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The Natalia Republic was a short-lived Boer republic, established in 1839 by local Afrikaans-speaking Voortrekkers shortly after the Battle of Blood Rivermarker. The republic was located on the coast of the Indian Oceanmarker beyond the Eastern Cape, and was previously named Natalia by Portuguesemarker sailors. The republic was conquered and annex by Britainmarker in 1843. After the British annexation of the Natalia Republic, most local Voortrekker Boers trekked north into Transorangia, later known as the Orange Free Statemarker, and the Transvaalmarker.


European settlement and setbacks

The first emigrant Boers to enter the country were led by Piet Retief (c. 1780-1838), a man of Huguenot descent and of marked ability, who had formerly lived on the eastern frontier of Cape Colony and had suffered severely in the colonial wars. Passing through the almost deserted upper regions Retief arrived at the bay in October 1837. During this journey he also chose a site for the capitol of the future state which he envisaged. He went thence to Dingane's (a.k.a., Dingaan) kraal, the Zulu king, with the object of securing a formal cession of territory to the Dutch farmers. Dingaan consented on condition that the Boers recovered for him certain cattle stolen by the Tlokwa chief; this task Retief accomplished, and with the help of the Rev. F. Owen, a missionary then living at Dingaan's kraal, a deed of cession was drawn up in English and signed by Dingaan and Retief on the 4th of February 1838.

Two days after the signature of the deed Retief and all of his party, 66 whites, besides Hottentot servants, were treacherously murdered by Dingaan's orders. The Zulu king then commanded his impis to kill all the Boers who had entered Natal. The Zulu forces crossed the Tugela the same day, and the most advanced parties of the Boers were massacred, many at a spot near where the town of Weenenmarker now stands, its name (meaning wailing or weeping) commemorating the event. Other of the farmers hastily laagered and were able to repulse the Zulu attacks; the assailants suffering serious loss at a fight near the Bushman's river. Nevertheless in one week after the murder of Retief 600 Boers - men, women and children - had been killed by the Zulus.

The English settlers at the bay, hearing of the attack on the Boers, determined to make a diversion in their favor, and some 20 men under the command of Robert Biggar and with a following of 700 friendly Zulus crossed the Tugela near its mouth. In a desperate fight (April 17) with a strong force of the enemy the English were overwhelmed and only four Europeans escaped to the bay. Pursued by the Zulus, all the surviving inhabitants of Durbanmarker were compelled for a time to take refuge on a ship then in harbour. After the Zulus retired, fewer than a dozen Englishmen returned to live at the port; the missionaries, hunters and other traders returned to the Cape.

Meantime the Boers, who had repelled the Zulu attacks on their laagers, had been joined by others from the Drakensberg, and about 400 men under Hendrik Potgieter and Piet Uys advanced to attack Dingaan. On the 11th of April, however, they fell into a trap laid by the Zulus and with difficulty cut their way out. Among those slain were Piet Uys and his son Dirk, aged 15, who rode by his side.

Battle of Blood River

The Boer farmers were now in a miserable plight, but towards the end of the year they received reinforcements, and in December 460 men set out under Boer General Andries Pretorius to avenge themselves on the Zulus. On Sunday the 16th of December, while laagered near the Umslatos river, they were attacked by over 10 000 Zulus. The Boers had firearms, the Zulus their assegais only, and after a three hours' fight the Zulus were totally defeated, losing thousands killed, while the farmers' suffered no fatalities.

British at Port Natal (now Durban)

Returning south, Pretorius and his commandos were surprised to learn that Port Natal had been occupied on the 4th of December by a detachment of the 72nd Highlanders sent thither from Cape Colony. The emigrant farmers had, with the assent of the few remaining Englishmen at Port Natal, in May 1838 issued a proclamation taking possession of the port. This had been followed by an intimation from the governor of the Cape (Major-General Sir George Napier) inviting the emigrants to return to the colony, and stating that whenever he thought it desirable he should take military possession of the port. In sanctioning the occupation of the port the British government of the day had no intention of making Natal a British colony, but wished to prevent the Boers establishing an independent republic upon the coast with a harbor through which access to the interior could be gained. After remaining at the port just over a year the Highlanders were withdrawn, on Christmas Eve 1839.

