6. Pillar of Smoke by Day - From The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 09 November 2007 22:22

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6. Pillar of Smoke by Day
From The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford

During 1836 things moved rather slowly for the discontented Boer farmers remaining in Cape Colony. It was as though fate wished to give them a chance for second thoughts about the emigration they were contemplating. Then suddenly the situation changed: the two victories of Vegkop and Mosega may have been small things as battles go, but they had tremendous local importance: they injected new resolve and energy into those who were wavering, so that in 1837 what had been a spiritual restlessness became a mass migration, and a trickle of emigrants grew into a flood. During the next two years more than 6,000 Afrikaners went rumbling northwards in their wagons through the Colony and crossed over the Orange river. There they followed the tracks in the veld worn by Potgieter's oxen and scored by the wheels of Maritz's wagons. The world seemed full of golden opportunity that New Year; yet of that 6,000 more than 500 were to die very shortly, for the most part from massacre and battle.

The trek was no longer a migration in the normal sense, it had become something larger, and resembled one of the great military movements which marked the decline of the Roman empire. For these Voortrekkers were not continuing their forebears' centuries-old quest for new farm land: they intended to subjugate the indigenous people living beyond the Orange and turn their country into a state where their own social and political ideas might be practised and perpetuated without outside interference.

The trekkers were uncertain about the way the British authorities would react to their departure. Naturally they hoped that official opinion would accede to it willingly. After all no other state was proposing to colonise or pacify the region beyond the Orange, or even to bring Christianity to it; and being so close at hand the trekboers seemed the logical people to undertake these tasks. In any case this was a peaceful secession and not an armed rebellion.

And in fact, obedient to Whitehall's constant cries for retrenchment the Cape government at the time was setting its face against extending British responsibilities in South Africa. The official reaction to the emigration was thus confused and ineffective; admittedly the Cape of Good Hope Punishment Act which was passed in the August of 1836 made the trekkers liable to punishment for crimes committed south of latitude 25° south, but this was no more than an empty gesture since there existed no means of enforcing it. No attempt was made to declare the emigration illegal. The Lieutenant-Governor of the eastern province went so far as to announce that `He was not aware of any law which prevented His Majesty's subjects from leaving his dominions and settling in another country, and such a law, if it did exist, would be tyrannical and oppressive.' Only later when the realisation grew of the extent to which the Trek was bleeding life out of the Colony, was an attempt made to control it by redressing the trekboers' grievances and compensating war losses more liberally; thus we find Sir Benjamin D'Urban, the Governor of the Cape, admitting that `He could see no means of stopping the emigration except by persuasion and attention to the necessities of the farmers'. Eventually the British Government was to oppose the trekkers' intent and claims by force of arms, but at the beginning of the Great Trek nothing much was done to impede it.

The attitude of the British settlers in Cape Colony was even more favourable to the trekkers: they sympathised and understood their aims, and they wished them well. On one famous occasion at Grahamstown on his way north the British community gave the redoubtable Pieter Uys a splendid send off and presented him with `a folio copy of the Sacred Scriptures... in massy Russia binding'. A small number of Britishers accompanied the emigrant farmers into the wilds and one feels that more would have done so had they possessed the veld lore of the Boers or known the mechanics of trekking.

The Predikants [Ministers] of the Dutch Reformed Church on the other hand dismayed the emigrant farmers by their discouraging attitude to the trek. No minister was prepared to accompany the Voortrekkers across the Orange; nearly every one of them denounced the migration from the pulpit. They said it would mean that the trekboers would never hear the true word of God again, and were even jeopardising the souls of their children since they must remain unbaptised. And so the emigrant farmers for years to come were to be denied the ministrations of one of their own consecrated pastors, a circumstance which was to be responsible for a good deal of the discord which marred their early fortunes.

The dislocation from their farms was a comparatively painless one for most of the emigrants: their homes were makeshift, their flocks and herds were movable and they had been brought up to trek. There were sad moments to be sure when the Boers bade farewell to the family graves they would be leaving untended but this grief was compensated by the thought of the new and exciting life which lay ahead of them.

Generally the trekkers marched north from their farms in separate small parties (which they referred to as trekkies) since this facilitated pasturing their stock. But often they would amalgamate sooner or later into larger groups under an accepted leader. On the other hand the caravans were occasionally large affairs and well-organised: the wagon-convoy led by Pieter Jacobs out of Beaufort was a particularly impressive one, while a hundred families followed Pieter Uys from Uitenhage. But whether the groups were large or small, the emigrants all clung to the notion that they would eventually be associated in a single Maatschappij or community.

