Did You Know?
Around 26,000 Boer women and children died in British concentration camps during the Second Boer War.
There are several countries in Africa and Asia who have borne the brunt of colonial rule in the past. Similarly, South Africa was first conquered by the Dutch, and then by the British, which attracted settlers from different parts of the world.
Who Were the Boers?
The term Boer refers to the first white settlers to inhabit southern Africa in the 17th century, and establish the Cape Colony. These people were predominantly of Dutch, French, and German origin. The word Boer literally means farmer in Dutch, indicating the primary occupation of most settlers of the period.
Why Did They Come to South Africa?
In 1652, the Dutch East India Company recognized the strategic importance of the Cape of Good Hope for sea trade, and established a resupply point for ships. At first, they had good relations with the natives, known as the Khoikhoi people. Eventually, the Khoikhoi refused to supply goods according to the Company’s terms, and as a result, the Company fought and drove them into the interior of the continent. They then established the Dutch Cape Colony in southern Africa.
Where Did They Come From?
The first settlers comprised former employees of the Company, who were of Dutch nationality. They established a farming community, which used slaves imported from other parts of Africa and Asia. The success of the colony attracted Protestants from Holland, Germany, and France, who were already facing religious persecution back home. The colonists would thrive under the rule of the Dutch East India Company for the next 150 years.
Under British Rule
Towards the end of the 18th century, the French Revolution was underway, and Great Britain feared that if the Cape of Good Hope fell to Napoleon, it would block access to her colonies in East Asia. So Cape Colony was occupied by the British in 1795.
Over the next couple of decades, the Boers found themselves increasingly marginalized, with British culture being imposed on them. Moreover, the administration opposed their harsh treatment of slaves. In 1834, they banned slavery altogether, and ordered the release of all slaves. This proved to be the last straw for the Boers, as they were followers of Calvin Protestantism, which believed in a strict separation of races.
What Was the Great Trek?
To escape what they considered the tyranny of the British, thousands of Boers sold their farmland and began a long migration beyond the northeast borders of the colony. This mass migration in ox-driven carriages came to be called the Great Trek. Living a lifestyle based on farming and hunting, and continuously fighting with the natives, the migrants eventually established two independent republics, called Transvaal and the Orange Free State. These republics even received the recognition of the British Government in the 1850s.
What Were the Boer People Like?
Since the original settlers were fleeing religious persecution in Europe, the Boers were predominantly Protestant, and the Bible played an important role in their lives. Despite the number of countries they hailed from, Dutch culture and language prevailed in the community. They remained conservative in their beliefs, since they were unaffected by the Renaissance, which had a liberating effect on Europe. As people, they were fierce nationalists, independent-minded, and proud of their history, though they were hostile to the natives.
The Boer Wars
In the latter half of the 19th century, gold and diamonds were discovered in the Boer republics, which earned them worldwide attention. To control these reserves and compete with other European powers for colonization in Africa, Britain annexed Transvaal, which led to the Boer Wars. While they suffered defeat in the First Boer War, the British were able to annex both, Transvaal and the Orange Free State Republic after the Second War.
Life After the Wars
After their defeat, several Boers migrated to places like the United States, United Kingdom, and South America, while some returned to Holland. Some of those who remained, joined the African National Party, which was responsible for establishing the system of Apartheid in 1948, bringing disrepute to the community. Today, the descendants of the original Boer settlers are better known as Afrikaners, after their language Afrikaans. This language is a variation of Dutch, with some influences of Portuguese and tribal languages like Malay, Bantu, and Khoisan.
Despite the dark past of Apartheid staining their legacy, the Boers played a key role in South African history. Today, their descendants form about 60% of the country’s white population, and live in harmony with their multiethnic neighbors.