This is an in-depth study of the history of the Church of the Vow (also sometimes referred to as the Church of the Covenant) in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, which was built in fulfilment of a vow taken by the Voortrekkers before the Battle of Blood River (also referred to as Ncome in Zulu and Bloedrivier in Afrikaans) on 16 December 1838.
Afrikaner farmers (later referred to as Voortrekkers) were leaving the Cape Colony for several reasons and wanted to settle in the interior. This movement later became known as ‘The Great Trek’ and it was during this time that they clashed with the Zulus at Blood River (close to present day Dundee in KwaZulu-Natal). After winning the battle, the Voortrekkers built a church as promised and used it for many years until they were forced by circumstances to sell it. The building changed hands quite a few times during the second half of the 19th century and served various purposes including being a school, a pharmacy and mineral-water factory. In 1910 it was saved from demolition, was then renovated and became a museum in 1912 which it still is today in 2014.
This study focuses on a time period of 100 years, looking at the history of the Church of the Vow from 1838, during the time of the Great Trek when the vow was made, to 1938 when the centenary of the Great Trek was celebrated across South Africa, including Pietermaritzburg where 18 000 people gathered at the Church of the Vow for the commemorations.
The study also looks at the building within a wider context by looking at other vows and churches or monuments built in fulfilment of vows in South Africa and internationally, in an attempt to understand why the Voortrekkers made such a promise and how this resulted in the building of the church.
This study makes use of a variety of secondary sources and historical publications relating to the Church of the Vow, and valuable primary sources to reveal new information about this significant building which has not been published before.
It is only by fully understanding the history of the building that one can attempt to determine its cultural significance. The concept of ‘cultural significance’ has been widely used to determine the heritage value of places. In South Africa, heritage practitioners are guided by the South African National Heritage Resources Act (Act 25 of 1999) which provides criteria as set out in Section 3(3).
The Act was used for the purpose of this study, in conjunction with the Australia ICOMOS (International Council for Monuments and Sites) Burra Charter, since South Africa does not have its own charter. The Burra Charter provides standard guidelines for conservation and management of places of cultural significance and is supplemented with the Australia ICOMOS Practice Notes, which gives detailed explanations of the use and application of the Burra Charter, including the understanding and assessment of cultural significance.
The Church of the Vow has for many years been an important monument to the Afrikaners. By looking at the history of this building, this study attempted to determine what value it held within this community in the past and whether it is still significant to them at present. The purpose of this study is also to challenge popular beliefs about this building and create new debates by taking a new look at this historical landmark from a new perspective within a democratic South Africa, by determining if this building could potentially be significant to other cultures as well, especially those cultural groups in Pietermaritzburg and KwaZulu-Natal.
This study hopes to create awareness and appreciation for this small building of which its foundations date back more than a hundred and seventy years.
Dissertation (MHCS)--University of Pretoria, 2015.