Natalia's government

Internal affairs

Meantime the Boers had founded Pietermaritzburgmarker, in honour of their slain leader Piet Retief and deceased leader Gerhard Maritz, and made it their capitol and the seat of their volksraad. At this time, had the affairs of the Boer community been managed with prudence and sagacity they might have established an enduring state. But their impatience of control, reflected in the form of government adopted, led to disastrous consequences.

Legislative power was vested, nominally, in the volksraad (consisting of twenty-four members), while the president and executive were changed every three months. But whenever any measure of importance was to be decided a meeting was called of het publiek, that is, of all who chose to attend, to sanction or reject it. "The result," says Theal, "was utter anarchy. Decisions of one day were frequently reversed the next, and every one held himself free to disobey any law that he did not approve of.. .. Public opinion of the hour in each section of the community was the only force in the land" (History of South Africa 1834 - 1854, chap. xliv.).

Territorial policy

While the Boers had defeated the Zulus in a battle, they did not conquer or subjugate them, since they continued to exist as a distinct group with their own dispensation within their own territory to the north and east in the region known as Zululand. They rendered their power in Natal absolute, for the time, when they joined with Mpande (a.k.a., Panda), Dingane's half-brother, in another attack on the Zulu king. Dingane was utterly defeated and soon afterwards perished, Mpande becoming king in his stead by favour of the Boers. A Boer alliance with Mpande, the new Zulu King, maintained a peace between the Boers and Zulus, and allowed for the creation and stability of the Natalia Republic.

Despite their fluid state of domestic affairs, the settlers cherished large territorial views. They were in loose alliance with and in quasi-supremacy over the Boer communities which had left the Cape and settled at Winburgmarker and at Potchefstroommarker. They had declared themselves a free and independent state under the title of "The Republic of Port Natal and adjacent countries," and sought (September 1840) from Sir George Napier at the Cape an acknowledgment of their independence by Great Britain.

Sir George, being without definite instructions from England, could give no decisive answer, but he was friendly disposed to the Natal farmers. This feeling was, however, changed by what Sir George (and many of the Dutch in Natal also) thought a willful and unjustifiable attack (December 1840) on a tribe of Xhosa on the southern, or Cape Colony, frontier by a commando under Andries Pretorius, which set out, nominally, to recover stolen cattle. Having at length received an intimation from London that the queen "could not acknowledge the independence of her own subjects, but that the trade of the emigrant farmers would be placed on the same footing as that of any other British settlement, upon their receiving a military force to exclude the interference Commonly called the Republic of Natalia or Natal with or possession of the country by any other European power," Sir George communicated this decision to the volksraad in September 1841.

British and Dutch influences

Under the arrangement proposed the Boers might easily have secured the benefits of self-government, subject to an acknowledgment of British supremacy, together with the advantage of military protection, for the British government was then extremely reluctant to extend its colonial responsibilities. The Boers, however, strongly resented the contention of the British that they could not shake off British nationality though beyond the bounds of any recognized British possession, nor were they prepared to see their only port garrisoned by British troops, and they rejected Napier's overtures.

Napier, therefore, on the 2nd of December 1841, issued a proclamation in which he stated that in consequence of the emigrant farmers refusing to be treated as British subjects and of their attitude towards the Xhosa tribes he intended resuming military occupation of Port Natal. This proclamation was answered in a lengthy minute, dated the 21st of February 1842, drawn up by J. N. Boshoff (afterwards president of the Orange Free State), by far the ablest of the Dutch who had settled in Natal. In this minute the farmers ascribed all their troubles to one cause, namely, the absence of a representative government, which had been repeatedly asked for by them while still living in Cape Colony and as often denied or delayed, and concluded by a protest against the occupation of any part of their territory by British troops.

