First Boer War

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The First Boer War (Afrikaans: Eerste Vryheidsoorlog, literally "First Freedom War"), also known as the First Anglo-Boer War or the Transvaal War, was a war fought from 16 December 1880 until 23 March 1881 between the United Kingdom and the South African Republic (also known as Transvaal Republic; not to be confused with the modern-day Republic of South Africa).[1]


1877 annexation

The southern part of the African continent was dominated in the 19th century by a set of epic struggles to create within it a single unified state. British expansion into southern Africa was fueled by three prime factors: first, the desire to control the trade routes to India that passed around the Cape; second, the discovery in 1868 of huge mineral deposits of diamonds around Kimberley on the joint borders of the South African Republic (called the Transvaal by the British), the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony, and thereafter in 1886 in the Transvaal of a gold rush; and thirdly the race against other European colonial powers, as part of a general colonial expansion in Africa. Other potential colonisers included Portugal, who already controlled West (modern day Angola) and East Africa (modern day Mozambique), Germany (modern day Namibia), and further north, Belgium (modern day Democratic Republic of the Congo) and France (West and Equatorial Africa, and Madagascar).

British attempts in 1880 to annex the Transvaal were their biggest incursions into southern Africa, but there were others. In 1868, the British annexed Basutoland in the Drakensberg Mountains (modern Lesotho, surrounded by the Orange Free State and Natal), following an appeal from Moshesh, the leader of a mixed group of African refugees from the Zulu wars, who sought British protection against both the Boers and the Zulus. In the 1880s, Bechuanaland (modern Botswana, located north of the Orange River), became an object of dispute between the Germans to the west, the Boers to the east, and the British in the Cape Colony to the south. Although Bechuanaland had almost no economic value, the "Missionaries Road" passed through it toward territory farther north. After the Germans annexed Damaraland and Namaqualand (modern Namibia) in 1884, the British annexed Bechuanaland in 1885.

After the Battle of Blaauwberg Britain had acquired the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa from the Dutch in 1815 during the Napoleonic Wars. Certain groups of Dutch speaking settler farmers ("Boers") resented British rule, even though British control brought some economic benefits. There were successive waves of migrations of Boer farmers (known as Trekboers which literally means "moving farmers"), first east along the coast away from the Cape toward Natal, and thereafter north toward the interior, eventually establishing the republics that came to be known as the Orange Free State and the Transvaal (literally "across/beyond the Vaal River).

The British did not try to stop the Trekboers from moving away from the Cape. The Trekboers served as pioneers, opening up the interior for those who followed, and the British gradually extended their control away from the Cape along the coast toward the east, eventually annexing Natal in 1845.

The Trekboers were farmers gradually extending their range and territory with no agenda. The formal abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834 [2] led to more organised groups of Boer settlers attempting to escape British rule, some travelling as far north as modern-day Mozambique.

Indeed, the British subsequently ratified the two new Republics in a pair of treaties: the Sand River Convention of 1852 which recognised the independence of the Transvaal Republic, and the Bloemfontein Convention of 1854 which recognised the independence of the Orange Free State. However, British colonial expansion was, from the 1830s, marked by skirmishes and wars against both Boers and native African tribes for most of the remainder of the century.

The discovery of diamonds in 1867 near the Vaal River, some 550 miles (890 km) northeast of Cape Town, ended the isolation of the Boers in the interior and changed South African history. The discovery triggered a diamond rush that attracted people from all over the world, turning Kimberley into a town of 50,000 within five years and drawing the attention of British imperial interests. In the 1870s, the British annexed West Griqualand, site of the Kimberley diamond discoveries.

In 1875 the Earl of Carnarvon, the Colonial Secretary, in an attempt to extend British influence, approached the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic and tried to organise a federation of the British and Boer territories to be modelled after the 1867 federation of French and English provinces of Canada. However the cultural and historical context was entirely different, and the Boer leaders turned him down. The successive British annexations, and in particular the annexation of West Griqualand, caused a climate of simmering unease in the Boer republics.

Zulu war

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There were other more pressing concerns for the Boer Republics. The two territories of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal were squeezed between the British-ruled Cape Colony to the south and west, Zululand to the east and Matabeleland and Bechuanaland to the north.

During the 1870s there was a series of skirmishes within the Transvaal between the Boers and indigenous local tribes. In particular intensifying struggles between the Boers and the Pedi led by Sekhukune I over labour and land resulted in the war of 1876, in which the attacking Boers were defeated, in part because of the firepower bought with the proceeds of early Pedi labour migration to the Kimberley diamond fields.

