South Africa’s Great Trek Begins

Unable to accept the changes brought by British rule in the Cape Colony, thousands of Afrikaner families organized a mass migration into the interior, where they created their own republics, only to find that they could not escape from British interference. Their continuing conflicts with the British would eventually lead to the South African War.

Summary of Event

Afrikaners, or Boers as they are often called, are descended primarily from Dutch settlers who began coming to the Cape of Good Hope Cape of Good Hope;settlement of at the request of the Dutch East India Company Dutch East India Company during the mid-seventeenth century. By the nineteenth century, they had formed a discernible identity based on their dialect of the Dutch language and the Dutch Reformed Church Dutch Reformed Church . Most lived agrarian, frontier lives on the outskirts of colonial society. Nevertheless, they constituted a powerful voice in the white settlement. In 1806, against the backdrop of Napoleonic Europe, the British government seized Cape Colony for good and began a steady process of exerting British authority over the colony. Great Trek
Afrikaners;Great Trek
South Africa;Great Trek
Pretorius, Andries
Cape Colony;Great Trek
British Empire;and South Africa[South Africa]
[kw]South Africa’s Great Trek Begins (1835)
[kw]Africa’s Great Trek Begins, South (1835)
[kw]Great Trek Begins, South Africa’s (1835)
[kw]Begins, South Africa’s Great Trek (1835)
[kw]Trek Begins, South Africa’s Great (1835)
Great Trek
Afrikaners;Great Trek
South Africa;Great Trek
Pretorius, Andries
Cape Colony;Great Trek
British Empire;and South Africa[South Africa]
[g]British Empire;1835: South Africa’s Great Trek Begins[1900]
[g]South Africa;1835: South Africa’s Great Trek Begins[1900]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;1835: South Africa’s Great Trek Begins[1900]
[c]Immigration;1835: South Africa’s Great Trek Begins[1900]
[c]Colonization;1835: South Africa’s Great Trek Begins[1900]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1835: South Africa’s Great Trek Begins[1900]
Potgieter, Hendrik
Pretorius, Marthinus Wessel
D’Urban, Sir Benjamin
Retief, Piet
Philip, John

Over the next three decades, the British introduced a series of liberal reforms in the colony. They abolished the Afrikaner councils in favor of British colonial government. Another reform was the institution of the English language in all legal affairs in the colony. These two changes alone made it difficult for Afrikaners to participate fully in colonial affairs and made clear their secondary position in relation to the British.

The most troubling aspect of British government to the Afrikaners, however, was the British policy toward native Africans and British acceptance of missionary Missionaries;in South Africa[South Africa] activities in the interior regions. The London Missionary Society London Missionary Society and other organizations worked to convert the native Khoi Khoi people (“Hottentots”) and often voiced their loud opposition to Afrikaner treatment of Khoi laborers. To the dismay of many Afrikaners, the British governors often sided with missionaries and humanitarians against them. The passing of Ordinance No. 50 in 1828 allowed the Khoi and other nonwhites to move freely in the Cape Colony, and they were given equal rights under law. To the Afrikaners, this law starkly conflicted with their social and cultural beliefs, which were based on a strict code of racial inequality and forced labor. Furthermore, the British law caused a serious labor shortage because the Khoi, who were no longer restricted in their endeavors, began seeking better-paying jobs or working for themselves. After the British abolished slavery throughout their empire in 1834, the tension between Afrikaners and the British colonial government rose to a new level.

The final strain came in 1834 with the outbreak of the Sixth Xhosa War, Xhosa Wars on the eastern Cape frontier. Colonial forces fought the Xhosa people, who were eventually defeated. Angered by Xhosa raiding, Governor Benjamin D’Urban D’Urban, Sir Benjamin of the Cape Colony annexed part of Xhosa territory and opened it for settlement as Queen Adelaide Province. His strong policy against the Xhosa sparked protests from missionaries Missionaries;in South Africa[South Africa] and humanitarians, and this resulted in a reversal of his policy by order from London. For the change of policy, Afrikaners blamed missionary John Philip Philip, John and other members of the London Missionary Society, London Missionary Society fervent advocates for Khoi and Xhosa rights. By 1835, Afrikaners were beginning to leave the colony, and the so-called Great Trek had begun.

