A quixotic and dreary expedition
Magnificent book recounts the tragedy of 700 headstrong trekkers
The Thirstland Trek 1874-1881
Protea Book House
The Thirstland Trek is the first book to be written in nearly 40 years about one of the most painful chapters in the history of Afrikaners.
In the three years from 1874 seven different treks, eventually comprising about 700 Afrikaners, set off from Pretoria in the then Transvaal, for Humpata in the Angolan highlands.
It’s estimated that 230 of the trekkers died, almost the same number returned to the Transvaal and, although about 130 babies were born on the trek, only about 370 people reached their promised land. This does not include black fatalities as no one kept track of them, says author and historian, Nicol Stassen.
His empirical research has resulted in the first detailed writing on the "mak volk" – meaning submissive, compliant people — and yet it is only one chapter in the book.
The mak people were indentured labourers who had been abducted as children in wars such as the Anglo-Zulu War, or given to Boers by leaders of black communities as a gesture of political alliance, or were bought or exchanged for goods from indigenous groups.
"Had I discovered more about them, I’d have written more. But I found only a paragraph here and there during my 12 years of research," Stassen, a book publisher, says.
The mak children grew up speaking Dutch or Afrikaans and made the culture of the Boers their own, farming and hunting like them, eating the same food, singing their songs and dressing like them. They were given guns and took Boer names. One was called Slagveld van der Merwe because he was "found" on a battlefield.
According to a British native commissioner writing in 1881, "they are too valuable a class for the Boers to ill-treat".
The mak volk are only one fascinating feature of this elegantly written and hauntingly illustrated book. Its poignant telling of dreadful events tease the mind for weeks after.
Stassen debunks the myth that the Thirstland trekkers left Pretoria to get away from British rule. They resented the president of the South African Republic, Thomas Burgers, "because he was too liberal for them, travelling as he did on a Sunday and attending gatherings where people danced", Stassen says. "The trekkers were [austere and conservative] doppers and Jerusalemgangers."
They journeyed from Pretoria, through Bechuanaland (Botswana), South West Africa (Namibia) and into Angola where the Portuguese eagerly welcomed them as traders, farmers and as a bulwark against indigenous tribes.
Stassen quotes Czech explorer and author Dr Emil Holub’s description of the trekkers as, "headstrong men who in ignorant opposition to reform, and from the motives of political ill-feeling, rushed with open eyes to the destruction that awaited them".
A Boer woman who survived the trek said that if they ever wanted to return home, "we can trace the route by following the graves of our children". On one day alone, a mother buried seven children — four of her own and three others — in one grave, while people lay moaning and dying of malaria.
One of the most tragic accounts of the trek — there are hardly any by the ill-educated Boers — comes from the hunter and trader William Worthington Jordan, a well-educated coloured man who spent four years with the trekkers.
He describes how, in their desperate thirst, they slaughtered stray animals to drink both their blood and stomach liquids, "and even this disgusting supply had to be measured out by tablespoonfuls".
The draught cattle also went mad with thirst and on several occasions, scenting water, stampeded wildly towards it and disappeared. When this happened near Bechuanaland’s Boteti River, the Great Khama III of the BaNgwato tribe gave orders that the cattle be returned to the trekkers, to the disappointment of hunters and traders who had hoped to make money from the capture.
Throughout Bechuanaland, the tribal leaders were generally remarkably helpful to the Boers, because they wanted them out of their territories as fast as possible in order to conserve their wildlife and water.
When reports filtered back to SA, from missionaries, hunters and traders, of the Boer plight, a relief committee in Cape Town collected clothing and food, which were transported by ship to Walvis Bay in Namibia.
Some of the trekkers took the opportunity to sail back home, but the nearly 370 who made it to Humpata in Angola settled there.
Some returned to SA in 1928. But those who remained were eventually compelled, for their safety, to leave Angola in 1975 when it attained independence after the civil war.
Stassen, who is fascinated by descendants of the Dorsland Trek, as it is more commonly known, is continuing his research in Angola and Namibia, where some trekkers settled, visiting both countries annually for weeks at a time.
This is his fifth book set in Angola. He plans to publish another one — the autobiography of a trekker descendant — later this year.
He clearly follows his passions — while he was working as a chemical engineer in Pretoria, his love of books compelled him to set up a book stall on a street corner. It was the forerunner of his chain of Protea Book Shops – there are 15 of them throughout SA including Soweto – and they celebrate their 25th anniversary this year.
The Thirstland Trek is a thing of beauty. The pictures of the trekkers are remarkable for their clarity and scope. Many come from private collections. Women, often second or third wives, sit with sunken faces, exhausted by pain and filled with resignation, next to their stern, bearded husbands.
Thomas Baines’ exquisite oil paintings grace many a page, as well as the cover. There are evocative Portuguese pictures of indigenous villages near their destination, Humpata.
This book is a triumph for historian, Protea Books founder and author, Stassen.