ZAR/Transvaal: The Story Begins

fullsizeoutput_4deaEDITOR’S NOTE: The third stamp-issuing authority in British South and Central-East Africa, in 1869 (after Cape of Good Hope in 1853 and Natal in 1857) was not in British territory. The ZAR — Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek — was into its 14h year as an independent Boer republic. Today there is no map reference to the ZAR, or Transvaal. Much of the high veld territory comprises the province of Gauteng in the Republic of South Africa. The postal history of ZAR/Transvaal is such a rollicking tale that it will take three installments to get it all out …

The ZAR was a loose but durable association of Boer farmers and other settlers who trekked or otherwise made their way beyond the Cape Colony, beyond the Orange Free State (another Boer republic), beyond British Natal, across the Vaal River fullsizeoutput_3460intothe tribal frontier. “Trans-Vaal,” or Transvaal, is another name for the territory that became a battleground between imperial Britain and the indigenous “tribe” of Boers. When the fighting was over in 1902, the carnage was considerable. The Boer death toll was about 25,000, while the British lost  22,000; 12,000 blacks also perished. Politically, the biggest losers were the indigenous blacks, as Boers and Brits joined forces and in 1910 formed the white supremacist Union of South Africa.

For the Boer pioneers back in the 1830s, the fertile plain of southern Africa was a vision of milk and honey. You can hear it, practically taste it in the Boer mantra of fullsizeoutput_4e28the sweet life — lekker lewe. The settlers did make for themselves a  good life in Africa. A typical Boer head of household  would be self-reliant, simple and practical in his daily life; deeply religious, loyal to kith and kin; a resourceful frontiersman; a shrewd negotiator; a robust “family man” with many children (see right). The Boers were successful farmers and ranchers. They thrived in the seemingly endless supply of arable  land and grazing grasses, and took maximum advantage of the indigenous population as cheap labor. 

Were the Boers racist? Yes by today’s standards, though during the 1700s and 1800s they did not treat indigenous blacks more harshly than other societies.  Great Britain’s abolition of slavery in the colonies in 1833 helped precipitate a  migration of Boers beyond the reach of Cape Colony law and the British Crown. The Boers as a rule were not sadists or tyrants, but they never countenanced equal rights for blacks, as Natal preached and the Cape Colony actually practiced for a while. The Boers trained primitive Bushmen for domestic service, in cahoots with the British, some of whom honored equality as much in the breach as the observance. Early trainees among the Bushmen and “Hottentots” became Fingoes, skilled fighters, guides and scouts.  The Boers claimed that their system of indenture was not really slavery, but their constitutions never allowed blacks to become citizens — unlike the Cape Colony, which enshrined equal rights for all property owners from the 1830s to the fullsizeoutput_4e1c1870s.  The Boer leader Jan Smuts (1870-1950), who helped create what became the Union of South Africa, grew up working side by side with blacks as a farmhand  and cowherd. Though he endorsed the racist Boer hierarchy until nearly the end of his life, Smuts also respected tribal ways, which he saw eroded by the Cape Colony’s efforts in earlier decades to establish equality between blacks and whites.   “The old practice mixed up black with white in the same institutions,” he wrote, “and nothing else was possible after the native institutions and traditions had been carelessly or deliberately destroyed.”

fullsizeoutput_4e02Among the early trekkers was Paul Kruger. Born in the eastern Cape Colony in 1825, he relocated with his family as a child in 1836.  Kruger would become leader of the ZAR, an embodiment of Boer values: stubborn, proud, clinging to the Bible to the bitter end.  As early as the 1840s, many Boers considered themselves an indigenous African people. They traced their ancestry to the likes of


That’s van Riebeeck (1619-1677) on the right. To the left is his wife, Maria (1629-1664). Originally from a family of French Huguenots, Maria has been revered as the ancestral “mother” of the Afrikaners. She reportedly was a charming hostess and an able diplomatic companion to her husband; she also was involved in finance and indigenous relations.

Jan van Riebeeck, who settled Capetown in 1652. Their forebears were pilgrims and pioneers, much like those in the “new world” of America. Two hundred years later, the Boers were as much a tribe as the Zulu, the Tswana or the Swazis …

The Boers’ orneriness and independent streak hindered their ability to self-govern. Their burgeoning families and communal settlements were so self-sufficient and zealous in their pursuit of the lekker lewe that they had trouble trusting outside authority and ceding their individual autonomy to a government entity — not to mention paying taxes. This clannish fullsizeoutput_4e20chauvinism led to all kinds of administrative and political problems through the years, not only in the ZAR, but in the neighboring Orange Free State and in smaller enclaves like Stellaland, Lijdenburg, Utrecht and Goosen (Goshen). 


The Boers’ strengths lay in their resourcefulness, industry, productivity, faith in God and loyalty to family and clan. They were effective fighters when called upon to defend hearth and home, but less successful as an organized army and bureaucracy. Their assembly or Volksraad was short of cash and long on argument, and struggled to maintain its mandate; besides, everyone had a farm to run. 


