Bloemfontein an Overview

In about 1840, Dutch farmer Rudolph Marthinus Brits settled on land near a strong-running fountain known locally as Jan Bloem’s Fontein, named after a local Korah Khoikhoi leader. He acquired the land from local Black residents, allegedly through barter, and in 1846, when Maj HD Warden was commissioned to act as British Resident Agent to the Dutch emigrant community living in the region, Brits sold him the farm for £37 10s. On 3 February 1848 the British Government annexed the territory, naming it the Orange River Sovereignty and Bloemfontein became the seat of the new administration. However this move did not prove popular with either the British Colonial Office in London, nor with the majority of local Dutch residents, and on 30 January 1854 the British withdrew from the territory. At that stage the Republic of the Orange Free State was established, and Bloemfontein was proclaimed as its capital.

Although the Dutch burghers of the OFS Republic rejected in the imposition of British colonial rule upon their territory, they felt no such qualms about imposing their own brand of colonialism upon surrounding Black communities, and between 1854 and 1868 there followed a series of inconclusive land wars against the baSotho, during which time Bloemfontein became a key center of Dutch colonial administration. These conflicts were only brought to an end on 15 April 1868 when the British, acting in response to repeated entreaties from the baSotho, annexed the Kingdom of Basutoland to the Cape Colony, and placed it under the administrative authority of a High Commissioner.

The first Village Management Board was established in Bloemfontein in 1859, and the town was given municipal status in 1880. The boost in its fortunes coincided with the opening of the Kimberley diamond fields during the 1860s, when travelers from Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Algoa Bay converged upon the town before moving on to seek their fortunes on the diggings. As a result it became a major service centre for the diamond industry and, for a while, became the inland headquarters for a number of major financial and commercial concerns. In time Bloemfontein’s became a key transit point for travelers bound for either the Kimberley diamond fields or the Witwatersrand, and the Cape Town-Johannesburg railway link reached it in 1890.

Following the declaration of Union in 1910, the city found itself at the geopolitical centre of the new nation, and while it could not boast an industrial base of its own, it became the home of a number of important educational institutions. Over the years it has also hosted a variety of historical meetings and conventions. In May 1899 President Kruger and Sir Alfred Milner met there, at the invitation of President Steyn, in an effort to head off the conflict that was looming between the Transvaal and Britain; and in 1912 Black delegates from all parts of South Africa came together to form the African National Congress in an attempt to resist the passage in the (White) Union Parliament of the 1913 Native Land Act. In 1910 the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court was established in Bloemfontein, and was confirmed in 1994 when it became the site for the Republic’s High Court.

Last updated : 20-Feb-2013

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

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