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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

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


DU PLESSIS, Hans. The Great Trek 175: Story or history?. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2013, vol.53, n.3, pp.437-451. ISSN 2224-7912.

This article investigates the relationship between the writer of a historical novel and the historiography. To what extent does the novelist depend on the historical facts researched by the historian? Undoubtedly the novelist needs the historian's research but it is also accepted that history is researched by people, and that pure objectivity is a myth and writing history always includes the researcher's own interpretation of historical facts. Story (fiction) must therefore be distinguished from history on the one hand and myth on the other. Although the fiction writer needs the historian's research, the historical novelist would prefer to interpret an ill documented part of history himself, because it is easier to fictionalise. The history of the Great Trek between 1836 and 1844, especially in the Potchefstroom area, is a good example. This article aims to establish a narrative for the two historical novels by Hans du Plessis, Die pad na Skuilhoek and As die wind kom draai. Myths are markers of the identity of a group. I am the story I am telling about myself, a community is the narrative it believes of itself. The novel is the story it narrates. Against this background, as well as that of myth as identity marker, certain myths of the Great Trek are redefined. According to traditional historiography, the Voortrekkers who left the Cape Colony in 1836 were mainly white Dutch speaking colonists, but a closer look at the community on the Cape Frontier suggests that this community was a heterogenic and rather integrated community of Khoi, Oorlams, Basters, Trekboers and cattle farmers, and they almost all used Afrikaans as mother tongue and as lingua franca. The social and class boundaries between the different groups on the Frontier were not well defined. The lack of defined dividing lines leads to over simplified dichotomies such as black or white, civilised and uncivilised, owners and nonowners, in order to describe the compilation of the community. Binary opposition usually results in over simplification and stereotyping. Class markers did exist, but it did not run along clear lines. It can rather be described as a continuum with African on the one end and European on the other, comparable to that of the so called Metis Nation of the seventeenth century community of fur hunters in Canada. The Voortrekker community was therefore not a mere homogeneous group of white Dutch colonists. This article furthermore argues that the Frontier was more than the so called Eastern Border or Oosgrens. Frontier means more than a geographical space; it is also a condition of constant transformation. The Cape Frontier of the seventeenth and eighteenth century is discussed against the theoretical background of the American historian, Frederick Jackson Turner's theory of the American Frontier as not only a physical space, but also as creator of new myths, and destroyer of existing ones. With reference to Michel Foucault the Frontier is discussed as a utopia and the interior as heterotopia, a free site without a marginalising authority. Therefore a crucial reason for the mass movement of the Afrikaans speaking Frontier community was the dream of a new site.

Keywords : continuum; creative writing; fictionalise; Frontier; Great Trek; heterotopias; history; historical novel; historical writer; identity; Michel Foucault; myth; narrative; pioneercommunity; story.

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