8. The Great Trek-1: 1836-1837 – The Trans-Orange

Chapter 8 in the series WHO STOLE THE LAND?

— The Great Trek is one of the most epic sagas in Western History. It gave the English language the word “Trek”. In its original Afrikaans, the word can either mean “to pull”, or “to move from one place to another”. Now put it into The Online Etymology Dictionary and look at what it states to be the origin:

…to travel or migrate by ox wagon, from Afrikaans trek, ….Especially in reference to the Groot Trek (1835 and after) of more than 10,000 Boers, who, discontent with the English colonial authorities, left Cape Colony and went north and north-east.

Now put the word “Trek” into Google Translate as an English word, and enjoy what happens. One of the twelve definitions of the noun is “odyssey”. Select Spanish as the output language and it correctly states the Spanish to be “emigrar”. The Great Trek was indeed an emigration odyssey of epic proportions such as to define the word “trek” (image on left).

American readers will realise that this is how the television series Star Trek got its name, though the 1978-1979 series Battlestar Galactica is a much better parallel. In the latter series the world of the much tried people has been destroyed and they are fleeing in search of a new home with an all-powerful Empire in pursuit. That, in a nutshell, is indeed the Great Trek, with the Afrikaners as “the People” and Britain as the “all-powerful Empire”. Montana-born actor, Dirk Benedict, played the young hero “Starbuck”. Indeed, many of the blond-haired and blue-eyed Afrikaner men on the Great Trek were called “Dirk”, including one of their young heroes, Dirk Uys.

♦ The Situation Outside the Cape Colony in 1836

The events of Chapter 7 had now played themselves out.

⊗ Immediately north of the Orange River, near its confluence with the Vaal River, lived the main body of the emigrant Griqua people served by the London Missionary Society.

⊗ King Moshesh reigned over his refugee South Sotho-based nation in the Western Drakensberg served by the French missionary, Casalis.

⊗ Sekonyela and his Ba’Tlokwa lived to the north of Moshesh on the same Drakensberg range, served by James Allison of the Wesleyan (Methodist) Church.

⊗ Moroko of the Ba’Rolong was situated at Thaba’Nchu served by Methodist missionary Rev. James Archbell, succeeding Samuel Broadbent who had dealt with Sifonello, Moroko’s father.

⊗ Surviving, isolated and in permanent terror of Mzilikazi, on the Coal River tributary of the Vet River lived the only independent Black leader in the future Free State, Chief Makwana of the Ba’Taung, with no resident missionary.

⊗ At the Bethulie of today, at the confluence of the Caledon and Orange Rivers, Chief Lepui and his small band of refugee Ba’Tlhaping lived at the mission station started by French missionary, Jean Pierre Pellissier.

We also need to mention three Khoi-related groups, mostly refugees from Mzilikazi, who had settled1 in the mountains near either Moshesh or Sekonyela:

⊗ The first was a group of Koranna under Gert Taaijbosch who settled at Merumetsu (near the present Excelsior). These hills are today still known quite appropriately as the Korannaberg.

⊗ A group of mixed White and Khoi descent under Carolus Baatje settled at the Platberg mission station, now Ladybrand.

⊗ The third Khoi-related group was the remnant Griqua of Pieter Davids. Equipped with horses and guns, they had previously stolen Mzilikazi’s cattle and had been practically destroyed by that King, who recovered his cattle in a retaliatory night attack. Davids sought refuge at Lishuane near Sekonyela. Mzilikazi had somehow added Davids’ daughter “Truy” (Geertruyda) to his harem.

Sekonyela, in particular, had welcomed these Khoi men, because they had horses and guns, two technologies of great interest to him. He would adopt their horse riding, guns, and Western clothes. This is an important point; be sure to remember it.

Make a particular mental note of the following Koranna tactic, described by Stow2. We shall meet with this characteristic subterfuge again at a key point in the story:

The Koranas, expecting the avengers would be upon their trail, continued their flight, and overtook, on the way, a party of poor Basutu migrating from the north to join Moshesh,…. With these unfortunates, the cunning and treacherous Koranas… left some of their plunder. The Matabili, overtaking the unsuspecting Basutu, and finding a portion of the stolen cattle in their possession, butchered in cold blood some ten to twelve hundred of these wretched victims to the baseness of the Koranas,…

⊗ Further to the northwest, beyond the Vaal River, at what is now Kuruman, there still lived the southernmost of the ba’Tswana peoples, the main body of the Ba’Tlhaping tribe. They were also under the ministration of the London Missionary Society. To their east and northeast was the no-man’s-land of Mzilikazi.

⊗ Across the Vaal River, in the Magaliesberg, west of the present Pretoria, Ba’Tswana chief Mokgatle was still hiding in his cave in the Cashan Mountains (now the Magaliesberg), also in Mzilikazi’s territory.

⊗ Along the East Coast, Shaka had effectively cleared the region south of him of people all the way to the Mzimvubu River in the south and to the Drakensberg mountain range in the west. He had been murdered by his half-brother Dingane, who had then succeeded him. The third of the three half-brothers will enter our story in due course. We repeat here the map provided at the end of Chapter 7, showing the demographic disposition described here.

♦ Early Europeans in the Trans-Orange

As regards the white Christian Afrikaners of the Frontier, there are two significant bits of information relating to the country north of the Orange River:

First of all, at some point between around 1820 and the arrival of the French Missionaries in 1833, some fourteen or fifteen Afrikaner families settled on the west bank of the Caledon River, in the area northeast of the present Smithfield, at the foot of what is now known as Burnet’s Kop. They named it Zevenfontein (Seven Fountains). In 1835 they were called up for Commando service by the British Governor of the Cape against the amaXhosa invasion. When they returned to their place on the Caledon, they found it had been occupied3 by the French Missionaries who had led some refugee Ba’Hurutsi and Ba’Rolong to the spot and had renamed it to Beersheba. It was located a considerable distance from Moshesh’s kingdom, but the Missionaries styled themselves as functioning under the authority of Moshesh.

Secondly, before the start of the Great Trek, some of the farmers from the Colesberg district of the Cape Colony would graze their cattle across the Orange River. Some settled permanently, because there were no other people north of the Griqua beyond itinerant bands of San Bushmen. One Afrikaner, born in the Cape Colony around 1784, Joachim Scholtz, passed away4 on Saturday 8 March 1834 next to the Kromellenboogspruit and was buried there. This is today the Fauresmith district of the Free State Province. The British Government of the Cape Colony was good enough to keep this death notice as evidence for us in their archives. It is independent “Black&White” evidence of the resident presence of specifically the White Afrikaner in what was to become the Free State, between the Orange and Vaal Rivers, BEFORE the Great Trek.

⇐ At left, the 1834 Death Notice of Joachim Scholtz. Click on the image to see a more legible enlargement.

In the rest of this chapter, we follow the Afrikaners on their epic Great Trek odyssey into this extended world of skeleton strewn plains, cannibals in the mountains, and mighty Black armies to the east and the west. Shaka’s famous “horns of the bull” tactic, with its double outflanking and center-punch maneuvers, had given both the Zulu and Matabele armies endless victories. Whoever confronted the Kings of these armies was bound to suffer.

♦ Back in the Cape Colony – 1836

We left the Cape Colony (in Chapter 5) in a state of enormous vexation at the blundering idiocy of Lord Glenelg in London. Hatred of the lying and conniving London Missionary Society could be cut with a knife. The British Settlers in the East Cape were livid and made their feelings clear via various letters and publications. Robert Godlonton published his Irruption of the Kafir Hordes, which included a scathing letter5 by Governor, Benjamin D’Urban.

…I too have observed with regret….the dangerous efforts of some [he is referring to John Philip and the London Missionary Society]… to degrade the character of their fellow-countrymen, in defence of those of a savage and treacherous enemy; nor do they scruple even to pass over unnoticed, or to hold as trifling, the almost unequalled sufferings of the former in the barbarous invasion which laid the frontier districts in blood and ashes; while they earnestly invite all commiseration for the case of the latter. Whatever may be the real and ultimate object of this perversion of facts and inferences, its manifest and immediate tendency is, at home, to deceive and mislead His Majesty’s government and the people of England

The British Settlers at least had relations in Britain and thereby had a little blood influence in London. The Dutch-German-French descended Afrikaner Boer (farmer) population of the Frontier districts, the “British Subjects”, had nowhere to turn. In this respect, we turn to the famous Canadian historian Theal, who wrote6 in 1894:

It is not a pleasant admission for an Englishman to make, but it is the truth, that it would be difficult to find in any part of the world a people with so much cause to be discontented as the old inhabitants of the Cape Colony for many years after the fall of the ministry of the earl of Liverpool [1827]. There was no sympathy whatever shown towards them by the authorities in England, in fact there was a decided antipathy, which was fostered by the so-called philanthropic societies, then at the height of their power. The most outrageous stories concerning the colonists were circulated by men who bore the title of Christian teachers — and nothing was too gross to be believed in England…

These aggrieved people were preparing to leave in dismay the country in which their people had lived for the previous 184 years, 64 of those years having been on the frontier. Interestingly, the start of the Great Trek (1836) is exactly halfway between the founding of the Cape Settlement and the year 2020, the date of this present document.

♦A Unique Man

There was one rather unique man who would not sit around; he was inclined to do things. His name was Louis Trichardt, grandson of a 1742 Swedish immigrant to the Cape by the name of Carl Gustav Tregard. In the early 1830s he was based in the Tarka along with the author’s wife’s Jordaan family (See Chapter 5). He was certainly friends with another leader in the area, Hendrik Potgieter. Trichardt had settled in 1834 on the upper Kei River under amaXhosa King Hintsa along with the late Rharhabe’s secondary son, Mnyaluza (King Ngqika’s paternal uncle, known as “Jalousa” to the white Frontiersmen). Peires7 addresses this and quotes reports that some of the amaXhosa with Mnyaluza sent a message back to their kin,

…Louis Trichardt and Umjaloosie are our chiefs: we cannot come back

British military leader on the Frontier, Harry Smith, was convinced that Trichardt had incited the amaXhosa to the War of 1834 and he therefore put a bounty8 of 500 head of cattle on his head. Forgive the sarcasm here, but the fact that the British Army had given a Xhosa Prince a headwound9 could not possibly have been the reason for the war. There just had to be an Afrikaner to blame somewhere, and one with good relations with the amaXhosa King Hintsa was readily available in the person of Louis Trichardt.

