To what extent was the Great Trek undertaken to preserve Afrikaner Culture?

Essay 2014 8 Pages

History - Africa


To what extent was the Great Trek undertaken to preserve Afrikaner culture?

The Great Trek of the Dutch descended Afrikaner population which began in 1838 has been described by historians such as J. Du Plessis as being one of the strangest and most moving spectacles in history; with well-to-do farmers… packing their families, and household goods into an unwieldy ox-wagon, driving their flocks and herds before them, and trekking away to the unknown.[1] Narratives of this period of history as depicted by Afrikaner historians tend to portray the voortrekkers as united protagonists placed in a just and misfortunate situation.[2] An exemplary figure of this form of historiography was Gustav Schoeman Preller and his works provided recognition of Afrikaner historical importance. He continued on and made the plea of: ‘Let us be serious about accepting a written Afrikaans’.[3] His works, particularly the 1920 book Piet Retief depicted the Voortrekker leader Retief and the Voortrekkers as heroes and raised the Great Trek as a definitive moment in nineteenth century nationalism.[4] This draws upon the theory that the Great Trek was used as a means to preserve Afrikaner culture and was set upon as a form of cultural nationalism. This essay will discuss the extent to which this was the cause for the Great Trek, along with raising other reasons for why the trek began.

The notion of the Great Trek as a means of preservation of culture has been prevalent and celebrated in modern Afrikaner nationalism. Afrikaners have interpreted their history as being a bitter struggle for self-preservation[5] and this was partially brought about by British manipulation and intervention. The Cape Colony was formally put under British control after the Napoleonic Wars and this ownership was ratified by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The British forced upon the Afrikaners a policy of Anglicisation, with British colonies in Africa being led with a concerted effort to force British culture in and drive Afrikaner culture out, this including schools using English as the main form of tuition and teaching British imperial history. This attempt to anglicise the Afrikaner population spurred on negative feelings towards the British and increased the idea of the need to protect their culture and led to the mobilisation of the Great Trek. As Baldauf and Kaplan put it, Afrikaners resented Anglicisation as it was seen as a threat to their language, culture, and identity and the future depended on which culture would triumph in South Africa.[6] The Great Trek was partly an attempt to formulate nationalist identity by escaping from oppressive domination by the British,[7] and their attempts of cultural erasure. There were also threats to what the Afrikaner perceived as tradition, and slavery was included in this perception.

The abolition of slavery had an effect on why the Great Trek was undertaken and has links to the Afrikaner cultural preservation theory. Slavery was an integral part of Afrikaner society, and there was a sense of discontent when it was called to an end.[8] With this idea in mind it is clear that the Afrikaners did not want their way of life to be manipulated in any way. To them, the abolition of slavery further proved to the Afrikaners that Boers and British could not work side by side in the Cape Colony. Anna Steenkamp, Piet Retief’s niece wrote that the emancipation of slaves was the final grievance leading to the Great Trek, however, this was not due to their freedom but more so to preserve the ‘…doctrines of purity…’[9] Although this is linked to an immoral cause, it does add to the extent to which the Great Trek was a cultural mission. There was also a sense of racial superiority in this, leading to another branch of the preservationist view for the trek.

Although not as strong as the views of racial superiority that prevailed with the neurosciences of European countries, the Afrikaners felt that they were superior to the black African natives and their former slaves. They resented the legislation that put slaves on an equal level with Christians and allowed Hottentots to “run wild.”[10] The Great Trek could be seen partly as having been a form of protest, both as an attempt to prove Afrikaner people as superior to the other African “tribes” along with being an attempt to keep slavery intact, this is a rather extreme view that vilifies the Afrikaner people but it cannot be ignored as it is drawn upon as a reason for the trek not only by historians but by Piet Retief himself. Boers had developed their own relationships with the Hottentots or Khoi Khoi servants, along with surrounding kingdoms and this was based upon their ideas of white superiority and seeing black people as being designed for servant work, in Fyle’s interpretation of the Boer attitude.[11] The idea of racial superiority was put forward in Retief’s manifesto wherein he stated: ‘…it is our determination to maintain such regulations as may suppress crime and preserve proper relations between master and servant.’[12] Protecting what was seen as the “proper” way of conducting things and the “proper” way of life and hierarchy forms part of the culturally based argument for the trek but it is also expansionist in a sense, as the trek meant that Afrikaner culture moved further into the interior, and their way of life followed, and in reading Retief’s point in more depth, the idea of suppression to be placed upon others, bringing or forcing others under the old order of Afrikaner culture. Adding to this was the idea that there was a fear of insubordination, with the feeling of the old order being invented, with the feeling that, as stated by the Colesberg memorialists that: ‘…the black population in general have a contempt for all just restraint, are not subject to their superiors, not satisfied with equality [but] thirst for… unlawful authority.’[13] Not only in terms of cultural preservation but expansion seemed to be a cause for trekking.


[1] J. Du Plessis, The Life of Andrew Murray of South Africa (London: Marshall Bros., 1999), p. 82. Cited in Giliomee, Hermann, The Afrikaners Biography of a People (University of Virginia Press, 2003), p. 161

[2] Cavanagh, Edward, The Griqua Past and the Limits of South African History, 1902-1994 (Peter Lang, 2011), p. 95

[3] February, Vernon, The Afrikaners of South Africa (Routledge, 2013) p. 87

[4] Berger, Iris, South Africa in World History (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 95

[5] Visser, Wessel, Trends In South African Historiography and the Present State of Historical Research (University of Stellenbosch, 2004), p. 3

[6] Baldauf, Richard B. & Kaplan, Robert B., Language Planning and Policy in Africa (Multilingual Matters, 2004), p. 202

[7] Berger, Iris, South Africa in World History (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 60

[8] Berger, Iris, South Africa in World History (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 60

[9] Le May, G. H. L., The Afrikaners An Historical Interpretation (Blackwell Publishers, 1995), p. 47

[10] Patterson, Sheila, The Last Trek: A Study of the Boer People and the Afrikaner Nation (Routledge, 2013). p. 20

[11] Fyle, C. Magbaily, Introduction to the History of African Civilization Precolonial Africa (University Press of America, 1999), p. 155

[12] Patterson, Sheila, The Last Trek: A Study of the Boer People and the Afrikaner Nation (Routledge, 2013). p. 20

[13] Toit, André Du & Gillomee, Hermann Buhr, African Political Thought: 1780-1850 (University of California Press, 1983), p. 86


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what extent great trek undertaken preserve afrikaner culture



Title: To what extent was the Great Trek undertaken to preserve Afrikaner Culture?