British policy and the perpetual search for more land motivated the first voortrekkers to migrate into the interior of South Africa. However, the earliest migrations largely failed because of strong native African resistance and disease. However, later voortrekkers such as Hendrik Potgieter Potgieter, Hendrik and Piet Retief Retief, Piet had more success. Thousands of Afrikaners left the colony for interior lands that could be taken with little resistance. Potgieter chose to direct his trek into the high veld region across the Vaal River that was later known as the Transvaal. Transvaal;and Great Trek[Great Trek] There, he came into contact with the powerful Ndebele Kingdom, which had broken away from the Zulu during the early 1820’s. The Ndebele Ndebele king Mzilikazi Mzilikazi assumed that the voortrekkers were hostile invaders and had his warriors attack them. The Ndebele destroyed one group while others escaped.

Voortrekker Routes

Accompanied by fellow trekker Andries Pretorius, Potgieter organized a force to retaliate against the Ndebele in October, 1836. Taking advantage of their masterful use of horses Horses;in African warfare[African warfare] and firearms, a strong Voortrekker force rode through Ndebele settlements and scattered the Ndebele, who fought on foot with stabbing spears. Voortrekker pressure on the Ndebele moved Mzilikazi to lead his people on a new migration to north of the Limpopo River, where they established a more secure domain in the southwestern part of what is now Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe;Ndebele With the Ndebele out of the Transvaal, the voortrekkers encountered little trouble with the region’s remaining African societies.

Unlike Potgieter, Potgieter, Hendrik Retief Retief, Piet believed that Natal Natal, South Africa;Afrikaners was the best place to build a new Afrikaner state. He visited the Zulu king Dingane Dingane , who promised his followers vast tracts of land for settlement. Despite this concession, Dingane had heard of Mzilikazi’s Mzilikazi plight and was suspicious of Retief’s intentions. In February, 1838, Dingane treacherously persuaded Retief and his men to remove their firearms and then had his warriors kill all the Afrikaners.

Zulu Zulu;and Afrikaners[Afrikaners] raids against Natal settlers proved devastating, and the trek appeared to be lost until Andries Pretorius arrived in Natal with a large force later that year. On December 9, 1838, the Afrikaners assembled for a church service and asked God for victory over their foes. The date would later be commemorated by Afrikaner nationalists as the Day of the Covenant. Six days later, the Afrikaners, with their horses Horses;in African warfare[African warfare] and superior firepower, defeated the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River Blood River, Battle of (1838) . This defeat proved to be the downfall of Dingane Dingane , but the Zulus remained a threat to the Afrikaners’ fledgling Republic of Natal Natal, South Africa;Afrikaners .

Meanwhile, Potgieter and Pretorius forged a fragile bond to create governments of Afrikaner republics Afrikaners;republics . The Republic of Natal, however, did not endure. Opposed to any plans to remove Africans from Natal and distrustful of Afrikaner control of vital coastal territory, the British sent troops to deal with the unstable situation. The weakness of the Afrikaners in the light of British authority destroyed the new republic, and the British annexed Natal to the Cape Colony in 1845, propelling a second migration of Afrikaners into the interior.

The British made treaties with African chiefs, denying Afrikaner authority in the interior, while the Afrikaners encroached on Griqua Griqua and Sotho Sotho lands. Pretorius had declared the intent of the voortrekkers to create republics in the Transorangia and Transvaal Transvaal;and Great Trek[Great Trek] regions. The British responded by sending troops to annex Transorangia in 1848 and then defeated the Afrikaners at Boomplaats. Boomplaats, Battle of (1848) The British established the Orange River Sovereignty, Orange River Sovereignty leaving only the sparsely settled Transvaal under Afrikaner authority.

