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The Great Trek, 1835-40

Updated on April 18, 2019
John Welford profile image

John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.

An Artist's impression of Trekkers Crossing the Mountains
An Artist's impression of Trekkers Crossing the Mountains

The Causes of the Great Trek

When – over a five-year period between 1835 and 1840 - some 14,000 Afrikaners packed their belongings into ox carts and set off from the Cape Colony to find new lands that they could call their own, they did so because life was becoming steadily less desirable for them where they were.

Dutch settlers had first arrived in the Cape in 1652, but they were later joined by British colonists who eventually seized control of the territory in 1805. The British had different ways of doing things – for example, they abolished slavery, gave Blacks and Whites equal status and introduced English as the official language in schools and churches.

Apart from these legal moves, perhaps the most important source of discontent for the Afrikaners was the fact that the influx of British settlers placed increasing pressure on the availability of land for farming. Many Afrikaner farmers decided that they would be better off if they found new lands for themselves further east and north.

The Routes of the Trek

The Great Trek was not a single journey by a large group of people but a succession of “treks” from various starting points in the Eastern Cape that used a number of different routes.

The first two “Voortrekker” (forward journeyer) parties were led by Louis Trichardt and Hans van Rensburg. They set off together in 1835 northwards across the Orange River but later split up after a quarrel, just south of the Limpopo River.

Van Rensburg took his group northwards along the course of the river but encountered hostile Tsonga tribesmen who wiped them out.

Trichardt’s party headed for the coast, although they were in no great hurry to reach it. When they did so, three years later, nearly half of them, including Trichardt himself, died of malaria. The survivors made their way to Port Natal.

Meanwhile, thousands more trekkers had set out on the journey of some 300 miles, many of them making for the mountain of Thaba Nchu, north of the Orange River. From there, they headed eastwards over the Drakensberg Mountains.

Routes of the Great Trek
Routes of the Great Trek

The Journey

The Trekkers had many different environments to contend with on their journey, including vast stretches of dusty veldt and steep mountain slopes. All a family’s possessions would be loaded into an ox-drawn wagon and at night the wagons would be arranged in a circle to provide some protection from attack.

Progress was never rapid, averaging around 6 miles (10 km) a day. When climbing or descending steep slopes there was always the danger that the ox wagons would run out of control, so the practice was to remove the rear wheels and tie branches under the axles.

The Trekkers were not advancing into empty territory and they met considerable opposition from native tribes, especially the Zulus. Zulu power was eventually broken at the Battle of Blood River in December 1838.

The End of the Trek

The Trekkers, who became known as Boers (meaning farmers) set up a republic in Natal, on the east coast. However, this was annexed by the British in 1843 and the Afrikaners had to move again, finally settling in the high veldt to the north and west. Two Boer republics were established and recognized by the British, these being the Orange Free State and the Transvaal (or South African Republic).

An unexpected consequence of the Great Trek, and the expulsion from Natal, was that the Boers now controlled areas that contained extensive gold and diamond reserves. Not surprisingly, the British sought to take over these areas, and this ambition was a major cause of the two Boer Wars (1880-1 and 1899-1902) that led to the Boer Republics becoming part of the British Union of South Africa.


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