As early as 1842, long before the wars of 1880 and 1899-1902, British and Afrikaner settlers clashed in South Africa.
In October 1899, nearly a century of rivalry in South Africa between the British empire and the white Dutch-speaking settlers known as Afrikaners came to a head with the start of what is now generally referred to as the Second Anglo-Boer War. The First Anglo-Boer War had occurred in 1880-81, when the Transvaal Boers successfully challenged British overlordship. Both conflicts, however, were misnamed. There were in fact at least two earlier confrontations.
The first conflict between the English and Boers actually took place in and around Port Natal, today known as Durban, in 1842, and the second six years later in the Orange River Sovereignty, later to become the independent Boer republic of the Orange Free State. In between, there was a brief insurrection, also in the Transorangia region, in 1845. In all three episodes the British emerged victorious, but the numerically inferior Boers gave them enough problems to suggest that they could pose a significant challenge to British hegemony in the future.
The 1842 conflict centered on Port Natal and the Boer republic of Natalia. Established in 1838 during the Afrikaner migration known as the Great Trek, Natalia had not been recognized by the British government, and its subjects, the so-called Voortrekkers (literally “forward travelers”), continued to be regarded as subjects, albeit reluctant ones, of the British crown.
In March 1842, Sir George Napier, governor of the Cape Colony, decided to send a small force to occupy Port Natal, most of whose residents were English. On April 1, a column under the command of Captain Thomas Charlton Smith of the 27th Regiment (after 1881, the 1st Battalion Inniskilling Fusiliers), having set out from Grahamstown a few days before, crossed the Mzimvubu River into Natalia. The column consisted of 323 fighting men and nearly 300 women camp followers, scouts and drivers. Two companies of the 27th formed the backbone of the force. The balance was made up by a detachment of Cape Mounted Rifles, or CMR, a mixed-race, locally raised regiment with white officers, along with a handful of sappers and miners, and artillerymen with two 6-pounder field guns and a 24-pound howitzer. After a difficult 300-kilometer overland journey involving the crossing of dozens of rivers and streams, Captain Smith arrived in Port Natal on May 3. He set up camp on the northwestern side of Durban Bay, choosing as his site a dry, sandy flat surrounded on three sides by marshes. Earthworks were erected to make a small triangular fort.
The Natalia Volksraad (Parliament) had naturally viewed the intrusion of British troops with alarm. That alarm increased when one of Smith’s first moves was to spike the Boer guns and replace the republican flag with the Union Jack. The Boers delivered a written protest to the captain, and when it was ignored they authorized Commandant Andries Pretorius to raise a force of armed men, or commando.
The first of a long line of great Afrikaner military leaders, Pretorius had led the Voortrekkers to victory over the Zulus at the Blood River in 1838. He set up his laager at Congella, some five kilometers south of the British camp, and by mid-May, he had 364 volunteers under his command, many of whom had fought under him against the Zulus. The British clearly had no intention of leaving, and Pretorius, concerned that his citizen militia might break up due to prolonged inaction, decided to provoke a confrontation. On May 23, several Boers were allegedly fired upon during a dispute over cattle and horses that had become intermingled with those from Smith’s camp. Pretorius responded by ordering the seizure of 600 oxen belonging to the British, and later that day he sent a strongly worded ultimatum to Smith, demanding he withdraw. Smith, as anticipated, resolved to teach the insolent Dutchmen a lesson that same night.
At 11 p.m., 137 officers and men, supported by the two 6- pounders, set out for Congella. The 27th Regiment supplied 109 of the troops, with the balance made up by 18 artillerymen, eight sappers and miners, and two Cape Mounted Riflemen who served as Smith’s escort. Smith had decided to take a circuitous route along the beach that would bypass the dense undergrowth which separated the two camps (and which, incidentally, covered what is now the city of Durban’s central business district). Smith also gave orders for a longboat, bearing the 24-pound howitzer, to take up a position directly opposite Congella and provide supporting fire from there once the attack was underway.
While Pretorius had been expecting an attack that night, the beach march took him by surprise. Most of his men were stationed in the bush when he learned that they had been bypassed. Nevertheless, he still had a rear guard of some two dozen men that he deployed in a mangrove thicket lining the beach, while posting a picket of older marksmen behind some sand dunes on the beach itself. The women and children in his camp were evacuated to safety deeper in the bush.