The trekkers found numerous crossing places over the Orange along the 100-mile stretch which separates Aliwal North from Philippolis, but the ford they most favoured was Alleman's Drift. Beyond the river the hostile reception of the Hottentots and Bushmen unhappily encouraged the trekkers' African servants to desert in large numbers: nearly always the task of getting the heavily-laden wagons along thus fell on the white men and women; even the girls were often pressed into service when the naked black children, who usually led the trek-oxen, ran away. Beyond the Griqua country, however, the convoys moved through a sparsely inhabited land, and here the emigrants could relax and find happiness in their shared adventure and the tremendous psychological sense of liberation. One trek leader reported back to the Colony that although some of his people were suffering from fever they were finding no difficulty in traversing the great interior plain; water and grazing were both plentiful; they were feeding well on game, fish and honey, and they were even able to obtain grain from the occasional kraals they passed.

It is of course increasingly difficult for us in these days of South Africa's arterial roads and teeming motor cars to appreciate what it was really like to trek across the country 135 years ago. In a way the journey then resembled a voyage at sea since for weeks on end each day was like the one which had preceded it, and filled only with the minutiae of routine tasks. These Pilgrim Fathers of the veld moved north at the unhurried pace of an ox but they felt themselves to be the special wards of God. Every occurrence was interpreted in biblical terms: thus a grass fire seen burning on the veld ahead was accepted gratefully as the pillar of smoke by day and the pillar of fire by night, which the Lord himself had placed there to guide them to a new Canaan.

The wagons in which they travelled lay across the undulating plains of Transorangia like ships of the line ploughing their way through a khaki-coloured sea with flat-topped hills for its islands. But the tracks they left scored in the veld might be spread for several miles across the countryside, since, to avoid the dust, the wagons often travelled several abreast; but these tracks drew together again as they approached the drifts where shallow water and low banks permitted a crossing over the rivers along their route. Lighter and narrower than the `prairie schooners' of the contemporary American pioneers, the wagons measured eighteen feet in length and were six feet broad. Each one could carry a load of more than a ton. Their wheels were shaped like saucers with the concavity looking outwards: the larger wheels at the back standing as high as a man's shoulders were fixed to a solid axle and had fourteen spokes of assegai wood; those in front, turning on a pivoted axle, possessed only ten spokes. The felloes of the wheels were made from white and red pear trees and projected far enough out from the spokes for them to be slanting and they provided some springiness to the nerve-jangling discomfort of the wagons. The trek-oxen were led by a voorloper and urged on by a driver with a long whip who spoke to each animal by its individual name.

Taking up much of the space inside the wagons were the latticed beds on which the trekker women slept, gave birth and died. Wedged in below them were a hundred household articles, including brassbound churns and chests crammed with old clothes. Massive pieces of furniture that were heirlooms passed on from generation to generation were set up beside rough tables and stools which would presently provide part of the beginnings of a home in the interior. Single-furrow ploughs, spades and picks were lashed to the sides of the wagons, and beside them hung little basket-cages filled with squawking hens. Places were found in the wagons too for barrels of gunpowder, and ropes of tobacco, and into odd niches were packed bags of seeds - mealies, sorghum, oats, wheat and vegetables as well as fertile stones of citrus, plums, apricot and peach trees, all ready to be planted out when the Great Trek came to its appointed destination.

Each wagon was drawn by a span of sixteen wide-horned Afrikander oxen, and they moved at a little under four miles an hour. The oxen were inspanned before dawn every day, rested during the midday heat, and then usually covered a few more miles during the cool of the evening. The women and young children travelled in the wagons. Ahead or beside them rode the menfolk on their small shaggy horses of Basuto stock crossed with Arab, ungroomed and unshod, bridled with clumsy strips of leather, and all veld-reared.

The days drifted away as the emigrants moved slowly northwards. The men's eyes constantly swept the country ahead as they rode loosely in their saddles. No movement or feature on the veld was without significance to them. They would shout instructions occasionally to the voorlopers leading the oxen, and warnings of rocks and antbear holes and tree stumps which must all be avoided.

