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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


VAN DEN BERGH, Gert. The part played by Potchefstroom in Voortrekker state formation. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2013, vol.53, n.3, pp.452-464. ISSN 2224-7912.

While Potchefstroom did not figure in the planning of Voortrekker state establishment, a variety of unforeseen factors led to its founding. These include Potgieter's aversion to settlement in Natal and his consequential break with the Natal Volksraad. The need to establish a capital from where his rule over the Voortrekkers west of the Drakensberg mountains could be conducted led to the founding of Potchefstroom, this despite Potgieter's aim of ultimately settling near Mozambique for the sake of foreign trade. In response to Potgieter's claim to independence the Volksraad appointed Jacob de Klerk as landdrost (magistrate) to counteract Potgieter's influence, the real aim being to persuade the Voortrekkers west of the Drakensberg mountains to settle in Natal. By the time of his reconciliation with the Volksraad in 1842 the Potgieter supporters had resolved to remain settled on the High Veld, but to shift Potchefstroom to a more suitable location. A series of crises in the 1840s led to Potgieter's decision to abandon Potchefstroom: The British annexation of Natal in 1842 and the shifting of Volksraad sittings to Potchefstroom. This was followed by the threat of British annexation of the Transvaal, evoked by the Cape of Good Hope Punishment Act. The fear of British northward expansion into what Potgieter and the Volksraad claimed as Voortrekker territory had been haunting them from the advent of the Great Trek. The Punishment Act claimed to extend British territory up to the 25th latitude. Fearing the legitimacy of this claim Potgieter and the Volksraad moved to Ohrigstad in 1845 and established it as the new Voortrekker capital. While some half of the High Veld Voortrekkers moved to the new settlement, the remainder refused to budge, but had no option but to acknowledge Volksraad rule. They now found themselves sandwiched between the encroaching British annexation threat from the south and the Volksraad pressure to forsake Potchefstroom andjoin the Ohrigstad settlement. The undefined location of the 25th parallel provoked the displeasure and discomfort of the Potchefstroom dwellers to the extent of dividing their loyalty toward the Ohrigstad regime. A new and novel approach to the Potchefstroom problem was provided when Andries Pretorius left Natal to settle on the High Veld in 1848, at the same time that the governor of the Cape Province, Sir Harry Smith, established British control over what was to be known as the Orange River Sovereignty. Incensed by this, seemingly arbitrary action, Pretorius called the Voortrekkers in the northern part of the Sovereignty to arms in an effort to have Smith's annexation revoked. Pretorius's defeat at Boomplaats served only to antagonise Ohrigstad and Potchefstroom dwellers alike. Propagating a united Voortrekker republic north of the Vaal River, re-established Pretorius's leadership in Potchefstroom, but further alienated Potgieter and the Volksraad. In defiance of a Volksraad resolution, Pretorius was elected Commandant-General by the Potchefstroom community, an appointment which the Volksraad, in a roundabout way, was obliged to acknowledge in 1851. By now Pretorius, acknowledged as the spokesman for Potchefstroom interests, began pressing the Volksraad for accepting the Vaal River as the southern boundary of the republic, thereby incorporating Potchefstroom in the republic. Encouraged by the influence of the Dutch spokesmen, JA Smellekamp and HT Bührmann, the Volksraad, now sitting in Lydenburg, confirmed the 25th latitude as the limit of its authority thereby formally rejecting title to Potchefstroom. The Potchefstroom community recognised in Pretorius their salvation against both British expansionist inclinations and the wavering Volksraad. Ensured of the support of Potchefstroom, Pretorius now resolved to treat directly with the Cape government, making full use of the powers conferred on his title of Commandant-General. In what amounted to a coup d'etat on the Volksraad, and aware of diplomatic problems faced by Britain in Europe and Southern Africa, he arranged to meet with British commissioners to settle the political status of the Voortrekkers in the Transvaal. The negotiations resulted in the Sand River Convention of 1852, whereby the Transvaal Voortrekkers were recognised as independent and the Vaal River as the boundary between the British territories in the south and the Voortrekkers in the Transvaal. Between its unlikely founding in 1838 and the final recognition of Voortrekker independence, Potchefstroom was the catalyst of the establishment of a Voortrekker state in the Transvaal. Not only did it counter all attempts to establish the Voortrekker body politic in the Eastern Transvaal, but thanks to the unrelenting efforts of Pretorius, political initiative shifted back to Potchefstroom. The Sand River Convention opened the way to the establishment of The South African Republic with Potchefstroom as its capital.

Keywords : Voortrekkers; Great Trek; Potchefstroom; Mzilikazi; state formation; Hendrik Potgieter; Andries Pretorius; Volksraad; Thirty-three Articles; Pietermaritzburg; Ohrigstad; Sand River Convention.

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