First South African War 1880-1881 | First Anglo Boer War


Causes of the War

The First Anglo-Boer is also known as the First Transvaal War of Independence because the conflict arose between the British colonizers and the Boers from the Transvaal Republic or Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR). The Boers had some help from their neighbours in the Orange Free State.

There were several causes of the First Anglo-Boer War.

  • The expansion of the British Empire.
  • Problems within the Transvaal government.
  • The British annexation of the Transvaal.
  • The Boer opposition to British rule in the Transvaal.

The 4th Earl of Carnarvon was the British Secretary of State for the Colonies under Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who was premier from 1868 to 1880. At the time the British government wanted to expand the British Empire.

Carnarvon wanted to form a confederation of all the British colonies, independent Boer republics and independent African groups in South Africa under British control. By 1876 he realised that he would not be able to achieve his goal peacefully. He told Disraeli that: "By acting at once, we may ... acquire ... the whole Transvaal Republic after which the Orange Free State will follow."

He was prepared to use force to make the confederation a reality, a fact that was proved by the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879.

Problems within the Transvaal Government

T. F. Burgers was the president of the Transvaal Republic from 1872 until its annexation in 1877. The Republic was in serious financial trouble, especially as a war had just started between the Boers and the Pedi under their leader, Sekhukhune, in the North Eastern Transvaal, and because the Boer people not paid their taxes.

The Transvaal public was disappointed with their leadership and although Sekhukhune agreed to peace in February 1877, and was willing to pay a fine to the Republic, it was too late. Carnarvon sent Sir Theophilus Shepstone, the former Secretary for Native Affairs in Natal, to the Transvaal as special commissioner. Shepstone arrived in the Transvaal on 22 January 1877 with 25 men as support. Initially, he was vague about his real purpose. He used the weakness in the Transvaal government by making the Boers aware of the dangers of a bankrupt state and focusing on the government’s lack of control over black people like the Pedi and the Zulu. This demoralised the Boers.

Burgers did very little tried to stop Britain from taking over the Transvaal. Shepstone had told Burgers what his intentions were by the end of January 1877 and Burgers tried to convince the Transvaal government to take the situation seriously, but they refused to see the urgency of the matter.

The British annexation of the Transvaal

Carnarvon thought that annexing the Transvaal would be the first step to confederation. English speaking people in the republic were positive towards the idea and the Boers were disappointed in their own government, which the thought would make it easier to convince them that they could not avoid annexation. Shepstone said that he had more than 3 000 signatures from people who wanted to be part of the British Empire.What he did not tell Carnarvon was that these were many more - the Boer population - who were against the idea and wanted to retain their independence.

On 12 April 1877 a proclamation of annexation was read out in Church Square in Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal Republic. There was no resistance and the Union Jack replaced the Vierkleur. The Transvaal Republic or Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) did not exist anymore, but was now the British Colony of the Transvaal Colony.

The Volksraad decided in May 1877 to send a delegation to England to make sure that the British government knew that most of the residents of the Transvaal Republic did not agree with the annexation but this delegation faild.. They also asked citizens not to resort to violence because this would create a negative impression in Britain.

The Boer opposition to British rule in the Transvaal

Former President T. F. Burgers and other people loyal to the former Transvaal Republic objected to the annexation and Paul Kruger and E. J. P. Jorissen went to London, England, in 1877 to present their case to Carnarvon. They failed and in 1878 they took a petition with more than 6 500 signatures from Boers to London, but the British government insisted that the Transvaal remain a British possession.

Sir Theophilus Shepstone was now the administrator of the Transvaal Colony and he realised that running it was going to be much more difficult than annexing it. The British government had made promises to the Boers to allow them some self-government, but Shepstone was slow to initiate this process. The colony remained nearly bankrupt and British plans to build a railroad to Delagoa Bay had to be put on hold.

Shepstone became increasingly unpopular with the Colonial Office in London. British Native commissioners were trying to control the black people in the area, but they could not get Sekhukhune and the Pedi to pay the fine he owed to the Transvaal Republic because they did not have enough soldiers to force him to do so. Shepstone also failed to control the Zulus on the southeastern border of the colony and many farmers had to leave their farms. Sir Owen Lanyon replaced Shepstone as administrator in 1879. In September of the same year Sir Garnet Wolseley was appointed High Commissioner of South East Africa and governor of Natal and Transvaal.

The Anglo-Zulu War in 1879 was supposed to increase British standing in South Africa, but had the opposite effect. The Zulu and Pedi were both defeated by the British in 1879, but non-violent Boer opposition had grown. In January 1878 a large group of Boers gathered in Pretoria to protest against the annexation. Another Boer delegation had gone to London in 1877, but they also returned unsuccessful in 1879, even though they spoke to Sir Michael Hicks Beach, Carnarvon's successor, who was far less committed to confederation.

