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  • James Houser

February 27, 1881 - First Boer War & Battle of Majuba Hill

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

February 27, 1881. A small British force wakes up to find itself surrounded by angry farmers. Normally not a problem, but these farmers are the best marksmen in the world, and the Boers are fighting on home turf. The final battle of the First Boer War, and Britain's greatest humiliation of the Imperial Age, is imminent atop Majuba Hill.

In 1806, the British seized the Dutch Cape Colony in modern South Africa. The Dutch were allied with Napoleon, and the UK was happily taking advantage of the war to gracefully expand its empire by snapping up colonies across the globe. The seizure of Cape Colony, however, meant that Britain inherited the Dutch settler population known as the Boers. Fiercely independent and hostile to their new overlords, the Boers bore their grudges quietly until 1834 when Britain formally abolished slavery in the colony.

The Boers began to leave Cape Colony, but not for other colonies. Instead, they began to migrate inland on what later became known as the "Great Trek", seeking to establish their own communities beyond British interference. ("Trek" came into the English vocabulary around this time for this reason.) The trek was not easy; the British refused assistance and local natives - particularly and famously the Zulu - resisted their advances. By the 1850s, though, the British recognized two independent Boer Republics - the Orange Free State at Bloemfontein, and the Transvaal at Pretoria.

The long arm of the British Empire, though, grew longer. Across South Africa, British economic interests pushed the Cape Colony's borders ever closer to the Boer Republics. British control soon extended over the whole coast, and the 1868 annexation of Basutoland formed a contentious border with the Transvaal. The Basuto King Moshoeshoe (who has his own incredible story) accepted British dominion as a means of defense against both the Zulu and the Boers.

The final slide into conflict began with the discovery of diamonds near the Transvaal borders in 1867. This event suddenly made South Africa a very interesting place to the British Empire and prompted further expansion. The British governor, seemingly without a second thought, forcibly annexed the Transvaal in 1877. The Boers were enraged, but worried that rebellion against Britain would leave them vulnerable to the neighboring Zulu. They were unwilling to act until the Zulu had been dealt with, but in 1879 the British eliminated the Zulu Kingdom. Freed of their fears, the Boers now had the opportunity to reclaim their independence.

The new Military Governor of South Africa, Major General Sir George Colley, was deaf to the Boers' concerns. He arrived in July 1880 and never once made a move to meet with Boer leader Paul Kruger or even leave Cape Town. As Boer unrest spiked, he accepted clueless platitudes from local British officials. They were oblivious to the very real anger emanating from the Transvaal.

On December 16, 1880, the Boers struck and the First Boer War began. They ambushed multiple British units and isolated outposts across the Transvaal. The Boers had no rigid hierarchy or structure. They consisted of loosely organized militia battalions known as "commandos" (another new word to the British lexicon) that assembled around popular leaders and were composed of men and boys of all ages. Rugged frontiersmen and expert hunters, the Boers dressed in dark gray and earthtone clothes that reflected the South African terrain and were, to a man, crack shots. Having made a living for years with their rifles and horses, they were deceptively dangerous foes.

"The War in the Transvaal: The Boers' Method of Fighting" from The Illustrated London News, 1881

Colley decided that a show of force would cause the Boers to back down. On January 23, 1881, he called on Commandant Piet Joubert and the Boers to surrender, emphasizing their "ignorance" and the hopelessness of their cause. Colley didn't wait for a response, but marched into the Transvaal with a 1400-man force of redcoats. Yes, they were still redcoats - the British troops wore bright red jackets, blue trousers with red stripes, and white field hats. In South Africa they could be seen from miles away. At Laing's Nek on January 28, Colley's force was devastated in an attempt to break through Joubert's position. Accurate rifle fire kept the British from ever getting close, and losses were bad enough that Colley had to retreat.

After multiple other defeats in January, British forces in South Africa had lost a quarter of their number. The British authorities decided it was time to offer terms to the Boers - generous ones - and negotiated a truce with Kruger and Joubert. Colley, infuriated by this, defied orders and led a reinforced column back into the Transvaal, violating his own government's truce. He determined to occupy a local promontory, Majuba Hill, and prepare to attack the Boers.

On February 26, Colley occupied Majuba with 400 men of the 92nd Scottish Highlanders. His security was sloppy, he brought no artillery, and built no defensive positions, confident in his strength. He was convinced the Boers could not scale the hill, and ignored advice from officers who insisted their force prepare for an attack.

By the next morning, February 27, a Boer commando of about 400 men had surrounded Majuba. As the sun came over the horizon, carefully aimed rifle fire cracked up at the summit. The British troops, in red coat, kilt and white hat, skylined themselves every time they stood up to fire. As the din of battle grew, Colley stayed in his tent relaxing until an officer informed him that no, this was *serious.*

Shooting accurately and using cover, the Boers closed the ring on the isolated force atop Majuba. They stormed up the hill, nearly invisible in their drab clothes, inflicting murderous losses on the Highlanders who stood up in the sunlight to shoot. As the Boers neared the summit, the British broke, streaming down the slope. Colley, attempting to organize a retreat, was shot dead. Of the 400 Britons, 92 were dead, 134 wounded, and 59 captured.

"The Transvaal War: The Battle of Majuba Hill" by Richard Caton Woodville, 1889

The cheeks of the Scots burned with embarrassment to see their captors - some of whom were no older than 12 or 13. Her Majesty's soldiers had been defeated by children.

The British had to sign their most humiliating treaty since the American Revolution and return independence to the Transvaal. The new "fire and movement" tactics of the Boers presaged the end of old styles of infantry fighting; the "Redcoats" were soon gone forever as the British adopted khaki rather than scarlet for their uniforms. The British soldier's humiliating defeat by the Boer farmer led to an inferiority complex and desire for revenge that would come full circle 18 years later in the Second Boer War where "Remember Majuba!" became a battle cry.

Majuba Hill today

Some historians even claim that Majuba marked the beginning of the British Empire's decline - their first concession to an insurgent group. That is far-fetched to me. If there is any event that started the decline of the British Empire, it was certainly World War I. But that goes to show how important this battle was.

Also, these events gave us the words "trek" and "commando." Try saying "Star Expedition." Doesn't roll off the tongue, does it? All this from a battle outclassed in size by most major soccer riots.

Small fight, big impact.

Book Recommendation: The best single volume on the First Boer War is South African John Laband's The Transvaal Rebellion: The First Boer War, 1880–1881 (Milton Park: Routledge, 2014).

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