Approximately 2 000 Afrikaner or Boer emigrants who had left the Cape Colony by oxwagon came together in 1837 in the vicinity of the Little en Great Vet River in what we know as the central Free State today. After more trekkers had joined them, they decided to form a new organised community with an own spiritual and societal identity. A group of them had already opted for an own, independent democratic community at Thaba Nchu on 2 December 1836.
On 6 June 1837 this community – at a meeting of 140 men – decided on nine articles as the guiding rules for their community. The “nine articles” as a document was not a new constitution of a new state, but merely guidelines for their conduct in their new environment. The guidelines were initiated and drafted by their so-called Political Council and accepted as binding for every member of the community by the meeting of 6 June at the Little Vet River. The nine rules were applicable to every official member who applied for and joined this specific community of Boers or trekkers.
Historians call the acceptance and formation of a society in the central Free State in 1837 a turning point in the history of Boer republics in the 19th century. It was, however, not a turning point, but just another step in this history. It paved the way for more Boer republics to come.
Two well-known personalities were chosen to lead these trekkers. On 17 April 1837, soon after his arrival, Piet Retief was made the governor of the trek and Gert Maritz the magistrate. They were later accompanied by Erasmus Smit, who was ordained as their minister of religion on 21 May 1837. At the meeting of 6 June 1837 a proposal of Smit was accepted that the community should call itself the people of the Free Province of New Holland in South East Africa (De Vrije Provincie van Nieu Holland in Zuid Oost Africa). Apart from this Smit had a decisive influence on the choice of the phrase “We the Reformed members …” He was an advocate for the reformed confessions of faith as a point of departure for the view on life as a whole. The Dutch Reformed Three Formulas of Unity as accepted by the reformed Synod of Dordrecht in 1618–1619 in the Netherlands played a part in this.
At the same meeting the area of Port Natal and Natal was chosen as the destination of the emigration or trek.
With their choice of “reformed” the community of trekkers opted for a Christian society in a Dutch Reformed way. That was why the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) was their only accepted church and only members of congregations of this church could be appointed as civil servants. Every trekker was known as a nominal Christian believer and an official member of a congregation of this church. Their official bond or connection with the DRC opened the way for every trekker in the laager to join in a promise or a vow to God by the trekkers in Natal in 1838 before their battle against Dingaan and his Zulus on 16 December of that year.
In the nine articles, article one used the ecclesiastical term Reformed members as an indication of their approach to life in society as a whole. Their aim was a real Christian community in every aspect of life and Reformed the term for their approach to and understanding of Christianity. Furthermore, in the fourth of the nine articles, they spoke of their expected homeland as a promised land – promised by God. Their belief in such a land showed their confession of the providence of God and their belief that God in his plan opened a possibility for them as a new independent nation.
The nine articles opted for a people’s democracy with a governor, magistrate and Political Council. The meeting of the people, or “volksvergadering”, was the highest authority in society. New Holland was a democracy, but guided and limited by Christian principles. Therefore they decided on the nine articles as reformed Christians. Every member of their government took an oath in support of the nine articles, an oath which was marked by a promise to act in a just way or to strive for justice in and through this society. This was expected from every person or citizen joining them.
The names and terms used by the Boers showed the influence of more than one background.
The term Reformed members had a Dutch Reformed background – as already indicated. The names governor, magistrate and Political Council linked them with life in the Colony as a background, be it the Dutch-dominated Cape or the British Cape Colony. Out of the history in June 1837 republics like Natalia (1838–1843), the South African Republic (1852–1902) and the Orange Free State (1854–1902) developed. Each of these was an example of the core that was shown at the Vet River: the desire of Afrikanerpeople for political independence.
Keywords: Boer emigrants 1837; Christian reformed society; democracy; justice to all in society; promised land