The Trekkers or Boers as well are guilty of capture and enslavement of Africans the same way as the British and Americans. The Boer society equally owes African societies reparation. First, they took their land and later they took their children into enslavement between 1845 and 1880.
We often learned about the laws introduced in Europe in the 18th century allowing Europeans to hunt and capture Africans and force them into unpaid labour – in plantations and domestic economies. But we never learned of the laws that allowed the Trekkers or Boer society to hunt and capture Africans into enslavement right here in Southern Africa. This is what I seek to expose below.
During the Great Trek; the migration of the Dutch speaking settlers, who traveled by wagon from Cape Colony into the interior of Transvaal from 1836 onwards, seeking to live beyond the Cape’s British colonial administration, established the first community of Trekkers in Ohrigstad in 1845 founded east of Steelpoort river. The first Trekkers to settle in the area were the followers of Andries Hendrick Potgieter. Potgieter moved from Mooi River in the eastern Transvaal to the land that the Boer society today occupied to the north of Lydenburg which they claim was “empty”. They were joined later by other Trekkers from Natal. However, there were three reasons why the Trekkers left the British colonies into the eastern Transvaal:
One – they preferred the ports of trade under the Portuguese rather than the British control;
Two – there were abundance of animals for game with elephants as the main attractions for ivory and,
Third – the British administration have abolished slavery to paid labour.
Along the route to their new settlements from Cape Colony the Trekkers clashed with African societies already living in those areas; the Pedi kingdom under chief Sekwati, Kopa kingdom under Boleu and Ndzunza Ndebele under Mabogo clashed with these Trekkers en route to their new settlements. By that time the three kingdoms (Pedi, Kopa and Ndebele) were in a struggle against the Swazi kingdom under Mswati that wrestled them over the land in the eastern Transvaal. This land in question was very fertile, abundance with water and animals. The Trekkers, arriving there in 1845, occupied this land under the pretext that the Swazi kingdom sold them the land – Ohrigstad. This land was riven with conflict from the beginning.
These Pedi kingdom did not confront the Trekkers for this land but refused to accept their claims. Sekwati claimed the land to be belonging to him. For over 10 years in fear of Mswati’s retaliations and attacks if they take the land from the Trekkers the three kingdoms adopted a silent approach. The Trekkers, under the A.H. Potgieter and J.J. Burger established an administrative body known as Volksraad with Potgieter as the president. In that period they established strong military defence system with arms purchased and supplied by Holland and the British. The Volksraad introduced a system that each burgher or citizen who participated in the Trek must be given a portion of land to settle and to farm. The farmers, however, had to secure labour as well as animals to breed. By that time the neighbouring African societies under Sekwati, Mabogo and Boleu were unable to hunt animals on this land. They avoided this land as long as possible. The Trekker settlers enjoyed and profited from the abundance of this African land; they traded and supplied crops, ivory and animal skin in the Cape Colony and Natal and as far as in Mozambique.
The discovery of Gold and Diamond in Southern Africa and the increase in population in the mining areas in the late 1870s in the western Transvaal changed the game. The Trekker farmers needed more outputs which led to more demand for labour supply. However, the neighbouring African societies did not associate themselves with the Trekkers in fear of Mswati. They avoided them at all costs. Their kings ordered that there should be no interactions with the Trekkers as any form of misunderstanding might tricker another war with Mswati, a Swazi kingdom chief, which they avoided. Both the Pedi and Kopa kingdoms have had a bad experience with the Swazi kingdom in a battle that was fought earlier in 1840s. The policy of the Swazi, Kopa and Pedi kingdoms exercised a “non-confrontation”.
The Trekkers needed labour but they could not persuade the neighbouring African societies to work for them. The Pedi, Kopa and Ndebele kingdoms were able to send their subjects to work in the mines in Natal and Cape. The movement of migrant labourers under these chiefdoms was only towards the Natal and Cape. A.H. Potgieter and his government introduced the law that would assist in the acquisition of labour from the neighbouring societies. The first law was that African chiefs must be forced to supply labour to the Boer society and the second law was that the Volksraad must secure labour from migrants in the British colonies who wish to live within the Boer societies in Transvaal.
