The term Boer is derived from the Afrikaans word for farmer and 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 after 1662.
Many of these farmers settled in the fertile lands surrounding Cape Town and maintained their farms through the forced labour of African slaves. Although the colony had previously been administered by the Dutch, the British officially took control of the Cape in 1806 in order to prevent it from being occupied by the French during the Napoleonic Wars.
Over time the Boers developed their own language, called Afrikaans. This dialect evolved from Dutch but also contained Malay and Portuguese Creole words. As a result it was considered a kombuistaal (kitchen language) by the wealthier settlers who spoke High Dutch. Afrikaan terms related to the South African War include:
Boer – farmer of Dutch, German or French Huguenot descent
Kommando – militiamen
Kopjes – hill
Laager – camp
Spruit – stream
Uitlander – outlander; non-Boer resident
Veldt – open plains
The British gradually began to force the Boers to change their way of life. In 1834 they abolished slavery, an act the Boers detested. They felt that equality between white Christians and African natives went against the natural order established by God. Further issues arose when the British made English the official language of the law courts, replacing the traditional Afrikaans. No longer wishing to live under the rule of the British, many Boers began to move north beyond British territory. This migration of over ten thousand Boers became known as the Great Trek.
Hostility from African tribes and British presence in Natal eventually forced the Boers to move to the lands beyond the Orange and Vaal rivers. There they established the Orange Free State and the South African Republic. The British finally 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 by crude wagon trails. Following the custom of their forefathers, the Boers believed a farm should be at least 2400 hectares. Boer farms, even those tending livestock, often had no enclosures; the farmhouse would simply be 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 rooms with a thatched roof. The decorations within were modest and the clay floors were routinely smeared with a mixture of cow dung and water to reduce dust. Nan Parker, a New Zealand teacher, described one such farm:
Instead of the pretty little homestead, there is a stone house roughly built by the farmer and his sons or his natives … Away from the homestead, as far as one can see, there is nothing but grass, no trees, no hedges, no bush, and worst of all no animals, nothing to break the monotony.
Nan Parker, A Day in a Boer Farm School (1903)
Whereas the British viewed the Boers as a backward and stubborn people, the Boers strongly believed that their way of life, with its own dialect and staunch religious faith, had been ordained by God. Calvinist Protestantism played an integral part of Boer identity and the Bible was the central book in every household. Their dislike of uitlanders (outlanders), as they called foreigners, was driven by the concern that their culture and religion would be undermined by outside influence.