Andries Pretorius

Andries Pretorius (1798-1853) was a South African political leader and general and till his death the most prominent and colorful Afrikaner figure.

In November 1838 the Voortrekker leader Pieter Retief and his companions were murdered at the village of the Zulu chief Dingane, and afterward the Voortrekker camp were massacred by Zulu warriors. The first efforts of both Boer and Briton to avenge these horrors met with dismal failure, leaving the Boer emigrants in a serious plight. At this stage Andries Pretorius was invited to become their leader and command a punitive expedition against Dingane.

Andries Pretorius was born on Nov. 27, 1798, at Graaff Reinet in the Cape Colony. It is unfortunate that only the scantiest details of his early life are available. He was taught by wandering teachers but in later life could express himself well in word and writing. A female admirer wrote of him as "a handsome, tall figure of between six and seven feet, upright, friendly, and captivating." The historian Theal said of him that "his knowledge and his opinions, as well as his virtues and his failings, were those of the seventeenth, not of the nineteenth century." He had his human share of temperamental imperfections and was often quick to anger, but he had no unreasoning obstinacy.


Farmer and Voortrekker Leader

Pretorius enters the historical scene in 1837 as a prosperous townsman at Graaff Reinet; he also owned farms in the district. He does not appear to have been consulted in the early projects of the border farmers, but he soon displayed a deep interest in the emigration movement. Before he finally joined the Voortrekkers in Natal, he paid a preliminary visit to the interior. He took part in the battle of Mosega, in which Mzilikazi and his Matabele (Ndebele) warriors were put to flight. Thereafter he purchased a farm near Port Natal and returned to Graaff Reinet only to sell his property. At this stage a deputation arrived from the stricken Voortrekkers in Natal and implored him to lead an expedition against Dingane. He accepted the invitation, hastened his departure, and reached the main laager in Natal on Nov. 22, 1838.

Setting out with a commando of 464 men, from the outset Pretorius insisted on the maintenance of proper discipline, which certainly had been lacking in previous cases. Though a man of decision, he never acted without calling a council of his officers.

On December 9 the Voortrekkers took the famous "Vow." It was the desire of Pretorius that the Voortrekkers make a collective promise to God that if He granted them victory they would celebrate the day of triumph, each year, as a Holy Sabbath to the glory of His name and that they would impress this duty upon their children.


Battle of Blood River

By December 15 the commando marched up the west bank of a tributary of the Buffalo named Income (Cattle River) by the Zulu but ever since known as Blood River. Under his inspired leadership his small force put to flight the vast Zulu army of more than 10, 000 men in one of the most fateful battles ever fought in South Africa.

The rejoicing which greeted the commando on its return was dampened by the grim tidings that British troops had arrived at Port Natal to occupy the territory temporarily because "of the disturbed state of the native tribes" resulting from the "unwarranted occupation" of the interior by the Voortrekkers.

Republic of Natal

The Voortrekkers remained undaunted, ignored the British, and proceeded under Pretorius to establish their own republic on the land granted by Dingane. Assisted by regiments of Dingane's brother Mpande, Pretorius in 1840 succeeded in finally overthrowing Dingane. Meanwhile the British troops had also left, and the Voortrekkers had at last achieved the independence they had been looking for. Within 3 years, however, the British were back, this time to remain. Pretorius defeated them at Congella and besieged them for over a month. After their relief, an uneasy peace followed for a year, and then Britain annexed Natal.


Differences with England

Pretorius settled near Pietermaritzburg, resigned his office, and became a British subject. In 1847 he journeyed to Grahamstown to protest before Sir Henry Pottinger, the representative of the Crown, the injustices the Natal Voortrekkers felt they had suffered. Pottinger unwisely refused to see him. This cavalier treatment infuriated Pretorius and aroused great indignation throughout South Africa.

In 1848 Sir Harry Smith, who had succeeded Pottinger, met Pretorius and a number of Voortrekkers at the foot of the Berg in Natal. The meeting was cordial, but unfortunately both men viewed the position from a totally different aspect: Smith was determined that Natal remain British, and Pretorius was adamant on the question of his people's independence. The result was that Pretorius and his followers cast off their allegiance to England.

Pretorius established himself in Rustenburg (Transvaal) and then took the bold, if unwise, step of urging burghers in Transvaal to join him in a campaign against England. Although he succeeded in evicting the British Resident from Bloemfontein, he was defeated at Boomplaats by Sir Harry Smith. He was proclaimed a rebel, and a reward of £2, 000 was offered by the Cape government for his apprehension.


Sand River Convention

Meanwhile, discord ruled among the Voortrekkers in Transvaal. There were three parties, two attached to the persons of the Voortrekker leaders Pretorius and Potgieter, and that of the Volksraad, whose authority was not clearly defined. Pretorius recognized that affairs in Transvaal would never be satisfactorily settled until recognition of the independence of its people was obtained from England. At his instigation the Volksraad decided that representations should be made to the British government for peace and a permanent understanding.

In August 1851 the burghers at Winburg, who were not reconciled to life under British rule, invited Pretorius to take upon himself the government of the territory between the Orange and Vaal rivers. Being an outlaw from that territory, Pretorius could not accept the invitation, but he informed the British authorities that he had received it.

To prevent Pretorius from interfering outside Transvaal, his outlawry was reversed, and two commissioners were instructed to effect a settlement regarding the burghers beyond the Vaal. Acting without the blessing of the Volksraad, Pretorius met them and signed the Sand River Convention on Jan. 17, 1852, whereby England recognized the independence of Transvaal. It was ratified by the Volksraad after Pretorius and Potgieter had at last become reconciled.

After the bitterness of the Anglo-Boer struggles had died down, Pretorius frequently came into amicable intercourse with British officials, who invariably spoke of him in terms not merely of high respect but of warm friendliness. Perhaps the highest testimony to the regard in which he was universally held is the fact that, as he lay on his deathbed, several native chiefs who had heard of his illness and had come to pay their respects exhibited intense grief "as they knelt successively and kissed his hand." He died on July 23, 1853, at Magaliesberg.


Further Reading on Andries Pretorius

South African historiography lacks an objective biography of Pretorius. Gustav Preller, who had an intense admiration for Pretorius and an almost naive partisanship for the Afrikaner people, published a biography, Andries Pretorius (1939), but the book, meritorious for its thrilling and picturesque accounts, is far from a critical study. Recommended for general background are Sir George E. Cory, The Rise of South Africa (6 vols., 1910-1940); Eric Anderson Walker, The Great Trek (1934; 4th ed. 1960); Manfred Nathan's outstanding work, The Voortrekkers of South Africa (1937); and George McCall Theal, History of South Africa, vol. 6 (1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Liebenberg, Barend Jacobus, Andries Pretorius in Natal, Pretoria: Academica, 1977.