Pieter Retief (1780-1838) was a South African emigrant leader. Some historians call him the first "president" of the Dutch-speaking people of South Africa. He gave expression to the racial policies of his people and formulated their republican ideals.
Pieter Retief was born on Nov. 12, 1780, at Wagenmakersvallei (modern Wellington, South Africa), strangely enough to pureblood French parents, although a century had elapsed since the Huguenot emigration. There was not much prospect of a livelihood for all 10 children on the family's wine farm, so Pieter became a clerk in a store. Later on, his employer entrusted him with a stock of goods, and he went trading eastward, reaching the border of the Cape Colony.
Retief's letters show him to have been an intelligent and refined person. He had an irrefutable record of moral integrity, honesty, and benevolence. He was a restless person, driven by an enterprising nature and boundless energy.
In 1814 Retief married Lenie Greyling. He bought a farm on the Koega River but afterward moved to Grahamstown, where he became one of its wealthiest men. He eventually fell prey to his less scrupulous business partners and ended up bankrupt. Retief returned to farming—in the Great Winterberg. He soon regained solvency and proved himself a brave, respected, and esteemed commandant, a favorite with the authorities and trusted leader of his fellow citizens.
As mediator in all dealings between citizens and the government, Retief was the embodiment of cooperative force, a man who did his utmost to procure permanent peace and safety on the frontier. As time went by, these attempts proved futile, and he eventually despaired. He then planned and prepared the orderly emigration of the dissatisfied Boers northward to the country beyond the Orange and Vaal rivers.
Retief summarized the reasons for this Great Trek and formulated the ideals of the emigrant farmers. To check the frequent losses and disturbances experienced on the eastern frontier, he visualized a Voortrekker government in the interior that would be the embodiment of an orderly state, where there would be "prospects for peace and happiness for their children" and where "with resoluteness, the principle of true freedom will be esteemed"—a government with "proper laws," based upon the fundamental concept of "righteousness." He issued a manifesto on Jan. 22, 1837, which was the declaration of independence of the Voortrekker farmers.
Retief was elected governor of the Voortrekker community then assembled at Thabanchu in the interior. In September he undertook to explore Port Natal and to barter with the Zulu king Dingane. He arrived in November at the laager. His ambition to reside in the promised land between the Tugela and Umzimvubu rivers was almost fulfilled. Upon Dingane's request, Retief punished Sekonyela in January 1838 for the latter's theft of Zulu cattle. Then he proceeded to the Zulu capital to settle the ceding of the territory in Natal to the emigrant farmers.
But tragedy awaited the man who had done so much for the betterment of his fellow citizens. On February 6, 1838 Zulu warriors—acting upon Dingane's command "Kill the wizards!"—slaughtered Retief and his company in the hills of Umgungundlovu.
The death of Retief deprived the Voortrekkers of a talented, far-seeing statesman. Two letters illustrate his genius. On July 18, 1837, Retief wrote to native captains in the neighborhood. This letter not only outlined the Voortrekker principles of segregation, that is, the stillheld notion of separate development of European and non-European in South Africa, but also the all-important idea of the peaceful coexistence between nations. The racial policy of the Afrikaner had developed long before he wrote this letter, but Retief, as leader of the Voortrekkers, for the first time gave expression to these principles.
Three days later he wrote to the governor of the Cape Colony, declaring that the Voortrekker community desired to be acknowledged as "a free and independent people." This request was refused, but for the first time the republican notions of the Afrikaner were expressed at the international level. Perhaps Preller did not exaggerate when he concluded his biography on Retief by saying, "[It is] Retief's greatest virtue that in his deeds and in his death, he compelled the Dutch-Afrikaans Emigrants to believe that they were not merely isolated, roaming individuals, but that everyone was a participant in a great national bond, with one concern and one destination."
Major biographies of Retief are in Afrikaans. Recommended for general historical background are George M. Theal, A History of South Africa (1904); George E. Cory, The Rise of South Africa (1910); Manfred Nathan, The Voortrekkers of South Africa (1937); R. U. Kenney, Piet Retief: the Dubious Hero (1976) and Eily and Jack Gledhill, In the Steps of Piet Retief (1980).