The Boers had hoped that the election of the Liberal Party in Britain in April 1880 would mean independence for the Transvaal, but the new Prime Minister, W. E. Gladstone, insisted on maintain British control in Pretoria. The Volksraad of the Orange Free State, south of the Vaal River backed the Transvaal Boers in their call for the independence of the Transvaal in May 1879. Even Boers in the Cape Colony gave moral support to their comrades in the north. In October 1880 a newspaper from Paarl in the Cape Colony took the view that: "Passive resistance is now becoming futile."

The War

The first open conflict between the British and Boers began in November 1880 in Potchefstroom. P. L. Bezuidenhout refused to pay extra fees on his wagon saying he already paid his taxes. The British authorities then confiscated the wagon. On 11 November 1880 a commando of 100 men under P. A. Cronje took back the wagon from the British bailiff and returned it to Bezuidenhout.

Following this, between 8 000 and 10 000 Boers gathered at Paardekraal, near Krugersdorp on 8 December 1880. As a result a triumvirate of leaders; Paul Kruger, Piet Joubert and M. W. Pretorius were appointed. On 13 December 1880 the leaders proclaimed the restoration of the Transvaal Republic and three days later raised their Vierkleur flag at Heidelberg, thus rejecting British authority. The events of the 13 December 1880 thus in effect started the war and ended passive resistance.

British Soldiers and their artillery. © Museum Africa

The first shots were fired in Potchefstroom. The Boers had about 7 000 soldiers, and some Free Staters joined their fellow Boers against the British enemy. There were only about 1 800 British soldiers stationed in towns across the Transvaal so British were outnumbered.

Sieges and battles during the First Anglo-Boer War

There were 4 main battles and several sieges during the First Anglo-Boer War. The Battles were at Bronkhorstspruit, Laingsnek, Schuinshoogte (Ingogo) and Majuba. The sieges were at Potchefstroom, Pretoria, Marabastad, Lydenburg, Rustenburg, Standerton and Wakkerstroom.

Early in the war it became clear that the colonisers had underestimated their opponents. They had assumed that the Boers were no match for the superior might of the British military force. The Boers had the advantage of knowing the local terrain. They were skilled with firearms because they hunted often. The red British uniforms made soldiers easy targets while the Boers who simply wore their civilian clothing, had good enemy cover.

At the battles of Laingsnek and Schuinshoogte the British forces suffered heavy losses and had to retreat. Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley had to wait for more reinforcements. Sir Evelyn Wood was appointed as his second-in-command, and Colley wanted him to lead in the extra soldiers from Newcastle. On 16 February 1881 Colley agreed to stop fighting on condition that the Boers gave up their hopes of requiring independence of the Transvaal. Negotiations came to nothing. On 26 February 1881 Colley decided to march on Majuba with 554 men, where the Boers had an outpost.

On the same day, General Piet Joubert and the Boer forces took up a position at Laing's Nek to check on the arrival of British reinforcements. Colley’s men reached the top of the mountain in the early hours of the morning and were very tired. From the hill Colley could see the Boer laager of tents and covered wagons, but as he could not bring his heavy guns up the steep slopes, he was unable to fire on their encampment. Joubert, however, immediately ordered his men to climb the steep hill, take cover and shoot down on the British. At 7 a.m., a force of 150 Boers in three divisions under veld-cornets S J Roos, J Ferreira and D J Malan began to climb from ledge to ledge up the mountain, firing steadily and effectively on the British as they climbed. Untrained in guerrilla warfare, the exposed British soldiers made easy marks, and when Colley himself was killed and the Boers were almost at the summit, the British fled.

The magnitude of their defencelessness may be appraised from the fact that they had over 200 casualties killed and wounded, whereas the Boers lost only one man killed and one who died later of his wounds. There are two simple monuments on the battlefield: an obelisk erected by the Boers, and a rectangular column commemorating the British fatalities. The humiliating British defeat at Majuba brought about the end of the First Anglo-Boer War and introduced a short-lived peace. Gladstone's Liberal government abandoned the previous government's federation policy, and, by the signing of the Pretoria Convention in August 1881, the Transvaal was granted 'complete self-government, subject to the suzerainty of Her Majesty Queen Victoria'. Many British, however, assured of the innate power of their imperial status, continued to regard the Boer commandos as inferior adversaries. Looking on the Majuba Hill disaster as a 'freak' victory, they vowed retribution. The Transvaal War (also known as the First Boer War or the First War of Independence) was a 'curtain-raiser' to the far more ruthless Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. "Remember Majuba!" became a rallying cry of the British during Second Anglo-Boer War.

During the first Anglo-Boer War there were several sieges. Lydenburg, Potchefstroom, Pretoria, Marabastad, Rustenburg, Standerton and Wakkerstroom were all surrounded in by the Boers in order to stop the British forces stationed there from taking part in the fighting.