The Voortrekkers would strike us now as being very simply dressed. Those men who could afford it wore clothes of tanned leather, but the majority were content with linen jackets and flap-trousers; sockless feet were thrust into home-made velskoens, their heads were covered with wide-brimmed hats of straw or felt. The women favoured print and linen dresses together with an embroidered shawl spread across the shoulders and a kappie on the head to protect it from the sun. Sunday clothes were packed into a kis within the wagon and they would only rarely be taken out until their journey came to its end.

The morale of the trekkers was good. Looking back on it afterwards one of them wrote that `Every individual I looked at appeared in high spirits and wore a pleasant countenance'. For they knew that they were removed at last from a society that to them was dominated by pernicious racial doctrines, which, as one woman among them had written, were `intolerable for any decent Christians'.

They were very conscious of their Lord's ever-watchful eye over their progress. Although they had no Predikant to minister to them, the trekkers each evening always sang their psalms and heard their portion, and they never let a Sunday pass without having one of their number bend across his brass-clamped Bible and lead them in some form of religious service.

Through these services they clung to the life they had known before, and they prepared for them carefully. `The following morning was the Sabbath,' wrote one emigrant during his long journey, `and the spot where divine service was held was made by wagons drawn up on each side, covered over at the top; at the upper end a large tent was placed, the front pulled up, and looking into the space thus covered in; this served us all for a church; the service being performed twice in the day.'

When they reached a particular favoured site with good pasture and water the convoys halted for days on end to rest the trek-oxen. But now there were more tasks than ever to be done. The stock which every night had been kraalled in rough zarebas made of thorn trees, when these were available, was now given free range and spread across the veld for five miles and more to fatten. Injured or sick animals received attention, their wounds being treated with a mixture of grease and tar. The women settled down to domestic tasks which had of necessity been neglected; clothes were mended and butter made to provide a welcome change from the substitute used on trek which was derived from the fat of sheep's tails. Fat was in demand too to combine with woodash and soda in making soap, as well as for greasing the riems used to harness the oxen. The bestquality fat for this purpose came from the zebras hunted with other game by the men. There was never any shortage of antelope meat: `The encampment is surrounded by all sorts of wild animals,' exulted one trekker, `such as lions, wolves, gnus, blesbok, bonteboks, spring bucks, etc.' The lions often caused trouble and had to be shot to protect the stock, and no less than 200 are said to have been killed by the trekkers between the Orange and the Vaal. But the emphasis of the hunt lay on the provision of meat to vary the monotonous mutton dishes, the dead animals being dragged for miles to the encampment on rough sledges made from forked trees.

The men had other tasks since the wagons were always in need of attention; they were for ever mending broken disselbooms or fitting new spokes to damaged wheels or replacing their iron tyres. But the trekkers knew lighter moments too: the young men played games together like their favourite jukskei, while the children fashioned simple toys for themselves; a popular one consisted of the jaw bone from an ox together with two rows of animal knuckles which did duty as a wagon and its span of oxen. Sometimes two or three men would mount a wagon in the evening with their simple musical instruments and play the old-fashioned folk tunes which everyone knew. Often too they would unite in singing hymns and psalms or in listening to Bible readings. But most of their spare time was passed in conversation; there were endless discussions about past grievances and future hopes, of the day's happenings, or a simple revelling in convoy gossip; nothing was too insignificant to be mentioned, explained, debated.

Cornwallis Harris on his way south towards the Orange at the end of his adventurous journey to Mzilikazi's country came across a group of trekkers, halted and looking like a scene from a travelling circus: `Forty Dutch colonists with their kith and kin,' he writes, `were encamped on the banks of the Calf River....The assemblage of snow-white wagon tilts, around which herds of oxen and droves of horses were grazing, imparting to the animating scene the appearance of a country fair.' It is not difficult when reading descriptions of this sort for the inward eye to conjure up a vision of idyllic content and peace during the stops along the pioneer road.

