Armoria patrić

Oranje Vrij Staat

The tree debate / bugle horns / Keate Award / Adam Kok / Moroka

Oranje Vrij Staat

Arms taken into use on 23 February 1857, the third anniversary of the Oranje Vrij Staat. The blazon, as quoted by F G Brownell, reads:

Arms: On a shield Argent, between three bugle horns Azure, garnished and stringed Gules, a representation of the seal of the Orange Free State Republic as adopted in 1856, viz. on a white roundel, in chief a tree on an island, between dexter, three sheep and sinister, a natural lion supporting the tree with his dexter paw, in base a Voortrekker wagon on an island all proper; on a ribbon draped fesswise, the motto GEDULD EN MOED, above the tree the word VRYHEID and below the wagon the word IMMIGRATIE; behind the shield on two staves in saltire with ball and spear point Or, two flags of the same Republic draped on both sides, each with seven stripes visible, alternately white and orange and a canton of three stripes, red, white and blue.

The flag shown as part of the coat of arms came into use on the same day.

From a heraldic point of view the device is a disaster. It contains minute illustrations that can barely be made out, it contrasts silver with white (in the heraldic tradition of most of Europe, this is impermissible), and it has wording in three places, contrary to the pictorial spirit of heraldry. The only way to explain it is to tell the story of the two distinct devices which were combined to make it.

Background to arms:
The republic came into being on 23 February 1854 with neither Great Seal nor flag, and since a seal was needed to seal legislation, action was needed. On 15 May ’54 the Government Secretary, Jacobus Groenendaal, a Netherlander, wrote to his friend, Professor U G Lauts, who had been appointed the consul of the Oranje Vrij Staat in the Netherlands, asking whether King Willem III would be willing to grant the republic arms and a flag.

This was followed up on 15 October by a personal letter from President Josias Hoffman to the King, in which he pointed out that “the name of His Majesty’s House” (the House of Orange) had been honoured in the name of the new state “by this branch of the old fatherland’s tree”.

This can be ascribed to poetic licence, since the republic had not directly been named after the royal house – although there was a connection. The river from which the republic took its name was called Orange in 1779 by Captain (later Colonel) Robert Jacob Gordon, a Dutch military officer of Scottish descent, who in that year undertook an exploration of the river, which he named for Willem V, General Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, a personal friend.

However, in February 1855 Hoffman was obliged to resign and, after a six-month break, Jacobus Nicolaas Boshof was elected President. Boshof, unaware of the request to the Netherlands, wrote to Governor Sir George Grey in Cape Town requesting that he design a Great Seal.

In the Netherlands President Hoffman’s request went through a bureaucratic process, and on 12 January 1856 the Dutch King’s special envoy, Cornelis Hiddingh (member of a Cape Town family), arrived in Bloemfontein bearing a wapendiploma and the flag illustrated on it. The arms granted in the wapendiploma may be blazoned:


Arms: Argent, a fess wavy tenné between three bugle horns azure, garnished and stringed gules; the shield supported by two lances in saltire, each bearing the flag of the Republic: white with three orange bars, and a canton of three bars, red, white and blue.

first draft for arms of Oranje Vrij Staat

The bugle horns are taken from the arms (or, a bugle horn azure garnished and stringed gules) of the Princes of Orange, a city and district in the south of France. The Principality of Orange had acquired a large landed estate in the Low Countries when William the Silent (Stadtholder from 1559 until his murder in 1584) inherited the title from a cousin in 1545. Although William was not a descendant of the medićval Counts and Princes of Orange and never visited the City of Orange (it became part of the French royal demesne in 1660), the title has continued in use among his descendants and is today used by the heir apparent to the Dutch throne.

The wavy horizontal band (fess) in orange symbolised the Orange River. It is perhaps the most original contribution to the republic’s arms and it is a pity it was dropped in the ensuing compromise. At any rate its ghost was to be seen in the arms of the Union of South Africa, in the form of a wavy horizontal line of partition.

The arms actually granted did not incorporate crest, motto or supporters (except for the two flags), but it is worth mentioning the pun in one proposal: a motto scroll reading “Oranje Staat Vry” (Orange stands free); and the very first drawing (shown at right), which had an orange tree for a crest and the motto: “Tandem fit surculus arbor” (“Ultimately the small withe will become a tree”). More about this below.

