The Great Trek



OxwagonsThe Great Trek was an eastward and north-eastward migration during the 1830s and 1840s of the Boers (Dutch/Afrikaans for "farmers"), who descended from settlers from western mainland Europe, most notably from the Netherlands.  Two streams of Afrikaner migrants left the colony in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

The first of the two streams of migrants was an emigration of people called trekboers, who moved across the border as individual families in search of better pasture; the others moved in trek parties and emphasised political issues. They would later be called Voortrekkers.

This was a search by dissatisfied Dutch-speaking colonists for a promised land where they would be 'free and independent people' in a 'free and independent state'.

The men, women and children who set out from the eastern frontier towns of Grahamstown, Uitenhage and Graaff-Reinet represented only a fraction of the Dutch-speaking inhabitants of the colony, and yet their determination and courage has become the single most important element in the folk memory of Afrikaner nationalism. However, far from being the peaceful and God-fearing process which many would like to believe it was, the Great Trek caused a tremendous social upheaval in the interior of southern Africa, rupturing the lives of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people.

The Voortrekkers decided to leave the Cape Colony for various contested and complicated reasons, but in general the reasons consisted of the general dissatisfaction of life under British rule and the desire for a better life in better country.

The trekkers, dressed in traditional dopper coats (short coats buttoned from top to bottom), kappies (bonnets) and hand-made riempieskoene (leather thong shoes), set out in wagons which they called kakebeenwoens (literally, jawbone wagons, because the shape and sides of a typical trek wagon resembled the jawbone of an animal).

These wagons could carry a startling weight of household goods, clothes, bedding, furniture, agricultural implements, fruit trees and weapons. They were ingeniously designed and surprisingly light, so as not to strain the oxen, and to make it easier to negotiate the veld, narrow ravines and steep precipices which lay ahead. Travelling down the 3500 metre slope of the Drakensberg, no brake shoe or changing of wheels could have saved a wagon from hurtling down the mountain were it not for a simple and creative solution: the hindwheels of wagons were removed and heavy branches were tied securely underneath. So the axles were protected, and a new form of brake was invented.

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1. Readers Digest Illustrated History of South Africa p. 114- 120                        

 2. Hermann Giliomee and Bernard Mbenga. (2007). New History of South Africa. Tafelberg Publishers, Cape Town (p 112)     

Photographs:  PE Library

Did You Know?

Port Elizabeth founded the first Amateur Cycling Club in 1880.

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Last updated:
3 October 2012 7:51