As things turned out, during the first eleven years of the French revolutionary wars, the Cape Boers were governed by four separate administrations. In 1795 as we have seen, the original Dutch East India Company gave way to a British Government; after the Peace of Amiens of 1802, the Colony reverted to Dutch rule, when the short-lived Batavian Republic came into being; finally, when the war broke out a year later, the British Government decided that it must again make sure of this key to India, and it dispatched a large fleet to the Cape in 1805. During the anxious months when the battles of Trafalgar and Austerlitz were being fought, sixty-three ships sailed southwards through the Atlantic; a combined service exercise in a style strangely predictive of the Second World War followed: after a skirmish in the dunes of Blaauwberg Strand the burghers submitted to superior arms and the second British occupation of the Cape began, From now on the Boers were ruled by a succession of governors and officials whose standards of values were utterly different from their own. They were disciplined by autocratic foreigners who made no attempt to hide their feelings that the Dutch colonists were a tiresome responsibility conferred on them by the necessity of maintaining a naval station on the way to India. And what made things worse was the way these arrogant British were far more inclined to listen to criticism and denunciations of the Boers than to sit down and hear the colonists' even perfectly legitimate complaints.
That was not all: in the wake of unsympathetic officials came a host of Christian missionaries who were determined to preach the fashionable doctrine of brotherly love and racial equality to anyone who would listen to them. With their advent the whole impact of contemporary English liberalism and Negrophilism, buttressed as it was by central authority, fell suddenly on the Boers. The missionaries' teachings were, of course, repugnant to a white race not only convinced of its superiority to the Hottentots and Bantu, but which genuinely believed that its very existence depended on subjugating these inferior beings who had harmed them so often. And, indeed, one cannot help but feel a good deal of sympathy for the Boers on this matter, especially as the missionaries were earnest irritable men who had no experience in dealing with a multi-racial society, and who seemed to reserve all their charity for its coloured members. Many of the missionaries came from the artisan class and had received the call during the British evangelical revival: for instance, John Philip, who was particularly loathed by the Afrikaners, had been a mill hand before entering the Church, while Robert Moffat of Kuruman had begun life as a gardener. This sort of background inevitably led them to display a narrowness of vision which might have been avoided by a wider education, and, however praiseworthy their purpose, however splendid their new awareness of the equality of men, it is sad that the missionaries did not express their opinions about the Boer attitudes to the coloured people more tactfully, and avoided other of their more patronising criticisms. But, however badly they had been received by the Dutch Colonists, the missionaries certainly had the ear of the Cape Government, and it was mainly due to their agitation that the British authorities in 1828 passed an ordinance which released all Hottentots from any legislation that enforced discrimination on account of colour. Pass laws and child apprenticeship were all abolished and there is no doubt that the Boers were correct in claiming that Hottentot vagrancy, with its concomitant evil of stock-theft, thereafter increased immeasurably. What rankled even more was the enrolment of Hottentots as soldiers to enforce the Colony's laws, and the way Hottentot servants were allowed—even encouraged—to make official complaints about the treatment meted out to them by their masters. In matters of this sort the Hottentots were all too often abetted by the missionaries; one of whom took credit for causing the arrest of no less than twenty white farmers for the maltreatment of their servants. We must remember, too, that to answer such a charge in court meant that a man had to leave his wife and children unprotected on an isolated farm for days and weeks at a time, and we can sympathise with the shocked surprise of one of them who, on receiving a summons to a distant magistracy, groaned 'My God! Is this the way to treat a Christian?'
Not all the Boers were willing to accept a summons of this sort, and during 1815 a key piece of Afrikaner history dropped into place when a Frederick Bezuidenhout ignored several warrants to appear at Graaff Reinet to answer charges of ill-treatment laid by one of his Hottentot servants. After two years had gone by Hottentot soldiers led by a white officer attempted to arrest Bezuidenhout, and killed him when he resisted. At the graveside a few days later his brother, Johannes Bezuidenhout, swore to 'expel the tyrants from the country', but the rising he led ended rather tamely when the rebels were confronted by a posse of Dragoons at Slagters Nek. Bezuidenhout himself was killed in the skirmish and his followers surrendered; five of them were condemned to death. Unhappily the hanging was badly bungled: the ropes of four men broke and they were only executed at the second attempt. The horror of the scene at Slagters Nek, the well-named 'Butcher's Pass', which on orders from Cape Town was watched by all the district, became deeply etched into Boer folk-memory.
