Magdalena Retief – memorable tragic Voortrekker woman

by | Oct 2, 2021 | Forgotten Heroes, People, Street names | 0 comments

Retief Street (Central) was named after, Magdalena Retief, the wife of the Voortrekker leader, Piet Retief. Retief. She resided on the north-eastern corner of Retief and Berg Streets (later Van Riebeeck, now Peter Mokaba).

In 1994, shortly after a memorial in the honour of Magdalena Retief was unveiled in the garden of the Reformed Church Potchefstroom North (now Die Bult), I wrote an article about her. It was published in Konteks, the magazine of the Hervormde Church. Here is the English version.

The history of Piet Retief is well-known to most Afrikaner people. He was one of the leaders of the Great Trek and died on 6 February 1838 at uMgungundlovu.

The story of his wife, Magdalena, is hardly known, but much more touching because it is typical of the life of a woman who experienced the hardships of the Great Trek.

The woman in the middle of this photo is in all probability Magdalena Retief, widow of the Voortrekker leader, Piet Retief. She passed away in 1855 and was buried in the Voortrekker cemetery on the Bult. This photo is preserved in the archives of the Potchefstroom Museum, with others from the early years of Potchefstroom. Nobody knows for sure who the people on this photo are. Johan Wolfaardt of the Potchefstroom Museum, took a good look at these photos some time ago and is almost sure that this is Magdalena Retief. The photo dates from the time when she lived and the clothes are also typical of the period. He applied methods used by the police to identify people on photos. Photos of a sister of Magdalena Retief exist and the resemblance between the woman in this picture and Magdalena is remarkable. There are also extant photos of Debora Retief, her daughter. There is a remarkable resemblance between Debora and the girl to the left in the picture. The conclusion is thus made that the girl is Debora.

Magdalena Retief was introduced to a wider audience when the historic novel by Jeanette Ferreira, Bloedlelie (blood lily), about her appeared in 2019. The book was met with much acclaim.

In July 1994 the Potchefstroom branch of the Foundation Simon van der Stel unveiled a memorial in the honour of this remarkable woman. Magdalena Retief lived the last years of her life in Potchefstroom and was buried in the first cemetery of the town, which was just north of the corner of Borcherds and Molen Streets on the Bult to the western side of the street, partly on the pavement. (An article on this cemetery appears in my book Stories of Potchefstroom.)

The Magdalena Retief Memorial in the garden of the Reformed Church Die Bult. The memorial was unveiled in July 1994. Magdalena Retief was buried in the cemetery that was in the area. When the northern burger rights erven were surveyed on the Bult in the late 1890s, petitions were made to demarcate the cemetery. This was disregarded and the erven were laid out right over the cemetery. An attempt was made in 1919 to exhume the bodies and some bones were reburied in the concentration camp cemetery. This came to an abrupt halt after the widow of one of the interred chased off the workers, telling them that they disregard the dead. Subsequently property owners found human bones in their gardens. The last incident was in the early late 1980s and early 1990s when a new house was built and bones were found when the foundations were dug. The paving stones visible at the bottom of the picture were found at the cemetery where Magdalena was buried and kept at the Potchefstroom Museum before they were used here. 

During the unveiling of the memorial, the well-known Potchefstroom historian, Prof Gert van den Bergh, gave a short biography on Magdalena Retief.

Prof Van den Bergh said that she was, in her own right, not a leader. She had no specific achievements, did not attract public interest and did not suffer more or less than the other women of the Great Trek. It is actually her ordinariness which makes her memorable. She was an ordinary person, a typical Voortrekker wife and mother. Most modern-day women would stand aghast at this woman’s troubled life and would in all probability not believed the typical things that their ancestors endured.

Magdalena de Wet was born in 1782 and in all probability grew up in the Stellenbosch district. She was only sixteen when she married her first husband, Jan Greyling. The couple had nine children.  

Magdalena was only 28 years old when he died during a military expedition at the eastern border of the Cape Colony. Magdalena was then pregnant with their last child. She was a widow for more than two years when she met Piet Retief, who then resided in the Graaff-Reinet district.

From her first husband’s estate she inherited about 900 sheep, 300 goats, 20 trek oxen, 50 breeding cows, four wagon horses, a riding horse, six breeding horses and an amount of money. “Although not rich, she was well-off, certainly better off than Piet Retief, who had just suffered a large financial setback,” said Prof Van den Bergh. They married in July 1814.

“In the only letter of Piet to his wife,” Prof Van den Bergh continued, “he referred to her as “waarde en geliefde vrou” (honoured and beloved wife) and from other sources during the Great Trek, we know that she supported him in good and bad circumstances, in the joy and sorrow of the trek as well as intimate daily home life. It is notable that after the murder of her husband and two of her sons, one by Greyling and one by Retief, who accompanied Retief, it was she who was the symbol of the sorrow of the people. Other women and mothers approached her for advice and solace. She already found it difficult to leave the Cape Colony, where she buried a husband and four children.

Magdalena was 56 years old when her husband died and persevered for two years before she in 1840 approached the Voortrekker Volksraad to ask for a pension “due to her poverty and high age”. The Volksraad, who in itself did not have a large reserve of funds, gave her a property in Pietermaritzburg, where she and two of her widowed daughters resided. In the early 1840s she repeated the request, but received no answer and decided to move to Potchefstroom. This was shortly after Britain had annexed Natal.

She, in all probability, moved to Potchefstroom with Andries Pretorius and here received a property in town, as well as a farm, as was customary in the case of a widow. Here again the Volksraad took note of “deplorable circumstances” of the “lamentable old woman” and she received a small pension from the government.

According to Prof Van den Bergh, she was probably the first person who received a government pension from the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek. To augment her pension she apparently also operated the first home industry in Potchefstroom by baking rusks and bread for men going on commando. She also baked pastries (fyn gebak) which she sold to the residents of Potchefstroom.

Her abject poverty appeared from a story told about this time. She was talking to somebody at the wall of her property and said that she had nothing to eat that day. Just then a bunch of carrots drifted down the furrow. She took the carrots with a prayer of thanksgiving out of the water.

This photo of the house of Magdalena Retief appeared in the yearbook of the Corps Veritas Vincet, a student organisation at the PUC in 1919. It stood at the corner of Retief Street (named after Magdalena, not her husband) and Berg Streets (formerly Van Riebeeck, now Peter Mokaba). According to Geoffrey Jenkins in A century of history, the house was demolished in 1926. The house currently standing on the property was built by Albert and Mercia Luke.

A Dutchman who visited her in these years, said that she was a dignified lady and noted specifically about how neat her house was, despite the fact that she was too poor to be able to offer him something to eat.

Fifteen years before she passed away, her family in the Cape Colony wrote to her and apparently asked her to tell them about her circumstances.

She wrote back and told that she had nine children with Jan Greyling, of whom three died in infancy. A daughter passed away while she was in labour and a second due to heart palpitations. Two of her sons, one by Greyling and one by Retief, died with Retief at uMgungundlovu. Of the six children she had with Retief, two died in infancy.

About the remaining Retief children, she said that the wife and children of Jacobus Francois died. The husband and children of Debora Jacoba passed away and the children of Magdalena Margareta also died.

She said in her letter: “. . . mijn rampte is bijna te zwaar om UEd daarvan een behoorlike melding te doen.” (My disasters are almost too heavy to give you a proper mention thereof.)

The memorial that was erected in honour of Magdalena Retief is a large rock placed on a round base of dressed stone. The rock is a symbol of her character which was a firm as a rock and the dressed stones were found at the cemetery where she was buried.

This is not the first memorial in honour of Magdalena Retief that was erected in the area. In September 1974 a small memorial stone was placed on the pavement where actual cemetery was supposed to be. It stood directly opposite the tower of the church on the western side of Molen Street. This did not sit well with the residents of the house next to the memorial, who felt that they had a gravestone on their pavement. By January 1975 it was removed and kept at the Potchefstroom Museum.

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