It is an interesting history about a time and a people of which and whom I knew almost nothing. There are passage of wonderful description and their are accounts of horrendous massacres and battles. This was a time when three dozen farmers, armed with rifles and in a strong defensive position created by drawing their wagons into a circle, could hold out against a force of several thousand Zulus armed only with spears. It doesn't seem surprising that they developed a belief in their own superiority, a belief which was bolstered by their Calvinism with its emphasis on a select and chosen people. But the origins of the racist Apartheid regime seem to have been in the Boers from the start: one of the motivations for the first trek was that the British abolished slavery and insufficiently compensated the former slave owners. The classic pattern of Boer settlement involved allowing sufficient 'squatters' (Africans who had no title to the land were regarded as squatters even though the Boers had as little title to the land) onto the farm to provide the farmer with labour while other Africans were herded into reservations. One of the reasons why the Boers might have thought that the land was empty and therefore theirs for the taking was that between 1818 and 1824 Shaka, chief of the Zulu, had developed an new form of warfare which almost completely cleared the original inhabitants of the southern part of Natal and triggered a succession of waves of migration and warfare among the Bantu peoples of the veldt.
Poor understanding of the Zulus (an early misunderstanding came about because of a meeting in which they had to shout across a flooded river) led to an early massacre of 500 trekkers (including 200 African servants).
The book was published in 1973 when the Republic of South Africa was still politically dominated by the Apartheid policies of the Nationalist Party. It is difficult for me to be certain whether the author condemns racism or accepts it. Otherwise, this was an interesting read.
Some great moments:
- "Trekking was in the blood of these land Vikings." (C 1)
- "A host of Christian missionaries who were determined to preach the fashionable doctrine of brotherly love and racial equality ... The missionaries' teachings were, of course, repugnant to a white race convinced of its superiority ... the missionaries were earnest irritable men who had no experience of dealing with a multi-racial society ... Many of the missionaries came from the artisan class ... John Philip ... had been a mill hand ... Robert Moffat ... had begun life as a gardener ... This sort of background inevitably led them to display a narrowness of vision which might have been avoided by a wider education." (C 2) This extract makes me uncertain as to whether the author sympathises with the naive missionaries or with the racist Boers. The last sentence certainly portrays the author as a snob.
- "Potgieter ... was one of those men who have been born with an idee fixe, in his case with a consuming hunger to break new ground ... a hunger which could only be appeased by establishing himself as the unrivalled patriarch ... to hack out a fief for himself which he could rule as undisputed governor." (C 4)
- "Potgieter waged life rather than lived it." (C 4)
- "The laager seemed a fearful place the next day, surrounded by a hideous circle of bodies turning black and swollen under the sun; they encircled the trekkers like grisly captors." (C 5)
- "The trek was no longer a migration in the normal sense. ... For these Voertrekkers ... intended to subjugate the indigenous people ... and turn their country into a state where their own social and political ideas might be practised and perpetuated without outside interference." (C 6)
- "The prospect of Natal ... is one for the connoisseur of landscapes. Africa here has subdued itself and become peaceful. ... a century ago it must have looked fresh from the hand of God, a special creation empty of all sighs of human habitation, alive only with immense and unhurried herds of game. It was a land to delight the heart of a farmer as well as that of an artist: to carry such game the grass must surely be good; to grow such trees the soil must surely be deep; and here, unlike so much of Africa, there was no scarcity of water." (C 7)
- "On Kwa Matiwane most of the Boers were clubbed to death ... but some died when their skulls were broken with rocks. A few ... victims were skewered and left on the hill to a more lingering death. ... Retief was made to witness the agonies of his companions before he himself was put to death and one can only guess at his thoughts as he watched the killing of his son. After every bit of life had been battered out of him, Retief's chest was ripped open, and his heart of liver wrapped up in a cloth and taken to the king." (C 8)
- "He tended to an imposing portliness and carried a small paunch in a stately sort of way as though it was filled with securities and bank drafts." (C 9)
- "As the air began to smell of morning the white men watched the pattern of flat-topped thorn-trees on the hills across the river starting to show against the eastern sky, and listened to the birds which began to give chorus before setting off on their daily quest for seeds and insects. Then the sun's rim broke free from the horizon, tinting the surrounding hills with red so that the entire landscape for a few moments seemed to be drenched in blood." (C 9)
- "The former kraals of many of the returning Africans now lay on farms marked out and worked by the Boers. To avoid overcrowding the farm lands the Afrikaners found it imperative to limit the number of squatters on their farms to five families, a figure which would satisfactorily provide for their labour requirements ... These Bantu were unenfranchised and subjected to numerous by-laws ... The problem of the 'surplus natives' on the other hand was solved by segregation in ad hoc reserves where they were stringently controlled by pass-laws." (C 10)
- "Although he was brave and very determined it cannot be denied that Smith was also conceited and pompous and the proud possessor of South Africa's largest ego." (C 11)
- "The Boers oft-repeated joke that the greatest pests in southern Africa were drought, locusts and Englishmen" (C 11)
April 2020; 211 pages
My parents were members of the Readers Union Book Club. They must have had a great person to choose the books. This is one of the many I have enjoyed and reviewed in this blog. Here is a list:
- Life with Ionides by Margaret Lane: about a man catching snakes in East Africa
- The Golden Isthmus: the history of Panama from its discovery by Europeans
- The Incredible Mile by Harold Elvin: the travelogue of a journey on the Trans Siberian express
- A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: the memoir of a Colonial Officer on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands
- Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming: an account of Britain's unpreparedness and preparation for a Nazi invasion
- Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: three years lived on the sometimes less than idyllic Greek island of Symi
- A Memoir of the Bobotes by Joyce Cary: a memoir of time spent in the Balkan Wars (before the First World War)
- The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford: a history of the formation of the Orange Free State and Transvaal by Boer farmers trekking from the Cape Colony