Notice how this philatelic tribute to Andries Pretorious has to be on two separate stamps, one in English, the other in Afrikaans. It’s an odd doppel entity, which was embodied in South African stamps for decades. FYI, the flag is from Pretorius’s short-lived Boer Republic of Natalia. “Reaffirmation of the vow” refers to Boer aspirations, translated as “Werbevestiging van die Gelofte.”

Andries Pretorius (1793-1853) was instrumental in the creation of the ZAR, though he died just as his dream was about to materialize. Tall and barrel-chested, his was a commanding presence. He led the Boers in battles against indigenous rivals — allying with one tribal king against another, slaughtering great numbers of Zulus while suffering few

Version 2

Though Martinhus Pretorius led the Orange Free State and was ZAR’s first president, he never seemed to live up to the standards of his famous father Andries. Notice the family resemblance — the same sad eyes, the same long face and strong chin.

casualties on his side. His republic of Natalia was short-lived, displaced by British Natal. Pretorius pushed north as the British grew more entrenched, and with allies including the young Paul Kruger, he began working on the outlines of a new republic across the Vaal River. First the Boers had to defend themselves. They bested the British in bloody skirmishes, most notably the Battle of Blood River. The Sand River Convention in 1852 ended what became known as the First Boer War, with casualties in the hundreds, not thousands. Britain signed treaties recognizing the Orange Free State in 1854, and two years later acknowledged the independence of
the roughly 40,000 Boers who had settled north of the Vaal River. Andries Pretorius’s son Martinhus became the ZAR’s first president, with Pretoria as his capital, named in his father’s honor.

In ensuing years, Paul Kruger emerged as the ZAR’s strongest leader.  The Boers built a dynamic, self-sufficient society, yet faced constant pressure from displaced tribes, as well as from English settlers and business interests. These  uitlanders” chafed at a ZAR constitution whose long residency requirements curtailed their political rights. The ZAR also suffered because so many of its own Boer constituents resisted strong central authority of any kind. 

Version 2From the beginning, all ZAR stamps bore the same design — the ZAR’s coat of arms, official badge of the Boers. As you can see from the title page of my collection, I don’t have any of the costly first stamps from ZAR/Transvaal. There’s one down toward the bottom of the page — No. 21 — that I took a risk buying. (More about this later.) 




fullsizeoutput_4e29The first set, printed in Mecklenburg, Germany,   was


quite handsome (see left — this image of No. 3 is from the Internet, since I can’t afford the hundreds of bucks it would cost to buy). 








Subsequent sets produced in the ZAR were not as polished.



These are two early ones — Scott No. 21, printed in Potchefstroom, ZAR, and No. 31, printed in Pretoria, the ZAR’s capital. They didn’t cost me much, as they are not in top shape. The sloppy printing job is still pretty evident. The stamps may be counterfeits — there was a lot of that going around — but I suspect they are genuine. (More about this later.) They fullsizeoutput_4de3sure are curiosity items!





Year after year, the Boers kept power to themselves, as was reflected in their Afrikaner-centric stamps  as well as their  restrictions on voting rights. By 1878, the ZAR administration was so besieged by its critics that Boers and settlers alike were relieved when Britains’s Theophilus Shepstone from neighboring Natal stepped in on behalf of the Queen.     

Relations between Boers and Brits had
waxed and waned over the decades. Between 1779 to 1879, white settlers from both groups fought nine distinct “wars” with indigenous tribes — the Xhosa Wars, once labeled “Kaffir Wars.” (Kaffir, which gradually morphed into a slur, originated in the Arabic word for “infidel.”)  The first three confrontations involved  Boers pushing
beyond the boundaries of the Cape Colony.  Great Britain assumed a greater role in later conflicts and the resultant carnage, with Boers fighting by their side. Sir


Why don’t I have any of these 1878 Victoria “V.R.” overprints on Z.Afr.Republiek stamps? For one thing, they are expensive; for another, they are quite dull-looking.

Andries Stokienstroem, lieutenant governor of the Cape Colony’s eastern province, managed to establish peace and build trust with the Xhosa for a period of 10 years in the mid-1800s. But the relentless pressure for land from Boers and other settlers inevitably led to renewed confrontatikon.    

In 1878, Shepstone annexed the ZAR, christening the new British territory  Transvaal. A number of ZAR stamps were immediately overprinted with “V.R.” to assert imperial authority. It seems a little insolent, if you ask me. Soon enough, the Brits would put out an original set of stamps featuring a profile of the mature Queen Victoria (see below).

fullsizeoutput_4de9Isn’t this a handsome series? Yes, I’m missing the pricier 1/2d and 2 shilling values, but this late-Victorian set nevertheless resonates with subtle colors in its consistent design; a refreshing change after all those years of coats-of-arms. These  elegant stamps seem to assert once and for all the Crown’s ascendancy in Transvaal. In fact, quite the opposite occurred. It didn’t take long for the Boers to rediscover their love of self-government and re-assert their aspirations for independence. As historian John Laband put it: “British occupation seemed to be fomenting a sense of national consciousness in the Transvaal which years of fractious independence had failed to elicit.” A key figure in that heightened consciousness was Paul Kruger — who will loom large in the next installment.


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