Fifteen tapestries depicting the life and times of the Great Trek
(Fourteen of them shown on these pages. Small images will be displayed with the text, but if you click on the pictures, you'll see a bigger view with more detail.)
These magnificent works of art depict the life and times of the Voortrekkers, the pioneers of 1834-1840.
In 1952, a group of women decided to pay a lasting tribute to the women of this very hard and difficult time. They would build a soft and colourful monument to their sisters of long ago. The South African artist, WH Coetzer, was commissioned to design and paint the great canvasses for the tapestries. Nine needlewomen of distinction were selected to do the actual embroidery.
A wonderful combination of brush and needle skill resulted in these world-renowned masterpieces.
This could be accomplished because the artist assisted the women when an exceptionally difficult part, for example a face, had to be embroidered. An artist can mix colours until he or she has achieved the desired shade, but the needlewoman is limited by the colours of wool available. Coetzer overcame this problem by mixing the colours of his paints to suit the colours of the wool available. He then numbered his paint colours accordingly.
Eight years later, in 1960, the project was completed and ready for exhibition.
Departure from the Cape
Not only has the artist managed to produce a beautiful work of art, but he has filled the tapestries with emotion and symbolism. His saga starts with farmers in the Cape living in secluded farm houses. One of the first tapestries depicts the departure from the Cape, in search of a new place to settle.
The wagons are visibly loaded with household utensils, tools, food and other essentials for survival. Their livestock can be seen being herded by the children and black workers.
The Voortrekkers were looking forward to finding a new life for themselves, and they set out with high hopes.
Storms, rain, sickness, attacks from wild animals and hostile tribes - all of these had to be faced with only the wagons and the guns known as front loaders as protection.
Often the wagons are depicted drawn up close to one another in a circle, or laager, with thorn bushes stacked under them to keep out intruders.
In battle scenes the artist shows how everyone had a role to play. Women and older girls had to stand behind the men to take the burning hot used guns and swap them for a freshly loaded one. They also had to melt lead and make new bullets. Younger children had to help take care of the wounded. Boys were taught to shoot from an early age, and they had to do their part in defending the group.
One tapestry shows Potgieter's trek halting at Thaba N'chu where the friendly Barolong lived.
This reminds one that not only was there conflict among the various groups, but also neighbourliness and tolerance.
Coetzer manages to illustrate everyday life in great detail, always highlighting the important role played by the women and children. They were in effect the pole that held the whole fragile existence up.
Women were always dressed in long dresses, with the wide cloth hat keeping the sun from their faces. The harsh African sun played havoc with the soft European skins. At night the hair was covered with a little bonnet.
Clever detail, for instance a baobab tree or a certain mountain, point to problems as well as routes followed by the Trekkers.
Hostile tribes were not their only problem. Diseases such as malaria and tsetse fly were unknown and caused many deaths in infested areas.
The crossing of high mountain ranges with wagons loaded with everything they possessed was very taxing, to say the least. The Voortrekkers also gave a name to the mountain range that blocked them from Natal. The word "draken" is the Dutch word for dragon.
Crossing the raging Orange River into what later became the Republic of the Orange Free State, was another dangerous venture for the handful of Trekkers.
When something broke, like a wagon wheel, everybody had to pitch in to help. This was not only done to lend a hand, but also to be together in case of danger.
The tapestries make clear that these brave Trekkers were taking with them their customs, ways of life and religion.
The Bible was used to educate their children and to regulate society. It was used as a guide to childcare and family rule, it was used to teach children to read and as an undisputable source of laws and regulations.
Encounter with the Zulus
The majority of Trekkers wanted to settle in a part of the fertile Natal region. Before this could be done, they had to negotiate with the Zulus, a powerful nation in the area. Agreement was seemingly reached between the white leader, Retief, and the king of the Zulus, Dingane.
However, the agreement was not kept and the party of Voortrekkers, consisting of 70 white volunteers and 30 black helpers, were put to death on the hill of execution, outside the king's village.
Devastated and leaderless, the Voortrekkers sent word to Andries Pretorius to ask him to take over the leadership. A pledge was made to take punitive action against the Zulus and, very aware of their small numbers, a solemn vow was made to God. Sarel Cilliers was the man who wrote out the vow, and who led the Trekkers in promising God that they will always keep that day holy if they would be kept safe.
On 16 December 1838 the battle took place and was won by the small group of Voortrekkers. Dingane fled and was killed by his half-brother, Mpande, who took over the rule of the Zulus. He was friendly towards the Voortrekkers and they were now able to settle in Natal where their first Republic was established.
Another battle scene, this time the massacre at Bloukrans.
The artist concludes this saga of the Voortrekkers by a symbolic piece. The white curling line is also an example of the typical Cape-Dutch style that was used for most houses on the settlements.
The artist's initials and the name of the needlewoman can be seen in the corners of each tapestry.
A replica of a typical Voortrekker or Pioneer house
The Voortrekker Museum displays a replica of a typical pioneer house. These pioneers built their houses using the building materials nature could supply. Sturdy walls were built with clay from the river. Beams and rafters for the roof were cut from the trees growing in the vicinity. Grass was cut to thatch the roof. It was secured with leather thongs called riems. The floor was made of clay often hardened by adding the crushed mud of antheaps and then covered at regular intervals with a layer of cow dung. Often animal blood was added to the dung mixture to give the floor a different appearance.
The house would be a simple dwelling, with no luxuries. Often, it would start as a single-roomed construction, and grow as time allowed and a growing family demanded. Rooms could easily be added on, eventually to form a T or an H-shaped building. Furniture would be the few pieces brought along from the Cape and supplemented with pieces made from local wood. Animal skin, clay, wood and material from nature played an important role in the lives of these early settlers. Horns formed an interesting rack on which to hang a hat or gun, and jackal skins made a warm blanket when there was nothing else available. Certain commodities could be traded with the blacks and traders who sometimes crossed their paths, giving them the chance to replenish diminishing supplies.
Personal possessions belonging to the people of this period
A part of the Museum exhibits personal possessions of the people of the Voortrekker period. Sunday-best clothes are on display as well as some of the exquisite hand-made bonnets which were so much a part of the lives of the women. Artefacts found in the kraal of Dingane as well as miscellaneous objects belonging to various people can be seen. The toys of the children and the weapons of the men tell two sides of the history of these people. Many of these articles of everyday life are beautifully decorated in folk-art style - a reminder of man's need to surround himself with beauty.
Information taken directly from
Pictures are scans from postcards
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