DNA on the Groot Trek: Malan, Erasmus, Retief, Taute
Mzilikazi was the renegade induna (chief warrior) from Shaka Zulu’s regiments, who had started his own “Mfecane” or “crushing” when he kept part of the loot from an attack for himself and fled from Shaka in 1822. Even though Shaka was assassinated in 1828 by his half-brother Dingane, Mzilikazi continued building his strongholds among the tribes in the interior, that he ruthlessly conquered with horrific attacks through the next fourteen years – even burning children of his enemies on piles of fire. His conquered tribes now became known as the Matabele. The Voortrekkers invariably crossed paths with Mzilikazi’s Matabele patrols.
In August of 1836, about six weeks after the van Rensburgs were massacred by Manukosi, more Voortrekker groups who were following Potgieter to the north, crossed the Vaal River and were camping in separate groups. Among them was the Erasmus hunting party (who in reality were scouting for land for their families to settle on.) The hunters were led by Stephanus Petrus Erasmus, brother of Ouma Hannie Heystek-Lampen’s great-grandfather, Lourens Abraham Erasmus. (See family graph). The Erasmuses were suddenly ambushed in a horrific attack by the Matabele. Amidst the carnage, Stephanus and his youngest son managed to escape, but two of his sons were carried off by Matabele-impis, along with his wagons and trek oxen. His two sons were never found again. Stephanus galloped on to warn other groups close by, including the Liebenberg family, who refused to believe him and accused him of trying to get them to turn back across the Vaal River. Stephanus galloped on to warn others. Except for four children hiding under their wagon, and one girl who survived her assegai wounds, the whole Liebenberg family was murdered in the subsequent Matabele attack.
Potgieter returned from his search for the Tregardt trek in the Zoutpansberg area and helped the rest of these 33 families, including other Erasmus families and a very young Paul Kruger, the future president of the Z.A.R., to form a defense laager at “Vegkop”, (Fighting Hill). Here the Matabele, under Mzilikazi’s chief induna Kalipi, attacked them on 16 October, 1836. (The Erasmuses and Krugers were to stay lifelong friends.) My brother, Tonie, recently came across the grave of one of these Erasmus family members with the inscription, “Voortrekker over de Vaalrivier in het jaar 1836.”
Left: Gravestone of one of the Erasmus family members in the Groot Trek. "Voortrekker, crossed the Vaal River in the year 1836. Commandant during the Anglo Boer War. A good father and friend."
Right: Johannes Elardus Erasmus gravestone front.
Photos: Toni Wentzel.
The Voortrekkers at Vegkop miraculously survived the attack of thousands of Matabele (some accounts give the number five thousand.) Now here is an interesting thing: another man present at the battle of Vegkop, was Sarel Cilliers and his family. Two years later he would lead the Voortrekkers in December 1838 at the Battle of Blood River in a covenant prayer with God to save their lives in the coming battle with the whole of the Zulu army, with another victory that cannot be described in any terms other than miraculous. Now, December 1836 at Vegkop, this man of faith led the few trekker families with the reading of Ps 50: “and call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.” As he instructed Martha van Vuuren to sing Ps 130, the Matabele attacked.
The six-hour battle ended with only two trekker men dead, many wounded, and several hundred impis dead (and soon decomposing in the hot summer sun) outside the laager. The trekkers counted 1,137 assegais in the laager. Even nine- year old Barend Liebenberg, who got left outside the laager while herding sheep, had managed to hide and come back safely. According to legend, Sarel Cilliers led their prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance that night, reading from Ps. 118, “I called upon the Lord in distress: the Lord answered me and set me in a large place… All nations compassed me about....They compassed me about like bees; they are quenched as the fire of thorns.... but the Lord helped me.... he hath not given me over unto death.... This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes...."
However, the Voortrekkers were completely stranded with all their cattle stolen, even though they had moved their forty-odd wagons with a few horses about four miles away from the stench of decomposing Matabele. In fact, they had lost 100 horses, between 4,000 and 7,000 cattle, and between 40,000 and 50,000 sheep. They dared not hunt as their food ran out. Potgieter’s son rode for help, which he found back across the Vaal River at Thaba Nchu, where the Scottish missionary James Archbell and Chief Moroka II gathered provisions, a few milk cows and trek-oxen, and set off to rescue the near-starving trekkers. Moroka and his clan, in fact, had migrated to Thaba Nchu just three years beforehand, after Mzilikazi had forced them out of their original land across the Vaal, and the Basotho King Mosheshwe I, had agreed to their resettlement close to his own “Thaba Bosiu”, his mountain-refuge from the Matabele wars.
Thaba Nchu is where we meet up with our other 3rd + great-grandfather Jacobus Malan again, after he and thirteen other Malan families had trekked out of Somerset East in the Cape Colony in August 1836 under the leadership of his brother, Hercules Phillipus Malan. Another well-known Trekker leader, the prosperous businessman and wagon-maker, Gerrit Maritz, had started his trek from Graaff Reinet in the same month. Maritz’ trek consisted of about one hundred families plus their servants, and thousands of cattle and sheep. Since the Maritz trek arrived at Thaba Nchu in November, I assume the Malans also took about three months to move their wagons and animals from Somerset to Thaba Nchu, a distance of roughly 570 kilometers.
