The First Boer War (English: First Boer War, Afrikaans: Eerste Vryheidsoorlog, literally “First War of Liberation”) also known as the First Anglo-Boer War or the Transvaal War, was a conflict that took place between December 16, 1880 and March 23, 1881.
The British threat against the Boer Republics
The southern part of the African continent was dominated in the nineteenth century by a series of struggles to create a single unified state. British ambitions to do so had three main motivations: first, to control the route to India, the Crown”s main colony, through Cape Town; second, the discovery in 1868 of a large diamond deposit in the Kimberley region on the border between the Cape Colony and the Independent State of Orange, and then in 1886 of a large gold deposit in the Transvaal; and third, the general framework of the partition of Africa, the struggle of European colonial powers to acquire territory in Africa. Potential colonizers included Portugal (which already controlled the present territories of Mozambique and Angola), Germany (present-day Namibia), and further north Belgium (independent state of Congo) and France (West and Equatorial Africa, Madagascar).
British attempts to annex the Transvaal in 1880 and the Transvaal and Orange Free State in 1899 (leading to the Second Boer War) were the main incursions into southern Africa, but there were others. In 1868, the British annexed Basutoland in the Drakensberg Mountains (present-day Lesotho, surrounded by the two British colonies of Cape Town and Natal, as well as the two Boer states) following a request from Moshesh, the commander of a group of refugees from the Zulu wars, who asked the British for protection from the Zulus and Boers. In the 1880s, Bechuanaland (modern Botswana, located north of the Orange River) was the subject of a dispute between the Germans in the west, the Boers in the east, and the British Cape Colony in the south. Although Bechuanaland had little economic value at the time, the “missionary route” passed through the territory to the north. When the Germans annexed Damaraland and Namaqualand (modern Namibia) in 1884, the British annexed Bechuanaland in 1885.
Britain acquired the Cape Colony in 1814 after the Napoleonic Wars. Some groups of Dutch settlers (the “Boers”) did not accept British control, although it allowed for economic growth. There were several waves of migration of these farmers (now called Trekboers), first eastward to the Natal region, then eventually further north and into the interior of the continent, where they established two states, the Orange Free State and Transvaal (literally “beyond the Vaal River,” a tributary of the Orange River).
The British made no attempt to prevent the Trekboers from leaving the Cape. They saw them as pioneers, colonizing the interior and paving the way for the occupation of the territories, eventually expanding the Cape Colony to the east. The annexation of Natalia also allowed the creation of the Natal Colony in 1845. Inland, the British recognized the two new Boer republics created by two treaties: the Sand River Convention of 1852, which recognized the Transvaal Republic, and the Bloemfontein Convention of 1854, which recognized the independence of the Orange Free State. However, the British colonial expansion was not without various clashes between the Boers on the one hand, and the local tribes whose territory was gradually incorporated during the nineteenth century on the other.
The discovery of diamonds in 1867 near the Vaal River, about nine hundred kilometers north of Cape Town, ended the isolation of the Boers and changed South Africa”s history. The discovery triggered a “diamond rush” that drew people from all over the world to Kimberley, which soon became a town of 50,000 people, attracting the interest of the British Empire. By the 1870s, the British annexed Western Griqualand, the site of the Kimberley diamond discovery.
Colonial Secretary Lord Carnarvon tried to extend British influence for a time in 1875 by proposing to the two Boer republics that a federation of South Africa be organized along the lines of the one set up in 1867 for the English and French-speaking provinces of Canada, but the Boer leaders declined. Successive British annexations, and in particular the annexation of Griqualand West, created a climate of mistrust between the British and the Boer republics.
The Zulu threat
There were also other pressures against the territory of the two Boer republics. The Orange Free State and Transvaal were surrounded by the Cape and Natal colonies to the south, but also the Zulu Kingdom to the east and other colonial powers (including the British territories of Rhodesia and Bechuanaland).
During the 1870s, there were a series of skirmishes between the Transvaal and local “tribes,” particularly with the Pedi led by Sekhukhune I, with whom a war was fought in 1876, in which the Boers were defeated, the Pedi having acquired firearms after working in the mines of Kimberley.
There were also significant tensions between the Transvaal Republic and the Zulus under King Cetshwayo. The Zulus occupied a kingdom in the southeast, bounded on one side by the Transvaal Republic and on the other by British Natal. Since taking the throne, King Cetshwayo had expanded his kingdom and reintroduced many of the military practices of the famous King Shaka. He had also begun equipping his impis with firearms, although the equipping process was not complete, with the majority of warriors armed only with shields, sticks, stakes and assegais… Numbering more than 40,000, the motivated, disciplined and reliable Zulu warriors were a formidable force on their own ground, compensating for the lack of modern weapons. King Cetshwayo then banished European missionaries from his kingdom, and presumably inspired other indigenous communities to rise up against the Boers in the Transvaal. The Boers in the Transvaal felt increasingly threatened, but King Cetshwayo maintained good relations with the British in order to deal with the Boer threat if necessary.
