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The Boer Republics (Boers) In South Africa Before 1870 – N. Bhebe
As the two British colonies thus made constitutional progress and, with British imperial assistance, established mechanisms for guaranteeing white political supremacy and economic deprivation and exploitation of the blacks in the 1850s and 1860s, the Boers also tried to achieve internal unity and to subjugate the African communities of the interior. When the British retreated from the north of the Orange river, the Boers were divided into numerous groups. The main division was along the Vaal river, causing two Boer republics to eventually emerge – the Orange Free State in the south and the Transvaal (South African Republic) in the north.
In 1854, when the Bloemfontein Convention was signed, perhaps many people in the Orange Free State wanted independence, but very few were prepared for it. Apart from poverty, ignorance, military weakness, and lack of administrative infrastructure, the Free State government dreaded its powerful neighbour, the Sotho kingdom of Moshoeshoe, with whom it had no settled border. The Orange Free State also suffered from a fundamental division that caused it for many years to waver between joining the Cape Colony in the south or amalgamating with its sister republic in the north. In this way the Orange Free State exposed itself to frequent interference from both directions.
The division was primarily between the trekboers and the voortrekkers. The former were the Boers who went across the Orange river in search of land before the Great Trek. They settled mostly in the south of what later became the Orange Free State. Whenever they were embroiled in wars with their African neighbours, they tended to look to the south for assistance. They were reinforced by British merchants and land speculators who settled in Bloemfontein during the brief period of annexation. Quite different from this group, variously called ‘loyalists’ or ‘re-annexationists’, were the Boers living in the north-east of the republic, mostly in and around the Winburg district.
These were the products of the Great Trek, men and women who had left the Cape Colony out of bitterness against the British government. These voortrekkers, ‘faithful maatschappijers’ or republican patriots, as they are variously called, always stood for complete independence from the British and when in trouble turned to the Transvaal for assistance. This division explains in part the way the Orange Free State was easily goaded by Sir George Grey, the federalist Governor and High Commissioner, to toy with the idea of joining the Cape Colony in 1858; why the Free Staters voted the Transvaal President, Marthius Wessels Pretorius, to be their own president (1860-3); and why the Orange Free State remained neutral in the Anglo-Boer War (1880-1).
Despite all these weaknesses, the Orange Free State achieved some semblance of statehood much quicker than the Transvaal. The same committee that negotiated independence with the British arranged for the election of the first government and produced a draft constitution based on the American one. The government had an executive president and a volksraad (legislative authority). The Boers did not try to disguise their racism by means of high material franchise qualifications as in the British colonies; the blacks were totally excluded from the country’s citizenship and therefore from the franchise. Only whites who had lived in the country for six months were made citizens, and every white man who had registered for military service could vote.
The first President, Josias P. Hoffman, did not remain long in power because he was considered too friendly to Moshoeshoe and the English settlers. He was therefore compelled to resign and Johannes Nicolaas Boshof, who had extensive administrative experience and stood for the complete independence of the republic, was elected. He created a strong civil service and organized state finances on a firm basis. Nevertheless, Boshof’s presidency was marked by instability arising out of border disputes with Lesotho, and out of tensions between the maatschappijers and the loyalists, resulting in the dual intervention of Sir George Grey and Pretorius.
In October 1855 Sir George Grey intervened and managed to bring together Moshoeshoe and Boshof to sign an agreement on the procedures for settling disputes between their peoples. No border was fixed, and Moshoeshoe later said he only signed the treaty out of respect for Sir George Grey. He thus did nothing to restrain his people from quarrelling with the Boers. Still afflicted by border problems, Boshof had to confront Pretorius, who wanted to unite the two Boer republics. Driven by a misconception that the majority of the Free Staters desired amalgamation with their northern brethren, and claiming to have inherited the leadership of the Free State from his father, Andries Pretorius entered Bloemfontein on 22 February 1857 and on the next day declared his intention to take over the state and outlawed the Boshof government. Rejecting his claims, the Boshof government deported him and charged his supporters with sedition.
This provoked the mobilization of commandos on both sides of the Vaal river, which confronted each other on the opposite banks of the Rhenoster river on 25 May. Pretorius had banked on many maatschappijers deserting Boshof and joining his army. To his surprise, not only were there not many people defecting to his side, but he now also had a further and more dangerous enemy in his rear, Stephanus Schöeman, the Zoutpansberg Commandant, with whom he competed for the leadership of the Transvaal, and who had formed an alliance with the Free State. Scared that he would be completely annihilated, Pretorius agreed to sign an agreement by which both republics acknowledged each other’s autonomy on 1 June 1857.
The abortive civil war, however, exposed only too clearly the deep divisions among the Boers. The agreement did not remove the tensions among the three factions which had emerged in the Orange Free State, consisting of the ‘loyalists’, who were for re-annexation to the Cape Colony, the supporters of Boshof who stood for Orange Free State independence, and the unionists who wanted incorporation into the Transvaal. The tensions reached such a pitch that Boshof was forced into a tactical resignation in February 1858 and, when he withdrew his resignation, several members of the volksraad left in protest. Coupled with the internal disputes were the increasing border quarrels with Lesotho. Boshof decided to check the border disputes by invading Lesotho in March 1858. By converging on Thaba Bosiu, Moshoeshoe’s stronghold, the Boer commandos left their rear exposed, which was then raided by the Lesotho army.
The Boers abandoned the struggle as they went back home to defend their families and property. The military weakness of the Orange Free State, which was exposed by the half-hearted invasion of Lesotho, had already been acknowledged by Boshof even before the war when he requested military assistance from both Pretorius and Sir George Grey. Grey responded by arranging a meeting between Moshoeshoe and Boshof and on 29 September 1858 both sides signed the Treaty of Aliwal North which confirmed the Warden boundary. Pretorius, on the other hand, found a chance to renew his efforts to unify the two Boer republics. The Transvaal made it clear that it could only assist the Orange Free State in return for the latter’s absorption by the Transvaal. The prospect of unity between the two republics alarmed Grey, who was already contemplating federating the individual republics with the British colonies.
As early as 1857 Grey had come to the conclusion that Britain had made a mistake by pulling out of the interior of South Africa. He therefore started calling for the abrogation of the conventions and for the re-establishment of British rule under some form of federation. He feared that fragmentation of the whites weakened them in the face of the ubiquitous African states. He feared that the Boer republics might unite and enter into relations with foreign powers, thereby threatening the British colonies and Britain’s retention of vital naval bases. Besides, he thought, the numerous Boer conflicts with the African states were potentially dangerous, as they could spill over into the British colonies. Grey therefore moved swiftly to smother the Boers’ plans of unification by informing them that if they united Britain would feel itself free from the obligations of the conventions and therefore start negotiating alliances with the African states and even sell them guns.
The Transvaal therefore retreated to the north of the Vaal river to safeguard its independence, leaving Grey to encourage the Free State to take steps towards unity with the Cape Colony. But when he tried to encourage the Cape parliament to discuss the Free State offer of unity, the British government removed him from South Africa in June i859: With the collapse of the federation scheme, Boshof and his supporters, who had been enthusiastic about re-annexation, were discredited and the president resigned. This strengthened the unionists and they elected Pretorius as president. But the desire of the Orange Free State for unity was not matched by similar sentiments in the Transvaal, where the fear of the cancellation of the Sand River Convention and re-annexation by the British predominated. The Transvaal volksraad forced Pretorius to resign his presidency in the Transvaal, but he continued for another three years to work through his supporters there for unity.
By 1863 Pretorius had failed even in the Orange Free State and he retired to his home republic. The unsuccessful experiments of unity with either the Cape or the Transvaal made the Free States turn to themselves in shaping their national destiny. They elected as their president Johannes Henricus Brand, a lawyer and experienced parliamentarian from the Cape, who was to rule them for twenty-five years. But before looking at the Free State relations with their neighbours during Brand’s rule, it is necessary to consider how the Transvaal transformed itself into a state. The Transvaal took longer than the Orange Free State to attain recognizable features of a state.