But it was the insecurity of the eastern frontier which nourished a more fundamental discontent. On this frontier black and white men were competing for grazing land and hunting, and trouble was continuously breaking out. Both sides were equally to blame; a Boer commando would raid kraals across the Fish river; this would be followed by a Xhosa marauding expedition, and this in turn by punitive attacks, until a state of uneasy equilibrium was re-established. But after the British take-over there was a tendency to curb the 'Boers' unauthorised attempts at recapturing their 'Christian cattle', and Piet Uys who was to become one of the leaders of the Great Trek spoke for many when he announced that
'I prefer living amongst barbarians, where my life depends on the strength of my arms, than being ham-strung by a British policy which regarded the Boers as being the instigators of all the troubles, and the Xhosa as invariably innocent.'
One of Uys's countrymen put things a little differently when he noted that although in the past his family
'had been five times clean swept out by Kafirs . . . in those old times when they were robbed they redressed themselves, but their hands were tied when the Kafirs were loose'.
Certainly provocation by the Xhosa increased. Some of the high spots in the fighting that continually engulfed the frontier were dignified by the name of Kafir Wars (although a modern generation of historians prefers to refer to them as 'Frontier Wars') but none was so damaging as the sixth Kafir War of 1834-5, the so-called 'Hintsa's War', which put all the white inhabitants of the Cape's eastern province into a state of wild panic for weeks on end. The name was unfairly applied: Hintsa may in theory have been the paramount chief of the Xhosa nation, but in fact his power was limited to the eastern side of the Kei river, and he had little control over the Rabe clan of his people residing in the territory between the Fish and the Kei. This area, known as the Ciskei, paid allegiance to a rival chief named Gaika or more properly Ngqika. It was Gaika's people who at the end of 1834 poured into the Colony, killed forty white men (but spared women and children), burned the homes of 400 settlers, looted many hundreds of head of cattle and horses and, although Piet Retief (who would have another job to do before long) rallied the farmers of the Winterberg district and drove the raiders off, the Xhosa farther south laid waste country as far as Algoa Bay and Somerset East. 'Seven thousand of His Majesty's subjects,' wailed one harassed official at Cape Town, 'were in one week driven to destitution.'
Fortunately, Colonel Harry Smith was in the Colony at the time: this soldier who had distinguished himself during the Peninsular War (and would subsequently play an important part, too, in the drama of the Great Trek) was dispatched post-haste to the danger point, and he quickly drove a counter-offensive right up to the banks of the Kei. He then signed a peace with Hintsa which required the Xhosa to pay an enormous cattle indemnity and to retire across the Kei. The Ciskei was now annexed as the province of Queen Adelaide, but an unfortunate incident marred the British success: Hintsa offered himself as a hostage until the indemnity was paid and even suggested that he accompany Colonel Smith in collecting the Xhosa cattle. He was accordingly lent a 'remarkable and powerful horse' and, soon afterwards, when riding with Smith and either by accident or design, he bolted. Harry Smith tried to shoot the fleeing man but both his pistols misfired: then, giving chase, he caught hold of Hintsa and dragged him heavily to the ground. Hintsa was still full of fight. 'He was jabbing at me furiously with his assegai,' Colonel Smith recalled in his autobiography, and the chief succeeded in breaking away to cover in a near-by stream bed. There, while pleading for mercy, the top of his skull was blown off by one of Smith's officers and his body was afterwards mutilated by British and colonial troops.
It was a sad and unsavoury end to the war, and it had an unexpected result. While Smith with the backing of the Governor at the Cape was arranging to push the Colony's frontier to the River Kei and incorporating the province of Queen Adelaide, news of the war and its shabby if victorious conclusion was being wafted by sailing ship to London. Lord Glenelg, the British Colonial Secretary, who received it, was a man greatly given to worry and philanthropy, and he was deeply distressed by reports of the manner of Hintsa's death. They seemed to confirm his long-standing suspicion that these recurring unpleasantness es on the Cape frontier were always due to the harsh intransigence of the white settlers and never to that of the defenceless Xhosa. One of his secretaries minuted that after perusing the dispatch, Glenelg was heard to say that he
'objected to the war as unjust in its origins, and cruel in its progress and impolitic in its results'.
