'Their adventures and exploits form one of the most singular chapters of modern history, and deserve a clearer record than has yet been given to them.' So in 1875 wrote the brilliant English historian James Anthony Froude of the South African Voortrekkers.
Since that date many fine accounts of the history of the Voortrekkers have been written, notably by M. Nathan and E. W. Walker. But the story needs retelling for the general reader's benefit if only because the Great Trek led to the development of the Afrikaner nationalism which so concerns Black Africa today.
The Great Trek was an abrupt bound into the continental interior by settlers mainly of Dutch origin living in Cape Colony at the beginning of the Victorian era. Within the space of twenty years their advance had doubled the area of effective white occupation of South Africa, and by thrusting themselves among the Bantu the Voortrekkers had greatly increased the sub-continent's race problem.
The march into the wilds was made by a few thousand men armed with muskets and Bibles, together with their women and children. It was opposed by the two most powerful military empires in southern Africa: together they constituted a far more formidable obstacle than the Red Indian nations which impeded the contemporary advance of the American frontiersmen towards the Pacific. Yet Hollywood has still to chronicle the struggles of the trekkers, perhaps because in the past cinemagoers have been conditioned to see nothing discreditable in dispossessing Sioux, Cherokees and Seminoles of their land, yet keen with pity over the injustices of Black Africa.
The central fact which gives structure to the inception and course of the Great Trek was the Dutch colonists' insistence on continuing to live according to the pattern established by their immediate colonial forebears. Its design prescribed three fundamental requisites:each burgher was entitled to 6,000 acres of grazing land: governmental control must be minimal; and (most important of all) the Divinely appointed gulf which separated white Christian people from coloured heathens should be maintained.
When these points were challenged by the British who took over Cape Colony during the Napoleonic wars the Dutch settlers became determined to detach themselves from the Colony and seek their lebensraum in the African interior.
Most accounts of the exodus of the Afrikaans-speaking colonists from the Cape have laid emphasis on their struggle for possession of Natal, which in the end was won by British imperialism. To my mind the trekkers' successful occupation of the South African high veld is of far more significance. For on the high veld was bred the Afrikaner nationalism which plays so large a part in African politics today, and, since the territory turned out to be the richest parcel of real estate in the world, it provided the Afrikaners with the means to dominate the remainder of the sub-continent.
This book about the Great Trek has been written in the belief that a sound knowledge of this central episode in the South African past will enable the reader to understand the strange necessities which drove the Afrikaners to their present racial attitudes. In its course I have deliberately dispensed with detailed references and text notes, but all source material has been listed in the bibliography.