The Boers to the north of the Vaal river were widely dispersed and further divided by religious differences. M. W. Pretorius, who took over from his father in 1853 and, as we have seen, ceaselessly fought to unite the two republics on either side of the Vaal river, was the chief champion of the unification of the Transvaal as well. He contended with such separatist groups as the Zoutpansbergers, centred around the Schoemansdaal village in the north; the Lydenburgers and W. F. Joubert in the east; and the Boers of the Utrecht district along the Buffalo river. The biggest group was that of Pretorius himself in the Potchefstroom Marico-Rustenburg area. Some form of unity was established in 1849 through the adoption of the Thirty-three Articles of 1844 as a constitution. The articles were nothing more than rules concerning the administration of justice, election of the members of the volksraad as well as general laws. The biggest flaw of the articles was their failure to separate legislative functions from executive ones – so that the volksraad tried to exercise both.
Moreover, since the state had no capital, the volksraad met in different villages and invariably failed to form a quorum, so that local non-members had to be co-opted. Pretorius strove for a proper constitution providing for a legislature and an executive. On this he clashed with the Lydenburgers, who were extremely suspicious of a one-man executive, such as the presidency, lest he should become an autocrat. These differences were worsened by the religious quarrels. To sever their connections completely, Pretorius urged the Potchefstroom community to split from the Cape Synod of the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church) and they formed the independent Nederduitse Herevormde Kerk (NHK) whose pastors were to be recruited from the Netherlands. The Lydenburgers stuck to their connections with the Cape Colony, while a further splinter Church called the Gereformeerde Kerk van SuidAfrika emerged from the NHK. Its distinguishing characteristic was a refusal by its members to sing hymns in church. Despite all these differences, a draft constitution providing for a president, legislature, judiciary, and army authority was produced in January 1857.
The volksraad, which was dominated by Pretorius’s followers, elected him the president and the Zoutpansberg leader, Johannes Schöeman, commandant-general. Schoeman rejected both the constitution and the army post and raised a commando to attack Pretorius’s supporters in the Rustenburg district. War was avoided when both sides agreed to choose a committee to amend the constitution in accordance with the wishes of the Zoutpansbergers. With the approval of the constitution in 1858, Pretorius and Schöeman became the president and commandant-general respectively, while the Lydenburgers were persuaded to join the republic in i860. But Pretorius plunged the nascent republic into chaos when, as we have seen, he accepted the presidency of the Orange Free State. Fearful of jeopardizing the Transvaal’s independence, the volksraad asked Pretorius to choose between one of the presidencies, and he resigned from the Transvaal. However he continued to work through Schöeman and the people of Potchefstroom, his staunchest supporters. These set up a committee of their own with powers and functions that rivalled those of the volksraad. The volksraad in turn appointed its own president and commandant-general and both governments claimed to rule the republic. Peace only returned to the Transvaal when Pretorius resigned from the Orange Free State and was re-elected President of the Transvaal in 1864. He ruled the Transvaal until he was forced to resign for his mishandling of the republic’s claims to the diamond fields in the 1870s.
Boer relations with the Africans before 1870
In both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, many African communities had either been destroyed and absorbed into the Mfecane fugitive states, such as the Ndebele kingdom of Mzilikazi, or forced to seek refuge in the difficult and easily defended parts of the country. Located in such places, resourceful leaders, such as Moshoeshoe, were able to build large fallowings out of displaced refugees and to emerge as powerful nations in the 1840s, when the Ndebele were expelled from the region by the Boers. Such states, as already seen in the case of Lesotho, were strong enough to contend with both the intruding Boers and the British.