The annexation of 1877
In 1877, the Transvaal was bankrupt and threatened by an imminent offensive by Zulu armies from Natal. Lord Carnavon, the British Colonial Minister, a proponent of the creation of a South African federation, thought that the Transvaal people would welcome annexation by the United Kingdom.
On January 4, 1877, Sir Theophilus Shepstone entered the Boer republic with 25 men of the Natal Mounted Police. He reached Pretoria without resistance, where discussions with the Boer government led to the annexation of the Transvaal by the British Empire on April 12, 1877. The Deputy President of the Republic, Paul Kruger, was one of the few Boer leaders to oppose it. But as long as the Zulu threat was present, the Boers preferred to be satisfied with the status quo. If they stood up to the British Empire, they feared being attacked by King Cetshwayo and his Zulu armies. They also feared that they would face additional fronts against the local tribes. Resentment against the British Empire and nationalist sentiment grew as a result of the annexation.
Together with Piet Joubert and Marthinus Wessel Pretorius, Paul Kruger began to organize an armed resistance that was only able to take action at the end of 1880.
The Transvaal Boers led by Paul Kruger (the future president of the Transvaal) decided to deal first with the Zulu threat, and other local tribes, before opposing British annexation. Paul Kruger made two visits to London for direct talks with the British government. In September 1878, on the return from his second visit, Kruger met in Pietermaritzburg with British representatives Sir Henry Bartle Frere and Lieutenant General Frederic Augustus Thesiger (shortly after inheriting the title of Lord Chelmsford), to discuss the progress of negotiations.
The Zulu War
Sir Theophilus Shepstone, as British governor, was concerned about Zulu expansion and the threat posed by King Cetshwayo”s Zulu army, which was beginning to equip itself with muskets and other modern weapons. As administrator of the Transvaal, he was also its protector and was concerned with the territorial dispute between the Zulus and the Transvaal. Boer demands and Paul Kruger”s diplomatic manoeuvres added to the pressure. There were incidents involving Zulu soldiers on both sides of the Transvaal-Natal border, and the British became suspicious of Cetshwayo (who had no supporters in Natal except Bishop Colenso) for allowing certain excesses and being “defiant”. Shepstone then convinced Sir Bartle Frere that King Cetshwayo and his Zulu army posed a threat to peace in the region. In December 1878, Bartle Frere ordered Cetshwayo to disband his army. Cetshwayo refused and mobilized his troops for war.
On January 11, 1879, the British invaded Zululand with 7,000 men, an equal number of African auxiliaries, and a thousand white volunteers. The British anticipated war with the Zulus, believing that with the force they had raised they could counter the Zulu army, whose motivation and numbers would not stand up to the professionalism of a well-armed colonial army. Various local observers (including Paul Kruger) who knew the Zulus had great respect for the Zulu armies and their offensive capabilities, and therefore recommended defensive strategies, including heavy fire from a fortified point, such as the laager that proved successful at the Battle of Blood River. However, the warning was ignored and on 22 January 1879, the British lost more than 1,600 soldiers when they were surprised by the Zulu army at the Battle of Isandhlwana. Shortly afterwards, however, at Rorke”s Drift on the Zululand-Natal border, the British were able to hold off the Zulu army at a quickly fortified post, inflicting heavy losses. Once reinforcements arrived, the British won a series of skirmishes and captured the Zulu capital Ulundi in July 1879, which marked the end of Zulu independence.
Sir Garnet Wolslely then took charge of the Transvaal Pedis, who were finally defeated by British troops in 1879.
With the defeat of the Zulus and Pedis, the Transvaal Boers began to speak out against the 1877 annexation of the Transvaal, claiming that it had been carried out in 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, returned as Governor of Natal and the Transvaal, High Commissioner for South East Africa and Military Commander in July 1880. Various commitments prevented Colley from going to the Transvaal where he had experience with the Boers. Instead, he relied on reports from the territory”s administrator, Sir Owen Lanyon, who had little knowledge of the Boers. Lanyon belatedly requested a reinforcement of the troops in December 1880, but was overtaken by events.
On December 13, 1880, 6,000 Boers gathered at the site of Paardekraal (now Krugersdorp, which was not founded until 1887), and vowed to fight for their independence.
The Boers launched a revolt on December 16, 1880 and took action against the British column “94th Foot”, which had arrived to reinforce Pretoria.
After the Transvaal formally declared its independence from the United Kingdom, the war began on December 16, 1880, with the Transvaal Boers firing at Potchefstroom. This led to the Battle of Bronkhorstspruit on December 20, where the Boers attacked and destroyed a British army convoy. From December 22, 1880 to January 6, 1881, British army garrisons throughout the Transvaal (including Pretoria, Potchefstroom, Rustenburg, and Lydenburg) were under siege.
Although it was generally referred to as a war at that time, the engagements involved only a few troops for a limited period of about ten weeks of sporadic actions.
The Boer people did not have a regular army. When danger threatened, all the men in a given territory would gather in military units called kommandos, electing their officers. As a civilian militia, each man wore whatever clothing he wanted, either everyday clothes or a farmer”s khaki outfit, pants, jacket and hat. Each man brought his own weapon and his own mount. The average Boer was a farmer who had spent most of his life roaming the wilderness, and depended as much on his gun as on his horse for food. They were skilled shooters and good horsemen, knowing the terrain. Most Boers had single-shot breech-loading rifles such as the Westley Richards (en), the Martini-Henry, or the Remington Rolling Block (en). Some had repeating weapons, such as a Winchester or Swiss Vetterli. These shooters used to shoot concealed, from a prone position, in order to hit their target on the first shot, knowing that a second chance would be hard to come by. In gatherings, shooting competitions were regularly held, for example, targeting an egg 100 meters away. The Boer kommandos were experts in light cavalry, able to use every subtlety of the terrain and to use their breech-loading rifles to good effect to bring down British troops.
The uniforms of the British infantry were red jackets, blue pants with red piping and a prominent helmet, an outfit particularly visible in African territories. Highlanders wore kilts. The standard infantry weapon was the Martini-Henry, breech and single shot, with a long bayonet. The Royal Artillery gunners wore blue jackets. This made it easy for Boer snipers to hit British troops from a distance. The Boers did not have bayonets, which put them at a disadvantage in close combat, which they avoided. Accustomed to frontier skirmishes for years, they had developed more of the qualities of mobility, stealth, and marksmanship, whereas the British troops were focused on the values of response to orders, discipline, training, and synchronized firing. The average British soldier had little self-reliance and little target practice: fire training consisted primarily of collective synchronized firing on command.
At the First Battle of Bronkhorstspruit, Lieutenant Colonel Anstruther and the 120 men of the 94th Foot (Connaught Rangers) were killed or wounded in just a few minutes of Boer fire. The Boers suffered 2 dead and 5 wounded. This mainly Irish regiment was marching west towards Pretoria, led by Lieutenant Colonel Anstruther, when it was stopped by a Boer kommando. His commander, Piet Joubert, ordered Anstruther and his column to leave the territory, which was now an independent republic again, as any further advance was considered an act of war. Anstruther refused and ordered a distribution of ammunition. The Boers opened fire and the attackers were annihilated. Anstruther ordered the surrender.
The Boer revolt took by surprise the six British forts scattered throughout the Transvaal, housing some 2,000 men, including irregular troops, and in such weak positions as Lydenburg Fort and its 50 men in the east, which Anstruther had just left. Isolated and so lightly occupied, such forts could only sustain a siege and had to wait to be rescued. The other five forts, each separated by a minimum of 50 miles, were at Wakkerstroom and Standerton to the south, Marabastadt to the north, and Potchefstroom and Rustenburg to the west.
The British garrison in Pretoria was also under siege. It could not break the siege, and had to fight the battles of Elandsfontein and Rooihuiskraal.
The three major battles of the war were all fought within 25 kilometers of each other in early 1881, at Laing”s Nek (28 January), Ingogo River (8 February) and Majuba Hill (27 February). These battles were attempts by Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley to rescue the besieged forts. Colley had asked for reinforcements which could not reach him until mid-February. He was convinced, however, that the besieged garrisons would not hold out until then. As a result, at Newcastle, near the Transvaal border, he assembled a liberation force (the Natal Field Force) of available soldiers, but it consisted of only 1,200 men. Colley”s troops were at a disadvantage in that they were lightly mounted, a serious disadvantage on this type of terrain in such a conflict. Most of the Boers were mounted and excellent horsemen. Despite this, Colley”s forces moved north on 24 January 1881 towards Laing”s Nek to rescue Wakkerstroom and Standerton, the nearest forts.
At the Battle of Laing”s Nek on January 28, 1881, the Natal Field Force led by Major General Sir George Pomeroy Colley engaged in cavalry and infantry attacks to take the Boer positions in the Drakensberg Mountains to rescue the British garrisons. The British were repulsed with heavy losses by the Boers under Piet Joubert. Of the 480 British who participated in the charges, 150 did not return. In addition, the Boer fire had wounded or killed many officers.
Other actions included the Battle of Schuinshoogte (also known as the Battle of Ingogo) on 8 February 1881, where another British troop narrowly escaped annihilation. Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley took refuge with the Natal Field Force at Mount Prospect, five kilometers to the south, to await reinforcements. On February 7, a courier to Newcastle was attacked by the Boers, and had to return to Mount Prospect. The next day Colley, determined to keep his roads and communications open, accompanied the mail with a large escort. The Boers attacked the convoy at the Ingogo River crossing with a force of 300 men. The forces were fairly evenly matched and the fight lasted several hours. The Boers, however, held the advantage, and a storm conveniently allowed them to return to Mount Prospect. During this confrontation, the British lost 139 men and officers, or half of the troop escorting the convoy.
Hostilities were suspended on 14 February, pending the outcome of negotiations that had begun on an offer from Paul Kruger. During this period, the reinforcements promised by Colley arrived, preceded by other announcements. The British government proposed a Royal Commission and a possible withdrawal of troops, with a conciliatory attitude towards the Boers. Colley was critical of such a position, and took the initiative to attack again in order to give the British a stronger position for negotiations. The result was the disaster of the Battle of Majuba on February 27, 1881, the greatest humiliation for the British.
On 26 February 1881, Colley undertook a night march with 360 men to occupy the top of Majuba Hill, which overlooked the Boer positions. Early in the morning, the Boers spotted the British troops on top of the hill, and immediately began the ascent to attack. The Boers, firing wisely and using the advantages of the terrain, penetrated the British positions. The three groups, arriving from the north and surrounding the hill, swept away the British troops, who suffered a considerable setback, with General Colley himself being killed in the battle. This defeat had such an impact that during the Second Boer War, one of the slogans of the British troops was Remember Majuba. The Boers suffered only one death and a few casualties.
Hostilities continued until 6 March 1881, when a truce was declared, ironically on the same terms proposed by Colley. The Transvaal forts had held, contrary to Colley”s predictions, with generally quiet sieges, the Boers waiting for hunger and disease to strike. The forts suffered few casualties, with sporadic engagements, except at Potchefstroom, where 24 soldiers lost their lives, and 17 at Pretoria, in both cases as a result of occasional raids on Boer positions.
Although the Boers made the most of their qualities, their unconventional tactics, hunting habits and mobility do not fully explain the heavy British losses. Like the Boers, the British used single-shot breech-loading rifles (the Martini-Henry), but they were, unlike the Boers, professionals and the British Army had fought such mobile armies as the tribes of northern Afghanistan in difficult terrain. Much of the defeat can be attributed to the British command and Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, in particular the lack of tactical intelligence and poor communications. At Laing”s Nek, Colley not only underestimated the numbers of his opponents, but he was also misinformed and surprised by the strength of his opponents” attack. The confrontation at Ingogo was probably unwise, knowing that reinforcements were on the way and that Colley had already had experience of fighting with the Boers. In fact, the question can be asked whether the convoy should have been sent knowing that it was highly vulnerable to attack and whether it was necessary for Colley himself to lead the expedition. Colley”s decision to attack Majuba Hill during the discussions and the truce was seen as an inappropriate move because of the lack of strategic value of such an action, as the top of the hill was within Boer range. Once the Battle of Majuba Hill began, Colley”s command and understanding of the situation deteriorated, including sending confusing heliograph messages to Mount Prospect, first requesting reinforcements and then announcing the Boer retreat. Unfortunately, the consequences of this poor command, intelligence and communication resulted in the deaths of many British soldiers.
The British government under William Gladstone was conciliatory and realized that any further action would require a considerable reinforcement of troops for a war that would prove risky and costly. Not wishing to prolong this distant war from which they did not think they could gain much (the Transvaal had no known mineral or other resources at the time, being a country of agriculture and livestock), the government declared a truce.
Under instructions from the British government, Sir Evelyn Wood (who replaced Colley following his death on February 27, 1881) signed the armistice ending the war and a peace treaty was signed with Kruger at O”Neil”s Cottage (a few hundred yards south of Majuba Hill – 27° 30′ 03″ S, 29° 51′ 24″ E) on March 6. By the final peace treaty of March 23, 1881, the British granted governing independence under a notional British trusteeship, with the Boers nominally accepting the Queen”s law and British control over African affairs and native territories. A three-man commission drew up the Pretoria Convention of August 3, 1881, which was ratified on October 25, 1881 by the Transvaal Volksraad (Transvaal Parliament). This led to the withdrawal of the last British troops.
In 1884, the London Convention restored full sovereignty to the reorganized Transvaal in its original form as a republic of South Africa.
In 1886, another important mineral resource was discovered about 50 kilometers south of Pretoria, in a hilly area called the Witwatersrand (literally “the White Water Range”), which turned out to be the world”s most important gold vein. It was the reason for the creation of the city of Johannesburg. Less rich than the Canadian and Australian lodes, the exploitation of Witwatersand proved to be the most profitable.
In 1899, when tensions culminated in the outbreak of the Second Boer War, the issue of gold led to further investment by the British Empire and increased costs of the war to achieve victory.