This British policy changed as humanitarian efforts declined. The expense of attempting to control the Afrikaners living deep in the interior and protecting Africans outweighed the financial benefits. At the Sand River Convention Sand River Convention (1852) in 1852, the British granted Afrikaners living in the Transvaal self-rule and promised not to ally with African groups north of the Vaal River and to restrict firearm sales to native Africans. At the Convention of Bloemfontein Bloemfontein, Convention of (1854) in 1854, the British handed over authority of the Orange River Sovereignty Orange River Sovereignty to the Afrikaners and formally withdrew from the region.

The new Orange Free State Orange Free State drew up a republican constitution Constitutions;South African , but some of its people wished to unite the new state with the Transvaal Transvaal;South African Republic Afrikaners to the north. This dream was championed by Marthinus Wessel Pretorius, Pretorius, Marthinus Wessel the son of Andries Pretorius, who died in 1853. The senior Pretorius organized the drafting of a constitution in the Transvaal, effectively uniting the dispersed settlements. In 1856, the Transvaal became the South African Republic, South African Republic
Transvaal;South African Republic with M. W. Pretorius as its president. Soon after, Pretorius also ran for president in the Orange Free State and won, hoping his dual presidency would unite the two states. However, disagreements among the fiercely independent Afrikaners and fear that such an action would provoke the British to intervene again derailed his plans, and Pretorius was forced to choose between the two presidencies. In 1864, he stepped down as president of the Orange Free State.


The Afrikaner treks were of great consequence to the making of South Africa. Afrikaner expansion exacerbated an already chaotic situation in the interior, which had been previously ravaged by Zulu expansion South Africa;Zulu expansion
Zulu;expansion of during the late 1810’s and 1820’s. New conflicts between Afrikaners and African societies added to the instability, which served as an excuse for the extension of British authority in South Africa. Furthermore, the continuing dissension between Afrikaners and British colonial officials would finally lead to two bloody wars between the two groups, the final one being the South African, or Anglo-Boer, War (1899-1902), in which the Afrikaner republics were finally crushed.

However, the peoples most affected by the Great Trek were the native Africans, who found themselves in the unenviable position of cheap laborers for Afrikaner employers. The harsh racial divisions created by the Afrikaners as frontiersmen and consolidated in the Afrikaner republics would become the basis for a national government that supported racial discrimination after the Afrikaners attained control of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

Further Reading

  • Etherington, Norman. The Great Treks: the Transformation of Southern Africa, 1815-1854. Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 2001. Places the Afrikaners’ Great Trek in the context of African migrations and provides a needed African perspective.
  • Galbraith, John. Reluctant Empire: British Policy on the South African Frontier, 1834-1854. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963. Provides insight into the complexities of British colonial policy within the framework of Victorian era imperialism.
  • Giliomee, Hermann. The Afrikaners: Biography of a People. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2003. Evenhanded appraisal of the historical construction of Afrikaner identity.
  • Meintjes, Johannes. The Voortrekkers: The Story of the Great Trek and the Making of South Africa. London: Cassell, 1973. Although somewhat romanticized, a thorough account of Afrikaner activities.
  • Rasmussen, R. Kent. Migrant Kingdom: Mzilikazi’s Ndebele in South Africa. London: Rex Collings, 1978. Fullest account of the South African phase of Ndebele history, with detailed and fully documented accounts of Ndebele confrontations with voortrekkers.
  • Walker, Eric A. The Great Trek, 5th ed. London: A & C Black, 1965. Classic study of the Great Trek that has provided the foundation of most other books written on the subject.

Britain Acquires the Cape Colony

Zulu Expansion

Great Java War

Basuto War

Zulu War

First Boer War

Jameson Raid

South African War

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