Two weeks after Wolseley’s assault on Sekhukhune’s capital, a mass meeting of angry Boers was held at Wonderfontein to decide what action to take to rid the Transvaal of British rule. Since Wolseley’s arrival in September 1879 as the new overlord of the Transvaal, their mood had become increasingly rebellious. From the outset Wolseley had done little to hide his contempt for the Boers and their campaign for independence, both privately and publicly. In his diary on 18 October, he jotted down a few reflections.
A Boer’s idea of life is, that he should pay no taxes of any sort or kind, that he should be amenable to no sort of law he disliked, that there should be no police to keep order, that he should be allowed to kill or punish the Natives as he thought fit, that no progress towards civilization should be attempted, that all foreigners should be kept out of the country & that he should be surrounded by a waste of land many miles of extent each way which he called his farm, in fact that he should have no neighbours as the smoke of another man’s fire was an abomination to him. These Transvaal Boers are the only white race I know of that has steadily been going back towards barbarism. They seem to be influenced by some savage instinct which causes them to fly from civilization . . . Altogether I regard them as the lowest in the scale of white men & to be also the very most interesting people I have ever known or studied.
In a despatch to London in October 1879, Wolseley wrote that the Boers had ‘all the cunning and cruelty of the Kaffir without his courage or honesty . . . they could not stand up against our troops for an hour’. They were, he said, ‘utterly incapable of governing themselves’.
In public, Wolseley derided all notion of independence. In a proclamation issued shortly after his arrival in Pretoria, he declared: ‘It is the will and determination of Her Majesty’s Government that this Transvaal territory shall be, and shall continue to be for ever, an integral portion of Her Majesty’s dominions in South Africa.’ Using more graphic language during a tour of the Transvaal, he told an audience in Standerton: ‘So long as the sun shines, the Transvaal will be British Territory; and the Vaal shall flow back to its sources before the Transvaal is again independent.’
When Wolseley heard that Boer dissidents intended to hold a mass meeting at Wonderfontein, he issued a proclamation warning that those taking part and their families might face prosecution for treason. Ignoring the threat some 2,000 Boers gathered at Wonderfontein, parading with the Vierkleur, the Transvaal flag, in front of Paul Kruger’s tent. Once again, Kruger advocated caution. ‘The steps you wish to take are a matter of life and death,’ he said. ‘You know that England is a mighty power, while our forces are small and insignificant in comparison with what she can bring into the field . . . Consider carefully before you shout “Yes! Yes! We want to fight!”’
On 15 December 1879, after five days of deliberation, the meeting unanimously approved a Volks-Besluit - a Decision of the People - declaring that Transvaal burghers had no wish to be British citizens. Nothing less than independence would suffice. ‘We solemnly declare that we are prepared to sacrifice our life and shed our blood for it.’ When two delegates - one of them a former president, Marthinus Pretorius - paid a call on Wolseley to inform him of the resolution, Wolseley promptly had them arrested on charges of high treason, then released them, believing he had called their bluff. ‘Poor silly creatures,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘they go on playing at soldiers & blustering, knowing in their hearts they would bolt at the sight of the first troop of our Dragoons.’
Yet sympathy for the Transvaalers’ cause was gaining momentum. In November, Gladstone, in opposition, described the whole idea of British rule as folly. ‘The Transvaal, a country where we have chosen most unwisely - I am tempted to say insanely - to place ourselves in the strange predicament of the free subjects of a Monarchy going to coerce the free subjects of a Republic, and to compel them to accept a citizenship which they decline and refuse . . .’ In January 1880, the London Times referred to ‘a very serious and determined spirit of disaffection among the Boers’. It was evident, said the paper, that a majority of white inhabitants were opposed to British rule. During an election campaign in March, Gladstone continued his attacks, describing annexation as ‘the invasion of a free people’. The Transvaal, he said, had been obtained ‘by means dishonourable to our country’ and, if elected, he would ‘repudiate’ annexation.
There was also growing support for the Transvaalers’ cause amongst Afrikaner communities in the Cape and the Orange Free State. The Afrikaner press there expressed strong solidarity. Hoping to mobilise opinion against confederation, Kruger travelled southwards in April, addressing meetings in Paarl, Stellenbosch, Worcester and Malmesbury. In Cape Town he canvassed members of parliament, pleading: ‘Do not wash your hands in the blood of your brothers.’ Afrikaner MPs subsequently helped defeat proposals favouring confederation, dealing it a fatal blow. The Cape parliamentarian John Merriman recorded: ‘There is hardly a farmhouse in the country in which this matter of the Transvaal annexation is not talked about, and there is a strong and bitter feeling growing up against the British government. ’ What British officials now began to fear was the emergence of a pan-Afrikaner movement challenging British hegemony.
