Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Great Trek

The Kaffirs had always been a great trouble to the colonists. Their farms and cattle were never safe, and between the colonists and the natives there had been many fights, and at least five wars, in spite of the fact that the government tried to keep peace. So anxious indeed were the rulers not to have war that often the Kaffirs were allowed to go unpunished for their misdeeds. This, however, only made them bolder, and the farmers more angry with the rulers.

Now, about three weeks after the freeing of the slaves a new war with the Kaffirs began. For some time they had been restless and insolent. The more they were allowed to go unpunished, the more they laughed at the colonists, scorning them for their weakness, and the bolder they became in their plunderings. Still, in spite of everything, few people believed that they meant war. But suddenly, two days before Christmas 1834, a wild horde of twelve thousand warriors poured over the border into the eastern part of the colony. The farmers, whose homes were scattered far and wide over the plains, were completely taken by surprise. They were murdered without mercy, their farms were ruined, and their cattle driven off.

Everywhere round Grahamstown the great rolling plains had been dotted with little whitewashed houses, surrounded by gardens and orchards. Now night after night the sky was lit up with flames, and day by day fresh blackened ruins showed where these peaceful homes had been.

The whole land was turned into a desert of blood and ashes. Those who escaped from the fury of the savages fled to the nearest towns, and Grahamstown was soon full of refugees. There a church was turned into a shelter for those homeless ones, most of whom had lost everything that they possessed. The streets were barricaded, and the townspeople did what they could to defend themselves. Every man walked about with his gun ready, but there were few soldiers in the colony at this time, and there was no one to take command.

But before many days had passed the news of the uprising reached Cape Town. As soon as he heard of it, Colonel Harry Smith set out for Grahamstown. He wasted no time, starting off in the middle of the night on his long ride of about six hundred miles. It was summer, and the heat was great, but in spite of that he rode on and on, hardly pausing to rest till six days later he reached Grahamstown. It was a wonderful ride.

Colonel Harry Smith at once took command. He called out every man between sixteen and sixty to fight for his country, and every man who could carry a gun came willingly. More than a thousand Hottentots were called out too, a regiment of Highlanders came from the Cape, and the war began in real earnest.

But to fight the savages was difficult. They would not come out and fight the British in the open. They lurked in wild fastnesses in the hills and valleys, and had to be driven from one strong fortress after another. As soon as they were beaten in one place, they fell back to a second, and then to a third. But the British at length swept bare all the land between the great Fish River and the Kei, Hintsa the chief was killed, and his son made peace.

By this peace the boundary of the colony was put forward to the river Kei. This was done, said the governor, because "Hintsa had, without just provocation or declaration of war, burst into His Majesty's colony of the Cape of Good Hope; laid waste the eastern province with fire and sword; and plundered and murdered the peaceful inhabitants."

Along the frontiers of this new province, the governor ordered several forts to be built. To these he sent small garrisons so that in future the farmers might be protected.

Peace being made, the farmers returned to their homes. They began to build again their ruined houses, and gather in what was left of their wasted crops, hoping that now at last they would be able to live in peace.

But to the surprise of every one, and to the rage of the farmers, news soon came that the treaty was not to be allowed. The forts were to be given up, and the boundary of the colony was to be put back to where it was before the war.

Men who believed themselves to be the true friends of the black people had gone home to England to tell the government that the war had been unjust, and that the Kaffirs were not to blame. Those in power believed what they were told. "Justice is on the side of the conquered, not of the victorious party," said the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The Kaffirs were quite right to fight, he thought, and they were not to be punished.

The Boers had never liked British rule, now they hated it. It was nothing but tyranny, they said, and they refused to live any longer under the rule of tyrants. Their slaves had been taken from them, and no just return had been given. Again and again their farms had been plundered by the Kaffirs, and the government had given them neither protection nor help. And so they made up their minds to leave the colony, and seek liberty and peace elsewhere. "We solemnly declare," they said, "that we leave this country with a desire to enjoy a quieter life than we have hitherto had. We will not molest any people or take from them the smallest thing. But if we are attacked we will defend ourselves as well as we can against every enemy. We quit this country feeling that the British Government has nothing more to ask of us, and will allow us to govern ourselves in future."

There was plenty of land to be had in Africa. For Tshaka in his cruel wars had swept bare large tracts, some of which were known to be very fertile. To this land the Boers made up their minds to go.


"The bullock-wagons wound slowly over the billowy plains."

Having made up their minds, they made haste to be gone. They sold their farms for little or nothing, loaded up their great ox-wagons with chairs, and tables, and beds, and the few simple household goods they could not do without. Then driving their flocks and herds before them, they slowly wound their way out of British territory. The Boers generally went in companies, twenty or thirty families joining together, and from their number they chose one to be their leader. Day by day they moved slowly along, so that the sheep and cattle should not get too tired. At night they outspanned (that is, took the oxen out of the wagons), wherever they might be, forming their wagons into a laager for safety. Sometimes when the grass was fresh and green the company would encamp for a week or more at a time to rest the flocks and herds. Then on again they travelled day by day, first through grass-covered country, where rivers and streams flowed, and forest trees gave shade and shelter from the sun. Then through barren treeless wastes they went, where water was scarce and where the grass grew scant. Sometimes they climbed steep slopes, where it needed twenty or thirty oxen to draw the heavy wagons. Sometimes they crept along under the shadow of great blue hills, on and on over the seeming endless veldt. For there were no roads, and the bullock wagons wound along over the billowing plains like ships upon the sea.

But many of these stern-faced, silent farmers who set forth in search of freedom never reached their journey's end. Over and over again they were surprised by savage tribes, and murdered without mercy. Others died of fever, and those who escaped both sickness and the spear of the savage, often lost all their cattle from the bite of the deadly tse-tse fly, and became little more than homeless beggars.

The tse-tse is a South African fly with a deadly sting which kills tame animals, but does no harm to wild animals. Yet when the wild animals in a district are all killed or driven away the tse-tse vanishes too. It is still one of the enemies that the South African colonist has to fight.

But in spite of all disasters, in spite of every difficulty and danger which met them on the way, the Boers continued to stream out of the colony. In one of these slow moving caravans it is interesting to remember there was a small boy of eleven named Paul Kruger.

The governor was in despair. He saw many of the best colonists go, but he could do nothing to stop them. It seemed as if the colony would be left without people. Yet there was no law to prevent people leaving a country if they wished. The only thing to be done was to try to make them so comfortable that they would not want to go. The governor, Sir Benjamin D'Urban, had done all that he could. He could not disobey his orders from home. So the Great Trek, as it came to be called, went on.

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