Who are the Boers?

The Boers were people who settled in the Transvaal region of South Africa in the 17th century. The term “Boer” is used to describe individuals who are descended from these original early settlers, along with people who are associated with Boer culture.

The role of the Boers in African history has often been tumultuous, and sometimes a subject of controversy; the Boers, for example, are credited with the institutionalized racism which came to be known as apartheid in South Africa.

The word Boer is Dutch for “farmer,” and it should come as no surprise to learn that many of the Boers were Dutch Protestants. The Boers also came from Germany, France, Ireland, England, Wales, Spain, Poland, Italy, and numerous other places, however, sharing the common cause of being conservative Protestants with an independent streak. They moved from the British Cape Colony into the interior of South Africa, establishing the Orange Free State and the Transvaal as independent republics.

The Boers are often associated with a nomadic lifestyle, perhaps because many of them traveled a long way from Europe and other areas to reach the independent areas. The Boers also moved to take advantage of changing resource availability and due to political pressures. Their society was characterized by strong nationalism, with the Boers banding together to protect their land holdings from outsiders, as well as strong Christian ideals. The Boers also kept slaves and maintained some very racist ideas, unfortunately.

In the mid-1800s, gold and diamonds were found in the Transvaal, and the Boers found themselves under attack from a variety of colonial powers which decided they wanted these riches for themselves. Through a series of conflicts which came to be known as the Boer Wars, the Boers attempted to protect their land, often utilizing a variety of guerrilla tactics to wear down the opposing side. Ultimately, the Orange Free State and Transvaal were annexed by the British Empire.

Many Boers left the region after the Boer Wars, while others remained in South Africa, ultimately becoming leaders in the South African government as well as champions for apartheid. As a result, the term “Boer” carries negative connotations in some parts of the world. People who self-identify as “Boer” are usually abstracting themselves from the larger Afrikaner community in Africa, the group of people who speak the language known as Afrikaans. Self-selecting as a “Boer” can imply that one shares the racist values of the Boers. It can also simply mean that one is descended from the original Boers, some of whom were not racist at all, judging from the numbers of mixed marriages which occurred.

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