Orange Free State, one of the four provinces of the Union of South Africa, lies between 29 30′ and 30° 40′ S. lat., and between 24° 20′ and 30° E. long. The Orange and Vaal rivers which separate it from the Cape Province and the Transvaal form respectively its southern and northern boundaries; Natal and Basutoland bound it on the east, and the northern portions of the Cape Province on the west. Its name is derived from the Orange River which flows along its southern frontier for over 200 miles. It has an area of 50,392 square miles and a population, according to the census of 1904, of 387,315; of these only 142,679 are whites, the remainder belonging to the colored races—mostly Kafirs and Hottentots. The climate is excellent. With a mean altitude of from four to five thousand feet above sea level and an average yearly rainfall of only twenty-two inches, it is a country well suited to persons suffering from pulmonary troubles, the air being dry and invigorating and the nights always cool. Being an immense grassy plateau and almost treeless, its scenery is uninteresting (even depressing) except on the eastern border where the vast Drakensburg mountain range comes into view. It is mainly a pastoral country, though a portion of it alongside Basutoland contains some of the finest corn lands in Africa. The exports, valued in 1908-09 at 17,800,000 dollars, are principally diamonds, wool, ostrich feathers, and maize; its imports in the same period amounted to 15,000,000 dollars.
The white inhabitants are mostly the descendants of the Voortrekkers (or emigrant Dutch farmers) from the old Cape Colony, who in 1836 and subsequent years crossed the Orange River in thousands and settled on territories peopled by various Bantu tribes until their virtual extermination by Moselekatze and his hordes of Matabile warriors—a short time previously. The “Great Trek”, as the migration of these farmers came to be called, brought about an anomalous political situation. Rather than live under British rule in the Colony, they had abandoned their homes and sought independence in “the wilderness”. But the British Government, whilst always claiming them as its subjects and forbidding them to molest the neighboring native tribes, refused to annex the territory to which they had fled. Such a state of things manifestly could not long endure, and so in 1848 the country between the Orange and Vaal Rivers was officially proclaimed British territory under the title of the “Orange River Sovereignty”. The emigrant Boers, headed by a farmer named Andreas Pretorius, struggled to retain their independence but were defeated at the battle of Boomplaats by the English general, Sir Harry Smith, in August, 1848. The British Government, finding the newly annexed territory of little value and desiring in view of European complications and the enormous cost of Kafir wars to limit its responsibilities in South Africa, soon determined to retrocede their country to the Boers; thus, at a convention held in Bloemfontein on February 23, 1854, Sir George Clark in the name of Queen Victoria renounced British dominion over the Orange River Sovereignty. The Boers thereupon set up a Republic, which, under the name of the Orange Free State, enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity that lasted up to the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. In that struggle the Free Staters, having joined the Transvaallers, shared in their defeat, and their country was annexed to the British Empire under the title of the Orange River Colony. For some years the new colony was administered by a governor and a lieutenant-governor assisted by an executive and a legislative council, but in June, 1907, responsible government was conferred on it with a legislative council of eleven, and a legislative assembly of thirty-eight members.
Since May 31, 1910, under the title of “The Orange Free State Province of the Union of South Africa“, it forms part (together with the Transvaal, Natal, and the Cape of Good Hope) of a self-governing dominion of the British Empire, the first parliament of which was opened at Cape Town on November 4, 1910. In that parliament the Orange Free State Province is represented by sixteen senators—one-fourth of the entire number—and by seventeen members of the House of Assembly (out of a total of 121), English and
Dutch are the official languages. The former is spoken mostly in the towns and the latter—or rather a dialect of it known as the Afrikansche Taal—in the country districts. The religion of the great majority of the white inhabitants is Calvinism (Dutch Reformed). Those of English origin belong to the different dominations usually found in the British colonies and in the United States of America. The Orange Free State contains a good number of neat little towns with populations varying from one to eight thousand. Bloemfontein, capital of the province, so called from a spring (fontein) on the farm of Jan Bloem, an early German settler, is a spacious, clean, and well-built city of 33,000 inhabitants, and the seat of the provincial council as well as the legal and judicial center of the entire Union. It is distant 400 miles from East London, the nearest seaport, and 290 miles from Pretoria, the executive capital. Other important towns are Kroonstad, Harrismith, Jagersfontein, and Smithfield, in each of which there is a Catholic church. The total number of Catholics in the Orange Free State is about 2000, mostly of European origin or descent. The province forms part of the Vicariate of Kimberley (q.v.), which is in the Cape Province, and in which the vicar Apostolic resides. The present (1910) vicar Apostolic is the Right Reverend Matthew Gaughren, O.M.I., titular Bishop of Tentyra. Catholics enjoy absolute freedom of worship, but receive no government aid for their clergy or schools. The Roman Dutch Law, which is administered in the courts, is favorable to Catholics on such points as tenure of ecclesiastical property, marriage, wills, and charitable bequests. The clergy are not liable to serve on juries or as burghers “on command”, nor are churches taxed. Flourishing convent schools and academies are directed by the Sisters of the Holy Family at Bloemfontein and Jagersfontein, and by the Sisters of Notre Dame (of Namur) at Kroonstad.