At about 1 a.m., Smith ordered his men to halt and signaled for the longboat to begin shelling the Boer camp. There was no response, since the longboat had run aground on a sandbank. Apparently Smith had forgotten that it could only make headway at high tide, whereas a march along the beach was only possible at low tide. Greatly annoyed, Smith ordered his column to resume its advance—until the boom of an elephant gun announced the presence of the Boer beach picket. A few more shots rang out, followed by the sustained roar of a score of muskets fired practically in unison from less than 100 meters. Smith’s shaken men completely wasted their return volleys, their balls whistling harmlessly overhead or ripping through the treetops. British casualties mounted rapidly. Though very much outnumbered, the Boers were well hidden, whereas the British were completely exposed against the moonlit sands. The 6- pounders briefly came into action but were quickly rendered unserviceable when a third of their crew members were shot down and the captured oxen began to rampage.
The unequal contest went on for only a few minutes before Smith, as he tactfully phrased it in his report, considered it “expedient to retire.” He himself galloped back to the camp to arrange a last-minute defense. The remainder of the column, abandoning the guns, retreated in reasonably good order at first, but things soon dissolved into a rout as the Boers, steadily reinforced, pressed home their advantage, charging and firing in an extended line. Some of the soldiers were driven into the sea, and at least two drowned. By 3:30 a.m., the camp itself was under attack from three sides. Smith lost 18 men dead and 33 wounded—nearly 40 percent of his force. Only five Boers had been killed.
Two days after their victory, the Boers captured Fort Victoria on the Point, killing two of the garrison and capturing the other 17, as well as an 18-pounder gun, stores and ammunition. Within three days, Smith had lost a quarter of his original column and was holed up within the makeshift walls of his fort and subjected to constant bombardment.
On May 26, Port Natal resident Richard King slipped out of the town, accompanied by his Zulu servant Ndongeni, and set off on a 10-day ride to Grahamstown to fetch aid. Ndongeni, who was riding without a saddle, was eventually forced to give up, but King reached his destination and raised the alarm. Before long, the sloop Conch and warship Southampton had been dispatched with substantial reinforcements.
Following the fall of Fort Victoria, the two sides settled down for a dreary four-week siege. While they never actually planned to storm the camp, the Boers managed to make life fairly uncomfortable for its demoralized little garrison. Using the captured guns—the two 6-pounders and the 18-pounder—and the fieldpieces they had first used against the Zulus, the Boers peppered the defenses with more than 600 rounds of shot, resulting in few casualties but pinning down the British and riddling their tents. Pretorius did not have things all his own way, however. Smith’s keen-eyed marksmen killed several Boers who foolishly exposed themselves. The British made the only sortie of note, a bayonet charge that temporarily dislodged a Boer entrenching party from its forward positions at a cost of four more dead.
Smith must have wondered how much longer he could hold out. Fortunately for him, Conch arrived on June 24 with the vanguard of the relieving force. The next day, Southampton sailed into view, bearing 800 men of the 25th Regiment. Pretorius obviously knew that the game was up, but resolved to make a fight of it anyway. Leaving a skeleton force in front of the British camp, he deployed his few hundred men in an extended line from the Durban Bay Bluff to the mouth of the Umgeni River, 10 kilometers farther north. His guns, virtually useless by now through lack of ammunition and in any case outranged by Southampton’s batteries, were positioned on the bluff and the point guarding the entrance to the bay.
The battle of Durban Bay began at 2 p.m. on June 26, with a bombardment from Southampton’s guns covering Conch’s advance as it crossed the bar into the bay with four boats, crammed with sailors and infantrymen, in tow. The Boers kept up a steady fire, but most of their shots splashed harmlessly into the water or thudded harmlessly against the yellow-wood planks heightening Conch’s bulwarks. The troops disembarked without difficulty, and the Boers quickly melted into the bush. That afternoon Smith was relieved of duty, and the little war was over. Though of short duration, it had been packed with enough drama and incident to make it an enduring part of Natal folklore.
Three weeks after Smith’s relief, the Volksraad formally tendered its submission to the Crown. Most of the Voortrekkers, embittered at the way their hard-won republic had been so cavalierly snatched from them, packed up and migrated farther inland, settling in the Transvaal and Transorangia regions. It was in the latter territory that the next round of Anglo-Afrikaner clashes was destined to be fought.
The annexation of Natalia was probably inevitable, since the British had long regarded the area as within their sphere of influence. The same could not be said of Transorangia, the vast territory between the Orange and Vaal rivers, which many in the Colonial Office considered more trouble than it was worth. Transorangia in the 1840s was a veritable minefield of conflict ing claims, competing factions, raiding, vendettas and intertribal bickering. Much of the fighting took place between the Boers and the Griqua, a mixed-race, Dutch-speaking people who had preceded them in the area by roughly a decade.
The British recognized the authority of the Griqua chief, Adam Kok, in the southern Transorangia area and pledged to uphold it if necessary. Such intervention became necessary in 1845 when the local Boers, who were particularly resentful at having to submit to the overlordship of a man of color, rose in revolt. The uprising led to several weeks of desultory skirmishing in which the Griqua—who also had horses and firearms—held their own but were unable to bring the rebels to heel. Eventually a mixed force of British regulars, including three squadrons of the 7th Dragoon Guards and two companies of the 9th Regiment, was dispatched to the area under the command of Lt. Col. Robert Richardson. After a failed attempt to persuade the Boers to disband, Richardson, with Griqua assistance, surprised their camp at Zwartkopjes, and after a brisk engagement on April 30, drove them from the field. Despite that victory, the rivalry between Boers and Griquas, together with the competing claims of black tribes such as the Sotho and Rolong, continued to make Transorangia a hornet’s nest.
Given the problems in Transorangia, the British Colonial Office could not have been pleased to hear in early 1848 that the new governor of the Cape, Sir Harry Smith, had annexed not only the southern portion of the region but also the independent Boer republic of Winburg in the northern half. The mercurial Smith had previously won renown during the Peninsular campaign of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, later surviving the debacle at New Orleans on January 8, 1815, and adding to his laurels at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Between 1829 and 1840, he served in South Africa, during which time he was second-in-command of the Cape forces that defeated the Xhosa in the Sixth Frontier War on the Cape’s eastern border (1834-35). Smith was promoted to colonel in 1837, and in 1846 he was awarded the Victoria Cross for valor during the victory over the Sikhs at Aliwal. In contrast to his military exploits, however, Smith’s political career proved to be less successful. His ill-considered annexations of large tracts of territory embroiled the Cape Colony in a series of ruinous wars—for which an increasingly reluctant Colonial Office had to pay. The most damaging of those was the Eighth Frontier War (1850- 52), for which he was abruptly recalled to Britain six months before its conclusion.
The first of Harry Smith’s wars was provoked by his annexation of Winburg, carried out in the face of a previous undertaking he had made without first consulting its white inhabitants. The Winburg Boers rose in revolt, persuading Andries Pretorius to return from his self-imposed exile across the Vaal to lead them. The insurrection was initially conceived as no more than a show of force in order to demonstrate the unpopularity of the annexation. On July 17, Pretorius arrived in Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange River Sovereignty, as it was now called, at the head of 1,000 armed burghers and ordered the British resident, Major H.D. Warden, to leave.
Smith’s reaction was to organize an expedition to quash the rebellion. On August 9, he arrived in Colesburg near the Orange River, where a regular force about 800 strong awaited him. The force included two companies of the Reserve Battalion’s 45th and 91st regiments, the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade, four companies of the Cape Mounted Rifles and an artillery detachment manning three 6-pounder guns. There were also a few dozen Boer loyalists whose homes had been destroyed by the rebels and who now offered their services as scouts. Soon after crossing the Orange River, the column was joined by 250 Griquas under Adam Kok and Andries Waterboer.
While his opponents’ numbers swelled, Pretorius’ commando steadily shrank. Many of its members had never actually intended to fight, and they were also unsettled by an unfounded rumor that a second British force was approaching from Natal. By the end of August, the commando had been reduced to roughly half its original number. Pretorius, mindful of his worsening position, decided to make a stand at Boomplaats, an abandoned farmstead straddling the road between Phillipolis and Bloemfontein. Although by now outnumbered at least 2-to-1, he believed, not unrealistically, that if Harry Smith could be induced to walk into an ambush—as T.C. Smith had done at Congella six years earlier—victory was still possible.
On the evening of August 28, leaving 200 men behind to guard his wagons, Pretorius moved south to Boomplaats and the following day deployed his remaining 300 burghers along a chain of low, bushy hillocks bisecting at right angles the road to Bloemfontein. Smith learned of the Boers’ whereabouts the same day. He hoped to persuade the commando to disband peacefully, since an armed confrontation would give the lie to his previous assurances to London that the majority of Transorangia’s inhabitants favored British rule. To ensure that his men did not fire first, he went so far as to instruct the Cape Mounted Rifles, who formed the advance guard, to remove the caps from their carbines. Smith’s delusions of grandeur, which were to be his undoing throughout his term of office, had also evidently persuaded him that an untrained citizen militia like the Boers would never dare to fire first on trained regulars personally led by his august self. It was a miscalculation that nearly cost him his life.