It would seem that, when his protector, Hintsa, became involved in the war in 1835, Trichardt left Hintsa’s country for the north. British parties would have the reader believe that Trichardt and Mnyaluza left jointly, as per the “message” above. Mnyaluza, along with most of his people, would meet their deaths10 at the hand of Moshesh of the Ba’Sotho soon after, but the same British sources mysteriously neglect to explain how Trichardt was not present at the event. Trichardt’s real story is, in fact, far more intriguing. But we shall get to that. We first need to meet some more men.

♦ Andries Hendrik “Hendrik” Potgieter

Andries Hendrik Potgieter was a natural born leader among the difficult and tough cattle ranchers of the Tarka. He had married into the wider Jordaan family of the author’s wife. He had personally had run-ins with Maphasa, the Aba’Thembo chief across the Kei River to the east, who had been stealing horses from the ranchers. Hendrik, a six-foot two man with rusty hair and a love of blue clothes, was not a man to be trifled with. He could make tough decisions under huge pressure, and we shall see that demonstrated shortly. He wanted absolutely nothing to do with anything British ever again in his life.

He would eventually be the longest surviving of the original Trekker leaders.

⇐ The Photo on the left is purported to be of Potgieter and it is said to have been taken of him at Delagoa Bay in around 1852, a date that seems too early to this author.

♦ Piet Retief

Retief was a rather different kind of Frontier Afrikaner. A rather more sophisticated man, he was not born on the Frontier. He had had business interests in Grahamstown and had lived west of Grahamstown on a farm he named Mooimeisiesfontein (Pretty Girl Fountain), the site of the present little village of Riebeeck East. Around 1832 he moved north to the Winterberg area. He had been utterly ruined by the 1835 War with the amaXhosa and by Lord Glenelg’s conduct.

During 1836 he entered into an exchange of letters with Magistrate (later Lieutenant-Governor) Stockenström who showed zero ability at understanding the predicament of the farmers. That the British Settlers were as one with the suffering Afrikaners, is made clear by the signatures on the Address of the Winterberg and Koonap Farmers given to Stockenström by Piet Retief11 in late 1836. This painful document was signed by such British Settlers as Robert Wesson, Robert Sully, W. Potter, John Vaughan, William Bear, R.J. Painter, and James Edwards. This author suggests the reader also notes Stockenström’s disgraceful response. This author is quite convinced that it reveals more about Stockenström’s character then he likely ever wished to bare.

It is for a good reason that Robert Godlonton, editor of the Grahamstown Journal newspaper, described12 Retief as

one of the most intelligent men on that part of the frontier.

This author suggests, while the reader is perusing that comment, he or she keeps reading that report by Piet Retief that immdediately follows Godlonton’s comment. It describes what the people in the Colony lived through with the amaXhosa at the foot of the Winterberg/Amatole in the 1834-1835 War. They basically lost everything and the Minister of War and Colonies, Lord Glenelg, declared himself their enemy to the joy of the preening John Philip and his London Missionary Society (see again Chapter 5).

This, then, is the background to Piet Retief’s departure. He would take one more action before inspanning (yoking his oxen, typically sixteen to twenty to a wagon) and leaving, but that will be recited below in due course.

♦ Piet Uys

Closer to the Coast, on the Kromme River near the present town of Humansdorp, lived another remarkable man. He was Piet Uys. According to Captain (later “Sir”) James Edward Alexander he was13a fine specimen of the manly character“. Theal14 describes him as follows:

Pieter Uys was one of the best stamp of man to be found in South Africa. He had not the advantage of a university training or even of a good school education, but he had the capacity of drawing information from every source within his reach, and putting it to the best use. He could write a letter or draw up a document in clear and concise Cape Dutch, and he was acquainted with what was going on over the sea. His upright conduct, his religious convictions, and his kindly disposition caused him to be held in general esteem, not only by his Dutch-speaking neighbours, but by the English settlers of Albany, with whom he was brought into close contact during the Kaffir war of 1835.

Uys was a man of intensely independent convictions and lived in admiration of the United States of America. This would eventually show in more ways than one. It would be his father who would be the titular head of their particular trek out of the Colony, but everyone knew that the man who made it all happen was Piet Uys. After all, it was he who had been on the earlier “Commission Trek” to Natal, described at the conclusion of Chapter 5.

♦ The Trichardt Trek – Pathfinder of the Voortrekkers

By very early 1836 Louis Trichardt had crossed the Orange River. His trek consisted of seven male heads of family, their wives, and a total of thirty-four children. There was also a single young man. Another Trek, under Jan van Rensburg, an elephant hunter, joined them. That trek had nine male heads of family, their wives, and thirty children. They also had with them a single young man. Theal15 gives their detailed composition. They traveled together in thirty ox-wagons.