There were also serious tensions between the Transvaal Republic and the Zulus led by King Cetshwayo. The Zulus occupied a kingdom located to the southeast, bordered on the one side by the Transvaal Republic and on the other by British Natal. Upon taking the throne, King Cetshwayo had expanded his army and reintroduced many of the paramilitary practices of the famous Shaka, king of the Zulus. He had also started equipping his impis with firearms, although this was a gradual process and the majority had only shields, knobkerries (clubs), throwing spears and the famous stabbing spear, the assegai. Over 40,000 Zulu warriors were a formidable force on their own home ground, their lack of modern weaponry notwithstanding. King Cetshwayo then banished European missionaries from his land, and there were suggestions that he might also have become involved in inciting other native African peoples to rebel against the Boers in the Transvaal. The Transvaal Boers became more and more concerned, but King Cetshwayo's policy was to maintain good relations with the British in Natal in an effort to counter the Boer threat.

In 1877, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, the British Secretary for Native Affairs in Natal, annexed the South African Republic (the Transvaal Republic), for Britain, using a special warrant. The Transvaal Boers objected but as long as the Zulu threat remained, found themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place; they feared that if they took up arms to resist the British annexation actively, King Cetshwayo and the Zulus would take the opportunity to attack. They also feared a war on two fronts, namely that the local tribes would seize the opportunity to rebel and the simmering unrest in the Transvaal would be re-ignited. The British annexation nevertheless resulted in resentment against the British occupation and a growing nationalism.

The Transvaal Boers, led by Paul Kruger (the future Transvaal President), thereafter elected to deal first with the perceived Zulu threat to the status quo, and local issues, before directly opposing the British annexation. Kruger made two visits to London for direct talks with the British government. In September 1878, on his return from his second visit, Kruger met the British representatives, Sir Bartle Frere and Lieutenant General Frederic Thesiger (shortly to inherit the title of Lord Chelmsford), in Pietermaritzburg, in order to update them on the progress of the talks.

Shepstone, in his capacity as British governor of Natal, had his own concerns about the expansion of the Zulu army under King Cetshwayo and the potential threat to Natal, especially given the acquisition of muskets and other more modern weapons by the Zulus. In his new role of Administrator of the Transvaal, he was now responsible for protecting the Transvaal and had direct involvement in the Zulu border dispute from the side of the Transvaal. Persistent Boer representations and Kruger's diplomatic manoeuvrings added to the pressure. There were incidents involving Zulu paramilitary actions on either side of the Transvaal/Natal border, and Shepstone increasingly began to regard King Cetshwayo (who now found no defender in Natal save Bishop Colenso) as having permitted such "outrages," and to be in a "defiant mood."

Invasion of Zululand

Disraeli's Tory administration in London did not want a war with the Zulus. "The fact is," wrote Sir Michael Hicks Beach, the colonial secretary in November 1878, "that matters in Eastern Europe and India... were so serious an aspect that we cannot have a Zulu war in addition to other greater and too possible troubles." However, Frere had been sent to the Cape Colony as governor and high commissioner in 1877 with the brief of creating a Confederation of South Africa from the various British colonies, Boer Republics and native states. He concluded that the powerful Zulu kingdom stood in the way of this, and so was receptive to Shepstone's arguments that King Cetshwayo and his Zulu army posed a challenge to the colonial power's peaceful occupation of the region. In December 1878, notwithstanding the reluctance of the British government to start yet another colonial war, Frere presented Cetshwayo with an ultimatum that the Zulu army be disbanded and that they accept a British resident. This was unacceptable to the Zulus as it effectively meant that Cetshwayo, had he agreed, would have lost his throne. Cetshwayo asked for more time but Frere refused and on 11 January 1879, the British No. 3 Column under Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand with about 7,000 regular troops, a similar number of black African levies and a thousand white volunteers.

The British anticipated that the Zulu War would proceed in a pattern typical of numerous colonial wars fought in Africa, namely that relatively small bodies of professional European troops armed with modern firearms and artillery, and supplemented by local allies and levies, would march out to meet the natives whose ragged, badly equipped armies would put up a brave struggle, but in the end would succumb to professional soldiers wielding massed firepower. Various locals (including Paul Kruger) who from personal experience had great respect for the military capabilities of the Zulus, stressed the need for caution, and in particular strongly advocated defensive tactics such as concentrating firepower from fortified strongpoints such as wagons drawn into a circle (laagers) as the Boers had done at The Battle of Blood River in 1838. However, the advice was disregarded and on 22 January 1879 the British lost more than 1,600 soldiers when a Zulu attack caught them in the open at the Battle of Isandlwana. Shortly after the main battle, a British outpost at Rorke's Drift on the Zululand-Natal border, withstood a second Zulu attack with great losses to the Zulus with the British fighting defensively in and around the stone buildings of a small trading store which had been hastily fortified. After reinforcements arrived, the British won a series of skirmishes and eventually conquered the Zulu capital at Ulundi on 4 July 1879. This war to all intents and purposes signalled the end of the independent Zulu nation. The British consolidated their power over Natal, the Zulu kingdom and the Transvaal in 1879 after the Anglo-Zulu War.

