Daily Archives: 16 January 2021

Making Transvaal More Dutch, 1880s

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 170-172:

Of more concern to Kruger was how to protect the Boer character of the Transvaal from foreign influence. He proposed restrictions on immigration ‘in order to prevent the Boer nationality from being stifled’, but recognised that, with only a limited pool of trained manpower available amongst Transvaalers, foreign recruitment was unavoidable. His solution was to appeal for immigrants from Holland. ‘I apprehend the least danger from an invasion from Holland,’ he said. Addressing a huge crowd in Amsterdam during a European tour in 1884, he declared: ‘We have kept our own language, the language of the Netherlands people, who have fought eighty years for faith and freedom. Our people in the wilderness have kept their language and faith through every storm. Our whole struggle is bound up with this.’ Over the course of the next fifteen years, more than 5,000 Dutch immigrants arrived in the Transvaal, reinforcing the ranks of civil servants and teachers.

Kruger also used his immense authority to promote the Calvinist concept of national calling and destiny. To celebrate the return of the Transvaal’s independence in 1881, he organised a four-day ‘festival of thanksgiving’ at Paardekraal, where the year before burghers had vowed to defend the unity of the Volk and re-establish their republic. Speaking before a crowd of 12,000 Boers on the first day, 13 December, Kruger reminded them of the early struggle of the voortrekkers and of how each time God had guided them onward. The Great Trek, he said, was like the journey of the Israelites of the Old Testament leaving Egypt to escape the Pharaoh’s yoke, and he cited it as evidence that God had summoned the Boers on a similar mission to establish a promised land in southern Africa. They were thus a chosen people.

The last day of the festival, 16 December, was used for the same purpose. It marked the forty-third anniversary of the Boer victory at Blood River in 1838 when a commando of 468 trekkers, three Englishmen and sixty blacks faced some 10,000 Zulu warriors. In a battle lasting two hours, three trekkers were slightly wounded and none killed, but 3,000 Zulus lay dead. For Kruger, the victory at Blood River was a miracle demonstrating God’s support for the Boers and their special mission in Africa. Just as 16 December 1838 had been a turning point in the lives of the trekkers, said Kruger, so now 16 December 1881 was the beginning ‘of still greater salvation’.

The festival at Paardekraal became a five-yearly event, presided over by Kruger, with ever greater emphasis being placed on the significance of the Blood River victory – Dingaan’s Day, as it was called. The Transvaal government appointed a Dutch teacher to seek out survivors and record their memories. What became especially important was a pledge said to have been made by members of the commando a few days before the battle occurred that, if God granted them a victory, they would build a memorial church in his honour and commemorate the anniversary as a day of thanksgiving for ever more.

In his report of the battle, the commando leader, Andries Pretorius, did indeed refer to the covenant and, three years later, together with local people, he erected a church building at the Boer encampment at Pietermaritzburg in Natal. From 1861, however, the building was no longer used as a place of worship, but for commercial purposes. It became in turn a wagonmaker’s shop, a mineral water factory, a tea room, a blacksmith’s workshop, a school and, eventually, a woolshed. Nor, apparently, did most members of the commando take the covenant seriously. The covenant, in fact, fell rapidly into oblivion.

But facing the menace of British imperialism in the 1880s, Kruger and other prominent Afrikaners in the Transvaal sought to fortify morale by reviving public awareness of the covenant. Kruger argued that the setbacks the Boers had endured – from the British annexation of Natal in 1843 to the British annexation of the Transvaal in 1877 – were God’s chastisements for their failure to honour their vow. The Boer victory in 1881 was a sign of God’s continuing commitment.

Having regained independence, however, Kruger was allowed little respite from the attention of foreigners. In 1885, news arrived in Pretoria of a major gold discovery on the eastern border of the Transvaal.

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