Empire and Nationalism

The semester is almost over and I am treating myself to reading a book on African history. I’m about two-thirds the way through Martin Meredith’s The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour. It’s quite good. But why must books on African history be so long!

In any event, I just read Meredith’s account of how Afrikaner nationalism emerged in the context of Britain’s imperial ambitions in Southern Africa. In the late 19th century the British annexed Basutoland and the Transvaal which stimulated old grievances among the Boer community in the Orange Free State and caused them to fear for their own independence.

To be honest, I’m not one for trying to learn the lessons of history. I read history to learn what happened in the past. And, I am happy to say, that Meredith generally steers clear of moralizing about the past. Nonetheless, I suspect there are lessons to be drawn from Meredith’s account of the origins of Afrikaner nationalism.

Here’s the passage. I’d love to know your thoughts on the relationship between empire and nationalism.

In the Cape, it [Britain’s annexation of territories] gave a huge boost to a nascent cultural and political movement led by Afrikaner intellectuals aggrieved by the growing cultural dominance of the British colonial regime, in particular the use of English. English was the only official language of the colony and the language of commerce, law and administration. In 1875, a Dutch Reformed Church minister, Stephanus du Toit, joined several associates to found a society named Die Grenootskap Van Regte Afrikaners – the Fellowship of True Afrikaners – dedicated to promoting the use of Afrikaans. Du Toit’s aim was to develop Afrikaans as a landstaad – a national language. Hitherto, Afrikaans had been commonly used only between masters and servants and among the poorer sections of the Boer community. Upper and middle-class Afrikaners, particularly those living in the western Cape, tended to speak ‘High Dutch’, the language of the Church and the Bible, and regarded the Zuid-Afrikaansche taal with disdain, dismissing it as Hotnotstaaal, a ‘Hottentot’ language, or a kombuistaal – a kitchen language. They also used English to a considerable extent.

As part of his campaign, in 1876 du Toit launched Di Afrikaans 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 said to be endowed by God: to rule over southern Africa and civilize 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. In what would become a standard interpretation of Afrikaner history, one episode after another from the past was cited as evidence of British oppression, starting from the moment the British took possession of the Cape in 1806. The exodus of emigrant farmers from the Cape in the 1830s now became known as the Great Trek, a defiant gesture against imperial Britain on behalf of the Boer nation. The emigrants were now called voortrekkers, pioneers endowed with heroic qualities, steadfast in their determination to protect Afrikaner freedom and solidarity, guided by a deeply religious sense of purpose, courageously heading into the unknown interior only to find the British in relentless pursuit. In their quest for supremacy, the British had annexed the first Boer state, the Republic of Natalia, then they had seized the diamond fields of the Free State.

Britain’s annexation of the Transvaal, riding roughshod over the pleas of the Boer inhabitants, seemed to confirm the validity of these ideas and give them new impetus. ‘The annexation of the Transvaal has had its good side’ wrote Jan Hofmeyr, a leading Cape Afrikaner editor. ‘It has taught the people of South Africa that blood is thicker than water. It has filled the Africanders, otherwise groveling in the mud of materialism, with a national glow of sympathy for their brothers across the Vaal, which we look upon as one of the most hopeful signs of the future’.

What the British action had set in motion was the stirrings of a nationalist movement.


  1. Hi Joe.
    Did you and Amy have a chance to visit the Taal Monument near Paarl? It’s an imposing hilltop monument and museum celebrating the Afrikaans language. My impression, from our visit to the Western Cape was that Afrikanerdom was keeping it’s head down these days but has lost only a small part of its economic dominance. It was hard to find spoken Afrikaans on the public SABC, but private TV networks have taken up the slack.
    There have been a couple SA military leaders fighting for Britain in the world wars (when SA was still part of the Empire) who turned out to be German or Soviet spies. Apparently they hadn’t gotten over the death of family members interned in British concentration camps during the Boer Wars.
    Regards, Larry

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Larry. We haven’t been to the Taal Monument. But on our next visit to the Western Cape we will have to check it out. Thanks for the other bits of history. Unintended consequences playing themselves out for generations. Peace, Joe


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