The First Boer War (Dutch: Eerste Boerenoorlog, Afrikaans: Eerste Vryheidsoorlog, literally First Freedom War) also known as the First Anglo-Boer War or the Transvaal War, was fought from 16 December 1880 until 23 March 1881.
The British attempts in 1880 to annex the Transvaal, and in 1899 both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State (leading to the Second Boer War), 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 Transvaal (to the north), the Orange Free State (to the west) and Natal (to the south and east)) 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 the 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 towards territory farther north. After the Germans annexed Damaraland and Namaqualand (modern Namibia) in 1884, the British annexed Bechuanaland in 1885.
Britain acquired the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa from the Dutch in 1815 during the Napoleonic Wars. Certain groups of Dutch 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 Trekboer), first east along the coast away from the Cape towards Natal, and thereafter north towards the interior eventually establishing the republics that came to be known as Orange Free State and the Transvaal (literally "across/beyond the Vaal River," a tributary of the Orange River).
The British did not try to stop 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 to the east eventually annexing Natal in 1845. Indeed, the British subsequently ratified the two new Republics in a pair of treaties: the Sand River Convention of 1852 which recognized the independence of Transvaal Republic, and the Bloemfontein Convention of 1854 which recognized 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 tribes for most of the remainder of the century.
The discovery of diamonds in 1867 near the Vaal River, some 550 miles 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.
Disraeli's Colonial Secretary Lord Carnarvon in an attempt to extend British influence in 1875 approached the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic and tried to organize a federation of the British and Boer territories to be modeled after the 1867 federation of French and English provinces of Canada, but the Boer leaders turned him down. The successive British annexations, and in particular the annexation of West Griqualand, however caused a climate of simmering unease for the Boer republics.
During the 1870s there were a series of skirmishes within the Transvaal between the Boers and local tribes. In particular intensifying struggles between Boers and the Pedi led by Sekhukune I over land and labour resulted in the war of 1876, in which the Boer aggressors were defeated due in part to the firepower bought with 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 south east, 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, clubs (knobkerries) and spears (throwing spears and the famous assegais). Over 40,000 strong, the disciplined, well motivated and supremely confident Zulu warriors were a formidable force on their own home ground, notwithstanding the lack of modern weaponry. 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 Boers in the Transvaal. The Transvaal Boers became more and more concerned, but King Cetshwayo cleverly maintained 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 (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 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 resulted however 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 Zulu threat, and local issues, before directly opposing the British annexation. Paul Kruger made two visits to London for direct talks with the British government. In September 1878, on his return from the second visit, Kruger met in Pietermaritzburg with the British representatives, Sir Bartle Frere and Lt. General Frederic Thesiger (shortly to inherit the title of Lord Chelmsford), in order to update them on the progress of the talks.
Sir Theophilus 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 adoption by the Zulus of muskets and other modern weapons. 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 Paul Kruger's diplomatic manouverings added to the pressure. There were incidents involving Zulu paramilitary actions on either side of the Transvaal/Natal border, and the British 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". Shepstone therefore convinced Sir Bartle Frere, that King Cetshwayo and his Zulu army posed a threat to the peace of the region. In December 1878 Frere ordered Cetshwayo to disband his army. Cetshwayo refused and mobilized his forces instead.
On January 11, 1879, the British invaded Zululand with about 7000 regular troops, a similar number of black African "levees" 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 fire power from fortified strongpoints such as wagons drawn into a circle (laagers). However, the advice was disregarded and on January 22, 1879 the British lost more than 1600 soldiers when a Zulu attack caught them in the open at the Battle of Isandhlwana. Shortly afterwards a British outpost at Rorke's Drift on the Zululand-Natal border, fighting defensively in and around the stone buildings of a small trading store which had been hastily fortified, withstood a second Zulu attack with great losses to the Zulus. After reinforcements arrived, the British won a series of skirmishes and eventually conquered the Zulu capital at Ulundi by July 1879. This war to all intents and purposes signaled 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 Wolslely then turned to the Pedi in the Transvaal and they were finally defeated by British troops in 1879.
Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, after returning briefly to India, finally took over as Governor of Natal, Transvaal, High Commissioner of S.E.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 on 16 December 1880 revolted and took action at Bronkhorstspruit against a British column of the 94th Foot, who were returning to reinforce Pretoria.
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 of sporadic action.
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. Being civilian militia, each man wore what they wished, usually everyday neutral 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 life in the saddle, and because they had to depend on both their horse and their rifle for almost all of their meat, they were skilled hunters and expert marksmen. Most of the Boers had single-shot breech loading rifle such as the Westley Richards, the Martini-Henry, or the Remington Rolling Block. 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 the game would be long gone. At community gatherings, there were often 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 with their breech loading rifles.