Despite all this, Britain stuck to the same old policy of confederation. For all the vehement opposition he had expressed on the campaign trail, Gladstone, having won the election, decided to make no change, persuaded that what was needed was a strong hand to uphold the imperial image in southern Africa. Both Gladstone and his colonial secretary, Lord Kimberley, were influenced in particular by a report from Wolseley outlining the Transvaal’s prospects. He pointed out that gold had already been found in the Transvaal and that ‘there can be little doubt that larger and still more valuable goldfields will sooner or later be discovered’, bringing British immigrants in such numbers that they would soon swamp the Boer population. It would surely be very short-sighted, he said, to give up the Transvaal merely to save the cost of keeping a British garrison there.
In a letter Gladstone sent to Kruger in June, he wrote: ‘Looking to all the circumstances both of the Transvaal and the rest of South Africa, and to the necessity of preventing a renewal of disorders [a Zulu uprising] which might lead to disastrous consequences, not only to the Transvaal, but to the whole of South Africa, our judgement is that the Queen cannot be advised to relinquish her sovereignty over the Transvaal.’ All that he was prepared to offer was a form of ‘self-government’.
Kruger concluded that war was now inevitable. ‘The general conviction was now arrived at that further meetings and friendly protests were useless,’ he said in his memoirs. ‘The best course appeared to be to set quietly to work and to prepare for the worst by the purchase of arms and ammunition. The great prudence and the strictest secrecy had to be observed in order to avoid suspicion.’
Oblivious of the danger and convinced of British superiority, Wolseley recommended that the British garrison in the Transvaal and Natal could safely be reduced from six to four battalions. On leaving Pretoria in April 1880 at the end of a brief tour of duty, he wrote that his one regret was that the Boers had shown themselves unwilling to fight, as that would have enabled him to put an end to all their nonsense.
British officials meanwhile continued to stamp their authority on the Transvaal. The Transvaal’s administrator, Colonel Owen Lanyon, previously the administrator of Griqualand West, held the Boers in as much contempt as Wolseley had done and was determined to enforce tax-collection measures that they had hitherto largely avoided. Boer resistance to paying taxes was commonplace even during the days of Boer rule. Now British taxation demands became the trigger for full-scale rebellion.
In November 1880, a Potchefstroom magistrate, A. M. Goetz, seized a farm wagon belonging to Piet Bezuidenhout and put it up for auction as punishment for his refusal to pay the tax dues on his farms. The tax authorities had demanded £27. 5s. After a long wrangle with Goetz, Bezuidenhout had offered to pay £13. 5s, but only on condition that the money be put aside for the coffers of a future Boer republic. The magistrate had then referred the matter to Pretoria, at which point Lanyon decided to make an example of Bezuidenhout, ordering his prosecution.
On the day of the auction - 11 November - a prominent Boer activist, Piet Cronjé, rode into Potchefstroom with a hundred armed supporters, seized the wagon and camped provocatively on the outskirts of the town. Lanyon despatched a contingent of British troops to Potchefstroom and ordered arrests, but had no means to effect them. The tax rebellion spread. With Boers massing on his farm, Cronjé sent a message to Kruger on his farm at Boekenhoutfontein near Rustenburg telling him that they were now ready to start the war for independence. Kruger made haste to Potchefstroom where he encountered the local British commander, Colonel R. W. C. Winsloe. Winsloe put it to Kruger that Cronjé’s action amounted to open rebellion.
‘I should agree with you, if we had acknowledged the annexation,’ replied Kruger. ‘But that is not the case. We do not look upon ourselves as British subjects, and the question of the tax is not a private question of Bezuidenhout’s but a question of principle which concerns the whole country.’
Like Wolseley, Lanyon was convinced that the Boers would never actually take action. In a despatch to General Sir George Colley, the new high commissioner who was based in Natal, he wrote: ‘I don’t think that we shall have to do much more than show that we are ready and sit quiet.’ The Boers, he said, were not only ‘inflated toads’, they were ‘incapable of any united action, and . . . mortal cowards, so anything they may do will be but a spark in the pan’. Lanyon neither ordered any further troop dispositions, nor called for reinforcements until it was too late. The number of British troops in the Transvaal was no more than 1,750, scattered in seven isolated garrisons.
