A novel of the Great Trek
‘A colossal adventure…Cloete’s descriptions of the veld, the hunting and fighting are really magnificent.’
‘The magnificent, breath-taking saga of the Boer trek..a startlingly fresh passionate novel…with superb people, arresting incident and vivid panorama’
The Great Trek has been mummified in dry history books. But Stuart Cloete brings the story of the Boers who trekked North away from the Cape, outraged at the decision of the English to free their slaves, to life in this page turner. Turning Wheels travels through the full kaleidoscope of humanity from adventure to boredom, bravery to cowardice, violent cruelty to passionate love.
The story follows one of the Trek convoys led by Hendrik van der Berg. His people live and travel in wagons, fight natives along the way, and dream of a land of milk and honey where they can farm and practice their traditions far away from the licentiousness of the French and British.
They settle where the ground is rich and fertile, although ‘Canaan’ slowly turns on them in the form of worms, weeds, ticks and mosquitoes. The lush bush around the settlement harbours native Africans who eventually wipe them out. But Hendrik’s grandson survives the carnage and other Boers move in to avenge Canaan. The reader senses that a cycle of dispossession and inter-racial strife has begun and will continue indefinitely.
Hendrik van der Berg epitomises the strength and boldness of the Trekboers, but also their stubbornness, chauvinism and religious fanaticism. Jealous about his son’s love affair with the enigmatic Sannie van Reenen, he decides to kill him and justifies his action with a sign from God.
He marries Sannie but ultimately loses her when she runs off with Swart Piete who broke away from the Trek to become a hunter and slave trader. Hendrik goes mad in his wild pursuit of the pair and his desperate rashness results in a hunting accident that leads to his death.
Turning Wheels was written before the height and fall of apartheid but it is relevant to those who wish to understand its tragedy. The novel exposes the hearts and minds of the conservative Afrikaners in a balanced way. Through the insightful character of Swart Piete, Cloete seems to predict that the tendency of the Boers to underestimate their black foes will ultimately lead to their own downfall.
Piete challenges his own people when they tell him that the black people are of a lesser bloodline and happy to serve: ‘But do the Kaffirs know of this?’ he says. ‘Do they understand that they are the children of Ham? I do not think they do, on the contrary it is in my mind that they think they are the people who have been dispossessed, and they are angry. You can see the anger in their eyes.’
The most frustrating character in the novel is Sannie’s aunt, Anna de Jong. She is a sly observer and sees in-justice and danger well in advance but, without fail, she does nothing or acts to exacerbate the problem. She encourages Sannie to marry Hendrik even though she knows he has murdered his son; she even admires his boldness.
Swart Piete’s companion, the witch-doctor Rinkals, is the only black character that is explored in depth. He is selfish, cowardly and slippery enough to be the only one to escape the siege of Canaan. But, despite this, there is no doubt that he is wise and powerful in the supernatural realm. Through his interactions, Cloete explores a different worldview, and the African chiefs Rinkals deals with are shown in a sympathetic light; they have integrity and a strong sense of fairness.
Throughout, Cloete subtly highlights the similarities between the Boers and their black adversaries that they are all incapable of recognising. Both groups are tied to the land and keep their wealth in the form of cattle. Swart Piete believes that he hates all ‘Kaffirs’ because they killed his father, and yet he develops a deep bond with Rinkals.
The irony of the book is that, ultimately, Anna de Jong seems to find a soul mate in Rinkals. He recognises her culpability in Canaan’s doom but does not judge her, because her cunning matches his own. Again people who wish to read deeper may see a comment on the observers who, despite their insight and powerful position, are silent about systems of oppression.