The Boer's Great Trek 1836-1837

[ 1836 - 1837 ]

In southern Africa 10,000 to 14,000 Trekboers and their slaves (called apprentices) migrated north out of the Cape Colony into the high veld. The Poteiter and Cilliers parties together defeated much larger Matabele Zulu forces at Vegkop in the Transvaal (October 19).


In 1837, after his further defeat at the hands of the European settlers of the Transvaal (South African Republic), he moved northward, ultimately (c. 1840) settling in Matabeleland (Zimbabwe), where his successor, Lobengula, extended the tribe's power, absorbing Sotho, Shona, and other extraneous tribal elements. 


The Boers came into conflict with the Matabele of Mzilikasi. The Matabele were decisively defeated in 1837, and the republic of Natal was formed in 1838.


Returning, they came upon the camp of a trek party that had crossed the Vaal (dark) River against instructions. All had been massacred. There was further bad news - a hunting party had been attacked by the Matabele and had fared badly. 

The Matabele territory extended over 30,000 sq. kms and while Mzilikazi did not dislike white men, all who entered his kingdom were expected to enter through Kuruman where missionary Robert Moffat could screen them. Further, he was exceedingly sensitive about his southern border, the traditional route of invading Zulu armies. 

Survivors from the attack on the hunting party had warned the settler camp but were not believed. Riding on, they warned the next camp which took appropriate action by forming a laager at the bend on the Vaal River. 35 men succeeded in driving off 500 Matabele warriors who eventually retired to Mzilikazi's military kraal at Kapain with assorted wagons, stock and two white girls. 

As Potgieter returned to his base on the Sand River, the Voortrekkers were retreating from their land as fast as their stock would allow and some were retiring still further, back to Blesberg where the second wave of the Great Trek had arrived. 

Potgieter realized that he would have to break the power of Mzilikazi if the trek was to proceed and he took a party to a defensible site and formed the wagons into a laager. Here, forty men were to face the might of the Matabele nation under a small promontory that was to be called Vegkop - Fight Hill. 

Fighting from a laager had yet to be proven and yet the forty wagons were pushed with the disselboom (draught pole) of one pushed under the other. They were then chained together and the spaces between the wagons filled with thorn branches tied to the wheels. Seven wagons in the centre of the laager were used as a hospital and the grass around the laager was crushed by driving cattle over it. 

Two openings, each just the width of a wagon were left, but these could easily be closed if necessary. By forming the wagons into a square with makeshift blockhouses at each corner to enfilade each side of the laager, it became an effective defensive position. 

There was finally a total of 33 men and seven boys (one of whom was just eleven and named Paul Kruger) and sixty women and children. Despite using the heavy smooth bored flintlocks, each man, with the help of the women, could fire his musket six times each minute. Another problem also faced the Voortrekkers - their stock. Thousands of animals were scattered over the veld and would be taken by the Matabele regardless of whether they would prevail or die. 

It was on 16th October 1836 that the party received news of a Matabele army approaching. Potgieter rode out with his men hoping to negotiate with them but were attacked in the traditional Zulu-type chest and horns fashion. The trekkers then employed a known successful tactic - charging up to just outside assegai range, loosing off a volley, retreating whilst reloading in the saddle and then repeating the maneuver. 

The 5,000 Matabele warriors surrounded the laager and then sat and waited for several hours. Potgieter eventually tied a red rag to a whip that had the effect of goading the warriors into action and they rushed the laager. The trekker's guns eventually became too hot to hold and were recharged by spitting the slugs down the barrels from the trekker's mouth where they were stored and tamping down the charge by banging the butt of the gun on the ground. There was no time for anything else. 

As the range shortened, there was hand to hand fighting until eventually the Matabele withdrew - the very first time they had failed in battle. Guns were then cleaned in the respite and powder replenished. Then came a second attack that was barely beaten off. 

After the Battle 
Thirty-three men and seven boys had defeated five thousand determined, trained Matabele warriors killing more than five hundred. The Matabele retired with all the trekker stock. Two trekkers had been killed, including Potgieter's brother. After the fight 1,137 assegais were collected from inside the laager. 

The Voortrekkers then felt truly that they really were on a mission from God. They were however not yet out of danger - they were alone in the veld, tired, hungry and with no stock. Because of the hundreds of rotting corpses surrounding the laager, the wagons were pulled by horses to a site some short distance away. Potgieter's brother was then sent to Blesberg for help and returned with oxen and food some two weeks later. 

Potgieter's thoughts turned to revenge and the recovery of his cattle. 

At Blesberg, the trek wagons continued to pour in, including one hundred wagons under Gert Maritz, not a farmer but an accomplished administrator and artisan. On 7th December 1836, a meeting was held that elected Potgieter as military commander of the trek and Maritz - now a rival to Potgieter - as administrative head. 