He assured someone else that
'the original justice was on the side of the conquered, not of the victorious party',
and he finished up by writing a confused dispatch in the December of 1835 which was described as 'golden' by his friends in the Clapham Sect and as 'infamous' by the South African colonials whom it robbed of the fruits of victory. For the disapproving dispatch announced in somewhat ambiguous terms the revocation of the newly-won province of Queen Adelaide.
Smith received the news with deep resentment. From then on, as he recalled in his autobiography,
'Every act of the murderous Kafirs during the war was regarded as a just retaliation for previous wrong,'
and at Whitehall he made no bones of his contempt for the misguided bureaucrat who had
'directed the province of Queen Adelaide be restored to barbarism'.
But his indignation was as nothing compared with that of the trekboers who had regarded Smith's expulsion of the Xhosa from the Fish river as the best possible guarantee of future peace on the eastern frontier.
Although the retreat from the province was not enforced until 1836, rumours of the vacillations of the British policy had by then been circulating in South Africa for the best part of a year and were regarded as a last straw by Boers who were already disillusioned with life in the Colony's eastern province. Not only did it seem that the chronic insecurity on the frontier would now continue, but to make things worse they had been blamed by the Government for provoking an unjust war. It was time, many of them decided, to emigrate. The Colony was no place for Christian people to live.
Theirs was not a sudden decision. For some time now the farmers had been contemplating their many other grievances, and, although pinpricks compared with the ignominious abandonment of Queen Adelaide, they added up to such a sense of affront and injustice that these kindly God-fearing people were beginning to talk of either revolt or secession. Consider these grievances. Land was becoming scarce and expensive owing to the natural increase in the Afrikaans-speaking population and the advent of 5,000 British settlers during 1820. For years the eastern province had suffered from droughts which are the curse of Africa and everyone who has experienced the successive failure of the annual rains will know how disappointment will at last drive a man to leave everything he has laboured for and move off to a new country where the rainfall may be more reliable. Then there was the creeping advance of the English tongue, especially in official circles, at the expense of the taal. Worse was the emancipation of the slaves which had been ordained throughout the British Empire in 1833; it was accompanied by what the Boers, with a good deal of justification, considered to be inadequate compensation to the owners, and as though to irritate them more it was timed to take effect during the harvest season. There was, too, the chronic mortification at the way the Boers' actions were so freely criticised by the missionaries: indeed the explorer, Cornwallis Harris, who visited the Cape in 1835, considered that this grudge particularly rankled among the trekboers for, after enumerating all the other reasons for the farmers' unrest, he wrote,
'Far greater than these, however, are the evils that have arisen out of the perverse misrepresentations of canting and designing men, to whose mischievous and gratuitous interference veiled under the cloak of philanthropy, is principally to be attributed the desolate condition of the eastern frontier.'
But perhaps what most embittered these early Afrikaners was the official recognition of the equality between coloured men and whites. As one Boer woman, Anna Elizabeth Steenkamp, wrote later, she considered the emancipated slaves
'being placed on an equal footing with the Christians, contrary to the laws of God and the natural distinction of race and religion' and added, 'wherefore we rather withdrew in order thus to preserve our doctrines in purity'.
Thus it was that on every farm stoep [veranda] of the eastern Cape during the 1830s, the Boer farmers were wrapped in mysterious consultations: they were discussing neither their crops nor their livestock as usual, nor yet the everlasting droughts; they were concerned with a burning desire to get away from British control. The grim choice between revolt and secession so probed and agitated their minds that people were now saying just a little more than they meant to say and urging extravagant courses, for over-statement is always the language of men suffering from long-standing grievances. The hot-heads were to be heard recommending armed revolt, but with the memory of Slagters Nek still freshly impressed on their minds the majority spoke instead of a massive migration beyond the Colony's frontiers. There was little opening on the west or east; they were hemmed in there by the sea or the Xhosa, but a mysteriously empty land lay to the north, beyond the Orange river, a land of fine pasturage in which the British showed no interest; and as little opposition could be expected from the few Griquas who lived across the river it seemed that this country might be occupied without much risk.