Sir Garnet Wolseley then turned to the Pedi in the Transvaal, and they were finally defeated by British troops in 1879.

Outbreak of War

With the defeat of the Zulus, and the Pedi, the Transvaal Boers were able to give voice to the growing resentment against the 1877 British annexation of the Transvaal and complained that it had been a violation of the Sand River Convention of 1852, and the Bloemfontein Convention of 1854.

Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, after returning briefly to India, finally took over as Governor of Natal, Transvaal, High Commissioner of SE Africa and Military Commander in July 1880. Multiple commitments prevented Colley from visiting the Transvaal where he knew many of the senior Boers. Instead he relied on reports from the Administrator, Sir Owen Lanyon, who had no understanding of the Boer mood or capability. Belatedly Lanyon asked for troop reinforcements in December 1880 but was overtaken by events.

The Boers revolted on 16 December 1880 and took action at Bronkhorstspruit against a British column of the 94th Foot, who were returning to reinforce Pretoria.

1880–81 War

The trigger for the war came when a Boer named Piet Bezuidenhout (see Gerhardminnebron) refused to pay an illegally inflated tax. Government officials seized his wagon and attempted to auction it off to pay the tax on 11 November 1880, but a hundred armed Boers disrupted the auction, assaulted the presiding sheriff, and reclaimed the wagon. The first shots of the war were fired when this group fought back against government troops who were sent after them.[3]

After the Transvaal formally declared independence from the United Kingdom, the war began on 16 December 1880 with shots fired by Transvaal Boers at Potchefstroom. This led to the action at Bronkhorstspruit on 20 December 1880, where the Boers ambushed and destroyed a British Army convoy. From 22 December 1880 to 6 January 1881, British army garrisons all over the Transvaal became besieged.

Although generally called a war, the actual engagements were of a relatively minor nature considering the few men involved on both sides and the short duration of the combat, lasting some ten weeks.

The fiercely independent Boers had no regular army; when danger threatened, all the men in a district would form a militia organised into military units called commandos and would elect officers. Commandos being civilian militia, each man wore what he wished, usually everyday dark-grey, neutral-coloured, or earthtone khaki farming clothes such as a jacket, trousers and slouch hat. Each man brought his own weapon, usually a hunting rifle, and his own horses. The average Boer citizens who made up their commandos were farmers who had spent almost all their working lives in the saddle, and, because they had to depend on both their horses and their rifles for almost all of their meat, they were skilled hunters and expert marksmen. Most of the Boers had single-shot breech-loading rifles such as the Westley Richards, the Martini-Henry, or the Snider-Enfield. Only a few had repeaters like the Winchester or the Swiss Vetterli. As hunters they had learned to fire from cover, from a prone position and to make the first shot count, knowing that if they missed, in the time it took to reload, the game would be long gone. At community gatherings, they often held target shooting competitions using targets such as hens' eggs perched on posts over 100 yards away. The Boer commandos made for expert light cavalry, able to use every scrap of cover from which they could pour accurate and destructive fire at the British.

The British infantry uniforms at that date were red jackets, dark blue trousers with red piping to the side, white pith helmets and pipe clayed equipment, a stark contrast to the African landscape. The Highlanders wore the kilt. The standard infantry weapon was the Martini-Henry single-shot breech-loading rifle with a long sword bayonet. Gunners of the Royal Artillery wore blue jackets. The Boer marksmen could easily snipe at British troops from a distance. The Boers carried no bayonets, leaving them at a substantial disadvantage in close combat, which they avoided as often as possible. Drawing on years of experience of fighting frontier skirmishes with numerous and indigenous African tribes, they relied more on mobility, stealth, marksmanship and initiative while the British emphasised the traditional military values of command, discipline, formation and synchronised firepower. The average British soldier was not trained to be a marksman and got little target practice. What shooting training British soldiers had was mainly as a unit firing in volleys on command.

