Was the Great Boer Trek prompted by Issues of Land and Slaves?

Essay, 2017
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To trace the causes of the Great Trek it is essential to know the major participants and these are the Boers and the British. However, it is keen to note that the foundation of the Great Trek is centred on the Boers. Who were the Boers? Dutch and Afrikaans word for farmer, which came to denote the descendants of the Dutch-speaking settlers of the eastern Cape frontier in Southern Africa during the 18th century, as well as those who left the Cape Colony during the 19th century to settle in the Orange Free State, Transvaal and to a lesser extent Natal.[1] Furthermore, the Great Trek which took place in the 1830’s and 1840’s was a movement of Dutch-speaking colonists into the interior of southern Africa in search of land where they could establish their own homeland, independent of British rule. The great trek is known in Afrikaans as “Groot Trek”. In this famous Trek, about 12,000- 14,000 Boers left the cape colony between 1835 and 1843. This was a mass migration; hence the name great which involved individuals moving with their families to north and north-east that is the interior of South Africa. The determination and courage of these pioneers has become the single most important element in the folk memory of Afrikaner Nationalism.

Their primary motivations for leaving the Cape were to escape British rule and extract themselves from the constant border wars between the British imperial government and the tribes on the eastern frontier. Various reasons have been given for the Great Trek which includes, replacing the indigenous Dutch language with English, British laws and policies, constant clash between the Boers and the Xhosa, among others. Nevertheless, it has been argued that issues of land and slavery are the major factors that prompted the Great Trek.

To begin with issues of land, Boers attitude towards land allocation was not the best. This is because lands apportioned to people for the purpose of farming and other activities were not substantial. Large acres of land were given to families in the Cape Colony where the Boers found themselves and they were restricted by the introduction of the interstate law (). Accompanied with this factor was the British immigration policy, where the first batch of British settlers who arrived in 1820 was each given a plot of land in the Zuurveld at the total cost of 50,000 pounds. From the evidence thus far, the inference that can be made primarily is that, eventually as the lands had been given out to people it led to scarcity and population has increased and since they were extensively farmers the needed land for cultivation and hence the need to move into the interior to search for land specifically the Natal region.

The second factor about land had to do with British policies and regulations. Prior to this factor as the British left in 1803 until their return in 1806, the Dutch were controlling land in the domains of the Cape Colony. With regards to this, lands were given freely to people for major activities. From 1820, the British had control over the Cape Colony since the Dutch sold their franchise to them and left the shores of the cape. The new authority, the British brought in new regulatory policies where land was no longer free. Major among these policies was the Quit Rent System. This regulation ensured that Boers pay for land usage and this became a major disadvantage to those who could not afford. So in the nutshell the system of land ownership shifted. However, in 1836, the British gave large acres of lands to the indigenous people who were the Khoi, San and Bantu which were confiscated by the Boers and the new British policies ensured that these acres were given back. This factor stimulated them to move outside Britain’s domain to search for land where they would be liberated from British control.

Moreover, Frontier expansion is significant when looking at issues of land as a cause of the Great Trek. The Boers had knowledge and information about land in the interior left behind that were unoccupied due to the activities of the Mfecane that has to do with wars, political uprisings and destabilizations. Since Britain had placed restrictions with regards to acquisition of lands, there was the need to move outside the domains of British colony for a full urban settlement devoid of British rules and policies. In addition, around 1820’s and 1830’s, there was a massive drought in some parts of the Cape colony and since the British were not willingly allowing them to occupy new lands in the colony they had to search for new land elsewhere specifically fertile land and that also triggered off the move. Hence the Great Trek. Notwithstanding this chaotic factor, there was the need to move into the Natal region since they had fare knowledge about unoccupied lands. The evidence thus far suggests that expansion of frontiers accompanied with drought culminated to the issues of land as a major factor that sparked the Great Trek.

However, the issue of slavery has some factors that are accountable for the Great Trek. First and foremost, the issue of force labour. Due to their extensive farming practices, they engaged in force labour since it is relatively free and cheap. Around 1807, there were anti-slavery activitivism with the intention of abolishing the trade in human and also the use of human labour. However the major proponent of this philosophy was Britain and they were in authority of the Cape colony. Now missionaries and humanitarian groups had lobbied for laws to be enforced to end this escapade. These Boers envisaged that it will surely hamper their activities since they were extensive farmers and needed large and free working force and they could not afford hired labour. This eventually triggered them to flee from British colony that is the Cape colony where they will be free from their laws. Consequently, there was the need to Trek.

The Hamitic Hypothesis was also a factor with regards to slave issues accounting for the Great Trek. It is generally the belief by the Boers that non-white race is inferior to white race. In this context there was no equality. Also it is the economic link where cheap labour is promoted which ultimately was the rationale behind slavery and racism as undeniable as the fact that the sun rises in the east. So since the Boers were using blacks as slaves they solemnly hold on to this view and belief. But the passage of the Free Labour Policy and Ordinance 50 by the British, which demanded that black labour, must be paid and also gained equal rights with the white. However, in 1833, the reformed parliament in London passed the Emancipation Act with this; all slaves in British colonies are to be freed after a period of ‘apprenticeship’, which in the cape colony end in 1838. The Boers inevitably felt that alien ways are being imposed upon their long-established culture by a new colonial power, and their sense of isolation is increased by other changes. Moreover, this legislation regarding slaves and servants implied that there should be proper contract and in the long ran will have an impact on the Boers as long as they are living within the confines of the British hence the need to move into a region where the British do not have control over.

In conclusion, it is true that the issue of land and slavery actually triggered off the move because e they were farmers and for that matter they were using land more extensively giving large tracks of lands, they experienced some drought and also had knowledge about unoccupied lands in the interior and since the British would not allow them to extend their frontiers within the Cape Colony the need to Trek. Furthermore, with the issue of slavery these Boers has engaged human labour forcibly in their workforce due to their major occupation as extensive farmers and since Britain has abolished slavery in the Cape Colony they had to move coupled with the fact that the black race is inferior to the white based on the Hermitic Hypothesis but however the Ordinance 50 has given them equal rights and they see this as an opposition to their culture and religion therefore they trek and moved into the interior specifically the Natal region where they will have the free will to go about their activities devoid of British influence.


1. Du Toit, Brian M. (1998). The Boers in East Africa: Ethnicity and Identity. p.1.

2. Neil Parsons, New history of South Africa, the Macmillan press ltd,(London and Basingstoke),1993, 2nd edition

3. Eric and Derson Walker, the great trek, the causes of great trek

4. Dr Nyaaba Ali lecture notes, reasons for the Great Trek. P. 16

[1] Du Toit, Brian M. (1998). The Boers in East Africa: Ethnicity and Identity. p.1.

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Was the Great Boer Trek prompted by Issues of Land and Slaves?
Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology
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Abibah Tutuwah Sumana (Author), 2017, Was the Great Boer Trek prompted by Issues of Land and Slaves?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/377052


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