A solitary foothill on the western side of the Drakensberg mountains some seventy kilometers east of Bloemfontein, Thaba Nchu is visible from afar because of its bald tops—hence the Afrikaans name, “Blesberg”. This was where the general “gathering of the clans” happened—all the groups who immigrated from the Colony met up with one another here before moving further into the hinterland. Alliances with the Barolong and Basotho were formed here, as they also sought help in defeating the marauding Matabele. By now a thousand oxwagons had gathered at the foot of the mountain. (That must have been a sight!) Destinations and routes had to be decided on, some form of government for themselves had to be organized. And therein lies the rub… You wonder why there was a Boer civil war when our Dutch immigrant great-grandpa Jan Heystek and his father crossed the Vaal River in 1862?
Our very independent, stubborn Dutch Voortrekker leaders each believed himself the only one qualified to lead this new nation. In December 1836, the trekkers at Thaba Nchu elected Potgieter as their military commander, and Maritz as administrative head. Both men participated in the subsequent retribution battle on January 17, 1837, that destroyed one of Mzilikazi’s military headquarters at Mosega, while Mzilikazi himself was away at his other headquarters, Kapain. However, Potgieter and Maritz rode into battle as separate leaders of a small army of 107 Boere, 40 fighting Griquas and 40 Barolong who had come along to herd all recaptured cattle. Maritz’ men wore red kerchiefs on their hats to distinguish themselves from Potgieter’s men, and occupied the southern passes as sharpshooters, while Potgieter’s men rode into the kraals. Two American missionaries at Mosega witnessed the attack, and wrote their accounts of it in their diaries afterwards. One of them, the Rev. Daniel Lindley, also wrote about being awakened by Stephanus Erasmus, who was desperate to find any news of his kidnapped sons. Both missionaries returned with the Boere to Thaba Nchu in fear of Matabele retribution on their lives.
On the way back to Thaba Nchu, Potgieter and Maritz came to blows about who were to benefit from the cattle taken from these kraals. Maritz favored general distribution to all, but Potgieter prevailed with his desire to compensate his people who had lost so much during Vegkop. This disagreement was a harbinger of serious fractures between the various leaders, eventually exploding in a battle where three of our Malan forebears would lose their lives, some believed as a direct result of Potgieter’s inaction.
Encouraged by the news of Vegkop and Mosega’s victories, another five thousand Dutch immigrants started their trek out of the Colony, resulting in a serious economic and border-defensive loss to the British Colony. In the coming months the immigrants experienced both good relationships with the local tribes people, who brought them “large quantities of produce on their backs and laden upon pack-oxen—such as mealies, …corn, pumpkins, potatoes, beans, …”, and bad relationships among themselves. Maritz functioned as president and judge of the laager, trusting his brother-in-law, the unordained Dutch missionary Erasmus Smit, for spiritual guidance over the laager. Potgieter and his followers, however, were staunch Doppers (Reformed Church) and refused Smit's religious guidance. Potgieter attended the American missionary, James Archbell’s services to the Barolong, which Maritz’ people distrusted as Archbell was connected to the hated London Missionary Society who had given them so much trouble on the Oosgrens… This was also a schism that would grow with future generations of believers.
The issue of where to settle came to a head in March (the date according to some historians). Potgieter had finally had enough of the bickering and moved back over the Vaal River with his people, including some of the Erasmus families who had since arrived from the Colony. While I am not sure when precisely our 3rd great-grandfather Lourens Erasmus’s party arrived at Thaba Nchu, or whether they had been part of any of Potgieter’s earlier battles with the Matabele, Lourens settled just north of the Vaal River for some time, camping out in his ox wagons with minimal protection built around them.
In February 1836 the Cape Colony’s Grahamstown Journal published a Manifesto, detailing the reasons for the Dutch Immigrants’ mass immigration. This Manifesto was written by Piet Retief, a lawyer from Graaff Reinet on the Oosgrens of the Colony. Piet Retief is in the direct ancestry line of our cousin, Gerhard Lampen, where you will find quite a few “Retief” first names passed onto Lampen sons. Surprisingly, back in our distant Cape roots, the Retief name appears in our family line too.
News of the Manifesto gave Retief a large measure of prestige among the Trekkers, who knew nothing of his financial and legal problems back in the Colony. When Retief and his trek of 400 followers and a convoy of 100 wagons approached Thaba Nchu in April 1837, an excited Maritz followed by few hundred other Trekkers rode out to meet them. Shortly afterwards Piet Retief was chosen as “Governor of the United Laagers”, Maritz retained his position as Judge and was given the chairmanship of Council of Policy. Potgieter, however, was relieved of his position as Commandant.
