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South Africa

The Great Trek

Dutch speakers denounced these actions as striking at the heart of their labor and land needs. Those living in the eastern Cape, most of them among the poorer segment of the Dutch-speaking population, were particularly impassioned in their criticisms, and many decided to abandon their farms and to seek new lands beyond the reach of British rule.

Beginning in 1836, Boer families, together with large numbers of Khoikhoi and black servants, gathered up their belongings and traveled by ox-wagon up into the Highveld interior to the north of the eastern Cape frontier. (Travel farther east was blocked by the Xhosa.) All told, some 6,000 Boer men, women, and children, along with an equal number of blacks, participated in this movement in the late 1830s. Fewer Boer families migrated from the western Cape, where they were more prosperous on their grain and wine farms and therefore less concerned about land shortages and frontier pressures. The exodus from the Cape was not organized in a single movement at the time, but it was later termed the Great Trek by nationalist historians, and its participants were called Voortrekkers (pioneers).

The first groups of Voortrekkers moved into the southern Highveld, skirted the powerful Lesotho kingdom of Moshoeshoe to the east, and pastured their herds on lands between the Orange River and the Vaal River. A large group moved farther north to the grasslands beyond the Vaal River into territory where Mzilikazi had recently established a powerful Ndebele state. Competing for the same resources--pasturelands, water, and game--the Voortrekkers and the Ndebele soon came into conflict. In 1836 the Voortrekkers fought off an Ndebele attempt to expel them from the Highveld. In the following year, the northern Voortrekkers allied with the Rolong and the Griqua, who were known for their fighting skills. This time the northern Voortrekkers succeeded in defeating Mzilikazi and forcing him and most of his followers to flee north into present-day Zimbabwe, where he conquered the Shona and established a new state.

The majority of Voortrekkers, however, neither settled between the Orange and the Vaal nor trekked to the north, but moved northeastward around Lesotho and traveled down toward the sea into Zulu-ruled areas of southeastern Africa. The leader of this group, Piet Retief, attempted to negotiate with Dingane for permission to settle in relatively sparsely populated areas south of the Tugela River. Dingane was at first receptive to Retief's entreaties, but then, apparently fearing that the introduction of European settlers would undermine his authority, he had Retief and seventy of his followers killed while they were at his capital in February 1838. Dingane then sent out Zulu regiments to eliminate all Voortrekkers in the area; they killed several hundred men, women, and children and captured more than 35,000 head of cattle and sheep.

Not all of the settlers were killed, however, and in December the survivors, reinforced by men from the Cape Colony, marched 500 strong to avenge the deaths of Retief and his followers. Commanded by Andries Pretorius, the Voortrekkers pledged that they would commemorate a victory as a sign of divine protection. They then met and defeated Dingane's army at the Battle of Blood River. Their victory is celebrated each year on December 16, the Day of the Vow.

The Zulu kingdom split into warring factions after this defeat. One group under Mpande, a half-brother of Shaka and Dingane, allied with Pretorius and the Voortrekkers, and together they succeeded in destroying Dingane's troops and in forcing him to flee to the lands of the Swazi, where he was killed. The Voortrekkers recognized Mpande as king of the Zulu north of the Tugela River, while he in turn acknowledged their suzerainty over both his kingdom and the state that they established south of the Tugela. The Voortrekker Republic of Natalia (the basis of later Natal Province) was established in 1839, and by 1842 there were approximately 6,000 people occupying vast areas of pastureland and living under a political system in which only white males had the right to vote.

The British, however, feeling that their security and authority were threatened, annexed the republic as Natal. They did not want the Dutch speakers to have independent access to the sea and thereby be able to negotiate political and economic agreements with other European powers. They also feared that harsh treatment meted out to Africans--such as Voortrekker attempts to clear the land by removing Africans from the Republic of Natalia--would eventually increase population pressures on the eastern Cape frontier. Although acquiescing in the annexation, the great majority of the Voortrekkers effectively abandoned Natal to the British and moved back to the Highveld in 1843. The British, having taken Natal for strategic purposes, then had to find a way to make the colony pay for its administration. After experimenting with several crops, they found that sugar grew well and could be exported without deteriorating. Attempts to force Africans to endure the onerous labor in the sugar fields failed, however, and in 1860 the British began importing indentured laborers from India to provide the basic work force. Between 1860 and 1866, 6,000 Indians (one-quarter of them women) were brought to the colony on five-year contracts.

The Voortrekker Republics and British Policies

The Voortrekkers established two states in the 1840s and the 1850s: the Orange Free State between the Orange and the Vaal rivers and the South African Republic (Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek, a union of four Boer republics founded by the Voortrekkers) to the north of the Vaal River in the area later constituting the Transvaal. Like the Africans among whom they settled, the Voortrekkers in both states made their living from a combination of extensive pastoralism and hunting. Ivory was the most important product at first, and the search for it engendered great competition between African and European hunters. In the 1860s, ostrich feathers also became an important export. All processed foods and manufactured goods were acquired by trading ivory, skins, and feathers to British merchants at the Cape.