By sheer luck they passed apparently unnoticed between the armies of Mzilikazi and Dingane and reached the Soutpansberg Mountains, just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, in May of 1836. Here they found Coenraad de Buys who we have met before. He appeared in Chapters 4 and 5 as the 7-foot giant ancestral cousin of the present author. He also features as the “White Giant” in the series Black and White South African Allies, where he appears in Part 2 and Part 4. He knew and understood the functioning of the amaXhosa system. He clearly preferred living “off the grid”, and his mere existence seemed to be a vexation to British authority, as may be read in the articles referred to here. Around 1818-1819 he had moved north, far beyond the Orange River. At the start of the Great Trek he lived at the southern foot of the Soutpansberg Mountains, west of the Venda people, surrounded by his extended clan of mixed-blood “Buys people”. If Trichardt did not know de Buys personally, then he certainly at least knew of him before departing. Trichardt temporarily settled at this point near the present town that bears his name, now politically renamed to Makhado.

Soon after arrival in that area, the Van Rensburg Trek split off to go hunting further to the east and was never seen again. They would have entered the western limits of the territory of the vha’Tsonga. Trichardt was visited by Hendrik Potgieter, Charl Celliers (whom we meet a little later below), and some others later that year. The record of that particular expedition, kept by Bronkhorst, will be treated below, because it is important in the context of Who was Where in 1836.

On 2 September 1837 the Trichardt party set out16 for what is now Maputo (formerly Lourenço Marques in Moçambique), then very tenuously under the control of the Portuguese. The basis of this was that the Trekkers in general would need a seaport not controlled by the British. However, when they crossed the mountains southeastward into lower terrain (in places as low as 600 feet above sea-level), they unwittingly entered malaria country. They all contracted the disease. Had it been winter, they would have made the trip in safety. It would be another 42 years before Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran would discover the parasitic protozoan causing the often fatal fever. It would be 1902 before Ronald Ross of the British Army in India would pin down a mosquito as the carrier.

Trichardt’s trek was well received by the Portuguese commander of the Lourenço Marques fort in very early April 1838. However, one by one the trek members succumbed to malaria fever, including Louis Trichardt, one of his children, and his wife, this author’s ancestral sister, Martha Elizabeth Susanna Bouwer. The last entry in his contiguous diary simply reads,

My beloved and dearest troth was taken from me forever.

The very last entry was several months later when he noted that he is quietly commemorating his birthday. Trichardt’s diary17 is publicly available, written in his somewhat awkward Dutch.

The remnants of the Trichardt Trek returned by sea to the Cape Colony. Trichardt’s son, Carolus, survived and stayed at first in Moçambique to become an accomplished explorer. He insisted that he visited the Victoria Falls many years before the famed explorer and failed missionary, David Livingstone, “discovered” them.

♦ The Great Trek starts in Earnest – The Potgieter Trek

When life collapsed at the hand of Lord Glenelg in the Tarka in 1835, Andries Hendrik Potgieter made the decision to leave his tortured land. A collection of Trekkers from Colesberg, led by the true “fire-and-brimstone” Charl Cilliers (left), joined them soon afterwards. Cilliers was a man who combined the gun and the Bible in a way no one else would. He was the human embodiment of the proverb “Praise the Lord and pass the ammo.” Also in the trek was the English schoolteacher, McDonald.

They certainly knew of Chief Moroko of the Ba’Rolong at Thaba’Nchu, for reasons we shall shortly learn. However, they bypassed Chief Moroko, heading north to the kraal of chief Makwana of the Ba’Taung clan – The People of the Lion, who received them hospitably.  Potgieter now entered into an agreement for land with Chief Makwana18. Makwana declared that he owned the land between the Vet River (near which Winburg is today located) and the Vaal River (the Ky-Gariep of the Khoi), and agreed that, if Potgieter would protect him from the ravages of Mzilikazi, pay him a herd of cattle, and leave him a reserve of land where he already was, he would trade Potgieter that land between the two rivers. With these arrangements established, members of the Trek spread out along the Vaal River and they restored their cattle by means of the grazing in the area.

Author’s observation:

It is to be noted that Potgieter (1) made an agreement of friendship with the Ba’Rolong chief, Moroko, and (2) fairly bought the land between the Vet and Vaal rivers from Chief Makwana on the basis of a treaty. The arrangement with the Ba’Rolong would literally remain up to 1994. Many people would wonder in the 20th century why a patch of territory in the heart of the Free State would be allotted as a Tswana Homeland, so far from any other ba’Tswana. The answer lies in this arrangement of 1836. The Ba’Rolong are a Tswana people and “a deal is a deal”. The Afrikaner would forever respect this particular group of Ba’Rolong. We shall soon see why. This author believes it was the positive influence of Methodist missionary Archbell.

The above arrangements were all concluded before 24 or 25 May 1836, because on one of those two dates an expedition set off to meet with Louis Trichardt. They knew he was somewhere to the unknown north. The expedition consisted of Hendrik Potgieter, Charl Celliers, Jan Bronkhorst, and eight other men with a light supply wagon. Bronkhorst was good enough to leave us a description19 of the expedition and the next several paragraphs are based on that report. He explains how they traveled 33.5 days to Trichardt. Most usefully, he explains how they took 18 days to “Rhenosterpoort at the Rondeberg“. He states that “At the Rhenoster Poort we met the first Nation, called Mantatees“.

