Who was the widow Retief?

In recent articles in The Witness, the possible demolition of the historic house of the widow Retief was debated. Because of public pressure, the KwaZulu-Natal Heritage Council decided last week that 225 Church Street, Pietermaritzburg should be preserved. They should be congratulated on this brave decision.

Part of this house once belonged to the wife of Pieter Retief, the Voortrekker leader, after whom Pietermaritzburg was partly named. Sadly, the house of the widow Maritz, wife of Gert Maritz after whom the other half of Pietermaritzburg was named, was not so fortunate a couple of years ago, and
had to bite the dust to make way for McDonalds.

But who was the widow Retief? As with most histories, men played the main role and women were the distant shadows behind their male counterparts. In this instance, the widow Retief is also exclusively known because of her relation to her famous husband. But who was she in her own right?

Magdalena Johanna “Lenie” De Wet was born in 1782 at Zwartberg in the Swellendam district as the fifth of six children. She first married Field-Cornet Jan Christoffel Greijling with whom she had 9 children. After his death in 1811, she married again in 1814 to Piet Retief. Besides taking responsibility for a huge step-family, Retief had a further 6 children with his wife Lenie. Her new life was not an easy one, for Retief was a restless person who was making a living as general dealer, baker, miller, butcher, liquor trader, auctioneer, timber merchant and building contractor on the eastern frontier towns of Uitenhage and Grahamstown. By 1834, he was forced to surrender his estate. During this time they also farmed on “Mooimeisiesfontein”, named after Lenie, who by all accounts was a good-looking woman and referred to by Retief as his “mooi meisie”. They hereafter moved high up in the Winterberg where Retief became involved in the struggle of the border farmers.

After the publication of his Manifesto in 1837, which broadly stated the reasons for the Great Trek, Retief and his family departed for Natal. Retief was elected Governor of the united trek parties and took it upon himself to negotiate with Dingane, the Zulu king, for land in Natal on which the Trekkers could settle. From the private letters of Piet to Lenie, it is evident that he shared his most inner feelings and fears with her. They must have been trusted partners and one can only speculate on the degree of influence she had on him.

One of her most trying experiences must have been when she received the news of the death of her husband who was killed on January 6, 1838 at the hands of the Zulu. News of the events only came two weeks later. Not only was her husband killed but also two of her sons and a son-in-law, three days before the laagers along the Bushmen’s River were attacked by the Zulu. Miraculously, Lenie’s lager was not amongst them. Hereafter, the reverend Erasmus Smit and his wife took pity on the widow Retief. Smit “spoke and comforted her in her misfortune according to the word of God.” The previous year, Lenie showed empathy with the Smits following the death of their son Salomon by making a burial shroud, a pleated collar, a cap and a covering for the face and head. Lenie was amongst the first mourners to comfort the family.

The widow Retief was not immune to the daily trials of the trek and at one point Erasmus Smit recorded in his dairy that “we received the news that the wagon of Mrs Retief, while travelling through the river to the other side, capsized, but God be thanked, she has not been hurt.” After the Battle of Blood River in December 1838, the Voortrekkers were, in early 1839, free to settle in their new capital of Pietermaritzburg, partly named after her husband. Her son from her first marriage, Pieter Greijling, laid out the town, and one of the streets is still named after him. The widow Retief was granted Erf 22 Church Street. She must have immediately erected a substantial dwelling for, before the building of the first reed church or the completion of the Church of the Vow by 15 March 1840, the first church services, baptisms and even weddings took place in her house.

Because the Reverend Smit was already old and weakened, the widow Retief, her three daughters and other persons decided to make contributions towards the building of a pulpit. The core of this pulpit is still to be seen in the Church of the Vow. The widow Retief was an ardent supporter of Smit and with the virtual excommunication of him by the official church authorities and replacement by the American missionary Daniel Lindley, the fortunes of the widow Retief also changed. When in 1840 the widow Retief requested a pension, it was decided to grant her the erf in Church Street as a present.

To survive, she now had to earn her living with her hands by baking bread and biscuits. She also planted mealies and pumpkins and had some head of cattle. By now, only five of her 15 children were still alive. In 1843 she rendered an account to the Volksraad for delivering bread and biscuit to the burghers for consumption the previous year during the skirmish at Congella near Port Natal. A total of 94 Riksdaalders were paid out. By the middle of 1844, she got the help of the prolific Charles Etienne Boniface to present to the Volksraad two petitions on her behalf, in which she requested a pension. He pleaded her sad and sorrowful state and concluded that it would be unforgiving of the Volksraad to deny her as the widow of the immortal Piet Retief. Upon investigation, it was determined that the erf in Church Street was given to her as a form of pension and that the treasury could not afford another form of compensation.

After the British annexation of Natal, many Trekkers left their lost Republic of Natalia to settle in the areas to the north of the Orange and Vaal Rivers. Retief probably left Pietermaritzburg in 1848 with her daughter Deborah and her husband to settle in the town of Potchefstroom, leaving behind her dearest friends the Reverend Erasmus Smit and his wife Susanna. There the Dutchman Jacobus Stuart (grandfather of James Stuart of the analogous archives) found her in the early fifties, still living in poverty. By now, at least, the Transvaal government had granted her a pension of 15 shillings a month. Today, it is still not known when she died or where she is buried. She was remembered, however, in 1938, when the well-known poet and author Uys Krige wrote an epic drama for the centenary of the Great Trek and named it “Magalena Retief”.

a.. Louis J. Eksteen is the Chairman of the Natal Voortrekker Grave and
Monuments Committee.
Publish Date: 26 January 2004
http://www.witness.co.za/content/2004_01/21292.htm (link is dead)

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