Politically, the two states were republics, with constitutions modeled in part on that of the United States, each with a president, an elected legislature, and a franchise restricted to white males. Africans could not vote, or own land, or carry guns because the laws of both republics, unlike those of the British colonies, did not recognize racial equality before the law. By the end of the 1860s, there were approximately 50,000 whites settled in the two republics, practically all of them living in rural areas, although small capitals had been established at Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State and at Pretoria in the South African Republic.

Initially, the British attempted to strengthen their own position by extending colonial control beyond the Cape Colony's boundaries. In 1848, after the northern frontier was threatened by fighting between Voortrekkers and Griqua on the Orange River and by continued competition for resources among settlers and Africans, the governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Harry Smith, annexed all the land between the Orange and the Vaal rivers. This area, which the British called the Orange River Sovereignty, comprised large numbers of Voortrekker communities and practically all of the Sotho state, Lesotho. Smith, urged on by land-hungry white settlers, also annexed the Xhosa lands between the Keiskama and the Great Kei rivers that the British had first taken and then returned in 1835 and 1836. Moreover, he sought to win a decisive military victory over the Xhosa and to break forever the power of their chiefs by pursuing a ruthless war against them from 1850 to 1852.

The British had mixed success. Their attempts to tax the Orange River Voortrekkers produced almost no revenue. Claims to Sotho lands were met with opposition from Moshoeshoe, who in 1851 and 1852 successfully defeated British attempts to extend their authority into his lands. As a result of the Sotho resistance, the British decided to withdraw from the Highveld, but in so doing they recognized the primacy of European rather than African claims to the land. The Sand River Convention of 1852 and the Bloemfontein Convention of 1854 recognized the independence of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State, respectively, as Voortrekker republics so long as their residents agreed to acknowledge the ultimate sovereignty of the British government, agreed not to allow slavery in their territories, and agreed not to sell ammunition to Africans. It was not until 1868 that the British again attempted to extend their power onto the Highveld, and that was only when Lesotho's defeat by the Orange Free State was so complete that the total destruction of the Sotho people seemed likely.

On the eastern Cape frontier, however, British policies brought about enormous destruction for the Xhosa. Smith was recalled by the British government in 1852 for instigating conflict with the Xhosa, but the Colonial Office decided to pursue the war to victory nonetheless in 1853. Large areas of Xhosa land were annexed, and thousands of head of cattle were confiscated. Drought and disease further reduced the Xhosa's remaining herds. Defeated in war, their lands greatly reduced and food supplies in decline, the Xhosa turned for salvation to a young girl, Nongqawuse, who prophesied that if the people purified themselves through sacrifice--by destroying their cattle and their grain, and by not planting new crops--then their ancestors would return to aid them, the herds would reappear, and all the whites would be driven into the sea. Although not all Xhosa believed the prophecies, by 1857 more than 400,000 head of cattle had been killed and vast quantities of grain had been destroyed. As a result, 40,000 Xhosa died from starvation, and an equal number sought refuge in the Cape Colony, where most became impoverished farm laborers.

By the end of the 1860s, white settlement in South Africa was much more extensive than it had been at the beginning of the century. There were now two British colonies on the coast (Cape Colony and Natal) instead of one, and two Voortrekker republics on the southern and the northern Highveld (the Orange Free State and the South African Republic) (see fig. 6). The white population had also increased considerably, from the 20,000 or so Europeans resident in the Cape Colony in 1800 to 180,000 reported in the 1865 census. There were another 18,000 whites living in Natal and perhaps 50,000 more whites in the Voortrekker states.

Yet there were evident constraints to growth. Economically, South Africa was little different from what it had been when the British first arrived. The Cape produced wine, wheat, and wool, none of them particularly profitable items on the world market in the 1860s, especially because of competition from American, Argentine, and Australian farmers. Natal's sugar kept the colony going, but it was not an expanding industry. In the interior, the Voortrekkers engaged in the same economic activities as their African neighbors--pastoralism, limited cultivation of grain crops, and hunting--and whereas these provided a living for the people involved, they were not the basis on which an expanding economy could be built. Perhaps the best indicator of the limited attractions of South Africa's economy was the fact that fewer Europeans emigrated there than to the United States, Canada, Australia, or even New Zealand.

Moreover, areas of white and black settlement and political control were largely separate. In 1865 the Cape contained 200,000 Khoikhoi and people of mixed ancestry (the basis of today's coloured population), as well as 100,000 Bantu speakers. Several hundred thousand blacks lived in Natal and in the Voortrekker republics. The vast majority of South Africa's black inhabitants, however, continued to live in independent African states ruled by their own kings and chiefs. In the 1860s, Mpande's Zululand was a still powerful state in which most Zulus lived. Moshoeshoe's Lesotho, although it had been attacked by the Orange Free State and its borders contracted, contained most of the Sotho people. To the northeast of the South African Republic, the Pedi under their king Sekhukhune had a well-armed state, and the Swazi kingdom continued to be a powerful entity. Any observer traveling in South Africa in the late 1860s would have had little reason to assume that this balance of power between blacks and whites would change dramatically during the remainder of the nineteenth century.

Data as of May 1996

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