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The Rise and Fall of the Orange Free State and Transvaal in Southern Africa

The following post is by Ryan Moore, a cartographic specialist in the Geography and Map Division.

The Orange Free State and the Transvaal (officially the South African Republic) were independent countries in southern Africa in the 19th century established by Dutch-speaking settlers known as the Boers (Boer translates to “farmer” in Dutch). Occupying areas in what is today South Africa, the Boers of the 19th century were pastoral and religiously-oriented, and they excluded indigenous people from participation in the church and state. Together, these countries were referred to as the Boer Republics, which lasted some fifty years until 1902, when they were defeated in the Boer Wars.

Dutch colonization of the region has its roots in the Dutch East India Company, which first established the Dutch Cape Colony, centered on the Cape of Good Hope and present-day Cape Town, in the 17th century as a re-supply port for trading vessels. In 1795, British forces invaded and took control, thereby establishing the Cape Colony under British dominion. By this time, some Dutch settlers (at this point, referred to as Boers) had migrated further inland to maintain their pastoral livelihoods. Beginning in the 1830s, a greater wave of migration, known as the “Great Trek,” saw thousands of Boers migrating eastward, further from the British controlled Cape Colony. A number of factors influenced the Boers’ tensions with the British that spurred the Great Trek, including the British abolition of slavery in 1833, onerous taxation, cultural differences, and others. Out of this migration, the Boer Republics were established in the 1850s. However, continued tensions, including the discovery of gold and diamonds in Boer territory (making the republics the richest in southern Africa), would soon spark war with their British colonial neighbors.

Map of Boer Republics in relation to neighboring colonial possessions.

“Map of South Africa, Showing the Seat of War between Great Britain and the Dutch Republics,” Chicago Record Newspaper, nd. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The Boer Wars were fought from 1880 to 1881 and from 1899 to 1902. When fighting the more powerful and numerically superior British forces, the Boers employed a non-conventional, highly mobile style of fighting from which the word “commando” has its origins. Nevertheless, the map above, which appeared in the Chicago Record newspaper during the conflict, illustrates the Boer Republics’ precarious strategic situation. The republics were landlocked and surrounded by rival groups: Portuguese East Africa and the then-autonomous Swaziland to the east, and British colonial possessions to the north, south, and west. The map’s creators stated that “news of the war between Great Britain and the Dutch Republics of South Africa is received by cable daily from our correspondents at Cape Town, Pretoria, and Durban, Natal. It is the only Chicago paper which has its own correspondents at the seat of war.” At the time, undersea cables were the conduit of high-speed global communication. The map is a testament to both the political situation in 1899 in southern Africa and to how newspaper reporters gathered information in the field and communicated to a home base, which sometimes was on a different continent.

In Britain, supporters of the war effort sought to raise funds for British reservists who were placed on active duty and left with little means to support their families on a salary of “shilling a day.” The newspaper the Daily Mail created a successful charity campaign using the-then popular song “The Absent-Minded Beggar” with words by Rudyard Kipling and music by Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. A surviving piece of that campaign is this cloth map, replete with song lyrics and sheet music.

The Absent-Minded Beggar. The Daily Mail Publishing Co., nd. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The Absent-Minded Beggar. The Daily Mail Publishing Co., nd. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Following the British victory, the Boer Republics came under British control, becoming the Orange River Colony and Transvaal Colony (as seen in the 1902 map below). Today, these lands and others make up the Republic of South Africa. To learn more about the Boer Wars and their place in South African history today, watch independent scholar Martin Meredith’s excellent lecture “Diamonds, Gold and War: The British, the Boers and the Making of South Africa,” presented at the Library of Congress in 2007.

South Africa, Transvaal Colony, Orange River Colony, Cape Colony, Natal, Rhodesia and adjoining Territory. R.S. Peale, 1902. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

South Africa, Transvaal Colony, Orange River Colony, Cape Colony, Natal, Rhodesia and adjoining Territory. R.S. Peale, 1902. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

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