by ERIC GOETZSCHE
One hundred and ten years ago this year, the Voortrekkers lost their two most prominent and colourful leaders, Hendrik Potgieter and Andries Pretorius.
Both played important parts in the stirring history of those eventful days, quarrelled violently with each other in 1842, became reconciled only 10 years later, and died the following year of the same disease, dropsy, within a few months of each other.
Potgieter spent but little time in Natal. Pretorius, on the other hand, will ever be associated with this province, as the leader of the Commando which vanquished Dingaan at the Battle of Blood River, as one of the chief architects of the Trekker settlement and short-lived Republic in Natal, as the negotiator of the Sand River Convention and, finally, as the chief antagonist of Sir Harry Smith.
A born leader of men, Andries Willem Jacobus Pretorius was an outstanding figure in Boer history from 1838 until his death.
He was born in the Cape, in 1799, a descendant of Jan Pretorius, who was the first of the name to arrive in the Cape in the seventeenth century: the family appears to have been prominent and well-respected.
Andries enters the historic scene in November 1837 when, as a distinguished and well-to-do citizen of Graaff-Reinet, he displayed a keen interest in the Trekker movement by joining
Piet Uys’ commando as a volunteer and taking part in the battle fought near Mosega in which Mzilikazi and his Matabele impis were put to flight.
On October 23 of that year, Piet Retief and his party of Boer emigrants were given a hearty welcome by the English settlers at Port Natal. Then followed the premeditated murder of Retief and his companions at Dingaan’s Kraal and the massacre of the Trekkers in their laagers.
The first efforts of both Boer and British to avenge those horrors met with dismal failure leaving the Boer emigrants in a serious plight.
It was at this stage that the unhappy Trekkers sent a representative to Graaff-Reinet to invite Andries Pretorius to accept the appointment of Commandant-General of their party and lead a punitive expedition against Dingaan. The invitation was accepted and Pretorius, together with Commandant Jacobs and 60 men, whom he had induced to join him, reached the main laager on the little Tugela on November 22, 1838.
Pretorius, at this time was 39 years of age, with a most imposing physique and a strong character. Although he had had but little fighting experience, yet he was soon to demonstrate that, like most Boers, he could adapt himself to the art of war as well as to that
The Commando which set out under him on December 4, 1838 and crossed the Tugela numbered 464 Voortrekkers.
On Sunday, December 16, 1838, that small force of resolute, dauntless men under his inspired leadership put to flight the vast Zulu army of at least 10,000 men, in one of the most fateful battles ever fought in South Africa and then went forward to gungundhlovu, where the tragic remains of Piet Retief and his men were found.
The treaty which the treacherous Dingaan had concluded with the Trekkers was found in a leather bag slung over the dead leader’s shoulder.
The great rejoicings which greeted the victorius ‘Wen’ (Win) Commando on its return to the main encampment were dampened by the grim tidings that Major Samuel Charteris, military secretary to the Governor of the Cape, had arrived at Port Natal with a force, to occupy the territory temporarily because: ‘... of the disturbed state of the native tribes in the territories adjoining Port Natal, arising in a great degree from the unwarranted occupation of territories by certain emigrants from this (Cape) colony . . .’
Although considerably disturbed, the Voortrekkers remainded undaunted, ignored the British tind proceeded with the establishment of their capital, which they named Pietermaritzburg, in honour of Piet Retief and Gerrit Maritz.
The British had no intention of remaining at Port Natal: their mission was merely to try to maintain the peace between the Boers and Zulus, by bringing the parties together to discuss terms.
An unexpected event, however, altered the whole situation. In October 1839, Mpande, a younger 1rother of Dingaan, fled across the Tugela with a large following of supporters, sought asylum with the Boers to whom he offered assistance to finally overthrow Dingaan.
The offer was accepted, and a Trekker Commando under Pretorius, and aided by Zulu regiments under Nongolaza, Mpande’s general, invaded Zululand, defeated Dingaan decisively and proclaimed Mpande King of the Zulus.
The Voortrekkers who had followed Piet Retief across the Drakensberg had at last achieved their state, after two years of almost continuous warfare.
By the end of that (1839) year the British troops had left Port Natal and the recently appointed Zulu King was a vassal of the Boers; thus all augured well for the future of the Voortrekkers in their newly acquired territory, over which the flag of the Republic of Natalia was now defiantly flying.
Within three years, however, British troops were back, for in May 1842 Captain Smith arrived with a force, this time to remain. Pretorius, however, defeated the British at the Battle of Congella and then besieged Smith and his men for over a month.
After the relief of the beleaguered garrison an uneasy peace between the British and the Boers followed for a year and then Britain annexed Natal.
Pretorius had settled near Pietermaritzburg and soon afterwards resigned the office of Commandant General. He gave his submission to the authority of the Queen most reluctantly.
In 1847 he journeyed to Grahamstown to interview Sir Henry Pottinger to place before him the injustices the Natal Trekkers felt they were suffering.
Pottinger, unwisely refused to see him; this cavalier treatment infuriated Pretorius and aroused great indignation among the Dutch farmers in the Cape, many of whom decided to throw in their lot with the Voortrekkers.
Meanwhile, quarrelling and bickering among the Trekkers had become more pronounced than ever, as the Boer Republic of Natal, bravely begun in 1839, dragged to a pathetic close.
In 1848 Sir Harry Smith, who had succeeded Sir Henry Pottinger, met Pretorius and a number of the Boers at the foot of the Berg in Natal. The meeting was cordial, but, unfortunately, both men viewed the position from a totally different aspect: Smith was
determined that Natal was to remain British while Pretorius was adamant on the question of his people’s independence.
This resulted in Pretorius and his followers casting off their recently sworn allegiance to England.
The Boer leader thereafter established himself in the Magaliesberg (in the area now known as Rustenburg) and took the bold, if unwise, step of urging burgers in the Transvaal to join him in his campaign against Britain. He succeeded in raising a Commando which he led to Bloemfontein and evicted the British Resident, Major Warden; but Sir Harry Smith, a skilled and experienced soldier, arrived with troops and decisively defeated the Boers at
Pretorius had already become proclaimed a rebel, and a reward of 2OOO Pounds was offered by the Cape Government for his apprehension. It is said that, by way of a rejoinder, he offered
2,000 head of cattle for the capture of Sir Harry Smith!
In retrospect, it seems tragic that those two outstanding leaders, so much alike and yet so different, both honourable, fearless, determined, intensely patriotic, but, at the same time, obstinate and headstrong, could not have worked together: had they done so, it is conceivable that the course of South African history over the past 100 years might have been totally different.
Potgieter and Pretorius had at last become reconciled and the internal quarrels between the Trekkers composed: the individuals were now therefore able to give their personal loyalty to the community rather than to a particular leader. And so ended the Treat Trek with the establishment of the two Boer Republics to which Pretorius had contributed so much.
He died a year later, on 23rd July, 1853, and was buried at Magaliesberg, but on 13th May, 1891 his remains were removed to Pretoria, where a State funeral took place at the old cemetery in the capital.
The Sunday Tribune-April 7, 1963.