The most reliable piece of advice I could give to any first time visitor to the Eastern Free State Highlands is this:  Be prepared to be surprised!

The name “Free State” to most South Africans incites a joyless image of a relentless tarmac ribbon stretching away into a hazy expanse of elusive horizons.  But don’t be fooled!  Our national roads were not laid out with cultural, historical or scenic meanders in mind.  Once you move away from the main arterial routes, the Free State begins to reveal some of its well kept secrets; and the Eastern Free State Highlands tops this list.

Something many first time visitors remark on is how prevalent English is in this area.  This is in part due to Clarens having burgeoned in the last decade or two because of a population influx from commercial centres like Gauteng. This has introduced a cosmopolitan culture to the area, a hint of urban sophistication, dispelling any sense of “Vrystaat dorpie-ness”.

Our picture today shows a small parade of poplars beside the approach to a river crossing.  Lombardy Poplars – an English introduction to our valleys.  These poplars (Populus nigra var. italica) originate in northern Italy and, way back in the mid seventeen hundreds, were introduced to England as ornamental trees, becoming popular in English parks and gardens.

The British, historically, tended to adapt their new environments to their traditional British lifestyles.   Around the world the evidence lives on in colonial homesteads graced with imported Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian furnishings.  Even in wartime, their gentlemen officers took the comforts of their living rooms onto the battlefield, the purpose-made campaign furniture providing a setting fit for British chivalry amid the turmoil of combat.

The English country garden was also transported far and wide, and these lovely poplars, as well as the weeping willows that line our water courses, were given root by early British settlers in our Eastern Free State valleys.  A questioning look perhaps passes over the faces of some who do not much associate the Free State with English speakers!

Quite to the contrary, the Free State and Britain have had a long association.  It was a Scot, Colonel Robert Gordon, who named the Orange River after the Dutch Prince William V of Orange (an ally of Britain) during the late eighteenth century.  In 1848, amid the early conflict between the Boers, Basutos and Griquas, Sir Harry Smith (after whom the town Harrismith is named) initiated the proclamation of British sovereignty over the area between the Orange and Vaal Rivers, and the region became known as the Orange River Sovereignty.

An odd turn of events in 1852 resulted in the Orange River Sovereignty being short lived.  A referendum was held to determine the mood of the Boers in regard to British “rule” in the area.  British authorities were completely taken by surprise when the referendum delivered overwhelming support for the established British Sovereignty in the area.  This was not what the Colonial Office in London had expected and arrangements had already been made to hand over the area to the Boers for self-governance.  This went ahead, despite support for British governance, and the Boer Republic of the Orange Free State was established, in 1854.

Relations with Britain continued amicably, and in London the Free State became known as the “model republic”, a “country” where peoples of various origins, Dutch, English, Basuto, Griquas and others, had evolved into a relatively harmonious society.  Even the diamond debacle around 1870 didn’t derail good relations, despite Britain’s shady manoeuvres to annex the diamond fields in Kimberley, which were at that time within Free State territory.  The Free State President’s restraint was prudent during this shrewd revision of the political boundary at Kimberley, devised on the drawing boards of London’s Whitehall.  He astutely avoided the inevitable backlash that would have resulted from any attempted obstruction of the diamond fields’ migration on paper to the British Cape Colony.

Around this time, and as a result of border disputes between the Free State Boers and the Basutos, Britain gave protectorate status to Basutoland and the new Basuto stronghold became a British Crown Colony in 1884, resulting in an increased English presence and influence both within its borders and beyond, deep into the Eastern Free State farmlands.

A seditious bust-up between the Free State Boer and the Brit came in 1899.  War was declared and the Free State threw its weight behind President Kruger and went into battle against Britain.  This was hardly a surprise.  There were still some hackles raised in certain quarters over the diamond affair; now the British eye was on the reef’s gold.  After more than a century of provocation by Britain – after generations of compromise and reluctant cooperation by the Boers, after repeated migrations ever deeper into the interior to escape British decree – the hinterland Boer had had enough.

Britain’s illusions of an easy victory were quickly shattered.  Rudyard Kipling, the illustrious English author, famously wrote that Britain was, in war, taught “no end of a lesson” by the Boers.  Yet, during the century that followed this most infamous of wars, which became the final nail in the Imperial coffin, British families continued to migrate to the Free State, to settle amongst their former foes, a people for whom they bore a guarded respect and a reluctant admiration.

The Free State never relinquished its nurture of English culture and language.  The Free State’s first newspaper was the English broadsheet called The Friend, which continued until recent times.  The oldest girls’ school north of the Orange River is St Michaels Anglican School in Bloemfontein.  There have been many other fine English institutions, both educational and otherwise, around the Free State.  Emily Hobhouse, the great British philanthropist and wartime campaigner, whose actions and influence brought relief and hope to so many Boers during the South African War, has the status of a national hero amongst Afrikaners.  The Free State town, Hobhouse, was named in her honour, and her ashes were brought from England after her death in 1926 to be buried at the Women’s Memorial in Bloemfontein.  One of South Africa’s greatest philosophers and writers in the English language, Sir Laurens van de Post, an Anglicised Afrikaner and a champion of the British way of life, grew up on a Free State farm.  And, fortuitously, the author of the second most sold book in the world’s history of published fiction, JRR Tolkien of The Lord of the Rings fame, was born in the Free State.

To this day numerous descendants of original English families in the Eastern Free State continue to live in the area, and English names of farms and towns remain.  Nothing could be more English sounding than Westminster! – a name which has English peerage connections, and which, in the Eastern Free State, refers to a village, a country estate, a golf course, and even a railway siding.

The Eastern Free State Highlands continues to reflect the diverse character and tradition of this province.  Afrikaner, English speaker, Sotho, Zulu and mixed race folk live harmoniously alongside expats from Britain, Europe, the Americas, Asia and other African states.  Here in the Highlands we seek to defend our diversity, to celebrate our history and cultures, and to promote a harmonious and cooperative society; and perhaps we too on occasions have a sense of, or even catch a glimpse of, that “model republic”.