The fertile Apies River, on which the city of Pretoria sits today, was the support system for a large population of Nguni-speaking cattle farmers for hundreds of years. However, the Zulu wars caused massive destruction and dislocation. Much of the black population was slaughtered and most of the remaining people fled north into present-day Zimbabwe.
In 1841 the first Boers trekked into a temporary power vacuum. With few people around, they laid claim to the land that would become their capital. By the time the British granted independence to the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) in the early 1850s, there were estimated to be 15,000 whites and 100,000 blacks living between the Vaal and Limpopo Rivers. The whites were widely scattered, and in 1853 two farms on the Apies River were bought as the site for the republic’s capital.
Pretoria, which was named after Boer leader Andries Pretorius, was nothing more than a tiny frontier village with a grandiose title, but the servants of the British Empire were watching it with growing misgivings. They acted in 1877, annexing the republic; the Boers went to war (Pretoria came under siege at the beginning of 1881) and won back their independence.
The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in the late 1880s changed everything – within 20 years the Boers would again be at war with the British.
With the British making efforts towards reconciliation, self-government was again granted to the Transvaal in 1906, and through an unwieldy compromise Pretoria was made the administrative capital. The Union of South Africa came into being in 1910, but Pretoria was not to regain its status until 1961, when the Republic of South Africa came into existence under the leadership of Hendrik Verwoerd.