The first war between the Transvaal and England lasted from December 1880 to March 1881. It was caused by the refusal of the Transvaal Boers to submit to British authority as proclaimed by Shepstone in 1877. After a period of passive resistance and repeated attempts by Paul Kruger and other leaders to have the annexation revoked, it was resolved at a national meeting on 13th December 1880 at Paardekraal to restore the Republic. Its affairs would be managed by a triumvirate consisting of Paul Kruger, Piet Joubert and M. W. Pretorius. Notice of the resolution was given to the British administration in Pretoria as well as to the governments of the Orange Free State, Natal and the Cape Colony.
The immediate cause of an armed conflict with the British authorities was an attempt by Gen. Piet Cronje to have a proclamation announcing the restoration of the Republic printed at Potchefstroom. The appearance of armed Boers in the main street and on the church square, where part of the British garrison under Capt. M. J. Clarke had entrenched itself in the magistrate’s office, ended in shooting. Hostilities followed also in other places in the Transvaal.
The British garrisons in Potchefstroom, Pretoria, Rustenburg, Lydenburg and Marabastad were surrounded and besieged. The Boer strategy was to isolate the British units in the Transvaal and to prevent their being reinforced from elsewhere. A detachment advancing from Wakkerstroom to Pretoria was forced to dig in at Standerton. Another detachment of the 94th Regt. under Col. P. R. Anstruther was cut to pieces on 20th December at Bronkhorstspruit by a commando led by Comdt. Franc Joubert. British losses were extraordinarily heavy: half of the force was killed and wounded and the rest taken prisoner. Immediately afterwards the main body of the Boers, led by Gen. Piet Joubert, occupied Laing’s Nek, the passage from Natal to the Transvaal. Meanwhile Kruger was conducting the affairs of state from Heidelberg, the temporary capital.
Britain’s first and foremost task was to relieve the besieged garrisons. Only by achieving this could the resistance of the Boers be broken. So Major General Sir George Pomeroy Colley led an expeditionary force from Natal with the purpose of breaking the Boer positions at Laing’s Nek. He had at his disposal soldiers from the zest, 58th and Both Regiments, and was well provided with rockets and artillery, arms which his opponents lacked altogether. Initially his force consisted of hardly more than 1,000 men. On 28 January 1881 Coney launched a frontal attack on the Boer positions from his camp at Mount Prospect. Despite heavy protective fire by cannon and rockets and heroic charges by infantry and cavalry, he could not succeed in driving away his opponents, all of them excellent sharpshooters. Once more the losses were heavy, and the defenders were not coming off lightly either.
Joubert was not willing to remain on the defensive, for large British reinforcements were on their way from the south and the Boers would not be able to withstand such superior numbers for a long period. He therefore sent a commando under Gen. Nicolaas Smit to the rear of Coney’s positions in order to obstruct his line of communications with Newcastle. The British commander immediately realised the danger and marched against Smit. A fierce battle took place on 8th February at Skuinshoogte, near Ingogo. The battle lasted the whole of the afternoon amid a heavy thunderstorm, and under the protection of darkness Colley was obliged to withdraw from the battlefield. Once again the Boer sharpshooters were successful and Coney lost a large part of his force. It was clear that the bravery of the British soldiers was no match for the Transvaalers’ tactics and use of the terrain.
While the war continued on the Natal border and the British administration in the Transvaal had come to a complete standstill, Paul Kruger, supported by Pres. J. H. Brand of the Orange Free State, attempted to come to an agreement with London and end the war. He counted on the sympathy of the rest of South Africa and on the active support of the Free State, many of whose citizens were threatening to join the cause of the Transvaalers. In England, too, influential persons were seeking a peaceful solution of the Transvaal problem, and Gladstone’s Liberal government, inclined to big concessions, would accept any reasonable proposal which suited the interests of Britain. As early as January Kruger had already made a peace offer based on the restoration of the independence of the Transvaal subject to some sort of British authority. On 12th February Kruger once more appealed to Coney from Laing’s Nek to make an end to the struggle and offered to withdraw from the Boer position pending an impartial inquiry by a royal commission. Coney wired the contents of the letter to London and the British government agreed to negotiate on that basis. Colley, however, delayed his reply unnecessarily, so that it reached Kruger only at the end of the month, after his return to Heidelberg.
Meanwhile Coney decided to outflank the Boers by means of a bold act and to avenge his defeats. With a hand-picked band he occupied the top of Majuba, the hill which dominated Joubert’s positions, on 26th February.
This forced the Boers to launch an immediate counter-attack. A storming party hastily collected and, led by Nicolaas Smit, scaled the hill and from close quarters opened overwhelming fire on the enemy. The demoralised soldiers fled, Coney himself was killed, and the survivors entrenched themselves in their camp at Mount Prospect, where they awaited the arrival of reinforcements under Sir Evelyn Wood.
The victory at Majuba echoed throughout the country and stirred up national feeling among the Afrikaners in the whole of South Africa. President Brand was hardly able to restrain his people any longer from entering the war, and the government in London began to fear a general uprising. The Gladstone cabinet was magnanimous and willing to enter into negotiations for peace, as proposed by Kruger.
On 6th March Joubert and Wood agreed to a provisional armistice and the British government recognised the Boer leaders as representatives of their people. Kruger arrived shortly afterwards at the border and Brand hastened there as mediator. The negotiations were then continued. Kruger, faithfully assisted by Dr. E. J. P. Jorissen, had to use all his diplomatic skill to ensure that Britain would agree in writing to the restoration of freedom to the Transvaal even before the Royal Commission began its inquiry. Eventually an agreement was reached in terms of which Britain practically undertook to cede the country within six months, and on their part the Boer leaders accepted limited independence under British suzerainty and agreed to disband their armed force. The agreement was ratified on 23rd March 1881.
The major task of the Royal Commission was to determine the borders of the ‘Transvaal State’, as the republic was now called, and the Boers were obliged to agree to the loss of considerable territory along the south-western border. The final treaty was incorporated into the Pretoria Convention, which was signed on 3rd August 1881. On 8th August the country was formally transferred to the Boer representatives and the British flag was replaced by the Vierkleur, the green, red, white and blue flag of the Transvaal.
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