And thus slowly, having marched for anything up to 200 miles and skirted the Basuto country, the trekkers came up to the agreed rendezvous, to the camp of the United Laagers under the Mount of Blesberg with its blunt basalt pinnacle stained white with birds' droppings and standing close to the Barolong town of Thaba Nchu. The Barolong play a surprisingly important and on the whole an honourable part in the story of the Great Trek. They were ruled as we have seen by a chieftain named Moroka and in the past had suffered severely at the hands of the Matabele. In 1836 Moroka had allowed Potgieter's people to outspan their oxen at Thabu Nchu and had shown them the best grazing and water; soon afterwards he had provided food and teams of oxen, to bring the stranded people back to safety after the action at Vegkop. And now when the main body of trekkers came into his country the chief received them with equal hospitality. This is all the more creditable since the Barolong were comparative new-comers to the district and had hardly had time to settle down themselves. Only a few years before this branch of their tribe had been led by the missionary James Archbell to Thaba Nchu to get farther away from the warlike Matabele. Archbell had built himself a substantial house with thick stone walls on the outskirts of their native town; beside it stood an open-air church entered from the house by a side door, in which he preached his Sunday sermons to the uncomprehending Africans. His comfortable house standing in the wilds must often have reminded the trekkers of the homes they had left in the Colony and it provided a touch of civilisation to these people who had no dwelling places now but their wagons. The trekkers camped four or five miles from the town, most of them below the southern flank of Blesberg where there was an open spruit [rivulet]. They always favoured such sites, for the southern slopes of mountains and hills provided at least psychological protection from the hostile north, and they were often better wooded than the other sides so that fuel and building materials were more easily obtained. On this flank of the Blesberg there are a series of re-entrant valleys which led to basins covered with thick sweet grass; the trekkers' stock could thrive there and after only a few weeks' grazing the humps on the Africaner cattle trembled with stored fat as they walked.

The number of trekkers at the rendezvous was constantly augmented as new convoys rolled in. By mid-1837 someone counted 1,000 wagons standing in the main camp, and marvelled at the vast spread of canvas tilts above which the smoke rose in the still evening air and gave the settlement a look of cosy security and permanence. So concentrated were the wagons that the farmers sometimes built fences round them to ensure a little privacy for themselves, and at Blesberg today one can still see where the fence truncheons have taken root to provide a homely memorial to the great days of the past. The trekkers lived better here than on their journey north. `Provisions of all descriptions are abundant' rejoiced one emigrant after reaching Blesberg, and he added that the local tribesmen `bring daily to the camp large quantities of produce on their backs and laden upon pack-oxen - such as mealies, kaffir corn, pumpkins, potatoes, beans, etc., etc.'.

To begin with Maritz was by far the most important personage in the enormous camp: his duties as President and judge were varied in the extreme, and included such an onerous one as vetting the suitability of prospective brides and grooms for each other: we find an emigrant named Barnard Roedolf noting one day in his diary that `Three young couples passed the matrimonial court held by Maritz, previous to the celebration of marriage'. But such celebrations bristled with vexatious difficulties since no ordained pastor had accompanied the trekkers. This did not admittedly unduly worry Potgieter who was happy to accept the services proffered by Mr Archbell and regularly attended his church rigged out in the glory of a smart nankeen coat and velvet trousers, all topped by a tall bell-shaped hat. But Maritz's people preferred to have as little as possible to do with an American parson whom they deemed only one niche better than an English minister. Instead they turned for spiritual guidance to Erasmus Smit, their leader's brother-in-law.

Erasmus Smit was a droll-eyed and unassuming man, fat, just turning sixty, and possessed of a glorious weakness for drink as well as a melancholy inability to forget his injuries, failings which were going to cause him a great deal of trouble in the future."

Smit had received rudimentary training as a missionary in Holland and this permitted him to officiate at some church services, but unhappily he had never been properly ordained. Moreover many of the trekkers distrusted him on account of an earlier connection with the London Missionary Society which they associated with the detestable John Philip. Others refused to accept his ministrations for the odd reason that he had a cast in one eye, since they held that a priestly personage must be without physical blemish. But despite his shortcomings one cannot help feeling a good deal of sympathy for Erasmus Smit, partly because his wife dominated the sickly man and made his life a misery, but more particularly because we owe him a deep debt of gratitude for recording in his journal many episodes during the course of the Great Trek which otherwise would have been forgotten.

And so although the unfortunate Mr Smit was reluctantly allowed to conduct wedding ceremonies, many of the trekkers led by Hendrik Potgieter resolutely refused to sanction his administering the important sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, on whose regular celebration the Voortrekkers placed such store. And the arguments about the extent of Smit's pastoral field very soon caused a deep rift in the camp.

But far worse dissension arose over the destination of the trekkers.

Potgieter was for ever riding into the main camp to assert that the high veld beyond the Vaal was the land intended for the trekkers by the Lord. He would then go on a shade more mundanely to point out that this country lay beyond the limits of the Cape of Good Hope Punishment Act and so would be completely free from British control. Natal on the other hand he believed would be annexed eventually by the Cape Government, for already British traders were settled at Durban. Potgieter would then go on to say that he heartily distrusted the Zulus but as events had shown he had the measure of Mzilikazi's warriors, and any way it was far safer to farm open land in the high veld than to live in the broken country of Natal which lent itself to ambush and surprise.

But an increasing faction of the trekkers was inclining to the belief that the advantages of the high veld were more than offset by the good soil, good water and good grazing of the country beyond the Berg. They pooh-poohed the danger of British annexation and were sure that the mere handful of English settlers at Durban could easily be swept aside and allow them to use the port as the outlet to the sea which would make them independent of the harbours of Cape Colony. There is no doubt too that they were influenced by all the hazards which Potgieter had demonstrated lay between the high veld and its natural outlet on Delagoa Bay.

J. N. Boshof when he chronicled the trekkers' history as early as 1838 draws attention to this shift in the general view-point, and writes: `It was the intention at first to proceed far into the interior, with the view to settle in the vicinity of Delagoa Bay, for the purpose of carrying on a trade with the inhabitants of that settlement; but as many of the party never calculated the distance to be so great, and learning moreover that the climate was rather unhealthy, they prevailed upon Retief to explore the country towards Natal.'

And so the argument droned on with no firm decision taken and no direction from the trek leader. For Maritz was of two minds about their goal: he favoured Natal but at the same time believed that the Matabele threat to the north ought first to be removed and the high veld more thoroughly explored before becoming definitely committed.

The controversy about the trekkers' destination was by no means all that disturbed the unity of the so-called United Laagers. There was increasing argument too about the constitution which had been agreed upon after Mosega, and the polemics on this subject became more bitter every week. Maritz quarrelled with Potgieter and Potgieter quarrelled with Smit. A contemporary chronicler records that `From this time onwards for some years jealousies were so rife and party feeling ran so high that it is not safe to take the statement of any individual among the immigrants as an accurate version of occurrences'. All in all the Voortrekker camp under Blesberg was a remarkably contentious place.

There is something absurd and even puerile about the trekkers' endless disputes, and it is only by making a genuine mental effort that it is possible to convince oneself that these men who were embarked on so hazardous an exercise should yet have wasted their time and energies on arguments about objectives which should have been agreed upon at its inception. One can only surmise that these Boers of the open veld, now that they were herded together like townsmen in the close confines of the wagon camp and with any amount of time on their hands, could only find excitement in bickering and contradiction. At a11 events it seemed impossible for the Voortrekkers at this stage to live together without taking sides, either with Potgieter or with Maritz.

It came then as a relief when in the April of 1837 news arrived that a man from the Winterberg district, possessing more prestige than any of their present leaders, was approaching Blesberg with 400 followers and a convoy of 100 wagons. Here must be the Moses sent by the Lord to lead them - Piet Retief.

And indeed Piet Retief was a man of luminous integrity and faith. Born in 1780 the realities of his earlier career have been somewhat obscured by the mythology which surrounds its ending. But this does not greatly matter: all we need know about it is that, as he himself explained, unwise speculations as a business contractor during the 1820s caused him to be `reduced from opulence to great pecuniary embarrassment'. Retief however, succeeded in struggling back to comparative prosperity and in becoming a figure of importance in the eastern province; this was recognised by the British authorities when they appointed him to the post of Commandant which carried with it magisterial powers.

Like so many of his compatriots Retief became highly concerned over the inadequate measures taken to secure the eastern frontier. Unfortunately a letter to Cape Town voicing his criticism was answered with a threat to deprive Retief of his official position. Retief conceived this to be an insult; soon afterwards the revocation of Queen Adelaide Province finally decided him to quit the Colony. From now on, so insistent was his determination to found an Afrikaner State beyond Cape Colony's boundaries that it gives what remained of his life a curious intensity, and one is always conscious of his urgent feeling that there is no time to waste in proving that what he was doing was in the best interests of his countrymen.

It was in January that Retief made his final plans to emigrate and on 2 February 1837 he published a manifesto in the Grahamstown Journal which explained his reasons for doing so.

To his credit Retief wrote down his views where hundreds before had only muttered and grumbled about their situation. His pronouncements were well reasoned and dispassionate, elegantly phrased and dignified. In them we first read the familiar litany of the trekboers' grievances, and then Retief goes on to sum up the feelings of the frontiersmen better than anyone else had ever done before. `We despair of saving the Colony,' he wrote, `from those evils which threaten it by the turbulent and dishonest conduct of vagrants who are allowed to infest the country in every part; nor do we see any prospect of peace and happiness for our children in a country thus distracted by internal emotions.' There was a good deal more about `the unjustifiable odium which has been cast upon us', and the losses from emancipation. Finally after setting forth a policy for an independent trekker State, the manifesto closes with a `firm reliance on an all-seeing, just, and merciful Being, whom it will be our endeavour to fear and humbly obey'.

For a century or more since 1837, Retief's protest has rung through South Africa with far more telling effect than all the clumsier efforts at self-justification of the other Voortrekker leaders. During this time the manifesto has come to provide the Afrikaner nation with a sort of charter for itself. It has been analysed and taken apart sentence by sentence with devout care by generations of South African historians. But what in 1837 was of prime importance was the added prestige the manifesto gave to its author as he travelled slowly towards the camp at Blesberg.

On 8 April 1837 when Retief drew near, Gert Maritz and hundreds of the trekkers rode out of camp to meet him. A fever took them. They were enchanted beyond all reason by the new-comer's personality. Never before had they come across a man with such quiet authority and presence or with that urbane polish which often goes with French blood (for Retief was of Huguenot descent). Here stood the very model of everything that their captain should be, and within a few days, moved by his quality (and soothed too by the fact he was still unidentified with the party squabbles which threatened to destroy the trek), Retief was elected Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Maatschappij at Blesberg.

With their election of a Governor the Afrikaners in effect had severed their relations with the British Crown and transferred their allegiance to a new head of State. But they were quite unable to do so without causing immense offence to some of their own countrymen. In the arrangements that were made Maritz retained his position of Judge and became chairman of a Council of Policy. Hendrik Potgieter on the other hand (and to his towering rage) was deprived of office. But whatever we may think of the rights and wrongs of what they had done, it must be admitted that the majority of the trekkers had at least found some sort of unity among themselves, even if it had been at the expense of the man who had led their vanguard across the Orange.

Piet Retief was considerably older than the general run of the trekkers; already his brown hair was greying at the temples. But even he with the magnetic personality and all his unlimited capacity for enthusiasm could not please everybody. And in fact one of his first acts as Governor further infuriated Potgieter's Dopper followers. He took the side of Erasmus Smit in the dispute over the Trek's spiritual leader. `We have, thank God, a truly good Divine among us,' wrote Retief at this time, `whom we acknowledge as a faithful shepherd to his flock', and the grateful Smit was duly installed as Predikant [Minister] to the United Laagers at a salary of 600 rix-dollars a year.

But Retief was careful to conciliate Potgieter in another matter by falling in with his demand to make a further assault on the Matabele, although in the event the threat of a Griqua raid on Blesberg led to its postponement.

As regards the destination of the Trek, Retief was not prepared yet to commit himself; instead he compromised by leading the majority of the emigrants northwards to an area between the 'Sand and Vet rivers from which they could move equally easily across the Vaal or eastwards over the Drakensberg. Finally, in the early days of June 1837, while scouts were sent out to seek passes through the Berg, the Governor called another mass meeting to discuss the Maatschappij's constitution again. The meeting approved a basic code of legislation set forth in Nine Articles which established the authority of the leaders who had been elected, but a series of by-laws gave offence to some trekkers who grumbled that they had crossed the Orange to get away from troublesome regulations of this sort. It was a relief to come to the less controversial subject of choosing a name for the State they were going to found: after much discussion `New Eden' and `East Africa' were both discarded in favour of `The Free Province of New Holland in South Eastern Africa'.

Soon after this Piet Uys, a thick-set shaggy man with a hundred adherents, arrived at the United Laagers and proceeded to make them still less united with a blank refusal to accept the Nine Articles. He made it clear too that he disliked Retief's growing interest in 'Natalland' which after his successful Commission Trek he had come to regard as something in the nature of a family preserve. In the end Uys rode back from the main Voortrekker laager to establish his own camp on the banks of the river Caledon and there he angrily awaited events.

Retief next found the time to demonstrate his diplomatic talents by making formal treaties with the chiefs Moroka, Moshweshwe and Sekonyela, which secured his lines of communications to the south. Only a little later the scouts returned from the Drakensberg with the news that they had discovered five practical passes down the mountain scarp. `Had we known sooner that we would have found a pass over the Draakberg {sic},' wrote Retief, `we should long ago have been at the end of our journey. From all accounts we had been led to believe that we should be compelled to travel round the point of the mountain.' For their report had decided the Governor: he came down heavily on the side of those who considered Natal to be the proper destination for the Voortrekkers. The high veld, he announced, must be abandoned.

