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South African 'Boer' War

Page 3 – The Boers

The term Boer, derived from the Afrikaans word for farmer, was used to describe the people in southern Africa who traced their ancestry to Dutch, German and French Huguenot settlers who arrived in the Cape of Good Hope from 1652.

Many of these farmers settled in the fertile lands around Cape Town and used slaves, some of whom were brought in from other Dutch territories, to work their farms. The colony was administered by the Dutch East India Company for nearly 150 years. The British officially took control of the Cape in 1806, during the Napoleonic Wars, to prevent it from being occupied by their French enemies.

Praat jy Afrikaans?

Over time the Boers developed their own language, Afrikaans. This evolved from Dutch but also contained Malay and Portuguese Creole words. As a result it was looked down on as a kombuistaal (kitchen language) by the wealthier settlers who spoke High Dutch. Afrikaans terms related to the South African War include:

Boerfarmer of Dutch, German or French Huguenot descent
kommando – militiaman
kopje – low hill
laager – camp
spruit – stream
uitlander – outlander; non-Boer resident
veldt – open plains

The British attempted to force the Boers to change their way of life. In 1834 they abolished slavery, an act the Boers resented because they believed (as did many others of European descent) that God had established a hierarchy of being in which white Christians were superior to people of indigenous races. Further problems arose when the British made English the official language of the law courts, replacing Afrikaans. No longer wishing to live under British rule and vulnerable to attack by neighbouring African tribes, many Boers began to move north. This migration of more than 10,000 Boers became known as the Great Trek.

The Boers eventually moved beyond the Orange and Vaal rivers and established the Orange Free State and the South African Republic. The British recognised the independence of the South African Republic in 1852 and the Orange Free State in 1854.

The Boer republics were sparsely populated and most farming communities lived in isolation, linked to each other only by crude wagon trails. Following the custom of their forefathers, the Boers believed a farm should be at least 2400 ha in area. Boer farms often had no enclosures; the farmhouse was surrounded by open pasture, a few fields of crops and maybe an orchard. The house itself would often be built from clay and usually consisted of two modestly furnished rooms. 

While the British viewed the Boers as a backward and stubborn people, the Boers strongly believed that their way of life, with its own language and staunch religious faith, had been ordained by God. Calvinist Protestantism played an integral part in Boer identity and the Bible was the most important book in every household. Their dislike of uitlanders (outlanders), as they called foreigners, was driven by concern that their culture and religion would be undermined by outside influences.

How to cite this page

The Boers, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated