Ik ben een Afrikaander – al slaat de landdrost mij dood, of al zetten hij mij in de tronk, ik zal, nog wil niet zwijgen!
(I am an African – even if the magistrate were to beat me to death, or put me in jail, I shall not be, nor will I stay, silent!)
Hendrik Biebouw, 1707
In the 17th century the Cape of Good Hope was a waystation where ships carrying slaves or spices could fortify themselves for the trip around Africa’s horn. Only the most desperate Europeans would think of making this remote wilderness a permanent home. But Europe’s endless religious wars left no shortage of desperate people. Calvinists from Holland, Germany and France came to the Cape seeking new lives. In time they came to resent Dutch and later British rule. Many moved into the interior where they became farmers (boers in the Low Dutch tongue which they were now calling “Afrikaans” or “African”). They put down roots in this harsh but fertile environment, building farms and churches in the veldt (savannah) at the shadows of the Drakensberg (Dragon Mountain) escarpment.
By the time English settlers began arriving in the 1820s these Afrikaners had been in southern Africa for well over a century. Chafing under British rule, many Afrikaners began looking north to the Natal region. In 1835 Afrikaners began a migration that has come to be known as the Groot Trek (Great Trek). Over the next decade thousands would travel to the wild country which would later become the Orange Free State, Natal and Transvaal.
While the Voortrekkers were moving north others were moving south. Under the command of Sigidi kaSenzangakhona (Shaka), the once-small and relatively unimportant Zulu clan had risen to rule over land ranging from the borders of present-day Mozambique to the Drakensberg Mountains. As is often the case, this empires were built at terrible cost. Between 1815 and 1840 1 to 2 million people were slaughtered and entire regions depopulated in what is called in Zulu the Mfecane (crushing) and in Sesotho the Difaqane (forced migration). Survey teams had found much of the area uninhabited, but the settlers soon learned why that rich farmland was left unplowed.
In February 1838 Piet Retief and a delegation of 100 Afrikaners and their Coloured servants traveled into the Natal to negotiate a land treaty with the Zulu king Dingane giving the Voortrekkers the area between the Tugela River and Port St. Johns on the . A decade earlier Dingane had assassinated his half-brother Shaka with the help of another mutual half-brother, Mhlangana, whom Dingane then killed to claim the kingdom as his own. Now Dingane, after inviting the Retief delegation to a feast, set a regiment of 1,000 Zulu warriors on the unarmed men: once subdued the Voortrekkers, including several boys under 11, were beaten to death and their bodies left for the vultures. Two weeks later, on February 16-17, Dingane’s forces fell upon the Voortrekkers camped along the Bushman River: over 500 were killed in the surprise attack.
For the rest of 1838 the Afrikaners faced running battles with the Zulu. Then, in late November, Andries Pretorius showed up with reinforcements. Before beginning their sally into enemy territory the Voortrekkers solemnly promised that if God were to grant them victory they would build a church in His honor and celebrate the day of their deliverance as a holiday. The specifics of this defining moment in Afrikaner history remain, like many defining historical moments, cloudy and controversial. One widely accepted version of the Vow, written down second-hand nearly a century after the event and translated back into Afrikaans in 1965, states:
Hier staan ons voor die Heilige God van Hemel en aarde om ŉ gelofte aan Hom te doen, dat, as Hy ons sal beskerm en ons vyand in ons hand sal gee, ons die dag en datum elke jaar as ŉ dankdag soos ŉ Sabbat sal deurbring; en dat ons ŉ huis tot Sy eer sal oprig waar dit Hom behaag, en dat ons ook aan ons kinders sal sê dat hulle met ons daarin moet deel tot nagedagtenis ook vir die opkomende geslagte. Want die eer van Sy naam sal verheerlik word deur die roem en die eer van oorwinning aan Hom te gee.
We stand here before the Holy God of heaven and earth, to make a vow to Him that, if He will protect us and give our enemy into our hand, we shall keep this day and date every year as a day of thanksgiving like a sabbath, and that we shall build a house to His honour wherever it should please Him, and that we will also tell our children that they should share in that with us in memory for future generations. For the honour of His name will be glorified by giving Him the fame and honour for the victory.