Pretorius’ main hope was to lure the British within close range before opening fire. His right wing under Commandant Jan Kock, concealed behind the westernmost hillock, would then launch a flank attack. Unfortunately for him, a combination of bad luck and impulsiveness on the part of some of Commandant Adriaan Stander’s men on his left flank stymied his plans. First, several dozen Boers moving to their new position disturbed a herd of deer, thereby disclosing their presence to some of the CMR. Next, as Smith rode up behind the CMR intending to parley with the first Boers he met, some of Stander’s detachment lost their nerve and fired wildly down at the horsemen. That led to a fusillade from the Boers on the eastern knolls, and their comrades on the heights in the center also opened up, even though the main body of the British force was still well out of range. Had Smith been killed or incapacitated in those opening volleys, the squandering of the element of surprise might have been nullified. Instead, the general’s luck held, and he was merely grazed on the shin. Most of the CMR also survived the barrage and together with their commander galloped back out of range.
Pretorius had lost the initiative from the very outset, and from then on his more powerful opponent would dictate the course of the battle. Inwardly seething, Smith was nevertheless a seasoned enough professional not to let it affect his judgment. His first task was to secure his wagons, which he had withdrawn and laagered some way in the rear with the Boer loyalists and Griqua as escort. The CMR moved out to the left, and the guns, escorted by the 91st, opened up on the center of the Boer position to support the advance of the 45th. At the same time, the Rifle Brigade, led by Captain Arthur Stormont Murray, moved out in skirmishing order to clear the hillocks on the Boer left.
Things continued to go wrong for the Boers. The attempt by Kock’s detachment to turn the British left and seize the transport was easily beaten off by the CMR and artillery, and this section of Pretorius’ already depleted force—forced into a circuitous retreat behind the chain of hillocks in order to regroup—was effectively removed from the battle until its closing stages. Nor was the single Boer gun able to do much before a well-aimed shell knocked a piece out of its muzzle and silenced it. The Rifles, scorning cover as they charged forward under heavy fire, swiftly dislodged the Boers on the left, although Murray was mortally wounded in the process. Smith then personally took charge of bringing up two of the 6-pounders onto the captured ridges, subjecting the Boers in the center to a galling enfilading fire. The CMR and 91st now combined with the 45th to attack and overrun the Boer center.
It had taken no more than 20 minutes to turn Pretorius out of his initial lines of defense, but the fight was still a long way from over. The Boers rallied in a streambed below the drift and proceeded to mount a stubborn resistance from the farm buildings, the derelict stone walls of the cattle kraals and an oval hillock overlooking the farmstead. Only when the British guns were brought back into the action did they break once more, remounting their ponies and retreating toward a nek (pass) between two steep hills in the rear. They were pursued by the CMR and Griqua, which stung them into mounting one last rear-guard action, by now reinforced by Kock’s men. The colored troops were kept at bay until about 2 p.m., some three hours after the initial shots were fired, when Smith’s infantry came marching into view once more and the guns were brought up and unlimbered. At that point the Boers really did give up the fight, setting fire to the grass and retreating in considerable confusion across the plain on the other side of the nek. They were helped on their way by the artillery, which now sprayed their line of retreat with grape and shrapnel, keeping them in range for as long as possible by limbering up and advancing to the front before unlimbering and firing again. Many horses were taken and a large number of arms thrown away.
Boomplaats brought the Winburg rebellion, the real Second Anglo-Boer War, to a swift and conclusive end. It had cost Smith 22 men killed and 38 wounded, with 17 of the casualties among the Rifle Brigade. The Boers, having fought most of the battle under cover, lost nine men killed and five wounded. The whole affair was pointless in the end, because in 1854, with Harry Smith long gone, the British abandoned the Orange River Sovereignty, which became the independent Boer republic of the Orange Free State. It would remain a sovereign Afrikaner state until the fall of Bloemfontein to Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts in May 1900.
The wars of 1842 and 1848 foreshadowed the greater showdowns of 1880-81 and 1899-1902. They had been hard-fought affairs and should have forewarned the British that the Boers were a formidable foe. The British failed to recognize that their victories in the two early encounters were due not to superiority but mainly to a significant advantage in both numbers and artillery. That failure had much to do with the disasters of the 1880-81 war, in which numerically equal Boer forces were able to repeatedly outclass their adversaries and eventually humiliate them altogether at Majuba Hill.
David Saks has written widely on military topics. For further reading, he recommends: The Autobiography of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith, edited by G.C. Moore Smith, and 50 Years of the History of the Republic in South Africa, by J.C. Voigt.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.