Voortrekkerleier Pieter mauritz Retief

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Pieter Mauritz Retief (12 November 1780 – 6 February 1838) was a South African Boer leader. Settling in 1814 in the frontier region of the Cape Colony, he assumed command of punitive expeditions in response to raiding parties from the adjacent Xhosa territory. He became a spokesperson for the frontier farmers who voiced their discontent, and wrote the Voortrekkers' declaration at their departure from the colony.

He was as a leading figure during their Great Trek, and at one stage their elected governor. He proposed Natal as the final destination of their migration and selected a location for its future capital, later named Pietermaritzburg. Following the massacre of Retief and his delegation by Zulu king Dingane, the short-lived Boer republic Natalia suffered from ineffective government and succumbed to British annexation.

Early life

Retief was born to Jacobus and Debora Retief in the Wagenmakersvallei, Cape Colony, today the town of Wellington, South Africa. His family were Boers of French Huguenot ancestry: his great-grandfather was the 1689 Huguenot refugee François Retif, from Mer, Loir-et-Cher near Blois; the progenitor of the name in South Africa.1 Retief grew up on the ancestral vineyard Welvanpas, where he worked until the age of 27.

After moving to the vicinity of Grahamstown, Retief, like other Boers, acquired wealth through livestock, but suffered repeated losses from Xhosa raids in the period. These prompted the 6th Cape Frontier War. (Retief had a history of financial trouble. On more than one occasion, he lost money and other possessions, mainly through gambling and land speculation. He is reported to have gone bankrupt at least twice, while at the colony and on the frontier.)2 Such losses impelled many frontier farmers to become Voortrekkers (literally, "those who move forward") and to migrate to new lands in the north.

Retief wrote their manifesto, dated 22 January 1837, setting out their long-held grievances against the British government. They believed it had offered them no protection against raids by the native blacks, no redress, and by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 freed their slaves. The compensation offered to owners hardly amounted to a quarter of the slaves' market value. Retief's manifesto was published in the Grahamstown Journal on 2 February and De Zuid-Afrikaan on 17 February, just as the emigrant Boers started to leave their homesteads.

Great Trek

Retief's household departed in two wagons from his farm in the Winterberg District in early February 1837 and joined a party of 30 other wagons. The pioneers crossed the Orange River into independent territory. When several parties on the Great Trek converged at the Vet River, Retief was elected "Governor of the United Laagers" and head of "The Free Province of New Holland in South East Africa." This coalition was very short-lived, and Retief became the lone leader of the group moving east.

On 5 October 1837 Retief established a camp of 54 wagons at Kerkenberg near the Drakensberg ridge. He proceeded on horseback the next day, accompanied by fourteen men with four wagons, to explore the region between the Drakensberg and Port Natal, now known as kwaZulu Natal. He returned a message to the camp on 2 November, announcing to laager that they may enter Natal.

Due to his favourable impression of the region, Retief started negotiations for land with the Zulu king Dingane kaSenzangakhona (known as Dingane) in November 1837. After Retief led his band over the Drakensberg Mountains, he convinced Voortrekker leaders Gerrit Maritz and Andries Hendrik Potgieter to join him in January 1838.

On Retief's second visit to Dingane, the Zulu agreed to Boer settlement in Natal, provided that the Boer delegation recover cattle stolen by the rival Tlokwa nation. This the Boers did, their reputation and rifles cowing the people into handing over some 7,000 head of cattle.3


Despite warnings, Retief left the Tugela region on 28 January 1838, in the belief that he could negotiate with Dingane for permanent boundaries for the Natal settlement. The deed of cession of the Tugela-Umzimvubu region, although dated 4 February 1838, was signed by Dingane on 6 February 1838, with the two sides recording three witnesses each. Dingane invited Retief's party to witness a special performance by his soldiers, whereupon Dingane ordered his soldiers to capture Retief's party and their coloured servants.

Retief, his son, men, and servants, about 100 people in total, were taken to kwaMatiwane Hill, a site where Dingane had thousands of other enemies executed.3 The Zulus killed the entire party by clubbing them and killed Retief last, so as to witness the deaths of his comrades. Their bodies were left on the hillside to be eaten by wild animals, as was Dingane's custom with his enemies. Dingane then directed the attack against the Voortrekker laagers,3 which plunged the migrant movement into temporary disarray.

Following the decisive Voortrekker victory at Blood River, Andries Pretorius and his "victory commando" recovered the remains of the Retief party. They buried them on 21 December 1838.

Also recovered was the undamaged deed of cession from Retief's leather purse, as later verified by a member of the "victory commando", E.F. Potgieter. An exact copy survives, but the original deed disappeared in transit to the Netherlands during the Anglo-Boer War. The site of the Retief grave was more or less forgotten until pointed out in 1896 by J.H. Hattingh, a surviving member of Pretorius's commando. A monument recording the names of the members of Retief's delegation was erected near the grave in 1922.4


The town of Piet Retief was named after him as was (partially) the city of Pietermaritzburg. (The "Maritz" part being named after Gerrit Maritz, another Voortrekker leader.)


1.^ Bernard Lugan (January 1996). Ces français qui ont fait l'Afrique du sud (The French People Who Made South Africa). ISBN 2-84100-086-9.
2.^ [|Giliomee, Hermann] (2003). The Afrikaners: Biography of a people. Cape Town, South Africa; Charlottesville, Virginia: Tafelberg Publishers Limited and University of Virginia Press. pp. 136, 154. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/0062403884X|0062403884X]].
3.^ a b c Wood, William (1840). "An Eyewitness Account of the Massacre of Retief". Statements respecting Dingaan, king of the Zulus. Collard & Co. Retrieved 2008-01-04.
4.^ Stander, Eerw. P.P. Dingaanstat: Die Graf van Piet Retief en Sy Sewentig Burgers.

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Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader First Name Pieter
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Middle Name Mauritz
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Last Name Retief
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Suffix
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Birth Surname Retief
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Display Name Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Also Known As
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Date of Birth 11/12/1780
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Place of Birth Soetendal, Wagenmakersvallei, Wellington, Caap de Goede Hoop, Suid Afrika
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Date of Baptism
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Place of Baptism
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Date of Burial
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Place of Burial KwaMathiwane (Hlomo Amabuthu), Natal, Suid Afrika
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Date of Death 2/6/1838
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Place of Death Ngungundhlovo, Natal, Suid Afrika
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Cause of Death Vermoor deur Digaan, Zulu koning op Hlomo Amabuthu
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Gender Male
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Occupation Voortrekkerleier, Pionier
Piet Retief, Voortrekker Leader Ethnicity