Prior to the war the British had been building a fort in Potchefstroom. Progress was very slow. On 15 December 1880 a large group of Boers on horses rode up to Potchefstroom. Major Thornhill, who saw them, raced back to the fort to warn his comrades. When a small group of Boers approached the fort shots were fired. Soon afterwards the Boers started firing on the fort from three directions. The fort’s low walls didn’t provide much protection.On 16 December 1880 the Boers replaced the Union Jack at the Landdrost’s office with a white flag. The thatched roof building was also set alight. The Boers demanded the British surrender of the fort but Colonel Winsloe refused. The siege continued and after 95 days the British force inside the fort surrendered as a result of hunger.

The siege of Lydenburg lasted from 6 January 1881 to 30 March 1881. After 5 December 1880 less than a hundred soldiers under 24 year-old Lieutenant Walter Long were left in Lydenburg. Although Long improved the fort's defences the water supply ran low by 23 January 1881. Long rejected a peace offering from the Boers and the siege only came to an end after 84 days.

Marabastad was a military station with about 50 000 British soldiers put in place to control the black population in the area. It was about 165 miles or 265 km north of Pretoria.Two companies of the 94th regiment that had been positioned in Lydenburg arrived at Marabastad in February 1880 and on 29 November 1880 they were ordered to march into Pretoria. This left only 60 men at the fort. On the same day the news of the British defeat at Bronkhorstspruit arrived and Brook was told to protect the fort against any attack. This siege began on 29 December 1880. The local residents supported the British fort and provided food. Captain Brook was told about the armistice on 22 March 1881, but decided to keep on defending the fort. The siege ended on 2 April 1881.

There were very few British soldiers at Rustenburg when the war broke out. When Boers demanded the surrender of the fort on 27 December 1880 the British force refused. The small mud fort provided little protection and the people inside suffered from the lack of food and water and diseases. The Boers issued terms of a truce on 14 March 1881 and on 30 March they received confirmation that it had been accepted.

When the news of the British loss at Bronkhorstspruit reached Pretoria, Colonel W. Bellairs, commander of the soldiers in the Transvaal, declared martial law and moved the whole civil population of Pretoria into 2 military camps. All food was taken and stored within the camps and 5 000 people waited for relief from Natal. There were about 1 340 fighting men and 2 forts were built south of the town.

Boer General Piet Joubert was happy with the effective containment of the British soldiers in Pretoria. This allowed him free movement elsewhere so he did not attack Pretoria. There were very few Boers stationed in the area and the British force tried to attack them on 29 December 1880, but gave up after several efforts.The siege dragged on because the British garrison was not aware of the events in Natal. On 28 March 1880 news of the peace terms reached Pretoria and by 8 August the Boer government took office in Pretoria once again.

The aftermath of the War

In the aftermath of the war the South African Republic (Tranvaal) regained its independence. The Pretoria Convention (1881) and the London Convention (1884) laid down the terms of the peace agreement. We must now look at these terms in more detail.


President Brand of the Orange Free State had been trying to get both the Transvaal Boers and the British to the negotiation table from the beginning of the conflict. Several peace offerings had been made from both sides with the most important ones being in January 1881, when Paul Kruger offered peace on the condition that the Transvaal independence was guaranteed. Another was made on 21 February 1881, when the British government offered peace if the Boers laid down their weapons.

Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley didn’t forward the message from the British government fast enough and because Paul Kruger was not in Natal, the battle of Majuba took place before peace negotiations could begin. On 5 March 1881 Sir Evelyn Wood and Piet Joubert agreed on an armistice in order to start peace negotiations at O’Neill’s cottage, which lay between the British and Boer lines. Negotiations were successful and the war ended on 23 March 1881.

The Pretoria Convention and the Independence of the Transvaal

After peace had been negotiated a British royal commission was appointed to draw up the Transvaal’s status and new borders. These decisions were confirmed and formalised at the Pretoria Convention that took place on 3 August 1881.

The new republic was named the Transvaal and was to be bean independent Republic, but it still had to have its foreign relations and policies regarding black people approved by the British government. The new state was also not allowed to expand towards the West. All these policies meant that the Transvaal was still under British suzerainty or influence. The Boer Triumvirate was worried about some of the requirements, but they took over the rule of the Transvaal on 10 August.

The conditions put forward by the British government were unacceptable from the Transvalers’ point of view and in 1883 a delegation including Paul Kruger, the new President of the Transvaal, left for London to review the agreement.

The London Convention

In 1884 the London Convention was signed. The Transvaal was given a new Western border and adopted the name of the South African Republic (SAR). Although the word suzerainty did not appear in the London Convention, the SAR still had to get permission from the British government for any treaty entered into with any other country other than the Orange Free State. The Boers saw this as a way for the British government to interfere in Transvaal affairs and this led to tension between Britain and SAR. This increased steadily until the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1899.