Author’s observation:

1. It is instructive to note that the expedition met no people on the Highveld north of Makwana, all the way to north of the present Witbank and Bronkhorstspruit. The Central Prairie of the South Africa of today was thus void of people beyond just Makwana, at least partly as a result of the Mfecane (See again Chapter 7).

2. In the 21st century, the lower reaches of Rhenosterpoort (Rhino Gorge) are under water in the form of the western extremity of the Loskop Dam. Where that gorge opens up onto the much lower frost-free Bushveld below, one enters countryside where, in the 20th century, the local Black population was largely amaNdebele. See the map at the head of this chapter for their location.

3. The people to whom Bronkhorst refers as “Mantatee” were either amaNdbele (an early Nguni people) or some remnant post-Mfecane Ba’Pedi, who largely lived a little further to the north before the Mfecane. It is very unlikely that they were Ba’Tlokwa, the “real” Mantatee, who lived much further southeast in the Mountains under Sekonyela. Based on the smelting Bronkhorst describes, this author believes the “Nation” to have been Ba’Pedi. The amaNdebele are famous for their masonry, not for iron working.

Meanwhile, back south, some of the Trekkers decided to split off from the main Potgieter Trek and move out across the area they had purchased. One party, composed mostly of the Liebenberg family, moved close to the Vaal River. Over the same period, Potgieter’s expedition explored into the present Botswana, Zimbabwe and Moçambique before concluding their business with Trichardt.

♦ Nightmare on the Vaal River.

The expedition arrived back south of the Vaal River on 2 September 1836 to a nightmare. At this point Bronkhorst’s report becomes very difficult to follow for very good reason. Several encampments of Trekkers had been attacked by Mzilikazi and Bronkhorst’s own son, Adolf, had been killed while defending one of the encampments. So, we turn instead to Theal’s summary20, from which we compile the following picture:

Field-Cornet Stephanus Erasmus had gone on a hunting trip north of the Vaal River with his three sons, Piet Bekker and his son, along with Jan Claasen and Carel Kruger. They had with them five wagons and a number of assistants of mixed blood. One evening, when Erasmus and one of his sons returned from hunting, they found the wagons surrounded by by five or six hundred Matebele. The other two sons of Erasmus had been killed along with Carel Kruger. The Bekkers and Claasen had been out in a different direction. The two Bekkers survived, but Claasen was killed.

⇐ Matabele Warrior

Erasmus and son rode hard for the nearest encampment of Trekkers, five hours away by horse. There, they solicited the help of eleven men and started out the next morning to the scene of the original crime. However, on the way there, they ran into a “division of the Matabele army”. Hopelessly outnumbered, they turned back to give notice to those at the encampment. They reached them with just enough time in hand to draw up a laager, before the Matabele were upon them.

Author’s observation:

Laager: the classic Afrikaner wagon circle. In continental European terms it means a “strong point”. In South Africa it specifically means a wagon circle lashed together, usually with dangerously needled thorn branches wedged between and under the wagons – a mobile wooden fortification for a citizen’s militia, serving as a point from which to fire massive slugs from muzzle-loaded smooth-bore elephant guns, each tenderly referred to as “Suzanna”, abbreviated to “Sanna” (E: “Suzie”). These men knew about guns, lead, powder, and were deadly shots at age ten. They knew what a field of fire was. They had grown up on the frontier and were hunters to a man.

The Trekkers kept the Matabele assault at bay for six hours from 10 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. Only when one third of the Matabele lay dead, did the enemy break off the assault. Inside the laager of 35 men of fighting age, Bronkhorst’s son, Adolf, lay dead. Unfortunately a number of men of mixed blood, along with a youth named Christian Harmse, were murdered outside the laager, having gone to fetch firewood.

Meanwhile another division of the Matabele army had gone up along the Vaal River, had surprised the encampment of the Liebenbergs, and had killed every man and woman. This included Schoolmaster McDonald, beyond the other twenty-four people. All children were killed, except three who were taken as a “prize for the king”— two girls and a boy.

All of the Trekkers near the Vaal River then consolidated under Hendrik Potgieter and Charl Celliers and drew up a laager at a hill near the present town of Heilbron. It would subsequently come to be known as Vegkop (Fight/Battle Hill).

♦ The Battle of Vegkop

On 29 October 1836, the Vegkop laager had 33 male trekkers and 7 boys who could handle a gun. However, every man typically had two guns and their wives and helpers knew how to cast lead balls and slugs. Most importantly, they knew how to rapidly reload the guns, which was not a simple task. We now turn to Bronkhorst and Charl Celliers for what happened next.

Having been warned by the Ba’Taung of Makwana that the Matabele army was on its way, the 33 grown men, led by Hendrik Potgieter, rode out early in the morning. They found the enemy rapidly approaching under leadership of Kalipi at a distance of about one to one-and-half hours by horse. They attempted to parley, but with no effect; the Matabele charged. The Trekkers dismounted and discharged a few volleys before turning for the defenses of the Vegkop laager. The women and children had prepared a massive amount of ammunition for their Sannas.

