Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

The Great Boer Trek

"Come, my friends,

'Tis not too late to seek a newer world."

— Tennyson

I T was therefore no small event in the world's history, when in 1826, the first steamer—suitably named the Enterprise—made its way, in two months, from England to the Cape of Good Hope. Let us see how the Cape Colony was getting on. After the battle of Waterloo and the fall of Napoleon, there had been great distress throughout the British Isles, and 5000 emigrants had been sent out to the Cape. These had mostly landed on the sandy beach of Algoa Bay. They settled in a district known as Albany, west of the Great Fish River, and were soon building the now flourishing towns of Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown.

Meanwhile the fair prospects, with which the colony had started in 1807, were clouding over. The colonists, especially the Dutch farmers, were discontented. They refused to conform to the new order of things.

"The English want us to use their ploughs, instead of our old wooden ones," they complained. "But we like our old things best. What satisfied our forefathers can satisfy us."

It was a natural cry, wrung from a people, who had so long been cut off from European intercourse.

Up to this time, the colonists had used the black Hottentots of the country, as well as the negro slaves imported before 1806, to do their work. It had been slowly dawning on the people in Europe, that the position of these Hottentots was very wretched. They were, in fact, no better than the four-legged cattle, that made up the live stock of the colony. They were slaves. In 1833, a bill was passed in England freeing all slaves in the British dominions, and decreeing that they should have equal rights with the white men of the colonies. Now in Cape Colony, there were no less than 39,000 slaves.

Compensation for the loss of their slaves was given to the slave-holders, but it was quite inadequate, and numbers of farmers were utterly ruined. Sir Benjamin D'Urban was now sent out from England to govern Cape Colony, to enforce the new Slave Act and to put Europeans and natives on a better footing. It was his first Christmas at the Cape: on New Year's Eve he had a large party of colonists at the Castle, to welcome in the New Year of 1835. Great good humour prevailed, and no one observed that several times during the evening, the Governor left the merry party, which broke up after midnight. Next morning bad news spread. A large force of Kaffirs had invaded the then frontiers of Cape Colony on Christmas Day; they had burnt every farm, killed the colonists, and carried off their sheep and cattle. The Governor knew the worst on the evening of the party: he had not wished to throw a gloom over the colonists, but he had secretly despatched a force under Sir Harry Smith, in the middle of the night. Five days later, the force reached Grahamstown, to find a state of indescribable panic: 456 farms had been destroyed, 50 Europeans slain. It took a year's fighting to drive the Kaffirs back into their own country.

The Dutch farmers were now thoroughly dissatisfied. They did not approve of much that had been done and left undone, so they determined to take an important step.

South Africa was large. There were vast tracts of country yet unexplored. To the north and east lay a great wild land, where they might live that solitary, wandering, unrestrained life, that had become necessary to them. There they might do as they pleased, vexed by no changes in the laws, burdened by no taxes, worried by no English-speaking people. They would leave their farms in the Cape Colony and wander forth into the wilderness. They likened themselves to the Children of Israel, when they went forth from Egypt, from the oppression of Pharaoh. They knew no history or geography, save that contained in their Bibles, and some, amongst them, had dreamy ideas, that they might reach Jerusalem or the Promised Land.

The region toward which they now set their faces, was only known to European travellers seeking sport and adventure. It was a hunter's paradise. Giraffes, elephants, lions filled the forests and covered the plains; there were hippopotami and rhinoceri abounding in the rivers and swamps.

"It is like a zoological gardens turned out to graze," said an early traveller.


Boer Trek

The land itself was brown and arid except during the summer rains, and the Boer farmers found a very wilderness before them, as they made their way into the unknown land. Each householder took his wife and children, his flocks and herds, travelling in large canvas-covered waggons drawn by some 16 oxen. Among these was little Paul Kruger, who at the age of nine followed his father's cattle over stretches of plain and veld. It would take too long to tell the romantic story of their wanderings, their conflicts with the natives, their hardships, their sufferings. Heroically they pushed on to Thaba 'Nchu, near the present town of Bloemfontein in the Orange River Colony. A party, under the leadership of Hendrik Potgieter was the first to arrive. Leaving there a little encampment, Potgieter and eleven comrades went off to explore the country to the north. They returned to find that a number of their party had been massacred, by a band of native warriors, known as the Matabili. There was no time to be lost. Potgieter selected a suitable hill near by, lashed fifty waggons together, filled the open spaces with thorn trees, and with forty brave settlers awaited attack. They had not long to wait. The Matabili rushed upon the laager with loud hisses, to be received by a deadly fire from the defenders. Again and again they rushed on, regardless of death, and with loud war-whoops tried to tear the waggons apart; but the Dutch defended themselves by keeping up a rapid fire, the women loading spare guns for their use, until at last the Matabili had to flee. But they had carried off the emigrants' cattle and left them in great distress. Fortunately a fresh band of emigrants had just arrived under the leadership of Gerrit Maritz, and the two leaders determined to attack the Matabili chief in his kraal. One hundred and seven farmers mustered for the purpose. At break of day one morning, they surprised the Matabili warriors, who took to flight, only to be hunted by the Dutch farmers, till the sun was high in the heavens and 400 of them lay dead. Then the colonists burnt the kraal and returned in triumph to Thaba 'Nchu with 7000 cattle. They formed a camp near the Vet river and called it Winburg, in memory of their victory. Fresh bands of emigrants were now constantly arriving to take possession of this new land to the south of the river Vaal, north of the Orange river, known to-day as the Orange River Colony.

One specially large party arrived under the leadership of Pieter Retief, whose tragic fate must now be told in the story of Natal.

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