On December 16, 1838, a force of between 10,000 and 15,000 Zulus prepared to attack the laager (defensive wagon formation) of Andries Pretorius. The warriors were armed with the Assegai spears the Zulus had used to such devastating effect in the Mfecane. Pretorius and his 470 men were armed with muzzle loading rifles and cannons. Shaka had been unimpressed with muzzle loaders as he felt they took too long to load and decided spears were equally effective: Dingane had followed his lead. As the warriors approached the camp they discovered too late how effective gunpowder could be against traditional weapons. When the smoke cleared over 3,000 Zulu warriors lay dead: the waters of the Ncome ran red over their bodies and would ever after be called by the Afrikaners Bloedrivier (“Blood River”). The Boers suffered no fatalities and only three minor injuries. Two years later Pretorius helped Dingane’s son Mpande seize the throne. At his Pietermaritzburg coronation Mpande declared the Tugela River the border between Zululand and the newly-declared Republic of Natalia.
While they were able to install a friendly Zulu ruler, the Boers soon found themselves facing an old adversary. In 1843 the British declared the region to be the Colony of Natal, a dependency of the Cape Colony. The Boers moved on to Transvaal and Orange Free State but British colonists, bureaucrats and soldiers followed. Things came to a head in November 1880 when a wagon owned by P. L. Bezuidenhout was seized by British authorities in Potchefstroom during a tax dispute. A few days later a convoy of 100 armed Boers seized the wagon and returned it to Bezuidenhout. By December the Boers had declared independence: after several humiliating military losses England was forced to sign a peace treaty and recognize Boer self-government in the Transvaal Republic and Orange Free State.
But once again Boer sovereignty proved precarious. In the summer of 1886 an Australian miner named George Harrison struck gold on a farm in the Transvaal. Mining engineers soon discovered the gold beneath the Witwatersrand (White Water Ridge) went on for miles. Alas, the vein was not only long but deep and would require large-scale mining operations. Cecil Rhodes, the founder of the powerful De Beers Consolidated Mines, was happy to provide that capital. But the ardent imperialist who envisioned a railroad which would run from Cape Town to Cairo without ever leaving British territory wanted to protect his investment,
When Transvaal President Paul Kruger raised the price of dynamite (the Afrikaners holding the dynamite monopoly under a previous agreement), Rhodes arranged to have him overthrow. The raid, led by Leander Starr Jameson, was a disaster: Jameson and his co-conspirators were quickly captured by the Boers and relations between the Afrikaners and Uitlanders (foreign workers, largely Scots and English miners) grew worse than ever. The Afrikaners had always been ambivalent about the Gold Rush and resented the influx of alien newcomers. The newcomers felt Boer sovereignty over the Transvaal could only interfere with business. When a 19 year-old Englishman named Tom Edgar was killed by a Boer constable in December 1898 the Uitlanders — and the British government — treated his death like a political incident. By October of 1899 Britain and the Transvaal were once again at war. The first conflict was a brief conflict between overstretched British soldiers over a remote stretch of African land. This time the world’s largest gold reserves were at stake. A standing army of under 50,000 Boer irregulars would face over 200,000 British soldiers.
(Their houses) were destroyed and burnt with everything in them … and these families among them were many aged ones, pregnant women, and children of very tender years, were removed in open trolleys (exposed) for weeks to rain, severe cold wind and terrible heat, privations to which they were not accustomed, with the result that many of them became very ill, and some of them died shortly after their arrival in the women’s camps….British mounted troops have not hesitated in driving them for miles before their horses, old women, little children, and mothers with sucklings to their breasts …
Within a few months much of the Boer resistance had collapsed and on May 24, 1900 the British government officially annexed the Orange Free State and on September 1 they took the Transvaal. Many of the Boer guerrillas surrendered to the British and became hendsoppers (“hands-uppers”). Others remained bittereinders determined to fight to the finish. To discourage the Boer guerilla combatants Lord Kitchener, commander of the British forces, decided to cut off their food supply and capture their families. Across the Transvaal and Orange Free State farms captured by the British were burned and crops confiscated. The Afrikaans-speaking population was herded into “concentration camps.” Food and medicine were in short supply: those captives whose fathers, sons and husbands surrendered to the British were given most of it while the families of commandos received little. Between 1900 and war’s end in 1902 27,927 Afrikaners died of famine and disease — 1,676 men (mostly too old to fight), 4,177 women and 22,074 children under sixteen.
At the war’s end, many Afrikaner survivors had nothing to return to. Moving to the cities and mines, they eked out a living as laborers and miners. There they became an underclass ruled over by a British administration in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and loathing. Then, in 1918, a few young Afrikaners founded an organization that would forever change the face of South African politics.