They did the last strengthening of the laager of 50 wagons, held a prayer service led by Celliers, and then put the women and children in seven wagons in the centre of the wagon circle with instructions to keep quiet. Then the Matabele arrived in the three classic horns-of-the-bull formation that had served the two Zulu armies so well. Amazingly, Mzilikazi’s army simply sat down at 500 yards from the laager, slaughtered two of the Trekker’s cattle, and ate the meat raw.

In the camp, the instruction was that all would hold fire until Charl Celliers fired the first round. That discipline held under immensely frightening circumstances. Realising they could not just sit there, the Trekkers waved a flag about on a tall whip-stick. That worked; the horns of the bull closed about the laager and the Matabele charged. When they were thirty yards away, Celliers fired, and the rest of the Trekkers—33 men and 7 boys—unleashed hell on the Matabele. It is said that some of the women also took up firing at the Matabele. Inside the laager was the 12-year old Paul Kruger, who would later be president of the Transvaal Republic.

The Matabele’s efforts at penetrating the laager were so intense that the ring of wagons was pulled six inches to the outward, but they nevertheless failed in the endeavour. And all the time they died in droves. When they realised they could not physically get at the Trekkers, they launched a ballistic barrage of 1,172 assegais (spears) at the laager, the assegais descending on the laager at a steep angle. This is when most of the casualties happened on Trekker side.

They broke off the attack and retreated when 430 lay dead outside the wagon circle. Inside the laager, Henrik Potgieter’s brother, Nicolaas, and Piet Botha lay dead. Twelve others were wounded, including Charl Celliers. The sail of the wagon that Celliers was on had 72 assegai holes. The problem was, the Matabele had made off with all the Trekkers’ livestock; they had absolutely nothing except their wagons and horses, of which one had been killed. The horses, fortunately, had been ridden into the laager. The trekkers had no meat, no milk, and no draft oxen to take them back to safety. They were stuck and in danger of starving. If this were a war, then they had just won a battle in a war they were busy losing. But the immediate victory was a sweet one and Kalipi had been wounded21. There would be no more attacks by Mzilikazi on the Highveld Prairie. Strategically, he had been checked…. twice in succession.

The events could not go unpunished, however. To quote Moodie22, with reference to the earlier attacks on the Vaal River,

Not even, satisfied with stabbing their welted broadspears into the bosoms of unresisting women, or piercing the bodies of infants who clung to them, they cut off the breasts of some of the ‘women, and took several of the poor little helpless babes by the heels and dashed out their brains against the iron bands of the wagon wheels. It was no wonder, therefore, that atrocities like these should be visited with a fearful retribution.

♦ Gratitude and Consolidation

Hendrik Potgieter sent his brother Herman23 back to Thaba’Nchu (above) to secure help, food, and draft oxen. And here is where Chief Moroko and his Ba’Rolong of Thaba’Nchu earned the eternal gratitude of the Afrikaner as a nation. Rev. Archbell and Moroko both provided draft oxen to bring the Potgieter-Celliers Trek back to Thaba’Nchu. Mrs. Archbell provided corn and millet. Moroko treated them with great kindness, providing them with corn. He even lent them some cows to provide milk for their children. Those Ba’Rolong still live at that spot to this day, at the foot of the Black Mountain, Thaba’Nchu. The name of Moroko must always be remembered by men of honour. Every year, for all of his subsequent life, Hendrik Potgieter sent the Ba’Rolong chief a letter of thanks and a present24 . Such things need to be remembered in the annals of nations. Hereby confused South Africans can understand why there was until 1994 a small patch of Tswana Homeland in the heart of the Free State. After all, Paul Kruger had been one of the desperately hungry children who were helped by the Ba’Rolong and their chief Moroko.

♦ Gerrit Maritz and the First Democratic Election in South Africa

At this crucial juncture, the next major trek arrived under the leadership of another outstanding man by the name of Gerrit Maritz (on left). At this time, this author’s own Myburgh ancestor was a wagon builder in the Achter-Sneeuberg in the district of Graaff-Reinet. However, the much-respected Gerrit Maritz was by far the leading man in this trade in the huge district. During the early part of 1836 he had built a whole collection of wagons and had now departed the Cape Colony with a large trek of people from that district. Being a devout man, he had brought along his brother-in-law, Erasmus Smit25 as lay preacher. The formal Dutch Reformed Church in Cape Town was wholly opposed to the Great Trek and refused to provide ordained ministers for the Trek, not that they had any spare to give.

The difficulty for the Dutch-born Smit was two-fold. Firstly, he was not an ordained minister. The Trekkers may well have seen their way around that limitation, but he was also originally a missionary working with the hated London Missionary Society at Bethelsdorp, a fact that did not help. He had moved to Colesberg in 1814, then the Bushmen Mission Station of Hephzibah. While they respected his services in the Cloth, he would never quite be accepted. He was also a rather fretful character who did not exactly inspire people with confidence. His enduring contribution to history would be his diary, which he scrupulously kept. Only the second part of it, relating to events in Natal, has survived.