By this time the Boers had built up a fairly complete picture of what they spoke of as Transorangia. For ivory hunters made frequent expeditions to the north; Griquas (or 'Bastards' as the Dutch knew them) — for the most part half-breeds of Dutch and Hottentot blood — were hacking out farms there; and an increasing number of Boer farmers had grown accustomed to making seasonal migrations with their stock across the river and taking advantage of the grazing after the rains. Some Boers had even settled permanently in the triangle of country between the Orange and Caledon rivers where the town of Zastron stands today. And one restless man who had fallen foul of the law — Coenraad Buys — had trekked far away to the north with a motley collection of Bantu wives, coloured progeny and English deserters. Rumours had recently come trickling back to the Colony that the 'Buys Volk' had ended up near the Zoutpansberg Mountains in splendidly watered country. Yet clearly the Boers must find out more about these lands before contemplating their settlement, and they went about the problem by secretly commissioning three commandos — the Commissie Treks — to spy out the country across the Orange river. The first Commissie Trek went westwards into the thirstlands of what is now South West Africa, and came back with a disappointing report about its aridity. The other two, which respectively penetrated to Natal and the Zoutpansberg mountain range, however, returned filled with enthusiasm for the countries they had visited. In both places, they said, was land for the taking, land where their countrymen could set up independent states and where they could continue to live the lekker lewe.
It would be as well if at this point we turned to look at the country. beyond the Orange reconnoitred by the Commissie Treks and which was to become the South African provinces of Natal, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
The high veld of the Cape colony which the trekboers had reached after finding their way over the successive scarps of the plateau's mountain barrier, was. found to continue far beyond the orange, rising as high as 6,000 feet and becoming progressively more fertile. On the east this open prairie is bounded by the mighty line of the Drakensberg Range, pathless and much of it unclimbable. To the west the land drops down slowly to the arid Kalahari basin. The great plain is drained by a succession of languid rivers meandering in a westerly direction between banks lined by willow trees; they are most easily fordable near their sources in the Drakensberg. With their facility for naming the characteristics that had initially struck them of every geographical feature, the Boers were later to call these rivers the Riet (reeds), Modder (muddy), Wilge (willow trees), Valsch (false or deceptive holes), Rhenoster (rhinocerus), Olifants (elephan), Buffels (buffalo) and Vaal (dark river).
Beyond the Vaal the great plateau continues to rise to the Witwatersrand and Magaliesberg, but from there the ground slopes gently down towards the Limpopo, interrupted at first by the Waterberg Mountains and then by the long line of the Zoutpansberg range. This vast interior tableland extends for 850 miles at its greatest length and is roughly 300 miles broad. Geologically it is made up of a series of horizontal rock formations from which the rain over aeons of time has washed away successive layers, leaving occasional areas of harder rock which have resisted erosion. In consequence the green-gold steppe is broken by scattered heights, blue in the African light, and ranging from extensive table-topped mountains girdled with sheer precipices, to isolated koppies whose slopes are strewn with boulders as though marked by the glaciers of an alpine moraine. Only these eminences break the stretched sweep of the high veld and there is a curious sameness about its reiterated detail. Yet it possesses a beauty of its own: this is utterly different from the artless variations of Europe so that its charm is not at first revealed to northern eyes. But the long white-blue sky, the sense of an empty land stretching away into infinity, the wistful silences, and the faintly bitter scents rising from the earth, somehow add tenderness and nostalgia to the scene and bid every traveller who lingers there to return.
The climate of the high veld is one of the best in the world. It is always fresh and buoyant. Winter is marked by a series of bracing incandescent days and cold nights filled with the smoky smell of frost. In summer the heat is mollified by frequent thunderstorms which add a marvellous clarity to the air. The veld is thus remarkably healthy, both for men and beasts. Its pasturage is all that graziers can dream of, and the amount of game seen by the early explorers and the Voortrekkers exceeded even that of the old Colony. Huge herds of blesbok, springbok, wildebeest, bontebok, quagga and hartebeest were to be seen everywhere, interspersed with Burchell's zebra and ostriches.
Beyond the Witwatersrand the ground descends slowly to 2,500 feet, the fine pastureland fading near the tropic of Capricorn into bush veld and then low veld. The low veld is a wilderness of shimmering thorn bushes and iron-stemmed mopani trees, its sea-like horizons broken by rocky koppies, and gnome-like baobabs, and an occasional fig-tree gesticulating against the sky. It was criss-crossed in those days by the paths of pedlars who carried trumperies from Portuguese Sofala, Inhambane, and Lourenço Marques to barter for ivory and slaves in the interior. This is a hot country filled with tentative apologetic shadows, tainted by mosquitoes and tsetse flies, and shrilling after rain with the noise of countless cicadas. It spreads away at last to reach the even more unwholesome Limpopo valley which today forms the northern boundary of the Republic of South Africa.
The Drakensberg is a mighty extension to the Stormberg and Sneeuberg ranges, and the Boers were to refer to it with simple awe as 'The Berg'. The range rises several thousand feet above the eastern edge of the high veld up to a series of peaks, and then drops down sharply to the idyllic land of Natal which had been given its name as long ago as 1497 by Vasco de Gama. The Drakensberg runs like a backbone through much of South Africa; it is a smaller Andes whose great eastern scarp is broken by precipices, gorges, canyons and ravines, and it forms a natural barrier between the elevated grasslands of the interior and the sub-tropical littoral of the Indian Ocean. Natal is for the most part comparatively low-lying, a series of foothills below the Berg giving way to fertile, rolling country, reaching to the golden beaches of the Indian Ocean. The country is cut nearly in half by the Tugela river. Most of Natal is watered by innumerable streams, some of which, like the Bloukrans and the Bushman's rivers, were to become ominous names to the Voortrekkers.
All this vast territory of the high veld and of Natal had been populated centuries before by Bantu tribes which had pushed southwards from the Congo rain forests, mingling their genes on the way with Hamitic people and Bushmen. They were a pastoral, war-like people, for ever quarrelling among themselves over grazing rights. The land between the Drakensberg and the sea was occupied by Nguni tribes, while the interior high veld became inhabited by Sothospeaking people. But during the ten years following 1818, Natal south of the Tugela and most of the great plateau had been emptied of people by a cataclysmic disaster which black Africans still speak of with awe as the Mfecane—the crushing.
What had happened was this: as land-pressure increased after the Bantu expansion had been checked on the Fish river, there had been a sudden collapse of the long-established equilibrium among the Nguni tribes north of the Tugela. It had led Dingiswayo, chief of the Mthethwa tribe, into breaking with immemorial usage at the beginning of the nineteenth century and adopting a new and tough form of warfare. He trained warriors to fight in close formations which resembled the European regimental system and with new tactics. Such was their success that very soon they brought their neighbouring tribes into a loose confederacy under Dingiswayo's control.
Tradition has long insisted that Dingiswayo learned his military methods from a Dr Cowan, a Scottish explorer who is known to have perished on the banks of the Limpopo in 1808. But tradition in this case errs, since Dingiswayo instituted his reforms well before that date. Indeed, it is far more likely that he copied the Portuguese of Mocambique in his new approach to war. On Dingiswayo's death in 1818, power passed to Shaka, chief of the related and previously insignificant Zulu tribe. The new king adopted and then improved on Dingiswayo's tactics, arming his soldiers with a short stabbing assegai to be used like a bayonet, protecting them with cow-hide shields six feet long, and training them to attack in a spear-crescent formation whose two flanking 'horns' at a given signal closed in to envelop and destroy an enemy. So effective were his methods that within a few years Shaka's invincible army had extended his rule all over the country east of the Drakensberg between the Pongola and Tugela rivers. At the same time the Zulu nation had grown rapidly in numbers by carrying off the maidens of the tribes which had crumbled before its onslaught, and in wealth by amassing vast herds of cattle booty. The need to provide pasture for these herds now led Shaka to embark on a further series of wars of conquest and annihilation. It has been estimated that until his death in 1824 this single man was responsible for the deaths of a million and a half human beings. That part of Natal lying south of the Tugela was almost completely cleared of inhabitants and the remnants of its shattered peoples fled over the Drakensberg to the great plateau beyond. One tribe — the Ngwaneni, led by its chief, Matiwane — on being driven from its homeland had fallen on the Hlubi and when Shaka's attacks continued, followed them in flight on to the high veld, bringing terror to its Sotho peoples. This was only one instance among many of the forced Bantu migrations. Wave after wave of famished men, with their women and children trailing like scavengers behind them, began to mill about the veld. Two and a half million human beings were involved in the chain-reaction of chaos. The succession of massacres which now took place was as futile and as meaningless as any of those which swept central Europe during the Thirty Years War. In some ways, it was worse: many starving warriors, having acquired the taste for human flesh, formed themselves into cannibal bands whose sole purpose was to hunt down more human victims for food. Like animals driven by beaters no horde dared linger in a favoured locality for fear of another stronger wave of refugees advancing-over the crest of the Drakensberg, and would move on across the high veld between the Vaal and Orange rivers, leaving behind another swath of scorched earth, empty of stock, the pasturage littered with hapless heaps of human bones, and with only a few stunned men and women left behind in hiding and living on wild plants until they, too, perhaps were obliged to turn to cannibalism.
Colonial forces expelled the refugees who attempted to cross the orange but some tribes discovered a haven in the inhospitable Kalahari. A rabble of Batlokwa or 'Wild Cat People', led by 'a woman of great intelligence' named Manthatisi found safety in the mountains of present day Lesotho which they came to share with the tribes of Matiwane and Moshweshwe. It was typical of the terror which had overwhelmed the high veld of Southern Africa that by this time Manthatisi should have been credited with all kinds of fearsome powers: it was said that she had a single great luminous eye in the middle of her forehead, while the level-headed Dr Moffat, in the comparative safety of Kuruman, learnt that
'a mighty woman, of the name of Mantatee, was at the head of an invincible army, numerous as locusts, carrying devastation and ruin wherever she went; that she nourished the army with her own milk, sent out hornets before it, and, in one word, was laying the world desolate'.
The land north of the Vaal was also affected by the Nguni holocaust in its turn. The Matabele, kinsmen of the Zulus, aroused Shaka's hostility in 1822 and retreated slowly across the breadth of modern Transvaal, destroying or driving away the Sotho and Tswana residents. They settled down ultimately in the fertile valley of the Marico river at what seemed a safe distance from Zululand. Under their leader, Mzilikazi, the Matabele became as great a menace to the peace-loving Sotho as Shaka's impis.
Thus, much of the land to which the Boers were contemplating migration had been virtually swept clear of its people by the 1830s. But beyond lay formidable warrior nations. Groups of refugees were rallying around Moshweshwe and Manthatisi's successor, Sekonyela, in the tangled Lesotho mountains; the Matabele were firmly established in the Marico valley; and, most redoubtable of all, the Zulus ruled an empire comprising most of modern Natal. Their army was well disciplined, organised in regiments a thousand strong, each unit wearing its own uniform, including a feathered head-dress, and each had its distinctively coloured shield. Their king, Dingaan, who had succeeded the great Shaka in 1828, could put an army into the field of 50,000 men as compared with Mzilikazi's mere 6,000 warriors. Nathaniel Isaacs, who came to know the Zulus very well during Shaka's reign, has left some vivid and engaging descriptions of these most interesting of the Bantu peoples: the men, he says, were 'tall, athletic, well-proportioned and good featured', but he deplored their main vice which was a passion for war; the women, he found, were
'rather prepossessing than otherwise, their figures inclining to be somewhat graceful and their features pleasing and regular', but, he adds coyly 'We could not mistake the expression by which they manifested to us their sensual depravity'.
They impressed Isaacs, too, with their toughness: one woman, he tells us, in a single day walked twenty-five miles
'with a child on her back in the fashion of gypsies, carrying on her head a two-gallon pot filled with water',
and was effortlessly delivered of a baby next morning.
We must now return to consider the Commissie Treks which in 1834 had been organised by the Boer farmers living in the eastern province of Cape Colony. Like Joshua's spies, they were to reconnoitre the land beyond the Orange river. Three separate expeditions were mounted. The first one as we have seen came back from the present-day South West Africa with reports only of barren land quite unsuitable for settlement. The second exploratory trek led by a burgher named Scholtz rode due northwards as far as a range of mountains which they named Zoutpansberg—the salt-pan mountains. By good fortune they did not encounter any Matabele patrols but near the mountains they fell in with the Buys folk. Presently they returned to the colony with reports of seemingly endless high plains filled with fine sweet grass, that were practically empty of human beings.
