Wednesday, February 21, 2007


My institution has taken the notion of a "trek" as the organizing metaphor for its mission statement and medium to long-term goals, appealling thereby to a previous "refoundation," a 1922 student-led demostration "now known as the Great Trek".

UBC Great TrekStrictly speaking, the university had been founded in 1908 with the passage of the relevant Act of establishment and incorporation. Shortly thereafter, a site for the new university was identified: Point Grey, a promontory on the outskirts of the city. But when in 1915 the university opened for business, it was in the city itself, as construction continued at the promised site of Point Grey. Then in October 1922, some 1,500 students made their way from downtown to Point Grey, occupying and hanging banners from the still incomplete buildings, "as a symbolic gesture to lay claim to the unfinished campus". It is this demonstration that came to be known as the "great trek." And in 1925 the Point Grey campus finally opened.

But to call this a "trek" is curious terminology. Indeed, if the word was used in 1922 to describe student claims to Point Grey, it would antecede by almost twenty years the OED's first reference to "trek" being used outside of Africa.

For "trek" is a South African word, and any mention of a "Great Trek" in 1922 could only invoke the Boer founding myth of the Great Trek of 1835 to 1838. This was "a landmark in an era of expansionism and bloodshed, of land seizure and labour coercion": up to 12,000 Afrikaners, Dutch settlers living in the Southern Cape under British jurisdiction, hitched their wagons and headed North and East in search of their very own "promised land." These "Voertrekkers" thereby also sought to secure the white dominance and racial separation that they felt British policies were underminding.

Battle of Blood RiverThe Trek's key episode was the Battle of Blood River, in which 3,000 Zulu warriors were killed at the cost of only slight injuries to three of the Boers. The Trekkers took this as "a sign from God that they were indeed a chosen people". In 1949 the Apartheid state inaugurated the Blood River monument at the site of the battle, and the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, symbolic legitimation for a nation built on the myth of racial superiority incarnated in the trek and its triumphal massacre.

Surely then these same resonances of a chosen people's resistance to a colonial authority felt to be insufficiently expansionist would also have been in the air in 1920s British Columbia?

Point Grey has been, we are also told, "home to the Musqueam band since 'time immemorial'". At the turn of the twentieth century, to identify the land as some rural Arcadia full of natural splendour and the requisite peace for higher education and learning was necessarily also to erase an entire history of indigenous population and colonial dispossession.

But the repressed always returns. The decidedly unusual choice of the term "Great Trek" marks the coincidence and commonality between the aims and desires of two sets of white colonizers, each anxious to construct for themselves the idea of a "promised land" in the face of indigenous resistance on the one hand, and what was felt as bureaucratic accommodation on the other.

One might also wonder what metaphoric or symbolic work the term's contemporary resurrection accomplishes.

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