BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

Accessibility help
Text only
BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!



The series has now ended but you can still enjoy a wealth of information on the site, from the interactive timeline to historical narratives and profiles.


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


Battle Of Majuba(Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Battle Of Majuba
(Getty Images)
View more images

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.

Back to top

Historical Figure

Paul Kruger (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Paul Kruger
(Getty Images)
View more images

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.

Back to top

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.

Back to top

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:

Comment on Southern Africa

There are currently no messages.

Back to top

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."

Back to top

Have Your Say

Timeline & Map

Interactive Timeline

More on the Empire

Elsewhere on

Elsewhere on the web

Book of the series

Audio CD


Send your Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy