The colossal grey granite building can be seen from every direction as one nears Pretoria – the massive Voortrekker Monument was built to honour the Voortrekkers who left the Cape Colony in their thousands between 1835 and 1854. The architect was Gerard Moerdijk and it was his goal to design a monument that would “stand a thousand years or longer to explain the history and the significance of the Great Trek to future generations”.
On the eastern corner, on the level of the Monument’s front door, is the cornerstone which was laid on 16 December 1938 by three descendants of Voortrekker leaders. Apart from the massive size of the Monument, two elements especially make this monument a worthwhile place to visit – the historical frieze and the Cenotaph.
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The Voortrekker Monument is smaller than Napoleon’s grave, the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, much smaller than the Taj Mahal in India and only an eleventh the size of the Völkerschlachtdenkmal in Leipzig. Compared to these buildings the Voortrekker Monument is definitely not one of the biggest monuments in the world; still the architect made a deliberate effort to design a massive and impressive monument.
The groundbreaking ceremony took place on 13 July 1937 on Monument Hill. Advocate EG Jansen, chairman of the SVK turned the first sod. The following year the cornerstone was formally laid on 16 December. The cornerstone was laid by Mrs JC Muller (granddaughter of Andries Pretorius), Mrs KF Ackerman (great granddaughter of Hendrik Potgieter) and Mrs JC Preller (great granddaughter of Piet Retief). The Monument was inaugurated eleven years later on 16 December 1949. The total cost to build the Monument was £359,600 of which the State made the biggest contribution. Funds were also collected by means of donations, selling special stamps, commemorative envelopes, souvenirs and publications. A large amphitheatre was also build on the north eastern side of the Monument in 1949 which has seating for about 20 000 people.
The visitor walks through a black wrought iron gate with an assegai motif. This suggests the power of Dingane who barred the way to the interior. Then the visitor stands inside a great wagon laager symbolically protecting the Monument. The wagon laager consists out of 64 wagons made of artistic granite. During the Battle of Blood River 64 wagons were used to draw the laager. The wagon laager is therefore symbolic of protecting the Monument – by implication protecting the Afrikaner and his culture against attacks. At the foot of the Monument, inside the wagon laager, stands a bronze statue of a Voortrekker woman and her two children. The sculptor was Anton van Wouw. The sculpture commemorates the courage of the Voortrekker women and the Voortrekker family who made the Great Trek and the eventual settlement of the interior possible. Without their contribution the Great Trek might have ended up being an exploration expedition because the Voortrekkers immigrated in the fullest sense of the word with house and home to a new fatherland. On both sides of the sculpture black wildebeest are chiselled against the wall – symbolic of the dangers of Africa. Their outward attitude implies that the woman, carrier of western civilization, triumphs.
The unique marble frieze is an intrinsic part of the design – in bas relief 27 panels depict the story of the Great Trek from 1835 to 1852. The frieze does not only depict the history of the Great Trek but also shows the lifestyle, working methods, religious views and attitude of the Trekkers. The central focal point of the Monument is the Cenotaph. Above the Hall of Heroes is a cupola from which one can look down into the interior of the Monument. An opening in the cupola allows a ray of sunshine to shine on the Cenotaph with the words “Ons vir jou Suid-Afrika” every year on 16 December at 12 o’clock. The ray of sunshine symbolizes God’s blessing on the lives and endeavours of the Voortrekkers.
Hall of Heroes
Visitors entering the Monument through the great teak front doors are greeted by an incredible sight: a massive high domed hall, 25x25x41 metres, with marble floors and an impressive marble frieze (92 metres long and 2,3 metres high), depicting historical scenes from the Great Trek. Four huge arched windows made from yellow Belgian glass flank the hall and give the impression that the area is a revered place, like a temple…
All the marble in the Hall of Heroes, except that of the Frieze, comes from the quarries at Marble Hall in the Northern Province. When one looks down at the interior of the hall from the top dome, it is clear that the marble has been laid to form a specific pattern on the floor. It forms a pattern of water rippling out in ever widening circles with the Cenotaph at its centre – symbolical of a Trek to freedom that started on a small scale, but eventually became a mighty migratory flood in history, the effects of which can still be felt today.