The first one failed as the chiefs of all the neighbouring African societies put impossible demands forward before any labour could be supplied to the Boer society. The first demand, which was common in all kingdoms, was that while some were prepared undertake periods of labour in exchange for cattle and commodities they also demanded supply of arms and ammunitions in exchange of labour. These demands were, however, both in short supply to the settlers and relatively expensive. Moreover, the monopoly of European arms and ammunition were not to be put in the hands of Africans, they were important basis of their power.
The alternatives open to these settlers were thus either to break with the past and restructure the nature of their own society by relying on family labour, or to resort to securing a supply of labour from surrounding African societies – which was impossible at that time. However, since the later course was a preferred option but impossible another form was introduced – the capture and enslavement of African children and young women. The Volksraad introduced this law to capture and enslave African children as a form of securing labour for the Boer economy. The Boer hunting parties began to raid neighbouring African societies and captured children and young women. These hunting parties, armed with rifles on horse backs, harassed these African societies for nearly four decades (1848 until 1881). They captured African children and young women and forced them into labour in their farms and households. These African children were captured and indentured to their masters until adulthood; the age of 21 in the case of females and 25 in case of males. This method played a vital role in the Boer labour force. This method of enslavement, by law, was first introduced in the Cape Colony in 1775 and 1812 which allowed for the indenturing of Khoikhoi and slave children. The social reality which had informed these laws was that by the end of 18th century, the enslavement of Khoikhoi children was widespread, and captive particularly those taken by commandos launched to exterminate Bushmen.
The Boer society adopted these methods as well in Transvaal; to capture and enslave African children. These child slaves were called Inboekselings in Dutch. They taught females the skills to meet Boer household requirements and needs for domestic labour. The males were taught the skills such as riding horses, fixing wagons and loading and repairing guns. Most that have grown up above the required ages as inboekselings were put in farms as farm labourers. As these children grew up, they learned the various skills required of them. Ideally, they would become bound to Boer society by ties of culture, family and skill. Soon the Boer society established a new form of trade; they traded in these African children.
As the Ohrigstad settlers’ demands for labour grew so was the demand for child captives. This kind of business became a booming business in the first 10 years of its legalization. The Swazi kingdom was very active in this form of trade. They raided African societies under Kopa and captured many of children and women and sold them to the Boers in 1871. This made Kopa to seek refuge under Pedi kingdom that had equal military power as Swazi kingdom. Other neighbouring kingdoms established military defence systems to guard their territories. They introduced armed vigilante groups to patrol their land night and day to secure their children and animals. The Pedi kingdom under Sekwati attacked a camp of 12 Boer hunters on his land in 1854 in which all hunters were murdered. This led to the retaliation by the Volksraad against Sekwati in the same year but was defeated. This harassment of African societies carried on for long enough.
After Sekhukhune became a king in 1861 of the Pedi kingdom after his father’s, Sekeati, death he aimed to stop all the Boers’ menaces to capture and trade in African children once and for all. He sent many young men to Natal and Cape Colony to work in the mines. The money earned were taxed and used to buy European arms and ammunition in Delequa and from Mozambique government under Portuguese administration. He also sent many young men to volunteer to work for the Boers and then steal their guns and learn how to build wagons. Through these he was able to build a strong army in the area more powerful to defeat the Swazi kingdom in 1875. In 1876 the ZAR republic attacked Sekhukhune but they were defeated in a battle that lasted for 4 months. After this battle many African tribes who were not under Pedi domain sought refuge under Sekhukhune. Sekhukhune wrote a letter to Potgieter ordering him to return the captives and stop the capture of African children at once or face war. Potgieter wrote a letter to Holland and Queen Elizabeth seeking assistance and protection. We do not know if the war of 1879 in which Sekhukhune was defeated by an alliance of 9 states were as a result of this plea by Potgieter.
The Pedi kingdom did not stop the capture and trade in children in the area, but they have slowed it down. Until to this day the remnants of Inboekselings are found living in Boer territories in Lydenburg, Margalisburg and Middleburg. The Boers must return the land and pay for the reparations of hundred years old scars of capture and enslavement of African children.