Support: A 1938 re-enactment of the Great Trek. The Boers would not have succeeded in the Great Trek without the collaboration of the blacks, Halala writes. Historians have tended to underplay the role blacks played in the success of the Great Trek.   Picture: WIKIMEDIA
Support: A 1938 re-enactment of the Great Trek. The Boers would not have succeeded in the Great Trek without the collaboration of the blacks, Halala writes. Historians have tended to underplay the role blacks played in the success of the Great Trek. Picture: WIKIMEDIA

Mfecane: The Role Played by Blacks in the Great Trek, 1835-1854

Peter Halala

P&H Publishers

In the first half of the 19th century, the Great Trek shaped the course of South African history and politics, but it remains contested by different interpretations that are almost always controversial because there is no universally agreed lens through which to study it among scholars.

With a master’s degree in Southern African studies, majoring in history, from the University of York in the UK, and a doctorate in history from the University of Limpopo, Peter Halala says he wrote his book to correct distortions.

One of those distortions is that the Great Trek was successfully executed by the brave and triumphant Boers only.

Halala says white historians have deliberately minimised the magnitude of the participation of black Trekkers as slaves, servants, apprentices and as "willing travellers" — which sealed their oppression by the descendants of the Trekkers.

The major point of Mfecane: The Role Played by Blacks in the Great Trek, is that blacks trudging besides ox wagons out of the Cape and into the hinterland outnumbered white Trekkers.

"The Great Trek has been interpreted in many different ways," Halala writes in the introduction to his book.

"Prof William Macmillan categorically labelled it ‘the greatest disaster of South African history’," Halala writes.

"Prof Eric Walker saw it as ‘that long series of flights from the oncoming nineteenth century in British uniform.

"Prof Leo Fouche described it as fundamentally a desperate protest against equality between black and white.

"To some historians, this was a movement of Dutch-speaking colonists who left the Cape Colony from the 1830s, and ventured up into the interior of southern Africa.

"These colonists were looking for their own homeland, a homeland that would be independent from the British rule that had just taken over the Cape Colony," Halala writes.

The well-referenced book — most of it is drawn from his MA dissertation — deals with the different narratives propounded by other historians about the Great Trek.

His conclusions are based on rigorous research, backed up by evidence that he has mined.

Although the Great Trek was led by several historically prominent Boer leaders, Halala concentrates mainly on the roles of patriarchs Hendrik Janse van Rensburg, Louis Trichardt, Gerrit Maritz and Piet Retief.

Halala says distortions about the character of this movement of people, its participants and what really happened have been allowed to stand as historical fact for too long.

Historians, for racist reasons in some instances, have tended to underplay the role blacks played in the success of the Great Trek. The Boers, he argues, would not have succeeded without the collaboration of the blacks.

"The history of the Great Trek, is in reality, of four groups of people who had different world views," Halala writes.

"The first group was the British, whose presence at the Cape brought views and ideas which forced the descendants of the Dutch settlers to catch up with what was taken for granted in both Europe and America in the eighteenth century. For instance, the slave trade was on its way out, and paid-for labour to serve the interests [of the] capitalist system was in."

This did not sit well with the Boers, he says, and many decided to leave the jurisdiction of the British at the Cape for regions in what was to become SA. They left with an assortment of people classed as servants, slaves and apprentices.

The second group consisted of "the Boers who owned a great number of slaves, servants and apprentices", he writes.

"By ‘servants’ they were referring to any black people they were to encounter in their new environment, including those blacks and servants who accompanied them when they left the Cape, and those who later joined them during the course of the Trek.

"The third group consisted of slaves, servants and apprentices who were stripped of their cultural heritage by the uncompromising Boers.

"Some of these slaves were imported from abroad for employment purposes as domestic servants and semi-skilled artisans."

African slaves were mainly imported from West Africa, Mozambique and Angola. Some Malays came from the East Indies.

"The Voortrekkers also employed the Khoisan and people they called ‘Cape Coloureds’ as servants," Halala writes.

The last group consisted of "unsubdued" blacks, some of whom willingly joined the Voortrekkers as "fellow travellers", he writes.

"These people included Jalus and about a thousand of his Xhosa followers, including the blacks with whom they came into contact during the course of the Trek," he writes. "Furthermore, a number of black people they came into contact with heartily welcomed them. Among these were people such as King Moroka of the Barolong.

"Others such as Moshoeshoe of the Basotho initially co-operated with the Voortrekkers, only changing their attitude when the Voortrekkers started claiming as their own the land they were allowed to occupy."

But not all African leaders welcomed the trekking Boers "heartily".

King Mzilikazi of the Matabele fought them ferociously, but was eventually defeated and faced punitive raids as a result.

"It was after the defeat of the Matabele that most of the black groups grudgingly accepted white rule and that they were a conquered nation," Halala writes. He concludes that when discussing the history of this movement, it is important to bear in mind that "one cannot completely separate white and black groups from one another.

Everything that happened in SA during that period affected all these groups, and therefore there is no group that can correctly claim to have stood on the fringes as helpless spectators, while this migration was taking place, or claim sole ownership of the Trek.

"The relationship of these groups can be said to be like Arthur Schopenhauer’s porcupines on a freezing night, who bunch together for warmth, only to prick each other and move apart, causing them to freeze again and move closer once more," he writes.

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