The Historical Frieze consists of 27 marble panels made from Quercetta Italian marble. The sculptures form a unique unit despite the fact that four different artists worked on them – a noteworthy achievement. The joys and sorrows of the Trek is depicted from 1835 to 1852, not only the political history and its significance, but also the socio-cultural aspects.
Tales of heroism and perseverance, illness and death, defeat and conquest, friendship and treason are depicted. Not only does the Frieze depict the birth of the Afrikaner nation, but also the contact and relations with the Black Nations of the interior during the 19th century – for these nations also a time of internal power struggles and a fight for survival.
The work on the Frieze started in 1942 and the sculptors, Hennie Potgieter, Peter Kirchhoff, Frikkie Kruger and Laurika Postma literally spent years of their lives completing it. The total cost for the construction of the Frieze was £60,000.
During the centenary of the Great Trek, the ATKV launched a country-wide campaign to collect Voortrekker (Pioneer) memorabilia.
The large number of museum items which were collected, were temporarily stored in Hartenbos with an idea to, one day, display these items in the Voortrekker Monument’s own museum. The doyenne of museums in the Transvaal at the time, Mrs Kotie Roodt-Coetzee also strove towards such a museum. Although there was no space for a museum within the Monument, a temporary display in the basement during the inauguration in 1949 drew much attention and rekindled the dream of a permanent Voortrekker display.
In the meantime, the National Cultural History Museum in Pretoria took care of the objects, which were donated to the Monument.
Eventually a new “Voortrekker Museum” was constructed on the site in the 1960’s. The building also provided space for the 15 tapestry panels that were donated to the Board by the “Vrou en Moederbond” of the ATKV in 1960.
The Cultural History Museum continued to control this Museum until March 2000 when the Board of the Voortrekker Monument and Nature Reserve finally took over its management.
The museum was moved back to the basement of the Monument in December 2000. Inform-ation panels were added to the exhibition in order to create a balanced picture of the Pioneers, their every-day life and relations with other inhabitants of southern Africa. The tapestry was moved to the Cenotaph Hall where the flags of the various Boer Republics also hang. The museum is definitely worth a visit.
The building where the museum was housed is utilized as office space for the expanding personnel at the Monument. Part of the building has been adapted for an art gallery.
The Cenotaph is the central focus point of the Monument. The word cenotaph means “empty tomb”. It is therefore the symbolic resting place of Piet Retief and all the other Voortrekkers who died during the Great Trek. The Cenotaph is made of red granite from the Parys region in the Free State.
Once a year, on 16 December, the sun shines through an opening in the dome roof of the Monument onto the middle of the Cenotaph. Read more
The “Afrikaanse Taal-en Kultuurvereniging” ATKV’s Woman and Mother Movement donated the Historical Tapestry to the Voortrekker Monument.
Nine women worked for eight years to complete the fifteen scenes from the Great Trek. The Tapestry contains 3,3 million stitches. The artist W.H. Coetzer painted the scenes on the tapestry gauze for the women to embroider.
It shines on the words “Ons vir jou, Suid-Afrika”, literally translated: “We for thee South Africa.” The architect, Gerard Moerdijk, planned this specifically because the ray of sunlight symbolizes God’s blessing on the life and work of the Voortrekkers. The Cenotaph Hall consists of a 34,5 x 34,5 metre area and is decorated with the flags from the different Voortrekker Republics. The hall is visited more often these days as the famous wall tapestries depicting the Voortrekkers can be seen there, as well as several display cases with artefacts from the Great Trek.
Against the Northern wall is a nave with a lantern where a flame has been kept burning since 1938. The Symbolic Ox Wagon Trek took place in 1938. It started in Cape Town and ended at Monument Hill where the foundation stone was laid for the erection of the Monument.
The Cenotaph Hall is generally accepted as the most sensitive area of the Monument. For this reason, activities are limited to religious and culture related events.