On January 2nd 1837, a small commando of 107 men set out from Blesberg, travelling past the site of the present Pretoria and then west to within range of Mosega, the complex of kraals that formed the Matabele capital, a total distance of some 320 miles. 

The Attack on Mosega 
At dawn on the morning of January 17th 1837, the trekkers set upon the first of the kraals with total surprise, killing men, women and children. Herding survivors before them and torching the kraals, the trekkers had laid waste to Mzilikazi's capital Mosega by the end of the morning leaving not a single warrior alive. No trekkers were killed. Mzilikazi was away at the time at Kapain. 

However, the great military kraal at Kapain was still intact and the horses were too tired to make the extra 60 miles. The trekkers, several thousand head of cattle and a party of American missionaries (that had elected to join them rather than stay) retired rapidly back across the Vaal River before the Matabele could regroup. 

There then arose the first taste of discord between the leaders. Maritz wanted the cattle booty divided equally but Potgieter wanted back what had been lost at Vegkop - eventually getting his way. Potgieter moved out of Blesberg to make contact with Tregardt only to find that he had already left for Delagoa Bay and he thus returned to the Vet River to await the next turn of events. 

The victories at Vegkop and Mosega had a galvanizing effect on the Boers wavering in the Cape. Soon, thousands (eventually 12,000) had packed their wagons and were trekking north. The victories also had the effect of not only to populate vacant land but of forming their own state and subjugating any of the current inhabitants. The British community of the Cape understood the trekkers' grievances and wished them well and a small number of British accompanied the trekkers. 

Erasmus Smit 
To the trekkers' dismay however, the single mainstay of their lives, their religion, was threatened. The Dutch Reformed Church refused to sanction the trek and not a single minister accompanied it. Thus it was that such ceremonies as marriages devolved upon the trek leaders. Near Blesberg, where there were now almost one thousand wagons, an American missionary provided some succor for Potgieter's party. Those of Maritz however preferred Maritz's brother in law Erasmus Smit, a flabby man of sixty with a very loud, hectoring, overbearing wife and a weakness for drink. His sole ambition was to be regarded as the main Trek minister even though he was unordained and had little training. 

The victories at Vegkop and Mosega had a galvanizing effect on the Boers wavering in the Cape. Soon, thousands (eventually 12,000) had packed their wagons and were trekking north. The victories also had the effect of not only to populate vacant land but of forming their own state and subjugating any of the current inhabitants. The British community of the Cape understood the trekkers' grievances and wished them well and a small number of British accompanied the trekkers. 

The dilemma posed to the trekkers was where to go now? Potgieter resolutely promoted the open land, sweet grass and known (and defeated) adversary of the highveld in contrast to the unknown, hilly country of Natal. Many though were disposed to think well of the lush grazing and perennial water of Natal and even though it had a port already occupied by a handful of British traders, these could be persuaded to let the trekkers use the port. 

And in any case, it was unlikely that the British would annex the port. Both the arguments surrounding the ultimate destination of the trek and the constitution of the trekkers turned the camp below the Blesberg into a bickering cauldron. 

Retief Arrives 
In April 1837, Piet Retief and one hundred wagons arrived in the camp. Retief was held in high esteem by the trekkers because, in addition to being appointed as Commandant by the British of his local area in the Eastern Cape, he was the one trekker who had emotionally yet eloquently laid out the trekkers' grievances in a proclamation. Within days, he was elected Commander in Chief of the trek. Under the new dispensation, Maritz became chairman of the Council but Potgieter was deprived of office. 

After a favourable report from another reconnaissance party, Maritz was persuaded the Natal was the chosen destination of the trekkers and duly set off with a few wagons. 

Meanwhile Potgieter prepared for a final reckoning with Mzilikazi. With 350 men, he attacked the Matabele military complex at Kapain, driving the Matabele north through several passes where they were successively attacked. Eventually, after nine days of fighting, on the 12th November 1837 the Matabele broke and moved to what is now southern Zimbabwe to found a new nation.

They lost an estimated 3,000 men to the trekkers' none. Potgieter now proclaimed their area - most of Botswana, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State - now trekker country. Again, as after Mosega, squabbling over the 7,000 cattle booty soon started. Returning, they found the trekker camp empty.

Recommended Reading: 
The Great Trek, Oliver Ransford (ISBN 0719526256 1972). 
For a more detailed narrative: 
The Voortrekkers, Johannes Meintjes (ISBN 0304290343 1973). 
Recommended additional reading: 
The Rule of Fear: The Life and Times of Dingane, Peter Becker, (Longmans, 1964).

Related Conflicts

No Releted Conflicts