After the expulsion of the Ndebele, many small chiefdoms that had submitted to Mzilikazi but had not been fully incorporated into his nation, together with others that had eluded the Ndebele by moving out of the range of their frequent raids reoccupied their erstwhile territories. Many of these peoples were overwhelmed and incorporated into the Boer states before they could build up their means of resistance. These were the Africans who suffered direct economic exploitation by the Boers. Exploitation was built into the citizenship, labour and other laws enacted by the Boers. The Transvaal constitution, for instance, rejected any notions of equality between black and white. To rule out any possibility of effective African resistance, the incorporated peoples were prohibited from possessing firearms or horses and they were forced to carry passes supplied by their employers or government officials at all times. Each farmer was entitled to keep a number of African families on his farm, who supplied him with regular free labour. ‘With regard to natives living within the European area under direct protection of the Boers, the furnishing of regular labour supply would be regarded as payment for the land which had been assigned to them.
The Africans who did not live on the farms were put under chiefs and the different chiefdoms were allotted a location or reserve. The locations were widely dispersed, and each of them was placed as near as possible to a white farming area. This was meant to divide the Africans so as to preclude any concerted uprisings, as well as to ensure that every white farmer had easy access to a black labour reservoir. Each chief paid tax in cattle and labour. Indeed, one of the important duties of the landdrosts (magistrates) and fieldcomets (ward military commanders) was to collect labourers from the chiefs in their districts and distribute them among the white farmers on a one-year contract basis.
The chiefs were further expected to supply men to assist the Boers in times of war. The Transvaal, moreover, practised the controversial system of apprenticeship, which had been carried over from the Cape Colony. African children captured in wars were distributed to farmers, for whom they worked until they were 25 years old (boys) or 21 (girls). In return for insignificant payments or favours, incorporated African parents were at first persuaded and later pressured to offer their children to farmers to be raised as apprentices. It was not uncommon for the Boers to organize commando raids on neighbouring African states purely for the purposes of capturing children. Even though the Transvaal laws prohibited the sale of these children from one farmer to another, the whole system smacked of slavery and was denounced by the missionaries and traders as such.
The Boers claimed the Transvaal and its people by right of their conquest and expulsion of the Ndebele. They therefore felt themselves entitled to demand submission and services from all Africans to the south of the Limpopo. These impositions were stiffly resisted by the Tswana in the west, the Sotho and Venda in the north and the Pedi in the east. For instance, the Kwena of Sechele around Dimawe and the Ngwaketse of chief Gaseitsiwe around Kenye used guns bought from missionaries and traders to resist the Boers. In this way they were able to maintain their independence so that their territories were used by missionaries and traders who were not permitted to pass through the Transvaal on their way to the north. In the east the Pedi resisted the military poundings of the OhrigstadLydenburg Boers until a border was drawn between the two communities along the Steelport river in 1857.
At the same time the Pedi quickly learned the importance and effectiveness of guns in warfare, particularly when used in combination with their Lulu mountain fortresses. As early as the 1850s they therefore strove to build large stocks of firearms by purchasing them from traders and working for them as migrant labourers in Natal, the Cape Colony and, when the diamond mines were opened, Griqualand West. In the north it was the Venda, the Transvaal Ndebele and Sotho who resisted the Boer expansion. In 1854, for instance, the people of the Sotho chief Makapane east of the Watberg ranges killed twelve members of a white hunting party under the leadership of the Boer military commander, Hermanus Potgieter. These whites behaved in an overbearing manner to Chief Makapane, apparently demanding oxen and sheep for slaughter without payment, and forcing blacks to give them several children for slaves. Whatever the specific reasons, it was clear that Makapane wanted to keep his country clear of the whites, perhaps for fear of competition in ivory hunting. The killing of the white hunters signalled a fairly general attack on white settlements south of the Zoutpansberg. The Boer communities in the area and even those as far south as Potchefstroom and Rustenburg all sheltered their families in laagers.
