Book Review by Sylvia D. Between 1835 and the early 1840s some twelve to fourteen thousand Boers (Dutch/Afrikaans for “farmers”) who were descended from settlers who had come from western Europe (mainly from the Netherlands and north-west Germany and Huguenots from France) to settle in Cape Colony, migrated eastward and north-eastward – the Great Trek. It was this mass movement of settlers that eventually saw the establishment of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The voortrekkers, as they were known, were seeking to escape British control and were in search of new land. The family of Stuart Cloete (1897-1976 and pronounced “Clooty”) had settled in the Cape in 1652 and he was able to draw on the writings of his great-grandfather to write a novel about the Great Trek entitled Turning Wheels.
This was his first novel, published by Collins in 1937. At first I thought Cloete must have been a South African but he was born in Paris of a South African father and a Scottish mother and was educated in England before serving as an officer with the Coldstream Guards during the First World War. He tried his hand as a farmer in the Transvaal but eventually left for England to become a writer.
Turning Wheels has two threads to the narrative: the story of one group of families and neighbours led by Hendrik dan der Berg who were migrating ‘to the north where there was room to breathe and no law, save that of the white man’s gun and the Kaffir’s assegai’ – (p 7). A religiously devout group, their gaol was the promised land. The second thread is the story of Zwart Piete, a young man who breaks away from his family group and becomes a successful hunter and trader in ivory and slaves. The two threads come together at certain key moments.
The voortrekkers’ journey is punctuated by bloody encounters with the local tribespeople, the constant need to hunt for food, extremes of weather, lost livestock, wrecked wagons, disease and sudden death. There are also simmering passions: Hendrik van der Berg is fierce, bold and proud and also a religious fanatic, who, jealous of his son’s love affair with the young, good-looking Sannie van Reenen, justifies his decision to kill him with what he construes as a sign from God.
The group finally settle in an area they named Canaan where the ground is rich and fertile but, unbeknown to them, harbours worms, ticks and mosquitoes and they fail to understand why so many of their cattle are dying. The area is also not strategically located and by the end of the book all but a very few have been massacred and their homes destroyed.
Meanwhile Zwart Piete, his twin sister Sara who is disfigured with smallpox scars and is more like a man than a woman and their mixed race servant are amassing a fortune through hunting and trading on the coast. Piete, always a restless man, decides to visit the Boers in Canaan. He instantly falls in love with Sannie who has grown to hate Hendrick who has taken a mixed race mistress. Piete contrives to get Sannie away and Hendrik goes mad in his wild pursuit of the pair and his desperate rashness results in a hunting accident that leads to his death.
After Hendrik’s death, Piete returns to warn the Boers that they are in danger of attack but they refuse to listen to him on the grounds of his young age. His sense of responsibility though leads him to go to their aid and he and Sannie are hewn down along with the others.
Two of the survivors are possibly the most complex characters in the book – old, fat, manipulative Tante Anna who sits and watches, and schemes like a spider at the centre of her web. She is midwife and layer out of the dead but she is also a Cassandra-like character who foresees what is going to happen. However, as she often speaks in religious riddles, people tend not to understand her. The second is an old witchdoctor, Rinkals, the only black character who is drawn in any depth. He is rescued from his burnt out village by Sara and Piete and attaches himself to them. He is a rather slippery, cunning, mystical character but through experience has grown shrewd. He knows the land like the back of his hand and is adept at handling the local chieftains. The novel ends with him and Tante Anna finding an affinity for each other and spending days talking to each other even though he blamed her for the catastrophe that had taken place: ‘… the doom of Canaan is upon your head, this I have seen clearly when I have looked into the other world, for in everything that has happened I have seen your hand. Aye, many stones have you thrown at the hornets’ nest, and now it is fallen and they buzz about our ears. Ja, … you have stirred the pot, but you knew not what you cooked …’ – (p 470).
Turning Wheels is an epic tale, full of violence, with many similarities with wild west stories. The Boers were stubborn and chauvinistic and did not distinguish between different native tribes. They insultingly and contemptuously described all black Africans as ‘kaffirs’. Yet Zwart Piete queries the Boers’ superiority when he says to his sister: ‘I sometimes wonder if there is as much difference as we think between black and white’ – (p 313). He realises that the tendency of the Boers to underestimate the black Africans will backfire on them. When other Boers argue that the ‘Kaffirs’ around them are tame and have a duty to serve them, he argues; ‘’Why should they like you? … Are you not worse than Zulus who come like a storm, destroy, and then go perhaps never to come again? Whereas you come and take their best grazing, kill the game on which they live, and expect them to love you… it is in my mind that they think they are a people who have been dispossessed, and they are angry. You can see their anger in their eyes’’ – (pp 304-305).
Cloete paints a picture of a frontier society where men have no qualms about shooting a man, revenge killings are commonplace and the role of women is purely to support their menfolk and produce children. The Boers, for instance, had muzzle-loading rifles and loading them was a complicated procedure. Therefore they used more than one gun at a time – while aiming and firing at the enemy with one, their wives and children would be loading another. This sort of historical detail makes the story more interesting. Another example is how the land was apportioned; ‘… the head of each family or his representative started from where the last man had stopped and rode for two hours in each direction. As he changed his course, he would dismount to make a rough beacon and, mounting, gallop on, coming back in the end to the point he had started from … Roughly the farms were sixteen miles in circumference’ – (pp 163-164).
Did I like Turning Wheels? Not really, the constant violence and cruelty did not appeal. However, Cloete is excellent at detail and seems to give a balanced view in his portrayal of the Boers and the indigenous tribes, with the two groups in conflict because they are both tied to the land and depend on their cattle.
Turning Wheels sold more than two million copies although it was banned in South Africa where it scandalized the authorities with its commentary on the Great Trek and its portrayal of a mixed race relationship. Cloete went on to write at least eight volumes of short stories and 14 more novels, two of which, The Hill of the Doves and The Fiercest Heart, were made into films in 1941 and 1955 respectively.