The Great Trek Political Marginalisation Survival On The Frontier – Stockenstrom Versus Retief

Piet Retief

An artist’s imagining of Voortrekker leader Piet Retief.

Starkly different views about survival in the frontier zone were held by trek party leader Piet Retief and senior frontier official Andries Stockenstrom. Retief had played a sterling role during the invasion of the Xhosa force in the final days of 1834. A week after the attacks had begun, he was appointed provisional field-commandant. He drew together a large group of Winterberg people, which included more than 200 women and children. It was virtually the only place where a stand was made. The Xhosa carried away most of his stock. He noted that he had ‘lost everything’. When Governor Sir Benjamin D’Urban appointed him field-commandant in 1835 he noted his ‘excellent character’ and ‘judicious conduct’.

There was no real reason why Retief and Stockenstrom could not work together, but Stockenstrom believed that prior to the trek Retief had been conspiring with his own greatest enemies, expansionist British officers,merchants, speculators and journalists. They were people who, in Stockenstrom’s eyes, were hoping to acquire land cheaply by spreading rumours that could spur the trek movement. They were constantly advoc ating an aggressive, forward policy against the Xhosa.

There was another source of tension. Retief alleged that the country was swarming with plundering blacks but that farmers were afforded no protection. He wanted bur ghers to be allowed to arrest roaming blacks suspected of criminal intentions, even those who had entered legally with passes from government agents. He asked why had the Xhosa ‘who have deprived us of our goods and blood been allowed to come in among us to deprive us of the little we still have to live on, but also to deride us in our impoverished state’. They were ‘congregating with not the least other purpose than to live solely on plunder . . . Must I not arrest such and send them to [you]?’ Defiantly, he stated: ‘I must oppose their entry.’

Stockenstrom would have none of this. Nothing could be salvaged if burghers in government offices took the law into their own hands and ignored regulations. Anarchy would be worse than disorder. He told Retief that if he arrested a person with a pass he would have to face the consequences: ‘Until the law is altered you must abide by it.’ He threatened to dismiss him as fieldcommandant if he continued to ‘trample existing regulations under foot’.

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