At about the same time as Hiddingh’s arrival in Bloemfontein, the matrices of the seal ordered in Cape Town were also delivered, so when the Volksraad met on 28 February 1856 it had a dilemma. Choosing one or other of the devices would cause great offence, on the one hand to the Dutch King, and on the other to the British Governor and High Commissioner in Cape Town. On a proposal by F Nauhaus, the Raad resolved to combine the arms and the seal, omitting the fess, and requested the President to write to King Willem, explaining the situation.

The tree debate:
President Brand’s sketchBut what tree was intended in the seal? Pama makes great play out of the popular symbolism of the orange tree in the Netherlands, as a symbol of the House of Orange. But even the presence of an orange tree crest in the first proposal to the Dutch King does not settle the matter, as the tree was in the seal, not the arms, and the seal was cut in Cape Town on instructions from Bloemfontein.
Oranje Vrij Staat postage stamp

The first clear drawing of a Free State tree was in a postage stamp design. In 1865 President Johannes Brand placed an order with T de la Rue in London, describing the object to be illustrated rather vaguely as “a tree with three horns”, but also including a drawing (shown here at left) that shows a tree clearly without fruit. Employing artistic licence, the engravers produced a tree (right) quite plainly bearing oranges. The resulting stamps – in various values and colours, but all in the same design, illustrating an orange tree and three bugle horns – were in regular use from 1868 to 1900 and, with overprints and surcharges (as illustrated), until 1904. Clearly this drawing was taken as a model for the Orange Free State quarter in the arms of the Union of South Africa, granted in 1910.

What kind of tree was it meant to be, though? Writing in Die Volkstem in 1930, Charles Barry insisted that it was not an orange tree, but an ordinary tree “to which was attached the symbolism of freedom”.

The next salvo was fired by Free State Archivist A Kieser who, writing in The Friend in 1934, argued that since there is no fruit in the tree in the Great Seal of 1856, and the tree has the umbrella shape of the wild olive, found on virtually every koppie in the Free State, the symbolical tree of the Free State had to be the wild olive (Olea europća africana).

Two years later the Orange Free State Official Guide stated quite baldly that Sir George Grey had “commissioned the design of the Wild Olive tree”.

Friede responded with a learned article denying that any particular species was intended, and focuses on the legend “VRYHEID”, immediately above the tree, saying that what was intended was the Tree of Liberty. But he also quotes President F W Reitz as describing a wild olive tree planted outside the Raadzaal in 1893 as “our old symbolic tree”. This allusion came from a report in De Express of 6 June ’93, but is misplaced, since the description “ons oude symbolische boom” was an editorial comment, not the President’s statement.

In 1946 the matter was raised again by the then Free State Archivist, who again promoted the wild olive theory, but despite correspondence between the Provincial Administration and the Secretary for the Interior, no action was taken on it.

And in 1959 the question was gone into again, this time by Dr Coenraad Beyers (later to become South Africa’s first State Herald) and Cor Pama, who both rejected the olive tree theory. The counter-argument was nonetheless put forward by a number of advocates of the olive tree. The Secretary to the Prime Minister, having read the various memoranda, advised the Prime Minister that “there is no reason why a tree of freedom . . . should not also bear fruit”. He concluded, quoting Pama: “Long may it bear fruit.”

The outcome was that the third quarter of the South African arms was left unchanged with its orange tree. Yet the Orange Free State adopted the wild olive as its provincial tree, so each party can be held to have won one round.

The republic’s name:
The official language of the republic was Dutch, so it clearly had no English name. The spoken language was an early form of Afrikaans.

But since it had British colonies for neighbours it was inevitable that the name would be translated, and it is common in documents of the time to find reference to the “Orange Free State”.

As to its name in Dutch, this was written in a variety of ways: Oranje Vrij Staat, Oranje Vry Staat, Oranje Vrij-staat, or even Oranjevrijstaat. The “Vry” spelling appears to have been (in part) the fruit of an early Afrikaans language movement. But the inscriptions on the republic’s later monuments was almost invariably Oranje Vrij Staat, and this wording appeared also on the country’s postage stamps.

