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The Great Trek

Causes of The Great Trek


One of the most important causes of the Great Trek in South Africa was the unrest on the eastern border. The government was unable to segregate the Xhosas from the whites and the two groups kept on clashing. The Xhosas stole the white farmers’ cattle and the farmers occupied territory that had traditionally belonged to the Xhosa. Not even the establishment of neutral territory could keep the parties from becoming involved in battles with each other.

Some governors did more than others to protect the frontier farmers but there was nevertheless a significant number of wars on the eastern frontier. During the sixth eastern frontier war, farmers lost livestock to the value of R600 000. Vagrant Hottentots also plundered the farms. Conditions deteriorated badly after the institution of Ordinance 50 of 1828, which cancelled the pass laws.

In 1834, when the slaves were freed, the situation worsened even further, as many of them had no option but to steal to make a living. The freeing of the slaves also meant financial loss for the farmers and this added to their dissatisfaction. The Dutch-speaking people also felt that their identity was being threatened. A series of laws proclaimed between 1823 and 1828 enabled the government to substitute the official use of Dutch with English. When the magistrates and councils were also abolished, the colonists no longer had any say in the government and their desire for self-government increased. 

The Great Trek in South Africa started with Louis Trichardt and Hans van Rensburg leading the first groups to leave the Colony. There were 53 people in Trichardt’s group and they crossed the Orange River in 1835 on their way to the Soutpansberg. Hans van Rensburg also left the colony at the same time with his group of followers but his aim was to move to Mozambique.

The Van Rensburg party was subsequently massacred near the Limpopo River. Louis Trichardt moved on to the area where the town of Louis Trichardt is situated today. He waited for some time for Potgieter’s trek to meet up with them but eventually became impatient and moved on to Lourenco Marques (present day Maputo). By the time Trichardt reached Maputo, on 13 April 1838, many of his cattle had been killed by tsetse flies and nearly half of his group had died of malaria.

Andries Hendrik Potgieter .Potgieter left the Cape Colony towards the end of 1835 with 200 people. They also wanted to go to Lourenco Marques for trading purposes, but they did not get that far. They were attacked by an army of 1 000 men sent by Mzilikazi. A few of the Voortrekkers were killed and Potgieter left his trek temporarily to meet up with Louis Trichardt.

On his return, he instructed his people to form a laager (circle of ox wagons) as a defence strategy against the black armies. Two months later, all their cattle were stolen during another attack at Vegkop. Moroka (chief of the Barolong) and Gerrit Maritz helped Potgieter’s group to get back to Thaba Nchu.

Gerrit Maritz, also joining the Great Trek in South Africa, left for Thaba Nchu with 700 people. When they arrived in November 1836, they held a mass meeting with the Voortrekkers who had already arrived. Maritz was elected as the president of a council of 7 members who were to look after the interests of the Voortrekkers. Potgieter was elected the military leader. One of the first decisions of the council was to send an expedition out to recapture their cattle from Mzilikazi. 

Piet Retief was the commandant of the Winterberg ward in the district of Albany. He was also a farmer, building contractor and speculator and had sufficient money to finance a venture into the interior. Before he left, he published a manifesto in the Grahamstown Journal in which he explained his reasons to join the Great Trek in South Africa. He left the Cape in March 1837, together with 400 people.

When he joined the Voortrekkers in the Free State, they numbered more or less 5 000. Retief was elected governor and military leader at a convention held at Winburg. At the same convention Maritz was elected chairman of the Political Council. 

Piet Uys and his followers were the last to leave the Cape as part of a big organised trek. These 100 odd men, women and children departed from the district of Uitenhage in April 1837. They arrived in the Free State in August of the same year.

The Voortrekkers had opposing views about the direction the trek should take. Potgieter felt it best to remain in Transvaal, since Britain might annex Natal, which would mean that the Voortrekkers would once again be under British rule.

Maritz, Cilliers and Retief did not share his fears and decided to move to Natal. Piet Uys was not quite sure where his trek should be heading. When the Voortrekkers arrived in Natal, one of the favourite destinations during the Great trek in South Africa, the greater part of Natal was under the control of Dingane. Retief attempted to buy land from Dingane who promised to sell it if the Voortrekkers agreed to recover the cattle which had been stolen by Sikonyela.

When Retief and his people brought back the stolen cattle, they signed a contract with Dingane. Later that day, however, Dingane’s people killed 67 of the Voortrekkers, including Retief. Dingane’s soldiers then went to the laagers (camps) of the Voortrekkers and killed many more, including women and children.

The Zulus also drove off the bulk of the Voortrekkers' cattle.In April 1838, Uys and Potgieter retaliated by launching a counterattack against the Zulus. They were defeated by the Zulus at Italeni. The Zulus attacked again on 13 August and in December 1838, the last remaining Voortrekker leader, Maritz, died. As the Voortrekkers needed a new leader, they sent for Andries Pretorius. Pretorius acted as their leader in the Battle of Blood River on 16 December 1838 when they defeated the Dingane’s Zulu army.

Dingane fled, after setting fire to his kraal. At Kwa Maritane, the skeletons of Retief and his men were found, together with a satchel containing the treaty between Dingane and the Voortrekkers. The Voortrekkers were now the owners of the land between the Drakensberg Mountains, from the Tugela River to the Umzimvubu River and the sea. Dingane was finally defeated by Mpande who became the new paramount chief of the Zulus.

