Friday, April 5, 2013

The First Boer War 1880-1881

by David William Wilkin

I know that I studied this whilst in college, ahem, a short while ago, ahem... Sorry, I have to remember that this was really 30 years ago now. And in that interval I forgot that there had been anything happening in the years 1899 to 1902 beside the main event.

The First Boer War was a very short war, as wars go. Longer than the Six Day War (which is not the world’s shortest war; the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896 lasted 38 minutes on August 27th), the war is also known as the Transvaal War, and lasted 3 months and 3 days from December 20th 1880 to March 23rd 1881. It involved 3000 Boers against 1200 men of the Natal Field Force.

The British, thus outnumbered, suffered near 10 times the casualties of the Boers during the conflict. And, despite what one would expect in this era of Colonialism and the Race for Africa, the British lost.

How does this war, and then the next, come about? Do we look deep into the past when the Dutch East Indies company colonized the Cape in 1652?  And then over 150 years later, when the Netherlands were allied with the French, it was lost to the British?  Do we examine the history of the European families that had lived there for generations deciding to move further inland? And subsequently, do we look at the period between 1836 and 1840, when approximately 6000 Boers or Voortrekkers migrated beyond the reach of the British, into the interior.

It is a shame that they found such valuable items, like diamonds in the ground of their new lands--a shame that men and empires value such wealth and land for their dominion that human rights are secondary to these considerations.

Controlling the coast of Southern Africa was important to the British as it was one of the then two routes to India and other parts of the empire. But keeping the lands out of the hands of other European powers was just as important.  Of course, the great wealth that diamonds and later gold was an incentive to acquire the lands of the Transvaal. And in 1877, that is what the British did, using a trumped up pretense as justification--something that was quite acceptable amongst the Great Powers of the time.

In 1877, the Boers and the Zulus saw each other as threats and both sides looked to the British to provide a modicum of protection against the other. 

Sir Theophilus Shepstone, appointed by the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Henry Herbert the 4th Earl of Carnarvon, took the opportunity to annex the Transvaal (The South African Republic), and the Boers, fearing the Zulus, allowed this. Paul Kruger, (known as Oom Paul) was elected by the Boers to deal with the Zulu threat and then with the British. He went to London twice for discussions where he was not treated kindly by the British press.

During this period the Boers gathered in Pretoria to sign a petition against the annexation which they had felt was illegal. Shepstone had cannon pointed at them trying to force them to disperse. 8000 voters gathered and of these 6,591 signed the petition. Out of all of these only 587 backed the Act of Annexation. The others were against it. The British had nowhere near the support they would have needed for their Act.

Shepstone now turned his attention to the Zulu, causing friction between them and the British, thus gaining time to keep the issue with the Boers in check. Sir Bartle Frere was sent to the Cape Colony from Britain to see to the matter, and he with Lord Chelmsford boxed the Zulu into a corner, even though the Disraeli government did not want another colonial war. The Zulu war broke out on January 11, 1879 and ended on July 4th 1879 with the conquest of the Zulu capital of Ulundi. The British used their victory over the Zulu to consolidate their power over the Transvaal.

Garnet Wolseley had come to conquer the Zulu and after things were quiet, he left, leaving Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley in charge. He had friends amongst the Boers but could not get to the Transvaal. His administrator, Owen Lanyon, a man without experience, and no real grasp of the situation, realized too late that troops were needed. 

The Boers fired shots at Potchefstroom on December 16th 1880, and an action at Bronkhorstspruit on December 20th. 

The Boer army was one of civilians--farmers with their own guns and horses. Nothing formal and certainly no uniforms. The Boers were marksmen, while the British aimed their rifles at an area and shot in volleys, hoping the weight of fire would hit the enemy.

At Bronkhorstspruit, 120 British troops from the 94th Foot were left dead or wounded within minutes. The Boers lost two killed and five wounded in this successful Boer ambush.

On January 28th, 1881 The Battle of Laing’s Nek took place.  Major General Colley was now able to take the field against the rebelling Boers. Colley tried to break the line but the forces of Piet Joubert held them. 480 British charged and 150 never returned as the Boers did their best to target senior officers amongst the British.

On February 8th, the Battle of Schuinshoogte (or Ingogo) was fought. Colley was trying to keep his supply lines open. He was escorting the mail wagon with a large escort but a larger force of 300 Boers attacked. The British lost 139 officers and men, half of the force that was sent to protect the convoy.

On February 14th Oom Paul initiated peace negotiations so hostilities were suspended. Colley received reinforcements and decided to attack.

The Battle of Majuba Hill on February 26th was a disaster for the British (in a war of disasters.) Colley led a night march of 360 men to the top of Majuba Hill. It overlooked the Boers and this should have given the British an advantage. The Boers stormed the hill and drove the British from it. Colley perished. The Boers lost one man, and five wounded. The British lost many.

The British lost the war, but kept the prize. The Boers got self-government under British suzerainty. 

The British lost for a variety of reasons. The Boers were better marksmen. The Boers had mobility, having their horses, while the British had few. And then the British of course were full of their own superiority thinking that the army was bound to beat the undisciplined mob of civilians.

Thinking that way would lead to more wars against those equal to their own power in the years to come, where they would then once again suffer great losses. It might be one thing to think that every African with a spear was easily beaten (which was not the case) but an enemy who could think with a gun, was another matter entirely

Should the British have taken the time to understand the Boers who had been moving away from the lands that the British ruled, then perhaps a diplomatic and peaceful alliance between the two could have occurred. They were neighbors, the British never releasing the Cape and their trail to India. The Boers never leaving Southern Africa. But the British could not see that the Boers were something more than farmers. And the Boers could not help but remember that they had come to South Africa for a chance to be free of any and every oppression. 

Ian Knight The Boer Wars (1) 1836-98, 1996

Joseph Lehmann Echoes of War, The First Boer War, 1972

Donald Denoon Southern Africa Since 1800, 1972

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Mr. Wilkin writes Regency Historicals and Romances, Ruritanian (A great sub-genre that is fun to explore) and Edwardian Romances, Science Fiction and Fantasy works. He is the author of the very successful Pride & Prejudice continuation; Colonel Fitzwilliam’s Correspondence. He has several other novels set in Regency England including The End of the World and The Shattered Mirror. 

His most recent work is the humorous spoof; Jane Austen and Ghostsa story of what would happen were we to make any of these Monsters and Austen stories into a movie.

And Two Peas in a Pod, a madcap tale of identical twin brothers in Regency London who find they must impersonate each other to pursue their loves.
He is published by Regency Assembly Press

The links for all locations selling Mr. Wilkin's work can be found at the webpage and will point you to your favorite internet bookstore: David’s Books, and at various Internet and realworld bookstores including the iBookstoreAmazonBarnes and NobleSmashwords.

And he maintains his own blog called The Things That Catch My Eye where the entire Regency Lexicon has been hosted these last months as well as the current work in progress of the full Regency Timeline is being presented.

You also may follow Mr. Wilkin on Twitter at @DWWilkin
Mr. Wilkin maintains a Pinterest page with pictures and links to all the Regency Research he uncovers at Pinterest Regency-Era

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