Action at Bronkhorstspruit

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At the first battle at Bronkhorstspruit, Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Anstruther[4] and 120 men of the 94th Foot (Connaught Rangers) were dead or wounded by Boer fire within minutes of the first shots. Boer losses totalled two killed and five wounded. This mainly Irish regiment was marching westward toward Pretoria, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Anstruther, when halted by a Boer commando group. Its leader, Commandant Frans Joubert, (brother of General Piet Joubert), ordered Anstruther and the column to turn back, stating that the territory was now again a Boer Republic and therefore any further advance by the British would be deemed an act of war. Anstruther refused and ordered that ammunition be distributed. The Boers opened fire and the ambushed British troops were annihilated. With the majority of his troops dead or wounded, the dying Anstruther ordered surrender.

The Boer uprising caught the six small British forts scattered around the Transvaal by surprise. They housed some 2,000 troops between them, including irregulars with as few as fifty soldiers at Lydenburg[5][6] in the east which Anstruther had just left. Being isolated, and with so few men, all the forts could do was prepare for a siege, and wait to be relieved. By 6 January 1881, Boers had begun to siege Lydenburg. The other five forts, with a minimum of fifty miles between any two, were at Wakkerstroom and Standerton in the south, Marabastad in the north and Potchefstroom and Rustenburg in the west. Boers begun to siege Marabastad fort on 29 December 1880.[7]

The three main engagements of the war were all within about sixteen miles of each other, centred on the Battles of Laing's Nek (28 January 1881), Ingogo River (8 February 1881) and the rout at Majuba Hill (27 February 1881). These battles were the result of Colley's attempts to relieve the besieged forts. Although he had requested reinforcements, these would not reach him until mid-February. Colley was, however, convinced that the garrisons would not survive until then. Consequently, at Newcastle, near the Transvaal border, he mustered a relief column (the Natal Field Force) of available men, although this amounted to only 1,200 troops. Colley's force was further weakened in that few were mounted, a serious disadvantage in the terrain and for that type of warfare. Most Boers were mounted and good riders. Nonetheless, Colley's force set out on 24 January 1881 northward for Laing's Nek en route to relieve Wakkerstroom and Standerton, the nearest forts.

Laing's Nek

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At the battle of Laing's Nek on 28 January 1881, the Natal Field Force under Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley attempted with cavalry and infantry attacks to break through the Boer positions on the Drakensberg mountain range to relieve their garrisons. The British were repelled with heavy losses by the Boers under the command of Piet Joubert. Of the 480 British troops who made the charges, 150 never returned. Furthermore, sharpshooting Boers had killed or wounded many senior officers.


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At the battle of Schuinshoogte (also known as Ingogo) on 8 February 1881, another British force barely escaped destruction. General Colley had sought refuge with the Natal Field Force at Mount Prospect[disambiguation needed], three miles to the south, to await reinforcements. However, Colley was soon back in action. On 7 February, a mail escort on its way to Newcastle, had been attacked by the Boers and forced back to Mount Prospect. The next day Colley, determined to keep his supplies and communication route open, escorted the mail wagon personally and this time with a larger escort. The Boers attacked the convoy at the Ingogo River crossing, but with a stronger force of some 300 men. The firepower was evenly matched and the fight continued for several hours, but the Boer marksmen dominated the action until darkness, when a storm permitted Colley and the remainder of his troops to retreat back to Mount Prospect. In this engagement the British lost 139 officers and troops, half the original force that had set out to escort the mail convoy.

On 14 February hostilities were suspended, awaiting the outcome of peace negotiations initiated by an offer from Paul Kruger. During this time Colley's promised reinforcements arrived with more to follow. The British government in the meantime had offered a Royal Commission investigation and possible troop withdrawal, and their attitude toward the Boers was conciliatory. Colley was critical of this stance and, whilst waiting for Kruger's final agreement, decided to attack again with a view to enabling the British government to negotiate from a position of strength. This resulted in the disaster of the Battle of Majuba Hill on 27 February 1881, the greatest humiliation for the British.

Majuba Hill

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Battle of Majuba

On 26 February 1881, Colley led a night march of some 360 men to the top of Majuba Hill, which overlooked the main Boer position. Early the next morning, the Boers saw the British occupying the summit and started to ascend the hill. The Boers, shooting accurately and using all available natural cover, advanced toward the British position. Several Boer groups stormed the hill and drove the British off. The British suffered heavy losses, including Major-General Colley. Many of their casualties occurred when they fell to their deaths down the mountain. This defeat had such an impact that during the Second Boer War, one of the British slogans was "Remember Majuba." The Boers suffered only one killed and five wounded.