The area of the Modder River now became the gathering point for all new Trekkers. Here, on 2 December 1836, they democratically elected a first Citizens Council26 comprising seven men, including Gerrit Maritz, Hendrik Potgieter, and Jan Bronkhorst. Though likely not appreciated as such at the time, this was the first Democratic Election in the history of the Continent of Africa.

The first order of business was punishing Mzilikazi.

♦ The Battle of Mosega

The following description is based on the work of Theal27 and on a superbly researched article28 by J.J. Retief in the South African Military History Journal, to which the present author has added some geography.

Mosega was situated some 10km or 6 miles south of the present town of Zeerust in the present Northwest Province, previously the Western Transvaal. In January 1835, three American missionaries, Smith, Venable, and Lindley, had set out to Mzilikazi’s city at Mosega to found a new mission. They rebuilt the old mission station originally created by the French Missionaries, Rolland, Lemue and Pellissier, to whom we referred in Chapter 7. Today the farm that occupies the spot is still called Sendelingspos (Missionary Post), as is the nearby railway siding. When Mzilikazi advanced on Mosega, the French Missionaries fled. The Americans had not made much headway since their arrival. Their message of peace did not sit well with Mzilikazi. The missionaries were suffering with fever and Wilson’s wife had already died in September 1836. They certainly were not aware of the plans being made several hundred miles to the south in late 1836.

At Thaba’Nchu and on the Modder River, Potgieter, Maritz and Celliers were laying their plans for a surprise attack on Mosega. A Ba’Rolong chief, Matlabe, who had previously been taken into Mzilikazi’s army, had somehow made his way back to his own Rolong people at Thaba’Nchu and was offering his services to lead the Trekker Commando to Mosega. Moroko offered some 60 of his Ba’Rolong. And then the Griqua chief, Pieter Davids, offered forty mounted men, his hope being to recover his daughter, Truy (see above). A handful of mounted Koranna also joined.

By the help of Matlabe, the Commando followed a roundabout route, crossing the Vaal River at the aptly named Kommandodrif (Commando Ford) near where the town of Makwassie is today. They completely surprised the Matabele at Mosega at daybreak of 17 January 1837. Mzilikazi’s military leader, Kalipi, was the master of the place, but he was away at the time. The Matabele never produced a credible defence and the Commando hunted them for half the day, burnt the whole place, and then returned with between 6000 and 7000 head of cattle. With them came the distressed American missionaries, whose lives would have been forfeit if they had stayed. Some 400 Matabele died in the battle. Two of the Ba’Rolong were killed, one while trying to rob a Matabele hut and the other by friendly fire. There were no other casualties on the Commando side.

Potgieter now moved the entire collective Great Trek to a spot on the Vet River, to which he gave the name of Winburg, commemorating the victory at Mosega.

Author’s Observation:

While Mzilikazi was not yet finished as a regional power, it was clear that he had lost control in the region between the Orange River and the Vaal River. His reign of terror over that region was over. The Trekker Citizens Council had brought the Rule of Law to what would eventually become the Free State, and they could legitimately claim sovereignty over the region between the Vet River and Vaal River, west of the recognized dominions of Moshesh and Sekonyela and their vassals.

♦ The Men of Letters arrive: Piet Retief and Piet Uys

Hendrik Potgieter was quite convinced that, wherever there was sea, the British were certain to try and set up a colony and oppress his people again. His eyes were set on the northern interior of the country where he wanted to continue his life as a cattle rancher under open blue skies.

By contrast, Piet Retief and Piet Uys were both convinced that they needed a port in order to be able to trade freely. The verdant land that Uys had seen a few years before, south of the Zulus, was the goal of both men. They thought it would be possible to retain good relations with the Cape Colony. They both completely underestimated the extreme cynicism of the British Empire. What Britain had done to its own settlers in the Suurveld should have been a clue. Ultimately, Potgieter would be proven correct; but only after hundreds had died by treachery and Britain had trashed their freedom yet again. The new Cape Governor, George Napier, would ensure that.

Piet Retief left the Colony after publishing his Manifesto of the Emigrant Farmers in the Grahamstown Journal, the newspaper of his friend, Robert Godlonton (left), who also published the key book, Irruption of the Kafir Hordes (see reference 5 below). Retief’s Manifesto29 as per the Grahamstown Journal of 2 February 1837 effectively became the political basis of and justification for the Great Trek. We provide it HERE; please do read it. He arrived near Thaba’Nchu in April 1837 with 108 souls from the Winterberg where he had been a much-respected Field-Cornet in the 1835 War with the amaXhosa.

And then there was the pregnant Anna Elisabeth Steenkamp, niece of Retief, who also made her way across the Orange River on 5 May 1837 with her young son and daughters and a very sick husband. They travelled in four wagons. They also stopped with Chief Moroko. When they travelled further north toward the Sand River, she recorded30 the following about that region, totally ignorant of the reports by the French Missionaries about skeleton-strewn plains:

 above all we were in a country destitute of wood, but full of deserted kraals, and here and there heaps of bones of tribes murdered and destroyed by Masilikatzi.

They eventually reached the other Trekkers on the Sand River on 24 August 1837, after four long months of struggles and illness.