Observing the difficulties the British had in asserting their authority in Potchefstroom, the Boers recognised that the time had come to strike. On 8 December, some 5,000 burghers assembled at a farm called Paardekraal, near present-day Krugersdorp, in a defiant and determined mood. After three days of deliberation, with a pause in the proceedings on the Sabbath, they resolved on 13 December to proclaim the Transvaal’s independence, to reconstitute the old Volksraad and to establish a republican government. At its head was an executive triumvirate that included Kruger and the commandant-general, Piet Joubert. Before the burghers left, they built a memorial to the new unity of the volk. Each man gathered a stone from the hillside and one by one, walking by in single file, laid the stone to form a huge cairn around a pole bearing the old republican flag, the Vierkleur, each stone a symbol that the burghers had sworn loyalty to each other to fight to the death in the republic’s defence.
A copy of the proclamation declaring a republic was sent to Lanyon, together with a covering letter couched in diplomatic terms.
We declare in the most solemn manner that we have no desire to spill blood, and that from our side we do not wish war. It lies in your hands to force us to appeal to arms in self-defence, which may God forbid. If it comes so far, we will do so with the deepest reverence for Her Majesty the Queen of England and her flag. Should it come so far, we will defend ourselves with a knowledge that we are struggling for the honour of Her Majesty, for we fight for the sanctity of the treaties sworn by her, but broken by her officials . . .
The Boer plan was to establish a new temporary capital at the small highveld town of Heidelberg, sixty miles south of Pretoria, guard the frontier with Natal, and lay siege to British garrisons across the Transvaal. Boer commanders estimated that they could count on 7,000 mounted burghers. Kruger hoped that volunteers from the Orange Free State would also enlist and wrote to President Brand and the Volksraad in Bloemfontein appealing for support. ‘Whether we conquer or die, freedom will come to Africa as surely as the sun rises through tomorrow’s clouds - as freedom reigns in the United States. Then shall it be from the Zambesi to Simon’s Bay, Africa for the Afrikanders.’
The war of independence, as the Boers called it, amounted to little more than one ambush and three skirmishes. But it left the British army humiliated once more, brought an end to Britain’s ‘forward’ policy and gave a massive boost to the nationalist movement burgeoning among the Afrikaner populations of southern Africa.
The first action occurred on 20 December as a column of troops from the 94th Regiment, on its way from Lydenburg to help guard Pretoria, approached a small stream called the Bronkhorstspruit, thirty-eight miles from the capital. Since setting out on 5 December, the column had made slow progress over the rough tracks and swollen rivers of the eastern Transvaal. Though the commanding officer, Colonel Philip Anstruther, had been warned to expect trouble, his train of wagons was spread out over half a mile, the ammunition boxes were screwed down, and the 250 men, in their scarlet and blue uniforms, marched at ease, eating peaches, cheered on by a medley of popular tunes from the band.
Catching sight of a body of Boer horsemen near Bronkhorstspruit, the band abruptly stopped playing. A Boer despatch rider approached with a message warning Anstruther to order a halt. Anstruther replied that he had no wish for a hostile confrontation but that he intended to proceed to Pretoria. In the ensuing engagement, the column lost 56 men dead and 92 wounded. Mortally wounded and realising his position was hopeless, Anstruther ordered his men to throw their hats in the air and wave handkerchiefs as a signal of surrender.
Determined to avenge Bronkhorstspruit and put down the rebellion, General Colley assembled a field force from units in Natal, sending it to the northern border with the Transvaal and establishing headquarters for himself at Fort Amiel near Newcastle. Colley was a distinguished academic soldier, a former professor at Sandhurst, but his active service had been limited and his command of the Natal Field Force was to prove disastrous. His priority was to cross the border and relieve besieged garrisons in the Transvaal. In a notable display of arrogance, for which British officers had become renowned, Colley sent a message on 23 January 1881 to the commandant-general, Piet Joubert, calling on him to disband his forces or face the full might of imperial Britain, suggesting that although he might understand the consequences, his backveld followers surely did not:
The men who follow you are, many of them, ignorant, and know and understand little of anything outside their own country. But you, who are well educated and have travelled, cannot but be aware how hopeless is the struggle you have embarked upon, and how little any accidental success gained can affect the ultimate result.