Hostilities continued until 6 March 1881, when a truce was declared, ironically on the same terms that Colley had disparaged. The Transvaal forts had endured, contrary to Colley's forecast, with the sieges being generally uneventful, the Boers content to wait for hunger and sickness to take their toll. The forts had suffered only light casualties as an outcome of sporadic engagements, except at Potchefstroom, where twenty-four were killed, and seventeen at Pretoria, in each case resulting from occasional raids on Boer positions.

Outcome and impact

Although the Boers exploited their advantages to the full, their unconventional tactics, marksmanship and mobility do not fully explain the heavy British losses. Like the Boers, British soldiers were equipped with breech-loading rifles (the Martini-Henry), but they were (unlike the Boers) professionals, and the British Army had previously fought campaigns in difficult terrain and against an elusive enemy such as the tribesmen of the Northern Territories in modern day Afghanistan. Historians lay much of the blame at the feet of the British command, in particular Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, although poor intelligence and bad communications also contributed to their losses. At Laing's Nek it seems that Colley not only underestimated the Boer capabilities, but had been misinformed of, and was surprised by, the strength of the Boer forces. The confrontation at Ingogo Nek was perhaps rash, given that reserves were being sent, and Colley had by then experienced the Boer strength and capabilities. Indeed, strategists have speculated as to whether the convoy should have proceeded at all when it was known to be vulnerable to attack, and whether it was necessary for Colley himself to take command of the British guard.

Colley's decision to initiate the attack at Majuba Hill when truce discussions were already underway appears to have been foolhardy, particularly as there was limited strategic value. The Boer positions were also out of rifle range from the summit. Once the Battle of Majuba Hill had begun, Colley's command and understanding of the dire situation seemed to deteriorate as the day went on, as he sent conflicting signals to the British forces at Mount Prospect by heliograph, first requesting reinforcements and then stating that the Boers were retreating. The poor leadership, intelligence and communications resulted in the deaths of many British soldiers and Colley himself.

The First Boer War was the first conflict since the American Revolution in which the British had been decisively defeated and forced to sign a peace treaty under unfavourable terms. It would see the introduction of the khaki uniform, marking the beginning of the end of the famous Redcoat. The Battle of Laing's Nek would be the last occasion where a British regiment carried its official regimental colours into battle. Overall, Boer guerilla tactics involving mobility, marksmanship and high use of defensive positions proved vastly superior for the new age of breech-loading rifles and are recognized as the harbinger of future combat.

1881 Peace

Peace talks between Paul Kruger and Sir Evelyn Wood in O'Neill's cottage near Amajuba Hill

The British government, under Prime Minister William Gladstone, was conciliatory as it realised that any further action would require substantial troop reinforcements, and it was likely that the war would be costly, messy and protracted. Unwilling to get bogged down in a distant war, the British government ordered a truce.

Sir Evelyn Wood (Coley's replacement) signed an armistice to end the war on 6 March, and subsequently a peace treaty was signed with Kruger at O'Neil's Cottage on 23 March 1881, bringing the war to an official end. In the final peace treaty, the Pretoria Convention, negotiated by a three-man Royal Commission, the British agreed to complete Boer self-government in the Transvaal under British suzerainty. The Boers accepted the Queen's nominal rule and British control over external relations, African affairs and native districts. The Pretoria Convention was signed on 3 August 1881 and ratified on 25 October by the Transvaal Volksraad (parliament). This led to the withdrawal of the last British troops. The Pretoria Convention was superseded in 1884 by the London Convention which provided for similar complete self-government, although still with British control of foreign relations.

When in 1886 a second major mineral find was made at an outcrop on a large ridge some thirty miles south of the Boer capital at Pretoria, it reignited British imperial interests. The ridge, known locally as the "Witwatersrand" (literally "white water ridge"—a watershed), contained the world's largest deposit of gold-bearing ore. Although it was not as rich as the gold finds in Canada and Australia, its consistency made it especially well suited to industrial mining methods.

By 1899, when tensions erupted into the Second Boer War, the lure of gold made it worth committing the vast resources of the British Empire and incurring the huge costs required to win that war. However, the sharp lessons the British had learned during the First Boer War—which included Boer marksmanship, tactical flexibility and good use of ground—had largely been forgotten when the second war broke out 18 years later. Heavy casualties, as well as many setbacks, were incurred before the British were ultimately victorious.

See also


  1. Raugh, Herold. The Victorians at War, 1815–1914: An Encyclopedia of British Military History. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004. p. 267.
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  • Duxbury, Geo. R. David and Goliath: The First War of Independence, 1880–1881 (Johannesburg: SA National Museum of Military History, 1981).
  • Gross, David (ed.) We Won't Pay!: A Tax Resistance Reader ISBN 1-4348-9825-3 pp. 169–174