The Voortrekkers now felt safer and on 14 February 1840, Andries Pretorius proclaimed Natal a Voortrekker Republic, the Republic of Natal. They formed a government and Pietermaritzburg was chosen as the new capital. The Republic of Natal existed for only 5 years until the governor of the Cape, Sir George Napier, sent Sir Harry Smith and his men to annex Natal. A struggle followed, during which the British suffered a number of casualties and lost two of their cannon. Dick King (a legend in the history of the Great Trek in South Africa) escaped on horseback, and astonishingly, it took him only six days to reach Grahamstown.

The British sent reinforcements and the Voortrekkers were forced to retreat to Pietermaritzburg. On 12 May 1843, Natal became a British colony and most of the Voortrekkers chose to return to the Free State and the Transvaal.After being attacked by Chief Mzilikazi and his Matabele army, the Voortrekkers in the Transvaal moved back to Thaba Nchu under the leadership of Andries Potgieter. In two attacks against Mzilikazi, one a counter-attack and the second a precautionary attack, the Matabele were defeated and Potgieter and his followers thought it safe to remain in Transvaal.

Soon after, Potgieter gave in to pressure and moved to Natal, but soon returned to the Transvaal where he founded the town of Potchefstroom. He proclaimed the district as the Republic of Winburg-Potchefstroom. From here, the Voortrekkers moved to Marico and Rustenburg. Potgieter and his people wanted to move as far away from the Cape as possible and in the process, other towns such as Ohrigstad and Lydenburg were founded.

Conflict arose between Potgieter and another group and Potgieter moved even further north and founded the town of Schoemansdal. Some of the Voortrekkers who had fled to northern Natal after the British occupation, asked to be incorporated into the ZAR (the South African Republic) as the Transvaal had been named. In order to do this, the land on which the town of Utrecht was founded, had to be bought from Zulu king Mpande.

Britain did not recognise the independence of Transvaal, but made no attempt at annexation. The reason for its inactivity was the hostile attitude of certain black tribes towards Britain and also the fact that war was looming in Europe.

On 17 January 1852, the Sand River Convention was signed between Britain and the Transvaal Republic. It was the first time that Britain had acknowledged the independence of a Voortrekker Republic.

Long before the Great Trek in South Africa started, the "Trek Boers" had already moved into the area that would come to be known as the Free State, as early as the 17th and 18th centuries. At the start of the 19th century there were already different groups present in the area. Some of these groups were the Basotho (under leadership of Moshweshwe, the Griqua (under Adam Kok), the Batlokwa, the Bataung and the Barolong. 

The area that became known as Trans Orangia was situated between the Orange and the Vet Rivers. Many of the Trek boers settled in the Phillippolis area, where Adam Kok rented land to them.

The Trek boers considered themselves British subjects but, when the Voortrekkers passed through the area, some Trek boers joined them while others chose to remain. When the Potgieter trek arrived at Thaba Nchu in 1836, Potgieter made an arrangement with Makwana, chief of the Bataung, that, in exchange for cattle and protection against Mzilikazi, Potgieter would be given land in an area between the Vet and Vaal Rivers. This area became known as Winburg. When Retief arrived, it was decided that the Trekkers should move to Natal.

Potgieter eventually agreed, but he moved back to Winburg after his defeat at Italeni by Dingane. He later also founded Potchefstroom, a town next to the Mooi River. Potgieter linked the towns of Winburg and Potchefstroom by declaring the Winburg Potchefstroom Republic. The Vet River divided the area between the Vaal River and the Orange River. The southern part became known as Trans-Orangia and the Northern area formed part of the Winburg - Potchefstroom Republic.
Jan Mocke and Jan Kok were the leaders of the Voortrekkers who lived in the vicinity of the Vet River. After the annexation of Natal, their numbers increased because many people who were not prepared to submit to British rule moved back to the area. In Trans-Orangia, however, the Trek boers, under the leadership of Machiel Oberholzer, wished to remain under British authority. Oberholzer therefore informed the judge at Colesberg of the plans of the upper region to establish a republic. Without consulting the British government, the judge immediately annexed the area but the British government would not ratify the annexation.

When Sir Harry Smith became governor of the Cape Colony in 1847 long after the Great Trek in South Africa had fizzled out, he wanted to annex the territory as far as the Vaal River. He informed the British government that the majority of the people living in the area strongly supported such an annexation, which was not true.However, Smith went ahead and annexed the area up to the Vaal River and called it the Orange River Sovereignty. The citizens of Winburg revolted but were defeated at Boomplaats by Smith’s soldiers. Potgieter was outlawed and magistrates were appointed in the districts of Bloemfontein, Winburg and the Vaal River.
The Battle of Boomplaats disturbed the British government because it cost a lot of money and proved that many of the inhabitants were opposed to the annexation. The Basotho under Moshweshwe were one of the dissatisfied groups and in 1854 they defeated a British armed force sent to punish them for their raids. The British government was of the opinion that since the independence of Transvaal had been recognised in 1852, there was no reason why the same could not be done for the Orange Free State. When the Basotho defeated another British force in the area of Berea, Britain decided to officially recognise the Republic of the Orange Free State.

On 23 February 1854, the Bloemfontein Convention was signed and the area between the Vaal and Orange Rivers officially became the Republic of the Orange Free State. With the Independence of the republics Transvaal and Free State, the Voortrekkers saw their dreams come true. Dreams of freedom, independence and self-government that had moved them to embark upon the Great trek in south Africa.

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