Let’s Talk About the Transvaal Question, and Why We Cared (Part I of II)

Hello all,

The past few weeks have been extremely busy, with newspapers, manuscripts and the books of the time continually offering up gems to Your Intrepid Reporter.  Unfortunately, I don’t think I can delve into them without explaining the fundamentals of South African history first (unfortunately, because writers in the late 19th century felt the same way; I can’t tell you how many truncated synopses of early South African history I have read over the past few months.  At least one per day.).  So, while I promise to smuggle you some unlicensed Kimberley diamonds soon (to use a period-appropriate metaphor), I figure we should get this over with and bite the bullet as soon as possible.

I’m swiftly realising that, as much as I grouse in these posts about people’s lack of knowledge about my topic (a shortcoming I admit that I shared a year or so ago), I think it would be fitting to post something of a primer here about my topic, so that those poor wayward souls who have not pored through well-beloeved copies of Thomas Noer’s Briton, Boer and Yankee, Joseph Campbell’s Songs of Zion, or Oom Paul’s People by Howard Hillegas can know something of that which culminated in what Winston Churchill called “the last enjoyable war,” and why Americans at the time really did care (which will be my next post on this blog).

So…..Who Were The “Boers”?

The Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, a glorious monument to something, whoever these people were....
The Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, a glorious monument to something, whoever these people were….

All wars are named after the fact.  Traditionally,  the conflagration of 1899 to 1902 in South Africa has been known in English as “the Boer war,” or, more precisely “the second Anglo-Boer war,” to distinguish it from the 1880 to 1881 war between the Republicans and the British.  In Afrikaans circles, it was popular to refer to the war as the “Tweede Vryheidsoorlog” or “Second War of Freedom,” which corresponds to the Afrikaner nationalist understanding of it.  In recent years “South African War” has become popular as a name, reflecting the fact that despite both sides’ energetic rhetoric that it was to be a “white man’s war,” it would not have been able to occur without the efforts of black and coloured (mixed race) fighters, servants, and labourers.  While the war definitely affected all of what would become South Africa, I personally find “South African War” to be terrifically Anglocentric.  I will use the term, but only because there don’t seem to be any better alternatives.

The history of white settlement in South Africa goes back to 1652, when Jan van Riebeeck established a permanent settlement at Cape Town near the Cape of Good Hope, partly as a post from which to trade with the Khoisan-speaking natives, but mostly as a resupply station for ships of the Dutch East India Company heading to and from the Indian Ocean.  As was the case with so many other settlement colonies, the metropole’s reluctance to spend money on Cape Town did nothing to stem the wanderlust of its growing population and their antipathy towards the indigenous people surrounding them, whose societies began to collapse due to an all-too-familiar cocktail of disease and violence.  By the 18th century it was possible to live in South Africa as a colonist without being employed by the Company and from this point forward farmers (boeren, in Dutch) continually pushed deeper and deeper into the South African interior, seeking ever larger farms for themselves and their progeny, but in reality living a more or less nomadic existence out of their famous ossewas (ox wagons).

It is worth mentioning here that the Dutch Cape Colony was a slave society in which labourers (mostly from Madagascar, the Malay peninsula and modern-day Indonesia) were imported, inhabiting a complex caste-like society at the Cape and a lonely life of toil and isolation in the countryside.  The fact that so many segments of South African colonial society relied on slave and servant labour (farmers too would routinely enslave children orphaned in battles with native peoples) drove a wedge between settlers and administrators, for while administrators sought to keep things as quiet as possible, settlers wanted government help in driving out indigenous people, settling the land and maintaining a white supremacist order.  These tensions were compounded when the British took over the Cape of Good Hope after the Napoleonic Wars, since (at least rhetorically) the British favoured a much more egalitarian racial order, and, in the 1830’s, the abolition of slavery.

A few years after the British abolished slavery in 1833, great numbers of the pioneering, isolated boeren began to leave the Cape Colony.   In the manifestoes and correspondence they sometimes sent back to Cape newspapers, they drew a distinction between abolition (to which they did not necessarily object) and the predations of the natives and insubordination of their own servants that they believed abolition had caused, in concert with several other racially liberal laws the British had sought to pass at the Cape.

While originally referred to simply as “emigrants” or “emigrant farmers,” those who fled British rule by crossing into uncharted territory would by the end of the 19th century be lauded as the legendary voortrekkers, or pioneers whose myth of manfully taming the wilderness would form the bedrock of 20th century Afrikaner nationalism.  Leonard Thompson’s Political Mythology of Apartheid, published in the 1980’s, does a good if not phenomenal job of problematising the voortrekker mystique, and is worth a look for anyone interested in this aspect of South African history.  The basics of the legend however, are not in doubt: groups of men, women and children really did trek over the mountains and plains of South Africa for months at a time, they really did face terrible hardships and (not unprovoked) conflict with the peoples they met, and Piet Retief’s party really was massacred by the Zulu king Dingane at the end of a ceremony celebrating a lease of the settlers.  The famous battle of Blood River too, where a small group of voortrekker fighters defeated thousands of Zulu soldiers in the wake of that massacre, is not in doubt, though the exact dimensions of the armies is, as well as whether the “Afrikaner nation” really did forge a solemn covenant with God on the eve of the battle.

The voortrekkers, or simply “Boers” as they were pejoratively known by the British, succeeded in overthrowing Dingane, but met their match in the land they occupied in the present-day Kwazulu-Natal province.  The British wanted Port Natal (present-day Durban) for their own new colony, and drove the emigrants out, back over the Drakensberg mountains where they eventually settled on the banks of the Orange and the Vaal rivers.  Here they set up two republics: the Transvaal or South African Republic, with its capital at Pretoria, the Orange Free State, with a capital at Bloemfontein, which were finally recognised by the British in the 1852 Sand River and 1854 Bloemfontein Conventions, respectively.

Unsurprisingly, the independent republics had limited success marshaling the resources of a people unused to sedentary life and hostile to settled institutions.  They were weak, isolated, and involved in near constant warfare with the Bantu-speaking peoples that surrounded them, but the British were content to leave them be as long as they seemed to have no real value.  All of that changed however in the 1860’s and 1880’s, when diamonds were discovered in the Orange Free State and huge deposits of gold were discovered in the Transvaal.  In 1877, the Transvaal was annexed by Great Britain under the pretense of protecting the country from the Zulu king Ceteshwayo, yet immediately after the Zulus were defeated by the British in 1879 (after a long and tumultuous war), the Transvaalers rebelled and inflicted a hugely embarrassing defeat on the British at the battle of Majuba Hill, resulting in the 1881 Pretoria Convention which granted the Transvaal limited independence under British “suzerainty” and the 1883 London Convention, which confirmed the Transvaal’s autonomy but dropped references to “suzerainty” either because it was abrogated or because it was implied (a significant ambiguity).

All of this brings us more or less to 1896 and the Jameson Raid, which is where we will pick up next month, and the point at which most Americans began to sit up and take notice.  Suddenly South African affairs were front-page news, and newspapers posted intricate illustrations of important events and extensive glossaries of South African terms in order to help their readers follow the news.  Next month I promise you all at least ten reasons why Americans were interested in all this stuff, and hopefully  a path into understanding just why I’m so fascinated with it myself.  Until then, I’ll continue to plan my Grand Research Tour of the East Coast, comb through newspapers and consular reports, make a couple more trips to Richmond and Charlottesville, and try desperately to contain my excitement.  See you then!