The British infantry uniforms at that date were red jackets, 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. This enabled the Boer marksmen to easily snipe at British troops from a distance. The Boers carried no bayonet leaving them at a substantial disadvantage in close combat, which they avoided so far as possible. Drawing on years of experience of fighting frontier skirmishes, they relied more on mobility, stealth, marksmanship and initiative while the British emphasised 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.
At the first battle at Bronkhorstspruit, Lieutenant-Colonel Anstruther 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 2 killed and 5 wounded. This mainly Irish regiment was marching westwards towards Pretoria, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Anstruther, when halted by a Boer commando group. Its leader, 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 by surprise the six small British forts scattered around Transvaal, housing some 2,000 troops between them, including irregulars with as few as fifty men at Lydenburg in the east where Anstruther had just left. Being isolated and with so few troops all the forts could do was prepare for sieges, and wait to be relieved. The other five forts, with a minimum of fifty miles between any two, were at Wakkerstroom and Standerton in the south, Marabastadt in the north and Potchefstroom and Rustenburg in the west.
The three main engagements of the war were all within about sixteen miles of each other, centred on the Battles of Laing’s Nek (28/1/81), Ingogo River (8/2/81) and the rout at Majuba Hill (27/2/81). These battles were the outcome of Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley’s attempts to relieve the besieged forts. Although Colley had requested reinforcements these would not reach him until mid-February. He 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 men. Colley’s force was further weakened in that few were mounted, a serious disadvantage in the terrain and type of warfare. Most Boers were mounted and good riders. Nonetheless, Colley’s force set out on 24th January 1881 northwards for Laing’s Nek on route to relieve Wakkerstroom and Standerton, the nearest forts.
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 repulsed 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 and wounded many senior officers.
Further actions included the Battle of Schuinshoogte (also known as Ingogo) on 8 February 1881, where another British force barely escaped destruction. Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley had sought refuge with the Natal Field Force at Mount Prospect, three miles to the south to await reinforcements. However, Colley was soon back into action. On the 7th 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 Boer attacked the convoy at the Ingogo River crossing, but with a stronger force of some 300 men. The fire-power was evenly matched and the fight continued for several hours, but the Boer marksmen dominated the action until darkness and 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 men, half the original force that had set out to escort the mail convoy.
On 14th February hostilities were suspended, awaiting the outcome of peace negotiations initiated by an offer from 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 to 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. Unfortunately this resulted in the disaster of the Battle of Majuba Hill on 27 February 1881, the greatest humiliation for the British.
On 26th February 1881, Colley led a night march of some 360 men to the top of Majuba Hill that overlooked the main Boer position. Early the next morning the Boers saw Colley occupying the summit, and started to ascend the hill. The Boers, shooting accurately and using all available natural cover, advanced towards the trapped British position. Several Boer groups stormed the hill and drove off the British at great cost to the British including the loss of Major-General Sir Colley. Many of the British were killed or wounded, some falling to their deaths down the mountain. This 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 6th 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 strike. 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.
Although the Boers exploited their advantages to the full, their unconventional tactics, marksman skills and mobility do not fully explain the heavy losses of the British. 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 terrains and against elusive enemy such as the tribesmen of the Northern Territories in modern day Afghanistan. Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the British command and Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, in particular, but poor intelligence and bad communications played their part. 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 Boers forces. The confrontation at Ingogo Nek was perhaps rash given that reserves were on their way, and Colley had by then experienced the Boer strength and capabilities. Indeed, questions must also be asked 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 as the Boer positions were out of rifle range from the summit. Once the Battle of Majuba Hill was under way Colley’s command and understanding of the dire situation seemed to deteriorate as the day went on as he sent unclear signals to the British forces at Mount Prospect by heliograph, first requesting reinforcements and the next stating that the Boers were retreating. Unfortunately the consequences of the poor leadership, intelligence and communications were the deaths of many British soldiers.
Under instructions from the British government, Sir Evelyn Wood (who had replaced Colley upon his death on 27 February 1881) signed an armistice to end the war, and subsequently a peace treaty was signed with Kruger at O'Neil's Cottage on 6 March. In the final peace treaty on 23 March 1881, the British agreed to Boer self-government in the Transvaal under a theoretical British oversight, the Boers accepting the Queen’s nominal rule and British control over African affairs and native districts. A three-man Royal Commission drew up the Pretoria Convention, which was ratified on 25 October 1881, by the Transvaal Volksraad (parliament). This led to the withdrawal of the last British troops.
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 gold finds in Canada and Australia, its consistency made it especially well-suited to industrial mining methods.
By 1899, when tensions erupted once more into the Second Boer War, the lure of gold made it worth committing the resources of the British Empire and incurring the huge costs required to win the war.