“What military genius possessed these burghers!" - The Battle of Majuba Hill and the First Boer War

27 February 1881, The British under Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Majuba Hill in Natal, concluding the First Boer War as the first conflict since the American Revolution that ended with unfavourable terms for the British Empire. 

“What military genius possessed these burghers! What instinctive aptitude they had for war! Here were a few hundred men prepared to assault a position which any professional soldier of the time would have insisted was impregnable. Yet everything was planned by the Boer commander Smit that morning with Napoleonic facility and speed; it was then carried out with an exact precision scarcely equalled in the annals of warfare.” (General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton, participant of the Battle of Majuba Hill as lieutenant in the 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders)

Sir Richard Caton Woodville Jr (1856 - 1927): "Battle of Majuba" (1889) 

In hindsight, European imperialism seemed to have followed something along the lines of a project plan, with strategic places getting occupied as milestones to control deposits of valuable natural resources and the ensuing trade lines covered until, as project closure, entire continents fell under the sway of one empire or the other, usually the British. It didn’t happen straightaway like that, though, and there were rather few long-term plans in action during the heyday of Imperialism. More often than not, colonial expansion followed immediate threats and opportunities and the Redcoats and jolly tars on site winning against impossible odds and in the end, the Union flag flew over faraway places east of Suez and nobody could exactly tell what had happened and who, in the first place, had ordered to occupy a godforsaken strip of country and why. However, there were dreamers who looked at maps with an entrepreneurial spirit, saw opportunities, connected dots and dreamed dangerous dreams, dangerous for the locals, at least, and the Sons of the Widow who usually suffered the consequences of these men’s megalomaniac fantasies. One of them was Sir Henry Bartle Frere and his supporters with his plan to federate Southern Africa under British rule. Beside the various Black South African states with the Zulu kingdom under King Cetshwayo being the most formidable, there were two white Boer republics west and north of Natal on the eastern South African coast, the Orange Free State and Transvaal, both populated by the descendants of the Voortrekkers, pioneers, who had left the British Cape Colony, basically because they saw their economy threatened by the formal abolition of slavery in the Empire in 1834. Both republics weren’t exactly flourishing and especially the Transvaal, known as the South African Republic since 1856, felt rather threatened by the Zulu on their south-eastern border. Frere, in his role as British High Commissioner of South Africa, actually thought he would put them out of their misery by simply annexing the place, put it under Imperial suzerainity and invade Zululand. The Boers thought differently though. And while they were actually quite happy when the rival Zulu kingdom ceased to exist after the Battle of Ulundi in 1879, the stubborn lot just would not see the light and openly revolted against British rule in December 1880, especially over Imperial taxation without representation, goes without saying. 

Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler: "Floreat Etona" (1882)
Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler: "Floreat Etona" (1882)
displaying an eyewitness account of the Battle of Laing's Nek:

Sir Henry Bartle Frere had been already recalled over his unsolicited imperial adventures that had almost ended in a catastrophe in Zululand and provoked the Boer rebellion. His replacement, Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, was basically an old African hand and had just returned from Afghanistan where he had served as private secretary of Lord Lytton, Governor-General of India, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. En route he thought a Boer rebellion to be unlikely, but when he arrived in Durban, a British column had already been shot to pieces at Bronkhorstspruit and the six forts in the Transvaal were under siege. Imperial authority had to be restored, the Queen frowned, and Sir George immediately marched the 1,500 men at his disposal towards the Drakensberg mountain range and promptly got his nose bloodied at Laing’s Nek by the Boer Commandant-General Piet Joubert and his 2,000 well entrenched, sharpshooting burghers. Before that, Colley had excelled in staff work, logistics, in Africa and elsewhere, and academics, such as a professorship at the Staff College in Camberley and writing 60 pages about the British Army for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Over all that military history and days of past glory, he, of all the people, seemed to have forgotten one important lesson the British Army had learned the hard way a hundred years before: How perfectly dangerous motivated peasants who grew up with riding, shooting rifles and learning the lay of the land could be to regular troops. The Boers of the 1880s had no regular army. When necessity arose, they put on their slouch hats, took their highly reliable modern rifles, saddled their sturdy horses and grouped together to form independent commandos, elected their leaders and rode off to meet their enemy. 

"General Sir George Colley at the Battle of Majuba Mountain Just Before He Was Killed"
Melton Prior (1845-1910) for the London Illustrated News:
"General Sir George Colley at the Battle of Majuba Mountain Just Before He Was Killed"

After taking the next hammering at a place called Schuinshoogte near the Ingogo River where Colley and his men again experienced the deadly accuracy of the Boers’ long range marksmanship and their somewhat unchivalrous but highly effective habit of picking off officers first. Seven of them had been killed. With headshots. Often from a range of several hundred yards. The Redcoats themselves, with their white pith helmets and cross belts, perfectly stood out against the African landscape and made wonderful targets as well. A lesson repeated when Colley decided to occupy the several hundred feet high dead volcano known as Majuba Hill to checkmate Joubert’s burghers in their position at Laing’s Nek with British reinforcements coming up from Durban. During the night of 26 February, Colley personally led 405 men up the hill, only half of them, the Gordon Highlanders had seen action recently, an elite regiment, actually, the rest was more or less inexperienced. Colley, though, thought he would be perfectly safe up at Majuba Hill, he didn’t even order his troops to dig in and slept in his tent when the Boers came. After their customary Sunday service, they sneaked through the veldt and the foothills of Majuba until their commander Nicolaas Smit ordered them to go at it in what the Boers called "vuur en beweeg", fire and movement tactics, one part pouring a witheringly accurate fire into the Britons up the hill while others climbed up the slopes, firing, when their cover came up until they carried the hill, shooting at long range and keeping out of distance of the feared British bayonets. Ordering a fighting retreat down the hill, finally, after he somehow missed the moment to order at least the Gordons to counter-charge the Boers on the slope, Colley was shot in the head by a Boer marksman and morale collapsed with half of theirs dead or wounded and the British ran away into their most humiliating defeat since Yorktown. Peace was concluded a few weeks later and the two Boer republics remained semi-independent again. But then, gold was discovered at the Witwatersrand in 1886 and another dreamer conjured up dangerous imperial dreams: Cecil Rhodes. The bloody mess of the Second Boer War was about to begin.

Contemporary imagination of Joubert's commandos assembling below Majuba Hill before the peace negotiations
Contemporary imagination of Joubert's commandos assembling below Majuba Hill before the peace negotiations 

And more about the First Boer War and the Battle of Majuba Hill on: