Occasionally when surveying the broad sweep of a nation's past one is struck by an incident evocative of such drama and significance that it can be picked out unhesitatingly as one of the important hinge-points in that nation's history. To my mind such an episode was the crossing of the Orange river during the February of 1836 by the first wave of Voortrekkers to have followed Louis Tregardt into the northern wilderness.
To these people, some two hundred in number, the great river represented both a Rubicon and a Jordan; it was a frontier between the life they had known in Cape Colony and the new existence they were about to begin in a land promised to them by the Lord Himself.
The Orange river was always a welcome and marvellous sight to travellers of last century when they came up to it after weeks of weary travelling through the harsh landscapes of the northern Cape. Thus, only the year before, this river had set the English explorer Cornwallis Harris rhapsodising:
'emerging from desolation and sterility the first glimpse that we obtained of it realised those ideas of elegant and classic scenery [sic] which exists in the mind of poets. The alluring fancies of a fairy fiction, or the fascinating imagery of a romance, were brought here into actual existence. The waters of this majestic river, three hundred yards in breadth, flowing in one unbroken expanse, resembled a smooth translucent lake; and as gentle waves glided past on their way to join the restless ocean, bearing on their limpid bosom, as in a polished mirror, the image of their woodclothed borders, they seemed to kiss the shore before bidding it farewell.'
Now a year later when Potgieter's trek reached the Orange, the river was in dangerous spate. An anxious council was held on the bank: then, while some of the men swam their horses and cattle over the great stream of yellowish water, others hacked away at the Babylonian willows growing beside it and constructed a stout raft. On to it they loaded the wagons and a mountain of stores, next the sheep and goats, and finally the women and children.
It was a scene of high theatre as the last raft-load took the current and drifted slowly across the water. The children were gay and playful, but presently above their laughter and the sound made by water rippling against the pont, there rose the clear notes of a psalm sung in thanksgiving by the women. The very air and sunlight seemed keener and brighter as the raft approached the farther bank: and when the women stepped ashore there were joyful shouts of 'Now we are free'.
They were free from the English it was true, but they were entering a wilderness where there was no legal writ or authority to support them in case of trouble. And troubles they could expect in plenty. Already the more nervous of the party were peering anxiously into the far distance as though expecting to see an impi of warriors descending upon them. Fortunately no such catastrophe occurred. When their wagons had been reloaded and the trekkers moved forward again from the Orange they admittedly suffered from stock thefts by unseen Bushmen at night, but the few people they saw were friendly — an occasional white pastoralist, and groups of Griquas who were under missionary influence and happy to sell grain to these new emigrants from the Colony.
Potgieter's leadership was accepted without question by his party, wagon and it numbered about two hundred people. Most of them were related to their leader. Potgieter during his lifetime married four times; his wives not only bore him seventeen children but through them he was connected to many of the families in the Eastern Province. Some of them—the Krugers, Steyns, Liebenbergs, Robbertses and Bothas—had joined Potgieter as he trekked towards the Orange; others were to attach themselves to his party beyond the river. Besides the Europeans the trekkers had brought along a handful of coloured drivers and servants, but in spite of them the young girls often had to act as the voorlopers who led the spans of oxen drawing the heavily-laden wagons.
Potgieter's trek was made up of sixty families each with its own but on the fax side of the orange his position was regularised when a meeting officially appointed him Trek-Commandant. It was wholly fitting that he should have led the first full wave of Voortrekkers into the Promised Land for his place in the story of the Great Trek is a special one. From its inception to the end it is he who dominates the drama, and as he rides in his moleskin jacket, abbreviated Dopper trousers, and wide-brimmed straw hat across the vast stage of the high veld, he seems to be the very embodiment of the Afrikaner nation which the emigration brought into being.
At the time of the crossing of the Orange, Potgieter was forty-two years old and his character was already formed. He was one of those men who have been born with an idée fixe, in his case with a consuming hunger to break new ground and with it to enlarge his authority. It was a hunger which could only be appeased by establishing himself as the unrivalled patriarch of a settled community in the wilds, and the thought of doing so inspired his career. Of all the Voortrekkers he is the nearest in spirit to the Conquistadors. It was not gold he was seeking to be sure, but he was possessed by the same anxiety to hack out a fief for himself which he could rule as undisputed governor, and one feels that he would have got on very well with Cortes and Pizarro. He was splendidly adapted for his self-imposed task: behind him lay all the molten experience of frontier life—the roving boyhood as a trekboer's son, service on commando against the Xhosa, the mortification that came with British rule, the agony of Slagters Nek whose executions took place close to his home, and the final crowning prosperity as a farmer of the Tarka district.
Potgieter waged life rather than lived it. He was naturally pugnacious and endowed with remarkable staying power. He was also quick to take offence; there was no room for compromise in his nature, no slack to be taken up and very little patience with those who disagreed with him.
Potgieter was also a ferocious fighting man, who lived by instinct with a quick eye and a faster hand. He was not much given to words, but he drove himself and his men as though all the devils in hell were chasing him. He was to put the touch of fire on all sorts of quaintly named places like Vegkop, Mosega and Kapain, yet although he could be remarkably bold at times, there was always a point of risk beyond which he would not venture, and this was to cause accusations of faintheartedness and great trouble in the future.
Potgieter never strikes us as being hypocritical in his outlook: all through the Great Trek we see him as a man who is simply doing what is best for himself and for his people; never for a moment does he make any pretence of being an outrider of Christian ethics or of bringing the benefits of civilisation to the Africans among whom he settles. But at the same time he treats them very fairly, dispenses to them friendship but never condescension, and in the end he wins the respect and confidence of them all, even of Mzilikazi, the king of the Matabele, who for so many years had been his greatest enemy.
No authentic portrait of Potgieter survives but his contemporaries have often described him: he is tall and thin; his chin is fringed by a grizzled brown beard, the blue eyes are fierce but they have an uncanny way of lighting up when he is in the presence of children. He favours blue clothes and behind his back is referred to by his followers as 'Ou Blouberg' — the old Blue mountain—a tribute to his physical and personal eminence. All accounts of him speak too of the Dopper clothes he dresses in and especially of the floppy straw hat with the green lining which is worn throughout all the prodigious journeys he accomplishes on horseback.
It was inevitable that this man who had been born with nearly all the gifts except patience and tact, should have fallen out with other leaders of treks which followed him out of Cape Colony, and in consequence his character has been blackened by spiteful propaganda. For this egocentric man, who combined the high virtue of loyalty towards his immediate followers with a high disregard on occasion for the fortunes of his other countrymen, without doubt attracted much prejudice to himself, just as Piet Retief attracted affection and Andries Pretorius collected admiration and honour. Any number of accusations have been made about Potgieter's behaviour: thus he was believed to have shown both cowardice and treachery at the Battle of Italeni, and towards the end of his life many of his countrymen believed him to have been concerned with slave trading. What was never in dispute was a strong personality conditioned by a restless and sometimes almost illogical independence which led him not only to trek away from British control but to withdraw too from the community of the other Voortrekkers.
But all this lay far away in the future when, after dispatching his cousin Johannes Van Rensburg and Louis Tregardt ahead to spy out the land, Potgieter gathered his kinsmen together and started out for the unknown north.
He and his followers belonged to the Dopper sect which seceded from the Dutch Reformed Church. They were noted for the strictness of their Calvinistic austerity. It dominated all their actions. Like the Puritans of another age they could be recognised by the curious clothes they wore: the men favoured short jackets of brown nankeen and moleskin, and trousers flapping high above the ankle. Among the most prominent of the Doppers was Sarel Cilliers who joined the trek with a considerable party from Colesberg as Potgieter journeyed through the 'bald veld' some twenty miles west of modern Smithfield. One imagines that Potgieter welcomed Cilliers without very much enthusiasm for in him he must have recognised a potential rival. Cilliers' character has been likened to that of a Scottish Covenanter, but when considering it, the modern historian is irresistibly reminded instead of one of those Welsh divines who fifty years ago drummed so effectively on the British nonconformist conscience. Certainly no one could have been less like Potgieter: Cilliers was short and stout, a little vain and excitable, and much given to public prayer and preaching. Such was his austerity that one always tends to think of this subleader of the Potgieter party as a venerable old man, but in fact when he joined the trek he was only thirty-five years old. Cilliers had another claim to fame besides his powerful preaching. He was eloquent too on paper and much of our knowledge of the Great Trek is derived from his reminiscences. Admittedly some of them were penned many years later when details must have faded from his memory but they remain beset by old prejudices. He holds forth at great length for instance about his reasons for emigrating, and one can see that nothing has been forgotten.
'I was dissatisfied,' he writes, 'with the Bastardland which we had bartered with the Boesjesmans [Bushmen], and after that the Bastards came and killed the Boesjesmans and took possession of our property, and we lost it. Secondly we had sent a commission of 100 men to the Vet, Sand and Valsch rivers who found that tract of country waste and uninhabited. We memorialised the Governor of the Cape. Seventy-two persons signed the memorial, all family men who had no land and it was refused to us. Thirdly the freedom of the slaves. Government promised us that two agents would be sent, and after being valued the money would be paid out. I possessed slaves valued at Rds. 2,888 and I only received about Rds. 500 worth of goods in return.'
Potgieter's augmented trek now included sixty-five good fighting men, and it was with more confidence that it moved northwards towards the Blesberg mountain which stands out abruptly from the surrounding veld. The Blesberg was known to Moroka's Barolong tribesmen who lived in its shadow as Thaba Nchu. During all the discussions which had gone on during the past few years among the Afrikaners of the Colony who were contemplating trekking, this landmark had been accepted as a convenient rendezvous where they would meet. The mountain can be seen from afar. On its summit is set a rocky pinnacle stained white with the droppings of vultures and dassies, and the Boers gave it the name of Blesberg—the white mountain—for this reason. Moroka, the chief in the country below the mountain, lived in mortal fear of the Matabele who raided the area from time to time; accordingly he was quite prepared to co-operate with Potgieter's trekkers in return for their protection, and here under Blesberg the emigrants rested for some weeks. Then the wagons pressed on again through a fine pastoral country of far-distant vistas which rolled away ever northwards like an ocean of grass flanked on the right by an horizon of blue mountains whose peaks stabbed the sky with the cutting edge of a diamond. The trekkers came first to the Vet river where Potgieter was able to establish good relations with another friendly chief, Makwana. Beyond they reached splendid grazing ground along the Sand river. Unaware of any danger the Boers spread out from here in small family groups seeking suitable farms; and on 25 May 1836, after warning them to remain south of the Vaal which the Matabele were understood to regard as their boundary, Potgieter set off with eleven companions to make contact with Louis Tregardt. The little party was well-mounted and it travelled light.
The story of Potgieter's ride from Sand river to the Zoutpansberg and then far into modern Rhodesia is a saga in itself. He followed first along the spoor left by Van Rensburg and Tregardt. There was no difficulty in doing this; the passage of 10,000 head of stock and eighteen loaded wagons a few weeks earlier had cut what looked like a gigantic fire-break through the grasslands, and the camping grounds where a hundred persons had passed a night were easily recognisable. Fortunately one of the Boers—J. G. S. Bronkhorst—wrote an account of the journey. In it he tells us that during its first eighteen days the horsemen rode without seeing any sign of human inhabitants but only the ruins of kraals which had been destroyed during the Mfecane. He goes on to write of finding 'real sugar cane' near modern Heidelberg on a ridge which appropriately was named the Suikerboschrand, and of the good pastures on both sides of the Olifants river. Beyond the Olifants the horsemen quickened their pace since they were now in country which was regularly patrolled by the Matabele, and before the end of June 1836 rode into Tregardt's camp at the western end of the Zoutpansberg. Here there were considerable numbers of natives to be seen, and the trekkers noted with interest that some of them were wearing gold ornaments. Bronkhorst was delighted with the area and thought that a large town might well be founded in it.
'We were there in the month of July,' he writes, 'and saw all kinds of fruit in full growth and blossom and got from the gardens all kinds of vegetables, sweet potatoes, millets and many other varieties. There is an abundance of water to irrigate the ground....
Potgieter did not linger in camp: almost at once as we have seen he set off across the Limpopo river, seeking a way to a Portuguese port, and hoping no doubt to pick up information too about the missing Van Rensburg party. It is uncertain how far north he went: he may have reached the Sabi river a little down-stream from where it is crossed today by the Birchenough Bridge. Bronkhorst tells us that at their farthest point they were only six days' journey from a 'town' where Portuguese was spoken and where 'there were ships waiting for elephants' teeth'. Presumably reference was being made to Sofala. At least it was clear that the road they had been following did not lead to Delago Bay which lay much farther to the south. From this point Potgieter had to turn back: for several weeks now he had been riding through fly country and his horses were sickening with disease. Before the end of July his little party was back in Tregardt's camp.
He remained to guard it while Louis Tregardt in his turn rode off to look for Van Rensburg along the Limpopo. As soon as Tregardt returned with the reasonably certain knowledge that the whole party had perished, Potgieter set off on 17 August 1836 to rejoin his own people on the Sand river. At the time he intended to bring them up to the fine Zoutpansberg country where Tregardt had established himself. Towards the end of the month he reached the Vaal. News was waiting for him there, and it was appalling. The Matabele had attacked isolated groups of the trekkers in his party, and now events had clearly passed out of the emigrants' control.
To obtain an idea of the calamity which had burst like a bombshell over the people he had left fanning out from the Sand river we can do no better than follow the account written by Bronkhorst. He writes that as soon as they left the peaceful Zoutpansberg a few men pressed on ahead to get fresh horses. Approaching the most advanced trekker camp—that of the Liebenberg family—they saw a wagon standing in the river and with uneasy presentiment a single man cantered on to investigate.
'He returned,' Bronkhorst writes, 'with the tidings that our camp presented a bloody scene; they all then rode thither, and found Mr Liebenberg, Sen., and the wife of H. Liebenberg, lying dead; there were also several corpses who they could not identify. They returned to us the same afternoon with this sad account; five of them then rode thither, and found the killed to be B. Liebenberg, Sen., Johannes du Toit and wife, H. L. Liebenberg, Jun. and wife, S. Liebenberg and a male child, MacDonald a schoolmaster and a son of C. Liebenberg.'
Within three days by hard riding, Potgieter was back at the Sand river, and there learned more bad news. Not only had the Liebenbergs who had crossed the Vaal against his advice been massacred, but a hunting party led by Stephanus Erasmus had also lost heavily after a surprise attack by another Matabele patrol. The veld was on fire.
We must now turn to consider the reaction of Mzilikazi, King of the Matabele, to the first news of the incursion of white men into his territory. From his capital of Kapain in the Marico valley and the military kraal of Mosega sixty miles away to the south near modern Zeerust Mzilikazi exercised control over 30,000 square miles of country between the rivers Limpopo, Crocodile, Vaal and Molopo. He ruled this enormous area by fear, but although he may have been ruthless to the Bantu tribes he attacked, Mzilikazi was by no means always the blood-thirsty tyrant that he has been represented by Boer propaganda. The Matabele king liked white men and welcomed them to his country if they came peacefully in small groups, acknowledged his personal authority, and refrained from shooting game without his permission. At the same time he stipulated that they must enter his kingdom from Kuruman where his good friend Robert Moffat could be relied upon to screen all strangers. The king even allowed a group of American missionaries to set up a station at Mosega, but he remained morbidly sensitive about the security of his southern boundary on the Vaal, for from this direction in the past had come Zulu impis and Griqua bandetiiri to seize his women and cattle. Accordingly Matabele patrols were sent out periodically to the river with instructions to destroy any trespassers in the king's domain.
First Van Rensburg, then Tregardt and finally Hendrik Potgieter had slipped across the Vaal without detection. Those that followed them were not so fortunate. In the June or July of 1836 a Matabele patrol brought news back to Kapain that parties of strangers with horses and wagons had crossed the river and, to compound their guilt, were shooting game. From their description they did not seem to be Griquas, and Mzilikazi came to the correct conclusion that these were white invaders.
He accordingly sent off an impi under the most renowned of the Matabele indunas, Mkalipi, to deal with them. Mkalipi's orders were to kill all the white males and to bring back their women and girls to form part of the royal seraglio at Kapain.
After an eight-day march Mkalipi's scouts warned him that he was approaching several groups of white people. Dividing his impi into separate task forces the warriors then fell upon two separate camps. One was that of a group of elephant hunters led by Stephanus Erasmus; the other was the camp of the Liebenbergs who despite Potgieter's instructions had ventured across the Vaal in the vicinity of modem Parys.
When the blow fell the members of the hunting party were scattered in search of elephants and by good fortune some of them were able to escape. Stephaus Erasmus himself galloped with one of his sons to safety. He came to the Liebenberg camp and hurriedly warned them of the approaching impi. Unfortunately the Liebenbergs did not take his news seriously and merely shouted after him, 'All you want is to entice us back over the Vaal.' They were overwhelmed a little later by the Matabele assault, but miraculously a few members of the family escaped death: four children lay unnoticed in the wagon during the massacre, while one of the Liebenberg girls survived after being left for dead from several assegai wounds.
A few hours later Erasmus whipped his lathered horse up to the next Voortrekker camp and this time his warning was effective. The Boers had time to drag their wagons together at a place where the river Vaal makes a sharp bend and gave them protection on two sides. Even so the issue was touch and go; thirty-five white men were pitted against a force of 500 disciplined warriors, and only after six hours of fighting did the Matabele withdraw.
That evening Mkalipi reconcentrated his regiments and set out to report to the king. With him he had five looted wagons, seventy-four head of cattle and twenty-three horses taken from the trekkers, together with three of their Hottentot drivers and two little white girls, trophies of war to be presented to the king at Kapain. These children were never seen again and despite all attempts to discover their fate, no one knows what befell them.
The Americans in Mosega remained in no doubt as to whether the king had in fact been driven into ordering the attacks on the white trespassers by fear alone. One of them wrote that 'We believe, however, that he [Mzilikazi] was moved by avarice', and Dr Wilson, another of the brethren firmly reports that 'these attacks by Mzilikazi were unprovoked on the part of the farmers'. But whatever the reason may have been the Matabele impi that August had been responsible for the deaths of fifty-three white men, women and children. The Voortrekkers only four weeks after the Van Rensburgs perished at Soshangane's hands had suffered a second and even more grievous check. From now on there would be no peace on the high veld until either Mzilikazi's power was broken or the trekkers utterly destroyed, and as August turned into September and Potgieter studied the odds against him he must have feared that the Great Trek was doomed almost at its outset.