The next major trek was that of Piet Uys with over a hundred souls, all relations of his in one way or another. He did not share Potgieter’s disdain of all matters British. Even as they were crossing the Orange River on 7 August 1837, he wrote31 to Governor Benjamin D’Urban, whom he very much respected,

It is not our fault that we leave our native land ; we have begged and prayed for a change, and none is made. We therefore emigrate, but we shall, notwithstanding, not yet separate ourselves from our respected governor, who endeavoured to do us good; and whenever we can be of any assistance, we shall not fail to afford it.

Retief similarly respected D’Urban, but the Governor had been dismissed by the misguided Lord Glenelg on 1 May 1837. D’urban was in a care-taking role pending the arrival of his successor, the Afrikaner-hating George Napier.

Fully aware of, and inspired by the American drive for independence from Imperial Britain in the 1770s, Uys and 169 of his supporters drew up their own Manifesto on 14 August 1837 on the Caledon River32. One of the key points read,

We purpose to establish our settlement on the same principles of liberty as those adopted by the United States of America, carrying into effect, as far as practicable, our Burgher Laws

♦ The Situation in the Trans-Orange by late 1837

The graphic immediately below shows the situation outside the Cape Colony, near the end of 1837 (click on image for an enlarged version). There would still be contention about the eastern part of the Trans-Orange region between the Orange and Vaal Rivers in the decades to follow, and Britain would get involved, but the basic essentials of the future picture had been put in place by the events described above. Here we terminate our first Great Trek chapter, as the focus of the Trek moves north across the Vaal River and east across the Drakensberg. We shall return to this Trans-Orange region later in the series.

—Harry Booyens


1. G. Theal, Basutoland Records – Copies of Official Documents (etc), Vol. 2, (1883), pp. xv-xvi. More can be read about the Koranna’s move to the east in Stow’s The Native Races of South Africa, (1905), pp. 307-315

2. G. Stow, The Native Races of South Africa, (1905), p.311

3. G. Theal, History of the Emigrant Boers in South Africa, (1888), pp. 56-57

4. Death Notice: Joachim Scholtz, Joachim’s son, Probate Records of the Master of the High Court, 1834-1989; access via the Familysearch service of the Church of Latter Day Saints, Utah, USA

5. R. Godlonton, Irruption of the Kafir Hordes (etc.), (1836), pp. 207-208

6. G. Theal, South Africa, (1894), p. 175

7. J.B. Peires, The House of Phalo, (1982), p. 118

8. G. Theal, History of South Africa since September 1795, Vol. 2, (1908), p. 270 (In later Theal volumes, he removes the statement about the bounty)

9. G. Theal, History of South Africa since September 1795, Vol.2, (1908), p. 89

10. J.B. Peires, The House of Phalo, (1981), p. 119

11. J. Chase, Natal, a re-print of all authentic notices (etc), Part 1, (1843), pp. 56-58

12. R. Godlonton, Irruption of the Kafir Hordes (etc.), (1836), p. 43

13. J. Alexander, Excursions in Western Africa: And Narrative (etc), Vol. 2, (1840), p. 42

14. G. Theal, History of South Africa, from 1795-1872, Vol.2, Fourth Edition (1915), pp. 310-311

15. G. Theal, History of the emigrant Boers in South Africa, (1888), p. 71

16. G. Preller, Dagboek van Louis Trichardt, Second Edition (1938), p. 155

17. G. Preller, Dagboek van Louis Trichardt, Second Edition (1938)

18. G. Theal, History of the emigrant Boers in South Africa, (1888), p. 73; see also G. Theal, Progress of South Africa in the century, (1901), pp. 219-220

19. D. Moodie, The History of the Battles and Adventures of the British, the Boers and the Zulus in Southern Africa, Vol. 1, (1888), pp. 518-523

20. G. Theal, History of the emigrant Boers in South Africa, (1888), p. 74

21. W. C. Harris, Narrative of an Expedition into Southern Africa, during the years 1836, and 1837 (etc), (1838), p. 169

22. D. Moodie, History of the Battles and Adventures of the British, the Boers and the Zulus in Southern Africa, Vol. 1, (1888), p. 523

23. G. Theal, History of the emigrant Boers in South Africa, (1888), p. 77

24. E. Smit, (Editor H.F. Schoon), The Diary of Erasmus Smit, (1972), originally in Dutch by Schoon (1897), p.181

25. E. Smit, (Editor H.F. Schoon), The Diary of Erasmus Smit, (1972), originally in Dutch by Schoon (1897), p.169

26. G. Theal, History of the emigrant Boers in South Africa, (1888), pp. 77-78

27. G. Theal, History of the emigrant Boers in South Africa, (1888), pp. 78-80

28. J.J. Retief, (South African) Military History Journal, Vol. 17, No 2, (December 2016)

29. G. Cory, The Rise of South Africa, Vol. 3, (1919), pp.396-397

30. J. Bird, The Annals of Natal, Vol. 1, (1888), p. 461

31. G. Theal, History of South Africa, from 1795-1872, Vol.2, Fourth Edition (1915), pp. 314-315

32. G. Theal, History of South Africa, from 1795-1872, Vol.2, Fourth Edition (1915), pp. 315-317