The first thought of building a monument in honour of God and the Voortrekkers fell into fertile ground in 1888. In 1931 this plan came into effect and the architect Gerard Moerdijk was appointed to draw plans for a monument. Moerdijk’s ideal was to design a monument that should stand as a “memorial for a thousand years and longer to explain to posterity the history and significance of the Great Trek.”
Moerdijk chose a unique design for the monument. The enormous granite monument is built on a hill and can be seen from all sides in Pretoria. It thus serves as a beacon of hope and a reminder to the Afrikaners of their heritage. The Voortrekker Monument is, without a doubt, a well-thought-out work of art with a lot of symbolism. No image is made for aesthetic value only – everything means something.
When one stands in amazement in front of the monument, you find 299 stairs to climb, which lead to the entrance of the monument. On the upper stairs, there is an assegai gate and a wall that surrounds the monument.
The wall consists of 64 wagons in bas-relief and is an accurate depiction of the jawbone wagons with which the Voortrekkers moved inland. The wall is a mixture of pieces of marble, granite and cement known as terrazzo.
Each wagon is 4.6 meters long and 2.7 meters high. The 64 wagons around the monument are the same number of wagons used during the Battle of Blood River (16 December 1838). This wall is symbolic of the protection of the monument. A laager was traditionally a defensive technique used by the Voortrekkers in a combat situation, during which the wagons were pulled in a circle, and the dangers from inside were repelled.
As you walk through the assegai gate, your eye first catches the image of a woman and a child from the hand of the sculptor Anton van Wouw. This statue is the first public statue in the history of South Africa, cast in bronze. One would wonder what this breathtaking image could symbolise? Van Wouw’s idea was to pay tribute to the Voortrekker woman and the role and participation she played during the Great Trek. The statue depicts a Voortrekker mother with her two children. It is symbolic of the culture and Christianity which were maintained and expanded by the women during the Great Trek. Van Wouw used Isabel Snyman, a nurse, as a model for the women and Betty Wolk and Joseph Goldstein as models for the children. The statue is more than 4 meters high and weighs 2.5 tons.
Once you have seen the image of the woman and children, you can finally enter the monument. You stand in the breathtaking Hall of Heroes with a marble floor and marble statues carved right around the walls. This marble frieze depicts the story of the Great Trek in detail.
The marble floor of the Hall of Heroes is covered with widening circular patterns. This design represents water waves after a stone has been thrown into the water. It gets wider and wider until it fills the entire Hall of Heroes. It symbolises the spread of the spirit of sacrifice that emanated from the Voortrekkers until its effects filled the whole country.
Above the Hall of Heroes, there is a dome with a large round opening in the middle. Above this dome, there is a second dome that represents the globe. If the lines of this second dome were extended, they would enclose the entire monument in one immense circle. The top dome is symbolic of the scope of the Voortrekkers’ journey into the interior. If you look down, you will see the famous cenotaph.
The cenotaph is the central focal point of the monument. The word “cenotaph” means a “grave without bones”. It is therefore an empty tomb. It is the symbolic last resting place of Piet Retief and all the Voortrekkers who died during the Great Trek.
Once a year, on 16 December, a ray of sunshine shines through the opening in the upper dome of the monument in the middle of the cenotaph.
It illuminates the words “Ons vir jou, Suid-Afrika” (We for thee, South Africa). The architect, Gerard Moerdijk, specifically planned it this way, because the ray of sun is a symbol of God’s blessing upon the work and aspirations of the Voortrekkers. This design was ahead of its time.
Going down the stairs (to the sides of the hall), you come to the Cenotaph Hall. With the cenotaph in the middle, you stand in a massive hall, surrounded by paintings that further tell of the day-to-day life of the Voortrekkers. From this room, you can also visit the museum.
During the 1938 Great Trek commemoration, the ATKV launched a nationwide campaign during which Voortrekker memorabilia were collected. Loads of museum items collected were temporarily stored at Hartenbos with the idea that they would one day be displayed in the Voortrekker Monument’s own museum.
Today, the public can further discover the history of the Afrikaner on the lower floor of the monument. The museum collection consists of wax sculptures depicting scenes from the Great Trek, tapestry artworks and paintings, and items from the Great Trek.
Words are simply too few to describe the extent of the monument’s history and value. We invite you to discover and experience the monument for yourself on your next visit.
THE ANGLO-BOER WAR
After the Great Trek, farming communities settled throughout the Transvaal, the Northern Cape and the Free State. Families maintained a subsistence existence on isolated farms. It is remarkable how a few migrant communities could build two republics out of nothing without the leadership of political power or church. From 1837-1852 the Voortrekkers worked hard to expand the two republics. Infrastructure had to be developed, state administration and tax systems had to be put in place, and most of the interior was uninhabited and had to be tamed.
The two Boer republics led a subsistence existence independently and peacefully, based on the care of families, land ownership and agriculture. However, it did not last long. With the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley, the British were desperate to bring these two Boer republics again under British control.
The once struggling Zuid-Afrikaansche Republic (ZAR) became prosperous with the discovery of gold overnight. Towns such as Pilgrim’s Rest originate near the place where flush gold was discovered. The infrastructures almost build themselves. By 1888 there were already 103 gold mines. Urban communities were suddenly capitalist and individually independent.
The British Empire began subtly annexing the country. One of the forerunners who opposed this annexation at this stage is 52-year-old Paul Kruger. He democratically leads the people in protest against the British annexation of the ZAR. Kruger also travelled to Europe, where he first encountered foreign diplomacy. Kruger’s protest movement led to the victory of the First War of Independence, and he became the president of the Transvaal. This great victory was only short-lived, as British military leaders such as Cecil John Rhodes and Alfred Milner were out to gain control of the Transvaal and the Free State.
In 1899, war was declared between the two Boer republics and the British Empire. After the fall of Pretoria and Bloemfontein within a year, the British assumed the war was over. As the Voortrekkers have proven before, the Afrikaner people are not one for giving in. Under the leadership of Christiaan de Wet, a new war tactic was developed (guerrilla warfare), and for a time, the victory was on the side of the Boers.
Women supported the Boer soldiers from the farms with fresh food from the fields. In this way, the economy also continued to flow. To stop this support to the Boers, the British military leader, Kitchener, put together the scorched earth policy. Each farm’s house, fields and livestock were burned to the ground. About 60 000 homes and 30 000 farms were burnt down. Everything the Voortrekkers have built up so far is now a wilderness. Women and children were placed in concentration camps.
Many concentration camps have been established across South Africa. The conditions in these camps were inhuman. There were poor sanitary facilities, inadequate medical care and diseases spread like wildfires. There was no soap or washing water, too little food, rotten meat, no vegetables or fruits, no effective medicines and inadequate accommodation in tents that offered no protection. 22 074 children, 4182 women and 1500 elderly people died in the concentration camps. Survivors were often treated violently by some of the troops.
NJ van der Merwe is one of the quiet Afrikaner heroes who helped to look after women and children in concentration camps. Because he was too young to fight with his father, he had to live with his mother and sisters in the concentration camp. NJ went daily to look for wood for the people in the camp to make fire. He also continued his schooling in the camp, under English control. It was his job to see who was absent from school and then to look for them. The conditions in the camp affected NJ deeply. Later in his life, he became the son-in-law of Pres. MT Steyn and became also the first leader of the Voortrekker movement. He dedicated his life to the needs of Afrikaners.
With the deteriorating conditions in the concentration camps, the Boer Republics decided in 1902 to end the war for the sake of the women and children. South Africa was now under British control. Shattered by the war, the Afrikaners had to return to nothing and rebuild everything from scratch. Once again, the Afrikaner proved how a nation could rise from nothing.
Photos of the Anglo-Boer War in colour by Tinus le Roux.
Fort Schanskop, which dates from the Anglo-Boer War, is located on the Voortrekker Monument grounds.
After the Jameson invasion in 1896, Pres. Paul Kruger of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republic (ZAR) decides to defend Pretoria by building forts in strategic places. Initially, eight forts were to be built, but due to a lack of funds, only four were completed.
Fort Schanskop was completed in 1897 and was built in such a way that it could repel attacks on Pretoria from the Johannesburg and Lourenco Marques railway lines, as well as the road from Johannesburg. By placing rotating guns on the fortifications, attacks could be stopped in all directions. By 1899, Schanskop had one 155 mm Creusot cannon (Long Tom) and two Maxims (Pom-poms). The crew consisted of one officer and 30 men of the Transvaal State Artillery.
With the outbreak of war, however, the men and weapons were taken to the Natal front, and the fort was left completely unattended.
On 7 June 1900, just after Gen. Roberts’ invasion of Pretoria, the forts were occupied and Schanskop was occupied by the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
In 1922 the forts were returned to the Union Government and used for signalling and observation purposes by the Defense Forces. Schanskop was proclaimed a historical monument by the Historical Monuments Commission in 1938.
In 1962 it was decided to establish a military museum in Pretoria. The choice fell on Fort Klapperkop, but the museum was later expanded to include Schanskop as well.
Because of budget cuts both museums were evacuated by the SA Army by 1994 and returned to the State. The Voortrekker Monument and Nature Reserve’s tender of R400,000.00 for Fort Schanskop (without content) was accepted and was finally transferred from the City Council of Pretoria to this Section 21 company in June 2000. Immediately afterwards, a comprehensive renovation and expansion program was launched.
ANGLO-BOER WAR LEADERS
Gen. Louis Botha joined the Krugersdorp Commando during the Anglo-Boer War. He led Boer forces to victory at Colenso and Spioenkop. After the death of Gen. Joubert, Botha becomes the leader of the Transvaal Boers. He was later also announced as the Prime Minister of the South African Union.
He is the man who captured British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
In the early stages of the war, Gen. Smuts served as the eyes and ears of Pres. Paul Kruger in Pretoria. Smuts initially served under Gen. Koos de la Rey in the Anglo-Boer War. Later, he also led his own commando. In 1902 he played a vital role in the negotiations with the Peace of Vereeniging, which led to the end of the war. Smuts also later served as the Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa in 1919-1924 and 1940-1946.
Gen. Christiaan de Wet was part of the Boer Commando at Heilbron. He was quickly promoted to commander. De Wet led his commando to many victories. Later, he also received a letter from Pres. Steyn who says that he was elected general in the war. De Wet was a master of guerrilla warfare. He took part in major battles, such as the one at Sannaspos. De Wet also took part in the peace negotiations in 1902.
Gen. Koos de la Rey was a popular Boer general during the Anglo-Boer War. Initially, he served under General Cronjé. At the beginning of the war, at Kraaipan, De la Rey led the farmers to victory. This battle made him famous. De la Rey was the commander of many commandos, which led to many victories. However, de la Rey was fatally shot by the South African Police after the war.
NJ Hou Koers – Danie Langner
Verkennerlewe – The Voortrekkers