Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Great Trek

Fig.1: "Wait, so we're not trying to get to Fort Laramie?"
Mid-19th century. Pioneering families. Covered wagons. Attacks from the Natives. Death from disease and hunger. Sounds like someone's firing up a good old-fashioned game of Oregon Trail! In fact, I just described events that took place a whole ocean and a hemisphere away from the American West: the Great Trek of South Africa. In the 1830s and 1840s, a group of European settlers called Boers moved north after the British staked their claim to the region. Looking to reestablish their independence, the Boers journeyed inland and established their own settlements, government, and all-important comic book shops. Of course, the Africans that lived there didn't take too kindly to these pasty people moving in and using all of their stuff, and conflict between these groups slowed the Boers down more than an old lady writing a check at the dollar store. While the Great Trek is seen as the definitive moment for Afrikaners (the descendants of the Boers) and a strong source of their identity, many view it as the start of the poor race relations that persisted in South Africa well into the 20th century.

On second thought, maybe Oregon Trail is a lot more fun...

Fig.2: "Wait, so we weren't trying to get to 
Plymouth Rock?"
It was usually either the Portuguese or the Dutch that claimed first dibs on lands during the initial stages of the Age of Exploration. When it came to the nether lands of Africa, it was the folks from the Netherlands that first established trading posts in the middle of the 1600s (fig.2). Many people followed them in order to escape the ongoing religious wars and window-throwing-out-of going on in Europe, especially Protestants from Germany and France. Since farming was the cool thing to do at that time, many began to till the land in southern Africa, and were unironically called Boers, the Dutch word for "farmer" (I didn't say they were the most creative people in the world). The Boers were a tight-knit group, with many connected through intermarriage and trade relations, and everyone always annoyingly knew who made out with whom after the dances on Saturday nights.

But everything got messed up when Napoleon started doing his thing (just ask the Portuguese). The Dutch Republic aligned itself with France starting in 1795, which of course made the British a little grumpy. In the ensuing wars, Britain took over the cape town of Cape Town in 1806, which was made permanent in the jolly get-together known as the Congress of Vienna in 1815. British rule of southern coast of Africa, now the cape colony of Cape Colony, was not a happy prospect to the Boers. English and Irish settlers were brought in and ebbed away at the Boers' economic and social dominance of the region. New laws were passed that threatened to alter the Boers' way of life. The abolition of slavery slowly filtered through the colony, which didn't affect the Boers too much since they were poor farmers that couldn't afford to have slaves anyway. What did freak them out was the idea that Africans could then be given equal rights as themselves! The horror! In the end, the Boers didn't want the Brits always telling them what to do and where to go and how they should treat people of other races like a holier-than-thou Mary Poppins!

Fig.3: "Good thing I have SAAA!"
So the Boers began to entertain the notion of going somewhere else. Many believed that they would be better off traveling inland towards the region now known as Natal, which the British had not yet gotten their grubby hands all over. An expeditionary party of Boers went northeast from 1832 to 1834 to ensure that the trip was possible, and that the neighborhoods there were safe and had good schools. According to contemporary reports, the area was sparsely populated except for some English ivory hunters, who were more interested in trading goods than giving into their innate desire to rule over other people, as well as the Xhosa, who welcomed the Boers as possible allies against the rival Zulu tribes (because nothing ever went wrong for indigenous peoples when they did that). In addition, the land in that region had fantastic soil for farming, which was pretty much the Boers' livelihood and hobby all rolled into one. Sure, the trip to Natal was a long and difficult one, taking at least six months and covered some rugged terrain, but for the Boers, it was worth it to get away from those pompous, rotten-toothed, tea drinkers.

The first families left in September 1835, led by the painfully-Dutch names of Louis Tregardt and Jarse van Rensburg. By the time 1840 rolled around, over 6,000 Boers, 20% of the Cape Colony's population, trekked inland to escape British rule. Often lost within historical nitpicking are the thousands of mixed African and Dutch people, known as the Griqua, who also made the trek towards their own settlements in the northeast. As expected, the journey was tough on the large families that traveled with their wagons and oxen and screaming kids that kept asking, "Are we there yet?" Disease also took its toll on the trekkers, with Tregardt and most of his family perishing from fever. Luckily, there were no Donner Party debacles recorded during the Great Trek, probably because everyone knows that folks of Dutch stock are too stringy and dry anyway.

Fig.4: The lengths some people will go to just to avoid learning the rules to cricket.
But the biggest threat the Trekkers faced were from the native Africans who sorta lived in the land that was being Trekked through. Their most common adversaries were the Zulu, who hit the Boers hard by attacking large, vulnerable families on the march and, more critically, stole cattle and other livestock that were far more valuable than one's useless wife and children. The most notable conflict between the two occurred in October 1837, when Zulu king Dingane proved willing to negotiate a peace treaty with Trek leader Piet Retief. Unfortunately, when Retief and his 70 friends arrived at Dingane's capital at Umgungundlovu (which was a pain to put into the GPS), Dingane commanded his men to, "Kill the magicans!" (I get that urge when I see a David Copperfield show.) The Boers sought to avenge this massacre with one of their own; at the Battle of Blood River in December 1838, 500 settlers destroyed a Zulu force probably exaggerated to number at least 12,000. After this defeat, the Zulu tribes got distracted with a few civil wars of their own, giving the Boers the space to do their own thing.

And their own thing was the creation of "Boer Republics" to the northeast of the British Cape Colony. The first was the Natalia Republic, established in 1839 after they filtered the water following the Battle of Blood River; unfortunately the British caught up to it, and did their British takeover thing by 1843. So the Boers moved further north and made more republics like the Orange Free State, named after the ruling House of Orange in the Netherlands as well as their favorite Netflix show. The most successful was the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (South African Republic), nicknamed Transvaal to get some more of that double-vowel action going on. The ZAR established a stable constitution, promoted relations with nations in and outside of Africa, and even held their own a couple times against the Brits! In addition to Boer Republics were the Griqua Republics, notably Griqualand West, Griqualand East, and Griqualand Northbynorthwest.

Fig.5: This monument to the wagons that made the Great
Trek possible also doubles as a concession stand!
Though the British would eventually take over all of what we know today as South Africa by 1902 after the Boer Wars (which is just as boring as it sounds), the Great Trek left a huge impact in the nation that reverberated throughout the 20th century. The Afrikaner population regards it as their great awakening, and has commemorated it with holidays, speeches, and gaudy monuments (fig.5). Some of South Africa's largest cities emerged following the Trek, such as Johannesburg and the administrative capital of Pretoria, as well as some back-water towns just to keep the country bumpkins happy. Unfortunately, race relations further deteriorated with the Great Trek, even though many Africans assisted the Boers and even went along with the ride themselves (chipping in their fair share for gas, of course). Afrikaner control of the country following independence in 1961 led to the policy of apartheid, which is something not to joke about, so don't expect to hear any more about it from me! Nevertheless, tensions have died down since Nelson Mandala in the 1990s, allowing folks to honor the Trek more openly and less hostilely. It might not be as fun as Oregon Trail, but honestly, you don't have to kill your friend with cholera in order to have a good time.

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