The final destiny of the Voortrekkers had yet to be decided: Potgieter knew the Matabele was still an issue and planned to deal with it, since his heart stayed in the north. Retief focused on an area northwards between the Vet and Sand Rivers for initial settling, giving them access north of the Vaal as well as east across the Drakensberg mountains to Natal. In June, while Retief met with the Trekker “Maatschappij” (Company), creating Nine Articles affirming the chosen leaders’ authority, scouts were searching for passes across the Drakensberge. Formal treaties with Moroka, Mosheshwe and Sekonyela were made, land was bartered for with cattle and land seemed to have been secured, which the Maatschappij decided to call, “The Free Province of New Holland in South Eastern Africa”.
Yet again, new troubles arrived in June 1837 with Piet Uys, the trek leader who had scouted out Natal in 1834 during the Commission Treks, and his trek party of a hundred families. Uys was surprised that Retief had been elected Governor, and absolutely refused to accept the Nine Articles. When Retief mentioned “Natalland” being a possible destiny for the Trekkers, Uys was not a happy camper. After all, he, Uys, was the first to have scouted out Natal and had first made contact with the English traders in the Port of Natal, as well as with the Zulu King Dingaan. Uys believed he had an agreement with the Dingane for empty land south of the Tugela River. He should be the leader of the Trekkers into Natal… Uys declared that new, democratic elections would take place once they were in Natal, and proposed a constitution based on the one that was adopted in the United States of America in 1787. I wonder how Uys acquired knowledge of this document?
In July 1837, two more families, originally of German descent, trekked with a group under the leadership of a Jacob de Klerk (yes, former Prime Minister, FW de Klerk, had Voortrekker ancestors, but I don’t know if Jacob was a direct ancestor.) The leaders of these two families were Johan Hendrik Frederick Taute, and Mattheus Pieter Taute. My brother-in-law, Robert Taute, is related to this family. Mattheus Taute and one of the Malans would later form part of Piet Retief’s small delegation in the final negotiation with Dingane for land in Natal…
Mzilikazi and his Matabele finally suffered a complete defeat in November 1837, when 322 mounted men led by Potgieter, Maritz and Uys engaged them in a series of battles in the Marico valley (west of today’s Rustenburg.) With over 3,000 impis killed, and thousands of his slaves set free (the women of conquered tribes served as sex slaves for his impis), Mzilikazi took flight into what would soon become the British Empire’s “Rhodesia”, that we know today as Zimbabwe. None of the Trekker men were killed. Potgieter announced that all of Mzilikazi’s former territory would now be annexed under his leadership, comprising part of today’s Botswana, most of the Transvaal and half of the Orange Free State. The men gathered 7,000 head of cattle left behind by the fleeing Matabele, giving many to the Barolong herders who were on the expedition with them. The rest of the cattle, again, caused a quarrel between Potgieter and Maritz, but this time Maritz got his way with the distribution.
When they arrived back at their camps, the men discovered that Piet Retief had already set off for Natal with the main body of Trekkers after passage had been found over the Drakensberg. Retief had sent word that the land between the Tugela and Umzimkulu rivers in Natal was safe for settlement after he had started negotiations with Dingaan. Gerrit Maritz followed Retief immediately, with Potgieter and Piet Uys reluctantly making it down the mountains in separate treks. Precisely when the Malans and Tautes arrived in Natal is not known, but they had to have been among the main trek down the mountain, as they were among the first people who found themselves in those fateful events of February 1838 (next story.) Stephanus Erasmus and his family were part of Potgieter’s descent into Natal.
Since writing this story, I have found the name of the Kloppers on this Groote Trek trail as well. They were the family of our
3rd great-grandmother Anna Maria Klopper (1814 – ?) x Jacobus Johannes Malan (1787 – 1838, died at Italeni with Piet Uys)
2nd great-grandparents Helena Catharina Malan (1832 – 1878) x Daniel Elardus Erasmus (1804 – 1878)
great-grandparents Anna Maria Erasmus (1853 – 1902) x Jan Heystek (1848 – 1932) ̄
Grandparents Johanna Elizabeth Heystek (1873–1958) (our Ouma Hannie Lampen) x Wijtse Sijger Lampen (1867–1938)
https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/king-mzilikazi - Scottish missionary Robert Moffat and Mzilikazi story, how it affected the Erasmus families.
https://www.historyswalk.co.za/?page_id=487 - Battle of Vegkop details through personal testimonies.
The Great Trek, Oliver Ransford
https://barolongbooseleka.co.za - Barolong history.
Afrikaner Political Thought: 1780-1850; André Du Toit, Hermann Buhr Giliomee
Wikimedia has many of the sketches in these stories in public domain:
Map of different trek routes.
Portraits of Voortrekker leader A.H. Potgieter and Eerwaarde Erasmus Smit.
"Setting off from the Oosgrens"—The Caxton Publishing Company. OCLC 893096.
Thaba Nchu, Barolong kraal and James Archbell missionary church building; gathering of Voortrekkers—Wesleyan Missionary Society
Previously published on: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Lampens/