An incident which happened immediately after these events greatly encouraged the Boers to persist in their opposition to Great Britain. In March 1842 a Dutch vessel sent out by G. G. Ohrig, an Amsterdam merchant who sympathized warmly with the cause of the emigrant farmers, reached port Natal, and its supercargo, J. A. Smellekamp (a man who subsequently played a part in the early history of the Transvaal and Orange Free State), concluded a treaty with the volksraad assuring them of the protection of Holland. The Natal Boers believed the Netherlands to be one of the great powers of Europe, and were firmly persuaded that its government would aid them in resisting England.

Transfer to colonial government

Napier takes charge

The British government was still undecided as to its policy towards Natal. In April 1842 Lord Stanley (afterwards 14th earl of Derby), then secretary for the colonies in the second Peel Administration, wrote to Sir George Napier that the establishment of a colony in Natal would be attended with little prospect of advantage, but at the same time stated that the pretensions of the emigrants to be regarded as an independent community could not be admitted. Various measures were proposed which would but have aggravated the situation.

Napier took the initiative however, and dispatched Colonel T. Charlton Smith with a garrison to occupy Port Natal. They arrived on May 4, 1842, much to the vehement demands from the Boers that the British should leave. Captain Smith decided to attack the Boers, before they could arrange the extra support they were expecting. At midnight on May 23/24, the British forces attacked the well defended village of "Kongela". The attack failed dismally forcing Smith to retreat to his camp, where he was besieged until June 26, 1842, when Lieutenant-colonel A. J. Cloete's relief force arrived in the war ship Southampton.


Finally, in deference to the strongly urged views of Sir George Napier, Lord Stanley, in a despatch of the 13th of December, received in Cape Town on the 23rd of April 1843, consented to Natal becoming a British colony. The institutions adopted were to be as far as possible in accordance with the wishes of the people, but it was a fundamental condition "that there should not be in the eye of the law any distinction or disqualification whatever, founded on mere difference of colour, origin, language or creed."

Sir George then appointed Mr Henry Cloete (a brother of Colonel Josias Cloete) a special commissioner to explain to the Natal volksraad the decision of the government. There was a considerable party of Natal Boers still strongly opposed to the British, and they were reinforced by numerous bands of Boers who came over the Drakensberg from Winburg and Potchefstroom. Commandant Jan Mocke of Winburg (who had helped to besiege Captain Smith at Durban) and others of the "war party" attempted to induce the volksraad not to submit, and a plan was formed to murder Pretorius, Boshoff and other leaders, who were now convinced that the only chance of ending the state of complete anarchy into which the country had fallen was by accepting British sovereignty.

Extent of the colony

In these circumstances the task of Mr Henry Cloete was one of great difficulty and delicacy. He behaved with the utmost tact and got rid of the Winburg and Potchefstroom burghers by declaring that he should recommend the Drakensberg as the northern limit of Natal. On the 8th of August 1843 the Natal volksraad unanimously agreed to the terms proposed by Lord Stanley. Many of the Boers who would not acknowledge British rule trekked once more over the mountains into what became the Orange Free Statemarker and Transvaalmarker provinces. At the end of 1843 there were not more than 500 Dutch families left in Natal.

Cloete, before returning to the Cape, visited Mpande and obtained from him a valuable concession. Hitherto the Tugela Rivermarker from source to mouth had been the recognized frontier between Natal and Zululand. Mpande gave up to Natal all the territory between the Buffalo and Tugela rivers, now forming Klip River county.


Proclaimed the British Colony of Natal in 1843, it became a part of Cape Colony in 1844. However, it was not until the end of 1845 that an effective administration was installed with Mr Martin West as lieutenant-governor that the power of the volksraad finally came to an end. After the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 the British defeated the Zulu army, and Zululand was annexed to Natal in 1893. It became one of the four founding provinces of South Africa, and is now KwaZulu-Natal. This province is still home to the Zulu nation, but also has a large East Indian population, as well as a white Boer-descended population to the north and descendants of British settlers mainly in the cities.


  • Timothy Joseph Stapleton, Faku: rulership and colonialism in the Mpondo Kingdom (c. 1780-1867), Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 2001, ISBN 0889203458, p. 64

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