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Pieter Mauritz Retief (usually referred to as Piet Retief), (12 November 1780 – 6 February 1838) was a South African Boer leader. Settling in the Cape Colony's strife ridden frontier region in 1814, he assumed command of punitive expeditions and acted as spokesperson for the frontier farmers. He authored the Voortrekkers' declaration at their departure from the colony, and became a leading figure during their migration. He proposed Natal as final destination, and selected a location for its future capital, later named Pietermaritzburgmarker. Following the massacre of his delegation at the hands of Dingane, the short-lived Boer republic Natalia suffered from ineffective government and succumbed to British annexation.

Early life

Retief was born to Jacobus and Debora Retief in the Wagenmakersvallei, Cape Colony, which is today the town of Wellingtonmarker, South Africa. His family were Boers of French Huguenot ancestry, his great-grandfather being the 1689 Huguenot refugee François Retif, from Mer, Loir-et-Chermarker near Bloismarker, France, who was the progenitor of the name in South Africa. Retief grew up on the ancestral vineyard, Welvanpas, where he worked until the age of 27.

After moving to the vicinity of Grahamstownmarker, Retief, like other Boers, acquired wealth through livestock, but suffered repeated losses from Xhosa raids in the period leading up to the 6th Cape Frontier War. (However, apart from such losses, Retief was also a man in constant financial trouble. On more than one occasion, he lost money and other possessions mainly through gambling and land speculation. He is reported to have gone bankrupt at least twice, while at the colony and on the frontier.) Such losses impelled many frontier farmers to become Voortrekkers (literally those who move forward) and to migrate to new lands in the north. Retief authored their 'manifesto', dated 22 January 1837, setting out their long-held grievances against the British government, which they felt had offered them no protection, no redress, and which had freed their slaves with recompense to the owners hardly amounting to a quarter of their value. This was published in the Grahamstown Journal on 2 February and De Zuid-Afrikaan on 17 February just as the emigrant Boers started to leave their homesteads.

Great Trek

Retief's household departed in two wagons from his farm in the Winterberg District in early February 1837 and joined a party of 30 other wagons. The pioneers crossed the Orange Rivermarker into independent territory. When several parties on the Great Trek converged at the Vet River, Retief was elected "Governor of the United Laagers" and head of "The Free Province of New Holland in South East Africa." This coalition was very short-lived and Retief became the lone leader of the group moving east.

On 5 October 1837 Retief established a camp of 54 waggons at Kerkenberg near the Drakensberg ridge. He proceeded on horseback the next day, accompanied by fourteen men with four waggons, to explore the region between the Drakensberg and Port Natalmarker, now known as kwaZulu Natal. He returned a message to the camp on 2 November, announcing to laager that they may enter Natal.

Due to his favourable impression of the region he started negotiations with the Zulu chief Dingane kaSenzangakhona in November 1837. After Retief led his own band over the Drakensberg Mountains he convinced Voortrekker leaders Maritz and Potgieter to join him in January 1838. On a second visit to Dingane, the Zulu agreed to Boer settlement in Natal, provided that the Boer delegation recovered cattle stolen from him by the rival Tlokwa nation. This the Boers did, their reputation and rifles cowing the people into handing over some 7,000 head of cattle.


A copy of the treaty between Retief and Dingane
Despite warnings, Retief left the Tugelamarker region on 28 January 1838, in the belief that he could negotiate permanent boundaries for the Natal settlement with Dingane. The deed of cession of the Tugelamarker-Umzimvubu region, although dated 4 February, 1838, was signed by Dingane on 6 February 1838, with the two sides recording three witnesses each. Dingane then invited Retief's party to witness a special performance by his soldiers. However, upon a signal given by Dingane, his soldiers overwhelmed Retief's party of 70 and their Coloured servants, taking all captive.

Retief, his son, men, and servants, about a hundred people in total, were taken to kwaMatiwane Hill at , a site where thousands had already been massacred. The whole party was clubbed to death there, Retief being killed last, so as to witness the deaths of his comrades. Their bodies were left on the hillside to be devoured by wild animals, as was Dingane's custom with his enemies. Dingane then gave orders for the Voortrekker laagers to be attacked, which plunged the migrant movement into serious disarray. Eventually, the Retief party's remains were recovered and buried on 21 December 1838, by members of the "victory commando" led by Andries Pretorius, following the decisive Voortrekker victory at Blood Rivermarker.

Also recovered was the undamaged deed of cession from Retief's leather purse, as later verified by a member of the "victory commando", E.F. Potgieter. An exact copy survives, but the original deed disappeared in transit to the Netherlands during the Anglo-Boer War. The site of the Retief grave was more or less forgotten until pointed out in 1896 by J.H. Hattingh, a surviving member of Pretorius's commando. A monument recording the names of the members of Retief's delegation was erected near the grave in 1922.


The town of Piet Retief was named after him as was (partially) the city of Pietermaritzburgmarker. (The "Maritz" part being named after Gerrit Maritz, another Voortrekker leader.)

Popular Culture

"Piet Retief" is the name of a prize rooster in Bryce Courtenay's South African novel, Whitethorn, whose tail feathers are stolen by the main character.


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