Rise of Boer Nationalism

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 81-82:

Meanwhile the wave of anger over Britain’s annexation of the Transvaal spread further afield to the Boer communities of the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony, stimulating old grievances. In the Free State there was lingering resentment over the way the British had intervened in 1868 to annex Basutoland in response to Moshoeshoe’s plea for help, just as it was about to be overrun by their own commandos; there had been further outrage when the British snatched the diamond fields of Griqualand from its grasp in 1871. The Free State now found itself surrounded by British-run territories, imperilling its own independence. Members of the Volksraad spoke up in favour of returning the Transvaal to Boer rule.

In the Cape, it gave a huge boost to a nascent cultural and political movement led by Boer intellectuals calling themselves Afrikaners. In Paarl, a small market town thirty-five miles from Cape Town, a Dutch Reformed Church minister, Stephanus du Toit, joined several associates in 1875 to found a society named Die Genootskap Van Regte Afrikaners – the Fellowship of True Afrikaners – dedicated to promoting the use of Afrikaans, a colloquial language commonly used in Boer farming communities throughout southern Africa. It had diverged from Dutch over the years, changing vowel sounds, adopting simplified syntax and incorporating loan words from languages that were spoken by slaves in the Cape in the seventeenth century – Malay, Portuguese creole and Khoikhoi. It was the language used between masters and servants and amongst the poorer sections of the Boer community. Upper and middle-class Boers, particularly those living in the western Cape, spoke ‘High Dutch’, the language of the church and the Bible, and regarded the Zuid-Afrikaansche taal with disdain, dismissing it as Hotnotstaal, a ‘Hottentot’ language, or a kombuistaal – a kitchen language. They also used English to a considerable extent, the only official language of the Colony and thus the language of commerce, law, administration and – increasingly – culture.

What Du Toit and his colleagues feared and resented most was the growing cultural domination of the British colonial regime, aided and abetted by Boers themselves. In a lecture given in 1876, the chief justice, Sir Henry de Villiers, described Afrikaans as being ‘poor in the number of its words, weak in its inflections, wanting in accuracy of meaning and incapable of expressing ideas connected with the higher spheres of thought’. The energy of colonists, he said, would be far better spent in appropriating English, ‘that rich and glorious language’, that ultimately would become ‘the language of South Africa’. Du Toit argued that a mother tongue was a person’s most precious possession: ‘The language of a nation expresses the character of that nation. Deprive a nation of the vehicle of its thoughts and you deprive it of the wisdom of its ancestors.’ He wanted to develop Afrikaans as a landstaal – a national language.

To spell out this message, in 1876 Du Toit launched Di Afrikaanse Patriot, the first newspaper to use an early form of Afrikaans. The following year he was the main author of a history entitled Die Geskiedenis van Ons Land in die Taal van Ons Volk – The History of Our Land in the Language of Our People. It was the first book to treat all Afrikaners, dispersed as they were among British colonies and independent republics, as a distinct people, occupying a distinct fatherland; and it linked them to a common destiny endowed by God: to rule over southern Africa and civilise its heathen inhabitants.

The book marked the beginning of a new historiography that would eventually take hold of Afrikanerdom, portraying Afrikaners as a valiant nation wrongfully oppressed by decades of British rule.

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Filed under Britain, democracy, economics, education, language, migration, nationalism, Netherlands, South Africa

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