Colonial history of Pretoria


Church Square (previously Kerkplaats). c.1903 - 1920s. Source: Franco Frescura Collection. Church Square (previously Kerkplaats). c.1903 - 1920s

Formation of the ZAR

In 1852 the South African Republic was established and Pretoria was proclaimed its capital in 1855. In 1857, Marthinus Wessels Pretorius was elected President, with a Volksraad of 24 members elected by the people. 

Members of the Volksraad had to be members of the Dutch Reformed Church. The President was given administrative authority and was to be assisted by an executive council. It is interesting to note that no people of colour were involved at either the government level or in the church.


The land bought by MW Pretorius was sold to the government and he decided to name the town after his father, General Andries Pretorius. The piece of land known as the kerkplaats later became Church Square.

Pretoria started out as a small community, which developed around the church, which was built in 1855. Unfortunately, in 1882 the church was destroyed by fire but was rebuilt in 1885.

In 1860, Church Square became the seat of the government of the South African Republic, and in 1864 the first Raadsaal was erected on the corner of Market and Church Streets. 

By 1865, the town boasted some 85 houses and a population of about 300 people. 

The layout of the town was set out by Andries du Toit, who surveyed and pegged out the area. It stretched from Boom Street in the north to Scheiding Street in the south and from Potgieter Street in the west to Prinsloo Street in the east.  


During the early years of the town, it was governed by the field coronet system. Each of the four districts of the ZAR, namely Lydenberg, Potchefstroom, Pretoria and Zoutspansberg, had its own field coronets and was governed independently of each other. 

Period of Civil War

The Civil War started because M.W Pretorius had been elected State President of the Orange Free State while simultaneously holding the office of State President of Pretoria. Pretorius had hoped to unify the two Boer Republics, but his position was unacceptable to some, who believed that he had acted unconstitutionally.

Pretorius then decided to resign as State President of Pretoria and a new election was held. The election was not a success, as many Boers did not participate. Many Boers still wanted Pretorius back in office but the Volksraad of Pretoria felt that the constitution had to be upheld. This led to clashes between the two parties.

The friction started when the followers of Pretorius, led by Stephanus Schoeman, tried to reinstate Pretorius using force. After a standoff in Pretoria, Schoeman fled over the Vaal. President Pretorius intervened to broker peace at this point. 

Schoeman soon returned to the Transvaal, but still refused to accept the authority of the new Acting-President JH Grobler. He raised a rebellion for the second time and was assisted by Boers from the eastern and western districts. This led to clashes between the rebels and a command of the Volksraad led by Kruger. By the second skirmish, both sides were tired of fighting and peace was negotiated.  

The civil war ended in 1864 when Pretorius resigned as State President of the Orange Free State and was re-elected as State President of the Republic.

However, he was forced to resign in 1871 because of his consent to the Keate Award, a boundary dispute decision made by Lieutenant-Governor Robert William Keate, which awarded contested land to the Barolong instead of the Transvaal Republic.

Pretorius was succeeded by President Thomas Francois Burgers, whose term in office lasted until the British occupation in 1877.

British Occupation

The idea to occupy the South African Republic was mainly due to economic reasons. During the late 1860s, following the discovery of diamonds near the Orange-Vaal confluence, the British began to have imperial aims for the Republic.

The pressure by wealthy rulers and sugar barons to open up the colony to the potential labour supply of Mozambique and the eastern Transvaal was also a factor leading to occupation. This could only happen by uniting the republics and colonies in a federation. The idea of occupation was pushed by Theophilus Shepstone, Secretary for Native Affairs, who believed that a federation was vital for colonial interests.

President Burgers had also begun planning a railway line from Pretoria to Delagoa Bay, a prospect that worried Shepstone because Delagoa Bay (now Maputo) had been awarded to Portugal. This meant that the ZAR would be beyond the reach of British commercial interests, and would hinder British expansion into Central Africa. 

On 12 April 1877, Shepstone proclaimed the South African Republic a British colony. 

Britain cited several other reasons for annexation of the ZAR, one of them being that the continual friction between the Boers and Black tribes of the ZAR and Zululand posed a problem. Another reason put forward by the British was the restlessness of the Pedi after their defeat at the hands of the Boers. Also, the fact that state coffers were almost empty, rendering the Republic defenseless, made it a soft target for invasion from other European countries. Adjoining British possessions would also be threatened in the event of the Republic being colonised by another European country. 

The Boers, unhappy with their new colonial masters, undertook two diplomatic deputations to London in 1877 and 1878 to argue for the reinstatement of their independence. Both delegations were led by Paul Kruger. When both missions failed, the Republican leaders decided that it was time to rally the Afrikaner Volk into a powerful force that could oppose Britain.

By 1880, the Boers were ready to revolt to reclaim the Republic they had surrendered three years before. Consumed by a hatred for their colonial masters, the Boers found a new sense of unity in opposition.  

This feeling of solidarity amongst the Boers spread to the OFS and the Cape Colony. By this time, the Boers had almost reached breaking point, and needed little encouragement to go to war. The breaking point came when Sir Owen Lanyon (who replaced Shepstone) went to collect tax from a farmer in Potchefstroom. Lanyon confiscated the farmer’s wagon, which was to be auctioned in order to regain lost taxes.

When news of the row between the farmer and Lanyon spread, several dozen armed Boers marched into town to return the wagon to the farmer. Angered by the Boers’ reaction, Lanyon ordered the ringleaders to be arrested. However, this was not possible at the time as there were simply not enough British in the South African Republic to carry out this order.

Between 13 and 16 December, the Boers held rallies at Paardekraal reaffirming their faith in their Republic. On 16 December 1880, the first shots were fired in Potchefstroom, signalling the start of the First South African War (First Anglo-Boer War). In a letter to Lanyon, the Boers outlined their reasons for revolt and stressed that they had no desire for war but were prepared to fight to regain the reins of government. 

• Davenport. T.R.H. (1977) South Africa-A Modern History. The Macmillan Press. Britain.
• Dunston. L. (1975) Young Pretoria 1889-1913.Heer Printing Company.  Pretoria.
• Grobler. J. (2006) Discover Pretoria. A Historical Survey for Tourists and Tour Guides
• Nixon. J. (1972) The Complete Story of the Transvaal. Struik Ltd. Cape Town.
• Potgieter, D.J. et al. (1972) Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa. Published by NASOU. Vol 5, p. 359; Vol 6, p. 318.
• Preller. G.S. (1938) Old Pretoria.  City Council. Pretoria.
• Reader’s Digest (1988) Illustrated History of Southern Africa. The Real Story.  Reader’s Digest. South Africa.
•  Roberts. M. (2001) South Africa 1948-2000. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Longman. England.

Last updated : 19-Feb-2013

This article was produced by South African History Online on 29-Mar-2011

Support South African History Online

Dear friends of SAHO

South African History Online (SAHO) needs your support.

SAHO is one of the most visited websites in South Africa with over 6 million unique users a year. Our goal is to fulfill our mandate and continue to build, and make accessible, a new people’s history of South Africa and Africa.

Please help us deliver this by contributing upwards of $1.00 a month for the next 12 months.

Make a donation here and send us a message of support.