Geographical and historical background:
The area between the Orange and Vaal rivers was labelled Transorangia by early travellers, but this was never a formal name. The area became popular with Trekboere (roving Boer stockmen) following the Difaqane, and virtually all the Voortrekkers who left the Cape Colony during the mid-1830s travelled from the Orange River to Thaba Nchu. On 6 June 1837 the various Voortrekker groups met on the Vet River and adopted a fundamental law, and elected a 24-man Volksraad with Piet Retief as Governor or President.

Retief and others then trekked into Natal, where the short-lived Republiek Natalia was set up. After Britain annexed the republic in 1843, many Trekkers re-crossed the Drakensberg to settle in Transorangia or further north in the so-called Trans-Vaal territory. By 1848 the Boer presence in Transorangia was so strong that Britain found it necessary to annex the territory as the Orange River Sovereignty. Major H D Warden was sent as British Resident and purchased the farm Bloemfontein as his base of operations. This was to become the capital of the Oranje Vrij Staat.

Although Britain claimed authority over the Trekkers even north of the Vaal River, it was felt by 1852 that maintaining sovereignty there was not feasible. Under the Sand River Convention, held on the banks of the Sand River in the Orange River Sovereignty, Britain granted independence to the as yet loosely federated Trekker groups north of the Vaal on 17 January ’52. It came to the same realisation about the territory south of the Vaal, and on 23 February 1854 the Bloemfontein Convention granted independence to what now became the Oranje Vrij Staat.

The borders of the Oranje Vrij Staat were loosely defined. A treaty with the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (as the Transvaal state had labelled itself) fixed a boundary along the Klip River (one of several of this name) from just downriver of Standerton to the Drakensberg watershed, while the boundary on the republic’s western side was fixed by the diamond fields dispute, settled by the Keate Award of 1871.

However, the Griqualand West Land Court under Mr Justice Andries Stockenström established some years later that the OVS had a stronger claim to the diamond fields than Lieutenant-Governor Keate had acknowledged, and Great Britain compensated the republic with Ł80 000. With this capital the OVS transformed itself into a model republic.

The republic’s authority did not at first extend south of the Riet and Kromellenboog rivers, as this was the land of the Griqua chief Adam Kok. But Kok’s decision to trek with his people in 1860 to a land beyond the Drakensberg (the so-called No Man’s Land, later called Griqualand East) gave the OVS control of land down to the Orange River as far upriver as the Bethulie mission station. Kok’s party of 2 000 people left in 1861 in 300 wagons and with 3 000 head of cattle.

Close to Bloemfontein lay the Moroka district, centred on Thaba Nchu, where the Tswana chief Moroka was treated as an independent ruler. However, when his heirs squabbled, the OVS stepped in in 1884.

East of Moroka and south-westwards to Bethulie lay a number of different Sotho groups which fell loosely under the authority of Moshoeshoe. However, friction between Boer stockmen and Basotho led to a series of boundaries unfavourable to the Sotho and subsequent annexations (notably 1858 and 1869). The OVS’s final seizure of Sotho land put them in charge of the left bank of the Caledon River, but this was undone by British intervention, and the Caledon (south-westwards almost as far as Wepener, and then across to the Kornet Spruit, a tributary of the Orange) became the permanent boundary.

South African War:
The Oranje Vrij Staat entered a treaty of friendship with the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek in 1890. This also entailed a mutual defence pact, which became operative when the ZAR issued Britain with an ultimatum in October 1899 to halt its troop reinforcements or find itself at war. The ultimatum expired on the 11th, and the two Boer republics invaded the Cape and Natal. Boer forces were initially successful, but got themselves tied down in sieges, so losing momentum that might otherwise have carried them to Durban, East London and perhaps even Port Elizabeth. After shocking losses on the British side, the imperial forces gained the upper hand and invaded the two republics.

The Oranje Vrij Staat was annexed by Britain on 6 October 1900 as the Orange River Colony.


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  • Sources: National and Provincial Symbols of South Africa, by F G Brownell (Chris van Rensburg Publications), Lions and Virgins by C Pama (Human & Rousseau) and various historical sources. Illustration of President Brand’s drawing from a Stephan Welz/Sotheby’s auction catalogue.

  • Scans courtesy of East Cape Weekend.

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    Comments, queries: Mike Oettle

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