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date: 08 May 2021

Abstract and Keywords

In 1652, the Dutch East Indies Company established a small settlement at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to serve as a refueling station for its fleet of ships engaged in the Asian spice trade. The settlement was originally intended to be of limited size and duration, but Dutch emigration steadily increased throughout the eighteenth century, reaching an estimated population of more than fourteen thousand by 1793. As the pioneer settlements grew, so too did their conflicts with the local Khoisan people, seminomadic cattle herders who resented the foreign intrusion on their pastures. With superior weaponry, Dutch settlers defeated Khoisan resistance, seized their cattle, and forced many Khoisan to leave the region or remain as servile herders for the whites. At the same time, the Dutch East Indies Company began to import black slaves from West Africa to perform other forms of manual labor. Thus from the very beginning, the success of whites on the African frontier was dependent on African land and labor.

In the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain seized the Cape from the Dutch in 1814 to prevent its possible capture by the French. Following the war, the British officials and settlers began to consolidate their rule at their new “Cape Colony,” establishing their own laws, language, and customs to replace those of the Dutch, who now called themselves Afrikaners (“Africans”). Afrikaner disaffection with British rule reached a peak in the 1830s, when large numbers of Afrikaners decided to leave the Cape Colony in an event that has become known as the Great Trek. In a scene reminiscent of American history, Afrikaner farmers and their families packed their belongings, hitched up their oxen-led covered wagons, and set out to find a new life beyond the known and established frontier. One of the leaders of the wagon trains was Piet Retief (1780–1838), a well-respected leader of the voortrekkers [pioneers]. Eager to present his reasons for leaving the Cape, Retief explained his motives in a brief letter titled “Manifesto of the Emigrant Farmers,” published in a colonial newspaper in 1837. In the reading selection that follows, Retief ’s specific grievances and intentions reflect his attitudes toward the British and the Africans, as well as his own sense of Afrikaner identity.

Piet Retief, “Manifesto of the Emigrant Farmers,” Grahamstown Journal (February 2, 1837), in G. W. Eybers, ed., Select Constitutional Documents Illustrating South African History, 1795–1910. New York: Negro Universities Press (1918): 143–45.

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