Without waiting for a reply, Colley led his Natal Field Force - consisting of 1,400 men, an 80-strong naval brigade, artillery and Gatling guns - to a strategic pass in the hills on the Natal-Transvaal border called Laing’s Nek. Colley’s assault on Boer positions at Laing’s Nek on 28 January ended in disarray, with heavy casualties; Colley himself admitted ‘failure’ but claimed the reverse was ‘not serious’. An engagement that he led at Ingogo inside the Natal border on 8 February to protect his supply lines resulted in more heavy casualties; as Colley retreated under cover of darkness to avoid defeat, he left behind many of the wounded to die of exposure. In the space of ten days, he lost one quarter of his field force, either dead or wounded. ‘One or two more Pyrrhic victories like this and we shan’t have any army left at all,’ Lieutenant Percival Marling wrote at the time.
Hoping to retrieve his reputation, Colley ignored the chance of an armistice and conceived the idea of seizing the summit of a massive flat-topped hill called Majuba that overlooked Laing’s Nek and commanded the country for miles around. He prepared his plan largely in secret, informing only two officers, and made no proper reconnaissance of the area. Bolstered by reinforcements, he put together a scratch force of 600 men that included three companies from the 92nd Highlanders and a naval brigade, and led them out on the night of 26 February 1881 to the base of Majuba hill, taking no artillery or Gatling guns.
The climb up the southern slopes of Majuba was steep, but Colley’s force managed to reach the summit just before dawn without difficulty. Colley was elated. The position seemed impregnable. Far below on the northern side he could see three Boer laagers, unaware of the British presence. Colley deployed a line of troops to defend the perimeter of the summit and kept others in reserve, but again made no proper reconnaissance of the area, nor saw any need for entrenchments. The mood of the men was relaxed. At first light, a group of Highlanders advertised their presence by standing on the skyline, shaking their fists and yelling at the Boers below. The Boers were astounded and began to panic, expecting an artillery bombardment. But nothing happened. Colley had brought no artillery.
Largely unseen by the British, Boer groups began scaling the northern slopes of Majuba. By midday, some had reached the edge of the summit, from where they opened fire on the Highlanders’ position. On two occasions, a Highlander lieutenant made a hazardous run to report in person to Colley the growing danger posed by the Boer assault, but Colley took little notice. On a third occasion, the lieutenant was told that the general was asleep. The British perimeter began to crumble then collapsed. As panic took hold, terrified soldiers sprinted for the rear, then fled down the hillside. While trying to rally his men, Colley was fatally shot in the head. Within thirty minutes, the British were swept off the summit.
At his headquarters at Heidelberg, Kruger saw the Boer victory at Majuba as a sign of God’s support for their fight for freedom. ‘We glory not in human power,’ he declared in an Order of the Day. ‘It is God the Lord who has helped us - the God of our fathers, to whom for the last five years, we have addressed our prayers and supplications.’
For the British, the shame of Majuba was even more intense than that of Isandlwana. Elite units like the 92nd Highlanders had cut and run in the face of Boer irregulars. There were no heartening stories to be told like the heroic stand made at Rorke’s Drift. Nearly a hundred men had died, 132 had been wounded, and 56 had surrendered to men dressed in civilian corduroy trousers and floppy-brimmed hats. Boer losses amounted to one man killed and six wounded.
News of the calamity shocked Britain. The War Office prepared to send reinforcements. The clamour began to ‘Avenge Majuba’. Queen Victoria and the Conservative opposition demanded that Britain restore its authority. But Gladstone had no appetite for more conflict. He feared, moreover, that further British military action might precipitate an Afrikaner uprising across southern Africa. In March he reached a preliminary agreement with Kruger, conceding independence subject only to a vague and ill-defined reservation about ‘the suzerainty of Her Majesty’. A final agreement was publicly announced on 3 August 1881 by the new British high commissioner, Sir Hercules Robinson, speaking at a ceremony in Church Square, Pretoria, perched on a hastily made platform of planks and straw bales, dressed in full proconsular dress and plumed hat. Despite the pomp, all that it amounted to was a device to extricate Britain from the Transvaal with minimum embarrassment.
Buoyed up by their defeat of imperial Britain, the Transvaal Boers now set out to expand the borders of their state to the east and to the west, and to impose their will on African chiefdoms around them.