatness. The high veld lay quiet under the hand of its destined owners, the Afrikaners.
The Great Trek was ended, yet in a haunted way it was for ever unended; the farmers who had crossed the Orange twenty years before had wrought more than they had set out to do. They had gained most of their goals and they had also created the heroic period of Afrikaner history. The Voortrekkers had provided their descendants with a running current of cherished traditions and a whole pantheon of folk heroes. Strange new names—Veglaer, Blood river, Bloukrans and Weenen—had entered into the national consciousness. And the memory of the Voortrekker captains was to remain so tangible in South Africa that today they seem almost as quick as the living. The Afrikaners were manacled now for ever to the memories of Louis Tregardt who blazed the trail into the wilderness, to those of Gert Maritz who rallied the emigrants during the dark days of 1838, and Andries Pretorius who lost Natal but finally gained the high veld, and of `Ou [old] Blauberg' who year after year crisscrossed the high veld on horseback in his quest for the appointed place where his countrymen might live.
The tribulations of the Great Trek had created the intense unconquerable spirit of the Afrikaners which we know today; and these people are still bound together again each year as they repeat the vow made before Blood river. Because their forebears had won against all odds, the Afrikaners have come to believe that life will continue to go their way ay. They have been entrapped as it were in their own myth, but they have also been strengthened by it, for by a conscious return to the litanies and liturgies of their past, and especially to those of the Great Trek, the descendants of the Voortrekkers have been made acutely conscious of their own particularisms; they have been so enthralled by them that the Afrikaners now find it well-nigh impossible to escape from the dogmas of the past.
Of all the factors which had gone to fashion their ancestors' exodus, no two had been stronger than their fight to maintain racial purity and a wholly admirable anxiety to preserve those life-values which were being steadily eroded from without. Today because of the legend they created, the precepts of the Voortrekkers have taken on something of the force of Holy Writ. Yet as the years have passed and historical perspective has flattened out, it becomes obvious to onlookers outside South Africa that the Voortrekkers' descendants harbour ideas which run counter to those of the modern world. Perhaps indeed one of the strangest aspects of the Afrikaners' struggle to exist during the last century has been Western liberalism's changed attitude towards them. In 1880 and again in 1899 the Boers were the darling heroes of most of Europe and America, a gallant little people staking their future on a lion-hearted struggle against imperialism; in more recent times if any man can be said to have been the chief architect of both the League of Nations and the United Nations it was General Smuts, the Afrikaner leader.
Yet today [circa 1970], because of the intense heat of partisanship between white and black aspirations in Africa, the Afrikaners who, through the ballot box, have succeeded in absorbing both Cape Colony and Natal into their system, are seen as the outcasts of the world. One marvels at the reversals of public opinion here. Yet, because history has the habit of repeating itself, one wonders too with what eyes the world will contemplate South Africa through the windows of the 1990s.
But for the present the Voortrekkers, in a way not entirely to be logically explained, have provided their descendants with the character and the strength on which their survival depends in a hostile continent. A brave past begets a brave future and whatever trials the Afrikaners may have to face in the future, of one thing we can be certain: they will face them with the courage and faith of Vegkop and of Blood river. For the Afrikaners are an indomitable people.
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