The Great Trek Was Not Over Abolition by Ron (Republican Trekker Volk), 30 October 2008

Certain historians have erroneously asserted the the Great Trek was motivated over the issue of the abolition of slavery but the fact of the matter is that historians have noted that most of the Boers of the frontiers did not own slaves as most of the slave owners were among the Cape Dutch of the Western Cape of whom very few went on the Great Trek. 

The fact of the matter is that most of the Boers of the frontier did not own slaves. Canadian professor Wallace Mills noted this in his course on the Great Trek & the Encyclopedia Britannica BOTH note that most of the Boers did not own slaves. The Great Trek was motivated over the constant frontier wars with the Xhosas who were killing so many Boers that they decided that the best thing for them to do was to trek away from the area as their ancestors had done from the VOC power back almost one century & a half earlier. 

The British Imperialism in the region was simply the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. There were other pressing matters such as the constant border wars & growing land shortages. The notable consequence relating to the abolition of slavery which might have in fact played a role in causing the Great Trek was that the former slaves were now wandering all over often attacking local residents. Piet Retief only mentioned the abolition of slavery in his Manifesto in a vain attempt at getting the tacit support or understanding of the slave owning Cape Dutch. Who in fact often looked down at the Boers & ridiculed them for wanting to trek.  

The following is an excerpt from the course by the Canadian Professor Wallace Mills.


[ Landless poor whites.

- recent interpretations tend to stress more mundane factors and motivations for the movement. The migratory habits to acquire more land, which were firmly established by trekboers throughout the 18th C, had been bottled up for 40-50 years and there were growing numbers of landless white males. In trekboer society, this was a terrible situation and fate. Their only course was to become a ‘bywoner’ to some relative or other farmer with land. As such, they would provide services (usually as an overseer) and be allowed to use some land for a few cattle or agricultural purposes. This meant that their status was only a bit better than non-white servants.

- this interpretation sees the ‘Great Trek’ as merely the bursting of the dam that had bottled such migrations up for over 2 generations.

Piet Retief’s Manifesto.

- Retief was one of the most influential of the Great Trek leaders. Among those who joined the Great Trek, he was a bit unusual in a couple of respects. He was much better off than most trekkers; at one time he owned over 20 lots in Grahamstown as well as farm properties. As can be seen from his letter (it was translated for publication in the Grahamstown Journal), he was better educated than most who were illiterate or just barely literate.

- Retief’s so-called manifesto has too often been accepted uncritically and without analysis of context. Not all the assertions can be accepted at face value. It must be analysed carefully and critically.

- for example, the complaint about the abolition of slavery and the process of compensation for a long time went unexamined and was repeated innumerable times as a factor in the trek (by both friends and critics).

-however, investigation revealed that slavery was not common in the eastern frontier areas from which almost all the Voortrekkers came. Besides, no new slaves could be imported after 1807 and the prices of the existing slaves had risen markedly. Very few (if any) Voortrekkers had ever owned slaves. Retief’s only known connection was that at one time he had borrowed money from an ex-slave woman!

Shutting down of migration after 1780s.

- the earlier expansion had left some land not taken up behind the leading edges and the pushing back of the Xhosa in the early wars in the 19th C had made some land available (however, the 1820 settlers had also been assigned much of that); nevertheless, the voracious appetite for land among trekboers meant that by the 1830s, landlessness had grown. In effect, the on-going migration that had characterised the 18th C had been dammed up for almost 50 years. Thus, the Great Trek can be viewed as the bursting of the dam. Thus, the Great Trek can be seen as merely the resumption of the earlier process.

- this interpretation is supported by the fact that late in the 19th C when the problem of landlessness again reemerged in the South African Republic (Transvaal), a couple of attempts were made to organize new treks farther into the interior (into Zimbabwe or Angola). These efforts were blocked by Rhodes who wanted to ensure that it was the British Empire that got these areas. ]

End of quote. 

From: The Great Trek. Wallace Mills. 

The following is from American author Stephen Crane.

[ As far back as 1809, Hottentots were prohibited from wandering about the country without passes, and from 1812, Hottentot children who had been maintained for eight years by the employers of their parents, were bound as apprenticed for ten years longer. The missionaries were dissatisfied with these restrictions; both of them were removed by an ordinance passed July, 1828, when vagrant Hottentots began to wander over the country at will. Farming became almost impossible; the farm-laborers became vagabonds and petty thefts took place constantly.

Early in 1834, Sir Benjamin D'Urban, called "the Good," was appointed Governor. A legislative council was then granted the colony, but its powers were not great.

The Boers had never been greatly in favor (many opposed it strongly) of slavery, but they had yielded to the general custom and over three million pounds was invested in slaves throughout the colony in 1834. Sir Benjamin D'Urban proclaimed the emancipation of the slaves, who had been set free throughout the British Empire, in August, 1833. This freeing was to take effect in Cape Colony on the 1st of December, 1834.

The news of the emancipation was felt to be a relief, but the terms on which it was conducted were productive of unending trouble. The slave-owners of Cape Colony were awarded less than a million and a quarter for their slaves -- and the imperial government refused to send the money to South Africa; each claim was to be proved before commissioners in London, when the amount would be paid in stock. To make a journey of one hundred days to London was, of course, impossible to the farmers; they were at the mercy of agents who made their way down to the colony and purchased the claims, so that the colonist received sometimes a fifth, sometimes a sixth, or less, of the value of his slaves. The colonists had hoped that a vagrant act would have been passed by the Council when the slaves were freed, to keep them from being still further overrun by this large released black population, but this was not done. ]

End of quote. 

From: The Great Boer Trek. 

The slave owners were the Cape Dutch in the Western Cape most of whom did not go on the series of mass migrations later called the Great Trek. Therefore if slavery was a motivating factor then why did MOST of the slave owners not go on the trek? The only grievance anyone had about the abolition of slavery was the fact that the compensation was impossible to collect. 

[ The discontent, so often, and to his detriment, ascribed to the Boer was exaggerated and misrepresented, as, for instance, in the matter of the freeing of the slaves, when he was described as being inhumanly against their liberation. No! Your Majesty, it was not the Christian Boers' repugnance to the emancipation, but his opposition to the means employed in effecting same under the blessed British rule. Is Your Majesty perhaps aware how the Boers became possessed of those slaves? They, the Boers, had no ships to convey the slaves from Mozambique and elsewhere, as none other than English vessels were allowed to bring slaves to the Cape market; therefore, it was from English slave-ships that the Boers first bought their slaves, and in this manner enjoyed a short season of prosperity; for, assisted by their dearly bought slaves, they could have their lands ploughed and sown with grain, which, under the blessings of Britannia's laws, could be sold for not more than 18d. per bag.

It was thereafter shipped abroad by English merchants and sold at immense profits. And then,Your Majesty, the Boer was suddenly told: "Your slaves are free, and you will receive compensation to such and such an amount for them, which you will have to go and get in England." Your Majesty, how could the Boer be expected with his ox-wagon or horses to go and fetch same?

To have undertaken, at that time, a voyage so dangerous and lengthy (a hundred days or so being the time required to accomplish same) would have cost more than the small amount of the indemnity he was to receive for his dearly bought slaves. What could the Boer do? The only means left him was to engage the English dealer, from whom he had purchased the slaves at exorbitant prices, to go and fetch the money for him, or to sell his chance for what he could get. ]

The above excerpt was from: General Petrus Joubert. Vice President of the Transvaal Republic during the tenure of President Paul Kruger whom he ran against 3 times. This excerpt is noted in the Story of the Boers: a book compiled by a Dutch diplomat named C W van der Hoogt who met President Paul Kruger & was published in 1900. The role of the abolition of slavery was certainly minimal in nature when taking the above facts into consideration.