War in the Age of Victoria, 19th Century South African Campaigns: Remember Majuba!

By John Laband

The victory of Boer irregulars over regular British troops at Majuba Hill in South Africa on 27 February 1881 had repercussions far greater than the scale of the battle itself.

Majuba did more than validate Boer mobile mounted infantry tactics. It became the potent and enduring symbol of Afrikaner resistance against British imperialism in South Africa – giving them the ‘David and Goliath’ courage to take on the British Empire again in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.

For the British, the ignominious rout of British troops at Majuba and the death of their commander, Major General Sir George Pomeroy-Colley, was the conclusive debacle in the uniformly disastrous Transvaal campaign of 1880-1881, fought against the Boers who were rebelling against the British annexation of their republic in 1877. The British government consequently restored the Boers their independence and – for the time being – gave up their plans for wider control over South Africa.

General Colley on Majuba attempting to rally his men moments before he was shot. Melton Prior’s pencil sketch was based on eye-witness accounts. [Collection of Ian Knight].

Yet Majuba and the Transvaal Campaign were not entirely negative for the late Victorian British army. They gave it its first staggering experience of modern warfare and signalled the need for it to reassess its training and tactics. It was also a defeat to be avenged. At the Battle of Elandslaagte on 21 October 1899 (the opening engagement of the Anglo-Boer War) Ian Hamilton, a survivor of Colley’s disaster, urged on his men with the cry: “Remember Majuba!”

The Battle of Majuba was thus undeniably of considerable significance, but I had not always grasped that. As a child, when we drove on holiday from Johannesburg to the seaside at Durban, the old road then passed below the hulking bulk of Majuba, on what had been in 1881 the border between the Transvaal and Natal. My parents vaguely told me of a battle once fought there, but the tale made little impression. Later in the 1970s, when I was undertaking considerable field work for the first of my series of books on aspects of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, I often passed by Majuba but I took little notice of it since it was associated with the ‘wrong’ war. In time, though, I came to appreciate how closely the Transvaal Rebellion was tied into a series of wars the British waged in southern Africa between 1877 and 1879, in order to bring about the confederation of the subcontinent under the Crown. I recently wrote about that in Zulu Warriors: The Battle for the South African Frontier (Yale University Press, 2014).

Moreover, my interest in Majuba was earlier piqued when in 1996 the post-apartheid government appointed me the Chairperson of the Voortrekker Museum in Pietermaritzburg which, until 2000, administered the Majuba battlefield. My responsibilities entailed visits to the site and a growing familiarity with its environs. In more recent years I have been conscious that – despite its significance – the battle of Majuba is being written out of the national narrative of the ‘new’ South Africa and that there is now a real need to ‘remember Majuba’.

I was extremely pleased, therefore, when I was invited to contribute a book on the Battle of Majuba to Helion’s new Warfare in the Age of Victoria series under the editorship of Christopher Brice. Not only does this give me the opportunity to explain why Majuba should not be forgotten, but it also allows me to explore further my interest in the disparate records of British commanders in South Africa at that time.

Some, like Sir Garnet Wolseley, were successful in 1879 during the latter stages of the Anglo-Zulu War and the Second Anglo-Pedi War. Others, like Sir Arthur Cunynghame in the Ninth Cape Frontier War of 1877–1878, were mediocre at best. Lord Chelmsford’s forces suffered some catastrophic defeats in the Anglo-Zulu War – only partially redeemed by his later victories. During the Transvaal Rebellion, Sir George Colley led his unfortunate troops to three successive defeats and ultimately paid for these fiascos with his life.

Basing my investigation on both British and Boer contemporary sources, such as newspapers, articles and books; on original sources in various archives in South Africa and in Britain; and on the handful of later histories of the war in both English and Afrikaans, I see it as my main challenge to explain why Colley so singularly failed in his command.

I argue that it was partly on account of the military culture in which he operated. I have addressed the contrasting military organizations and cultures of the two sides so as to clarify how a Boer citizen militia with no formal training, but that handled modern small arms with lethal effect and expertly employed fire and movement tactics, had the advantage over professional – but hidebound – British soldiers.

But there is more to it than that. I have also had to take into account the closely interlocked operational and political contexts of the Transvaal campaign. Thus a British field commander such as Colley – already mired in the period’s poisonously factional politics of military command – also found his conduct of military operations subject to the close supervision and the interference of his superiors in London at the other end of the telegraph wire. His strategic objective was to break through the Boer positions holding the passes between Natal and the Transvaal and to relieve the scattered British garrisons blockaded by the Boers. However, when he failed to do so, his alarmed government instructed him to cease operations and open peace negotiations with the Boers.

To explain what happened next, I had to try and understand Colley himself. A highly talented staff officer holding his first independent command, he was determined to retrieve his tattered military reputation with a dramatic stroke. He side-stepped his orders and – in an attempt to outflank the Boer positions and open the way to the Transvaal – seized the summit Majuba with disastrous consequences, both for him and his troops, and for the British cause in the Transvaal.

The Battle of Majuba Hill. The Transvaal Campaign, 1880-81 (part of the Warfare in the Age of Victoria series) is available to pre-order here.

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