A large Boer commando of 500 troops was raised from all the Transvaal districts, except Lydenburg, and it invaded the Makapane chiefdom under the joint command of P. Potgieter and President Pretorius. Warned of the approaching invasion, the Sotho retreated into their nearby cave and made ready to fire on the approaching enemy. Effectively checked from flushing out the Sotho, the Boers blocked the entrance of the cave with wood and stones and guarded it against anybody trying to escape for twenty-five days. It was estimated that 900 of Makapane’s people were killed trying to escape and that more than double that number perished in the cave from starvation and thirst. The Boers retired, convinced that the massacre would serve as a deterrent to further resistance from the Sotho and Venda of the north. But in 1859 another rising occurred, this time a little further north, around the Boer village of Schoemansdaal. The Boer administration in that village imposed heavy demands on the local Africans, by supporting rebels, exacting tribute and waging unprovoked wars on the chiefdoms in order to capture slaves. Although the Africans were defeated, the Boer administration thereafter lost control of the blacks. By the 1860s the Venda of Zoutpansberg had incorporated firearms into their military and hunting techniques.
Their country teemed with elephants and was therefore frequently visited by white hunters and traders. Many of the Venda entered the service of the hunters and acquired marksmanship and skills to maintain guns. As the elephant zone receded into the tsetsefly zone of the Limpopo valley, hunting on horseback, at which the whites were adept, gave way to hunting on foot. The latter was done by the Africans, who were loaned guns by white merchants and were called swartskuts (black shots or black marksmen). Many of these guns were in the end not returned to their white owners but were in fact used to drive the Boer settlers out of the Schoemansdaal settlement. In fact, one of the leaders of the uprising of 1867, the Venda chief Makhado, was a former swartskut.
The 1867 uprising was so effective that the Boers abandoned the Zoutpansberg district. Meanwhile the Boers of the Orange Free State dealt mostly with the Southern Sotho of Moshoeshoe, the Rolong of Moroka and the Griqua of Adam Kok. The latter ceased to be a factor in 1861 when he sold his land rights to the Orange Free State and migrated to Nomansland and founded another East Griqualand. Moroka too remained a faithful client of the Orange Free State. The Sotho of Moshoeshoe remained determined to resist the Boer expansion. Even though the king had signed the Treaty of Aliwal North in 1858, implying his acceptance of the Warden boundary, he had no intention of enforcing it on his people, who contined to violate the border.
However, by the 1860s the balance of power was tipping in favour of the Boers. The king was old and losing control, particularly over his sons, who were already vying with each other for the succession. The Free State on the other hand was growing in strength. The economy was becoming healthy as the farmers strove to improve their livestock, the products of which found easy markets in Natal and the Cape Colony. Its population was expanding as the result of immigration from the colonies. By the 1860s the Free Staters, too, had a fair amount of commitment to their independence to the extent that President Brand could count on them to fight a prolonged war with patriotic zeal. Consequently, when the 1865 war broke out following numerous border violations on both sides, the Boers were able to sustain a ruthless campaign against Lesotho, while it was the Sotho who showed signs of disunity. Molapo, Moshoeshoe’s son, governing the northern part of the country, concluded a separate peace treaty with the Boers. Such lack of unity forced Moshoeshoe to sign the Treaty of Thaba Bosiu in 1866 under which he lost a great deal of his arable lands to the Orange Free State. But Moshoeshoe did this only to gain time to reorganize his people; in 1867 another war broke out and dragged on until the British intervened.
As early as 1861 Moshoeshoe had asked for British protection and repeated the request in 1865 through Sir Philip Wodehouse, the Governor and High Commissioner. Wodehouse was in favour of British expansion in South Africa and saw the annexation of Lesotho as a step in the right direction. Thus, at the same time as he was persuading the British government to accede to Moshoeshoe’s request, he was also taking steps to cut off arms supplies to the Boers to ensure that the Orange Free State would not be able to take over Lesotho. When the British government agreed to take Lesotho, Wodehouse annexed it as a Crown Colony on 12 March 1868.

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