The third Commissie Trek had an even more arresting story to tell. This was the largest of the expeditions, comprising twenty-one men, one woman, many coloured servants and fourteen wagons. It was led by Pieter Uys from Uitenhage, and followed in the tracks of Dr Andrew Smith who two years earlier had blazed a trail up the eastern coast to Natal. Smith had already painted a glowing picture of the country: Natal, he said, was abounding in
'rivers and rivulets, the waters of which could be led over thousands of acres at comparatively little expense'.
A Boer named Willem Berg, who had accompanied Dr Smith, was even more enthusiastic about Natal.
'Almighty,' he said to his friends repeatedly, 'I have never in my life seen such a fine place.'
Now Natal similarly astonished and enchanted Uys' exploring party. Below the clean up-thrusting line of the Drakensberg lay a country with the feeling of a shaded garden, newly watered, and it was every bit as fertile as Smith had promised. 'Only Heaven,' exulted Pieter Uys, 'could be more beautiful.' Natalland, as Uys called it, derived an added advantage by possessing a fine natural harbour at Port Natal. For the past ten years thirty Europeans, English for the most part, had set up here as traders and ivory hunters. They enjoyed good relations with Dingaan, and gradually gathered over two thousand Africans around them as followers. So secure did they feel that on 23 June 1835, they were to promote their straggling settlement into a township which they named Durban in honour of, the Governor of the Cape. These people warmly welcomed the members of the Natalland Commissie Trek. Uys then proceeded to try to make contact with Dingaan and he gained the impression that the king had no objection to the Boers occupying the empty land south of the Tugela. With this encouraging information (which turned out to be the product of self-delusion) the party returned home.
The Commissie Treks had done their work well; if they had shown any failing it had been their inadequate assessment of the strength and possible opposition to be expected from the Matabele and the Zulus.
But, the expeditions' reports held the seeds of a controversy which would be the cause of bitter dissension among the trekkers during the years ahead. For which was the Afrikaners' promised land? The high veld so thoroughly recommended by Scholtz, or Natal with which Uys had so clearly fallen in love?
There were, of course, advantages and disadvantages to both. The great plateau beyond the Vaal was further removed from British control but there was no near-by port which would achieve the only real independence for the emigrants; Natal on the other hand was served by a splendid harbour (so splendid, in fact, that there was always the danger that the British might become interested in it), and the ground was apparently more fertile. But the Drakensberg range which a large migration would have to descend was said to be impassable for ox-wagons; and, finally, however friendly Dingaan seemed, the Boers had a clear insight into African unpredictability, so that, brooding over the country like a dark cloud, lay always the menace of Dingaan's 50,000 trained warriors.
The debate about quitting the colony continued to occupy the trekboers' minds for months during this curiously fluid time of the early 1830s in South African history, but once it was resolved in favour of trekking they turned to arguing about the migrants' destination. The Zoutpansberg or Natal? Everyone talked but no one moved. It was as though the competitors in a long-distance race were all lined up but no starter had appeared to set them off. In the end the signal came from Andries Hendrik Potgieter, who was the first to risk everything in what became a national attempt to preserve a past that was now threatened by destruction. He mustered his own numerous relatives, together with the Steyn, Liebenberg, Kruger, Botha and Robberts families and prepared to trek north.
There was much to do before the march could begin: farms had to be sold, even at a loss, and the money used to buy stores and ammunition, food supplies were accumulated, wagons were repaired and packed with all possible movable property, and countless letters dispatched to friends formulating plans or arranging a future rendezvous. The trek was to move off in family groups, and only in the potentially dangerous country beyond the Orange were these to join together for mutual security. So theirs was to be not a sudden massive break away from the life they had known before; it was to be a gradual process as each family in turn uprooted itself, a sort of leeching away of less than two hundred people as though the knife of Boer antagonism was still so blunt it could make but a small and jagged wound in the body of Cape Colony; only afterwards, when the news of the revocation of Queen Adelaide festered like an angry wound and began to hurt, would the emigration become large enough to prove almost lethal to the Colony.
And while his preparations were being made, Potgieter dispatched two separate family groups to blaze a trail to the Zoutpansberg. There they were to seek out suitable land to settle, and while waiting for the main body of Potgieter's trek, attempt to open communications with the Portuguese at either Lourenço Marques lying on Delagoa Bay, Inhambane or Sofala. As leaders of the voorste mense—the 'people in front' of the Great Trek — Potgieter chose his cousin, Johannes Van Rensburg, and a prosperous farmer named Louis Tregardt.