Retief called yet another meeting at Tafeltop in mid-September to discuss the project of Natal, fondly hoping that he would be persuasive enough to compose the trekkers' differences. Predictably Potgieter reaffirmed his intention of settling on the high veld, while Piet Uys confused the issue with the announcement that although he was done with the United Laagers, he was quite prepared to assist in another punitive expedition against the Matabele. The unity of the Maatschappij was now irrevocably broken, the grand dream was fragmented into two even more intense sub-dreams, and the Great Trek was great no longer. And so while Retief set off with a few wagons for the Drakensberg passes, trusting that the main mass of emigrants would fallow him, Uys and Potgieter made their preparations for the final settling of the account with Mzilikazi.

The commando numbered 330 and it was composed of just about as tough a lot of men as could have been found in southern Africa at the time, a heavy-handed irrepressible lot. This time there were to be no inconclusive engagements. Hendrik Potgieter by now had learned the hall-mark of a successful commander - he planned on complete victory, on a victory which would give him dominance over the high veld. He was seeking a finish-fight; there were to be no loose ends left as there had been after Mosega. Kapain itself must be destroyed and the Matabele expelled.

Towards the end of October the commando came up to Mosega and found it to be deserted. Pressing through the wild forested Marico valley the Boers then approached the Matabele nuclear area round Kapain. Beyond it the Marico river runs through three successive poorts in the mountain ranges lying to the north. The Boers' strategy was to threaten each poort in turn and drive the Matabele ever northwards. The country was occasionally rough enough to compel the trekkers to fight on foot, but whether mounted or not their tactics were always the same: they provoked the Matabele to make an attack and it always came according to the traditional manner in a `chest' and two `horns'; the white men would then concentrate their fire on the points of the two enveloping flanks; invariably the `horns' withered away and the whole assault bogged down. Applying these tactics for nine successive days the trekkers proved again that on the high veld the assegai would never match up to the musket, or naked savages, however brave, compete in battle with mounted men. They drove the Matabele towards modern Gaborone in Botswana, and on to the Tswapong mountains. On 12 November 1837 Mzilikazi's impis finally broke. The Boers called off the pursuit at Deerdepoort, and there offered up prayers of thanksgiving. Then Kapain and the other kraals were put to the torch as Mzilikazi led the remnants of his tribe away to the north. He was to cross the Limpopo and to found an empire in Rhodesia that lasted a further fifty years.

The Boers estimated that the Matabele lost 3,000 men during the nine-day running fight along the Marico. They themselves did not suffer a single casualty. This was the sort of victory the high veld Voortrekkers had been looking for, and Cilliers added to his account the quaintly engaging aside that `What was theirs was now ours.' Potgieter at once gave substance to the remark: before the dust had settled over Kapain he issued a proclamation annexing all Mzilikazi's former territory by right of conquest. It comprised a huge area embracing much of modern Botswana, three-quarters of the Transvaal, and half the Orange Free State. The cattle loot was enormous too: the conquerors gathered in 7,000 head for themselves and gave many more to the Barolong herders who had accompanied the expedition.

But as at Mosega earlier in the year, now that the danger was over, a reaction set in among the victors. The booty proved the usual bone of contention. Potgieter again demanded the major portion of the cattle and he was supported in this claim by Uys. Maritz (who had missed the fight because of illness), however, protested that the losses of Vegkop had already been made good after Mosega, and this time it was he who got his way.

So once again it was an angry, quarrelling commando which came riding south towards the main trekker encampments near the Sand river They were found to be empty now. The emigrants there had heard good news from Natal and already their wagons were streaming towards the Drakensberg passes.

For Retief a little time before had found his way down the mountains and had ridden off with a handful of men to seek an interview with Dingaan in Zululand. Presently he had sent a message that all the land between the Tugela and the Umzimkulu was open for settlement by the trekkers.

Uys and Maritz at once set out for Natal, and very half-heartedly Potgieter followed them with his wagons. He was filled with forebodings: Potgieter had always predicted trouble for the trekkers in Natal and he exuded the impression that he was acting now against his better judgment. But not even in his most pessimistic moments could he have imagined the doom which even now was building up and would presently threaten to overwhelm the emigrants.