The Boer, (Dutch: “husbandman,” or “farmer”), was a South African of Dutch, German, or Huguenot descent, especially one of the early settlers of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Today, descendants of the Boers are commonly referred to as Afrikaners.
In 1652 the Dutch East India Company charged Jan van Riebeeck with establishing a shipping station on the Cape of Good Hope. Immigration was encouraged for many years, and in 1707 the European population of Cape Colony stood at 1,779 individuals. For the most part, modern Afrikaners have descended from this group.
The Dutch colony prospered to the extent that the Cape Town market for agricultural produce became glutted. With market stagnation and with slaves providing most of the manual labor in the colony, there were few economic opportunities for the burgeoning white population. Eventually, more than half of these people turned to the self-sufficient life of the trekboeren (literally “wandering farmers” but perhaps better translated as “dispersed ranchers”).
The Boers were hostile toward indigenous African peoples, with whom they fought frequent range wars, and toward the government of the Cape, which was attempting to control Boer movements and commerce. They overtly compared their way of life to that of the Hebrew patriarchs of the Bible, developing independent patriarchal communities based upon a mobile pastoralist economy. Staunch Calvinists, saw themselves as the children of God in the wilderness, a Christian elect divinely ordained to rule the land and the backward natives therein. By the end of the 18th century, the cultural links between the Boers and their urban counterparts were diminishing, although both groups continued to speak Afrikaans, a language that had evolved from the admixture of Dutch, indigenous African, and other languages.
The Cape Colony became a British possession in 1806 as a result of the Napoleonic wars. Though at first accepting of the new colonial administration, the Boers soon grew disgruntled with the liberal policies of the British, especially in regard to the frontier and the freeing of slaves. Between 1835 and 1843 about 12,000 Boers left the Cape in the Great Trek, heading for the relatively rural spaces of the high veld and southern Natal. In 1852 the British government agreed to recognize the independence of the settlers in the Transvaal (later the South African Republic) and in 1854 of those in the Vaal-Orange rivers area (later the Orange Free State). These new republics committed themselves to apartheid, a policy of strict segregation and discrimination.
In 1867 the discovery of diamonds and gold in southern Africa set the stage for the South African War (1899–1902). The conflict had its origins in British claims of suzerainty over the wealthy South African Republic and in British concern over the Boer’s refusal to grant civic rights to the so-called Uitlanders (immigrants, largely British, to the Transvaal gold fields and diamond fields). Supported by the Orange Free State and some of the Cape Dutch, the South African Republic waged a battle against the British Empire for more than two years. Though brilliant practitioners of guerrilla warfare, the Boers eventually surrendered to British forces in 1902, thus ending the independent existence of the Boer republics.
Despite their reabsorption into the British colonial system subsequent to the war, the Afrikaners retained their language and culture and eventually attained politically the power they had failed to establish militarily. Apartheid was soon reestablished in South Africa, remained key to the country’s public policies throughout most of the 20th century, and was abolished in the 1990s only after global censure.
Afrikaners in the early 21st century made up about 60 percent of the white population of South Africa, approximately 2,600,000 people.