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The First Boer War, Episode 69 - 18/05/06

Overview

Battle Of Majuba(Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Battle Of Majuba
(Getty Images)
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There were two Boer Wars. The first was more a rebellion than a war. It started in December 1880 and was over four months later. The second Boer War (1899 to 1902) is the one most remembered. But the first Boer War when Afrikaans farmers, the Boers, rebelled in the Transvaal, should not be ignored.

The Transvaal had been settled by the Boers during the 1830s when some 12,000 Dutch trekked north to find new lands and get away from British rule - especially anti-slavery legislation. The British recognized the independence of the Transvaal in 1857. A treaty gave the Boers the territory north of the Vaal River. But in the 1870s gold and diamonds were discovered. The British wanted to get into the bullion boom. Also, they were hopeless at administering the region, were in almost constant conflict with the Boers and did little effectively about the border disputes with black Africans. In 1877 the Transvaal was annexed.

The British claimed the moral high ground and said the Boers mistreated the black Africans, which in many cases was true. The annexation meant that in theory the Transvaal was now a crown colony and according to the British, the Boers should accept and enjoy that status. Paul Kruger, the Boer president, began negotiations for the total return of the Transvaal. The British were over confident. They underestimated the outrage felt by the Boers and misread, the character of the Boer and his capability to defend his territory.

On 10 December 1888 the Boers issued a unilateral declaration of independence. They ambushed and destroyed a British army convoy at Bronkhorstspruit. The British had too few and the wrong sort of troops under indifferent command. Every British garrison in the Transvaal was under siege. Sir George Pomeroy Colley led his Natal Field Force through the Drakensberg Range to relieve the besieged garrisons. The Boers sent them packing at the battle of Laing's Neck.

Then came Majuba Hill. Whoever held Majuba Hill theoretically controlled the main theatre of battle. The British thought themselves in command. They were not. Even their reinforcements were mown down by the Boers as they ran. General Colley, the last to leave the hill was shot dead as he walked after his retreating men. The Pretoria Convention gave the Boers independence and in 1883, Paul Kruger was declared president of the South African Republic.

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Historical Figure

Paul Kruger (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Paul Kruger
(Getty Images)
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Paul Kruger (1825-1904)

Kruger, often known as "Oom Paul", was born in Colesberg in Cape Colony. He joined the Great Trek to Natal, Orange Free State and Transvaal. His reputation as a cool-headed leader in battle and in peace, as an administrator, made him a natural choice as president in 1883. He was re-elected three times (1888, 1893, 1898). His was the Boer inspiration for the second war, but he failed to get the help he wanted from European states to fight the British.

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Did You Know...

That in the first Boer War the British army were still redcoats and easy targets for the khaki and camouflaged Boers. It was not until the second Boer War that the British changed to khaki.

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Have Your Say

Events of this episode took place in Southern Africa region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

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Contemporary Sources

British Army view of the defeat
A Gordon Highlander who reported the action for the regiment makese it clear how his regiment felt.

"Whoever or whatever may have been to blame for the disaster, the somewhat humiliating peace concluded with the Transvaal Boers by the responsible authorities at home, almost immediately after, was very trying to the whole force engaged, every man of which was burning to retrieve the renown of the British arms and the glory of the British name."

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