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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


DE KLERK, Pieter. Was the Great Trek really great? A historiographical inquiry into the consequences and significance of the Great Trek. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2009, vol.49, n.4, pp.658-673. ISSN 2224-7912.

Since the late nineteenth century historians have discussed the consequences and significance of the Great Trek. G M Theal, who wrote an authoritative multi-volume history of South Africa, described the Trek as a unique event in the history of modern colonisation. He, together with scholars such as G E Cory and M Nathan, saw the importance of the Great Trek especially in terms of the expansion of Western civilisation and Christianity into the eastern parts of South Africa. During the period between approximately 1900 and 1980 many Afrikaans- speaking historians were strongly influenced by Afrikaner nationalism. They linked the Great Trek to the birth of the Afrikaner nation. Some historians, such as G S Preller and C Beyers, saw the Voortrekkers as people who were already conscious of their identity as a nation and wanted to become free of British dominance. Later historians, such as G D Scholtz, C F J Muller and F A van Jaarsveld, believed that Afrikaner nationalism only developed after the Great Trek, but that the Trek prevented the anglicization of the Boers in the Cape Colony and therefore made possible the development of an Afrikaner nation. W M Macmillan, E A Walker and C W de Kiewiet, three prominent members of the liberal school of historians, also regarded the Great Trek as a very important event in the development of South Africa, but thought that it had mainly negative consequences. In their opinion, the Voortrekkers had escaped from the economic and political changes in the Cape Colony with the aim of preserving an antiquated way of life. In the Boer republics, and later in the Union of South Africa, the racial policies of the Dutch colonial period were continued, instead of the liberal racial policies practised in the Cape Colony under British rule. Some contemporary historians still accept major elements of the early liberal interpretations. Authors with a Marxist viewpoint, such as D Taylor and W M Tsotsi, also regarded the Voortrekkers as representatives of a pre-capitalist economic system, but at the same time saw them as the vanguard of the imperialist advance in Africa; the Voortrekkers were conquerers and the oppressors of the indigenous population. P Delius, T Keegan and others, however, viewed the Voortrekkers as being part of the expanding capitalist system in Southern Africa. Since the 1960s a number of historians argued that the Great Trek should not be seen as a central event in the development of South Africa. A R Willcox and N Parsons emphasized the similarities between the Great Trek and the Mfecane. N Etherington, who is critical of traditional views of the Mfecane as a dispersal of peoples in Southern Africa caused by the rise of the Zulu kingdom under Shaka, viewed the Great Trek as one of a number of "treks" by various groups during the period 1815-1854. According to him the Great Trek was not larger or more significant than the other migrations and therefore does not deserve to be called "great". During the last four decades several Afrikaans historians pointed out that the Great Trek had a number of diverse consequences. From the perspective of the history of the Afrikaners there were various negative consequences. As a result of the Trek, the Afrikaners remained politically divided for many years. Furthermore, the Trek resulted in the cultural and economic isolation of the Boers. The Great Trek increased the conflicts between the Boers and indigenous tribes, but, on the other hand, stimulated trade between black and white groups. It would appear that in their various interpretations of the consequences of the Great Trek historians were influenced by the circumstances of their own time. Consequences which during a certain period seemed very important are now no longer regarded as particularly significant. De Kiewiet, for instance, pointed out in 1941 that the Great Trek connected the future development of the whole of South Africa with the Afrikaners, but today the Afrikaners are no longer the politically dominant group. Interpretations of the signifance of the Great Trek have also been strongly influenced by philosophical and ideological views. Afrikaner nationalists, African nationalists, Marxists and liberal historians have emphasized different consequences. While the view of the liberal school that the Great Trek caused the continuation of non-liberal racial policies had been influential for a long time, it was challenged by later scholars who regarded racism and apartheid as products of capitalism and colonialism. Some statements on the long term consequences of the Great Trek are speculative and cannot be proved or disproved. Among these are the proposition of several Afrikaner historians that the descendants of the Voortrekkers would have been completely anglicized if they had remained in the Cape Colony; and the statement by De Kiewiet that the Great Trek had prevented the development of separate white and black states in Southern Africa. The Great Trek was an important phase in the Western colonisation of South Africa. Early historians such as Theal saw the colonisation process as a positive development. For African nationalist writers, however, colonisation meant primarily the oppression of the indigenous peoples. Political decolonisation did not bring an end to the process of westernisation and modernisation in Africa, and the dominant political and economic system in South Africa today is mainly of Western origin. The Great Trek was a key event in the history of South Africa, comparable with events such as the British conquest of the Cape Colony in 1806 and the transfer of political power to the black majority in 1994.

Keywords : Great Trek; Voortrekkers; South African history; historiography; Afrikaner nationalism; African nationalism; liberal historians; radical historians; colonisation; capitalism; racial policy.

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