First Boer War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first large-scale armed confrontation between British imperial forces and Afrikaners in a long series of British-Afrikaner conflicts, the First Boer War restored independence to the Transvaal’s South African Republic but left unresolved questions about the future of British-Afrikaner relations, while intensifying Afrikaner nationalism and increasing tensions that led to the bloody South African War of 1899-1902.

Summary of Event

South Africa’s so-called First Boer War—known to Afrikaners as the First War of Freedom—resulted from Great Britain’s annexation of the Afrikaner-ruled South African Republic South African Republic Transvaal;South African Republic in the Transvaal in a British attempt to consolidate territorial holdings in South Africa. The war may be seen in the large contexts of the developing European imperial so-called scramble for Africa "Scramble for Africa"[Scramble for Africa] and the rising tensions among long-established native African communities, white Afrikaner settlers, and colonial authorities. Although this conflict was neither the first nor the last time that British forces and Afrikaners fought each other, the brief war set the stage for the South African, or Second Boer, War of 1899-1902 and helped to lift Afrikaner nationalism to a new political level. Boer War, First (1881) South Africa;First Boer War Afrikaners;First Boer War Transvaal;First Boer War Orange Free State;and First Boer War[First Boer War] Kruger, Paul Joubert, Petrus Jacobus Pretorius, Marthinus Wessel British Empire;and South Africa[South Africa] [kw]First Boer War (Dec. 16, 1880-Mar. 6, 1881) [kw]Boer War, First (Dec. 16, 1880-Mar. 6, 1881) [kw]War, First Boer (Dec. 16, 1880-Mar. 6, 1881) Boer War, First (1881) South Africa;First Boer War Afrikaners;First Boer War Transvaal;First Boer War Orange Free State;and First Boer War[First Boer War] Kruger, Paul Joubert, Petrus Jacobus Pretorius, Marthinus Wessel British Empire;and South Africa[South Africa] [g]Africa;Dec. 16, 1880-Mar. 6, 1881: First Boer War[5110] [g]South Africa;Dec. 16, 1880-Mar. 6, 1881: First Boer War[5110] [g]British Empire;Dec. 16, 1880-Mar. 6, 1881: First Boer War[5110] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 16, 1880-Mar. 6, 1881: First Boer War[5110] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Dec. 16, 1880-Mar. 6, 1881: First Boer War[5110] Shepstone, Sir Theophilus Herbert, Henry Howard Molyneux Colley, Sir George Pomeroy

The Afrikaner people, who were pejoratively called “Boers” (farmers) by the British, were descendants of Dutch, German, and French settlers who had begun immigrating to South Africa during the seventeenth century at the behest of the Dutch East India Company. The company built Cape Town as a victualling stop for ships sailing between Europe and Asia, and its administration was the only European government in what is now the Republic of South Africa until 1806, when Great Britain occupied its Cape Colony during the Napoleonic Wars in order to protect its own sea route to British India.

From Great Trek Afrikaners;Great Trek 1835 to 1837, thousands of Afrikaner families left the British-ruled Cape Colony and headed north and east into the interior to escape unwelcome government interference in their lives. The emigrant Afrikaners eventually founded two independent republics, the Orange Free State, in the region between the Orange and Vaal Rivers, and the South African Republic, in the Transvaal region beyond the Vaal River. Both republics soon became targets of British attempts to impose colonial administration. British interest in the Afrikaner domains increased after the discovery of diamonds near the Orange River in 1867. Moreover, the British government eventually wished to unite South Africa under a single imperial authority. However, the Afrikaners persistently resisted all such attempts. British-Afrikaner treaties at Sand River in 1852 and at Bloemfontein in 1854 guaranteed limited Afrikaner independence, but the newfound mineral wealth and growing influx of British settlers brought matters to a head in 1877.

In April, 1877, under orders from British colonial secretary Lord Carnarvon Herbert, Henry Howard Molyneux , Theophilus Shepstone Shepstone, Sir Theophilus , the administrator of Britain’s Natal colony, led a contingent of British troops into the Transvaal’s capital, Pretoria. There he raised the British Union Jack and proclaimed that the republic was under British rule.

British troops trying to recapture Majuba Hill in the face of Afrikaner guns.

(The Co-Operative Publishing Company)

The irate Afrikaners rallied under Paul Kruger, a veteran political leader who called for nothing short of restoring independence. Kruger and two other leading Transvaal politicians, M. W. Pretorius and Petrus Jacobus Joubert, formed a triumvirate government to counter the British administration. Over the next several years, the members of the triumvirate presided over mass rallies of their increasingly disgruntled fellow Afrikaners. However, it was not until after the British seized an Afrikaner’s wagon at Potchefstroom for sale in a public auction in November, 1880, that the first shots were fired in what became a war.

News of the wagon seizure was immediately transmitted through the countryside. On November 11, 1880, a one-hundred-man Afrikaner commando—which was something like a mounted militia unit—confronted British officials. One month later, at a mass meeting at Paardekraal, Kruger, Joubert, and Pretorius were formally elected as the triumvirate and proclaimed that the restoration of the Transvaal’s independence was vital.

Finally, on December 16, the first shots were fired between British troops and the local commando in Potchefstroom. The Afrikaners then rapidly organized and laid siege to several British garrisons in the Transvaal. A British relief column was ordered to Pretoria to assist the besieged garrison there. On December 20, the column of some 270 British troops and wagons was ordered to halt and go back by armed Afrikaners near the town of Bronkhorstspruit, about forty miles east of Pretoria. When the British commander refused to comply, about two hundred well-concealed Afrikaners opened fire. Within fifteen minutes, 156 British troops were killed or wounded. This battle demonstrated the tactics that the Afrikaners would use and foreshadowed the high casualties that the British would sustain throughout the ensuing war.

British forces under the command of Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley Colley, Sir George Pomeroy began marching to the Transvaal border January 19, 1881. Colley’s objective was to clear and secure the main road to Pretoria. Knowing that this single road was vital to British relief forces coming from Natal, Afrikaners under the command of Joubert concentrated their forces near two high hills that overlooked the road crossing the Natal-Transvaal border, Laing’s Nek and Majuba. On January 28, 1881, Colley’s assault on Laing’s Nek was repulsed by the Afrikaners. Again, the British suffered with high casualties, including four of Colley’s five staff officers, and more than eighty killed and nearly 115 wounded.

Colley’s troops retreated to a small encampment named Mount Prospect to await reinforcements, while the Afrikaners stepped up their raids on British dispatch riders. Recognizing the threat to his supply and communications lines, Colley marched about four hundred of his troops south to the Ingogo River on February 8 to counter Afrikaner raiding parties. He deployed his troops on a slight rise near the river, where they were surrounded by Afrikaner riflemen posted on small rises. There, the British soldiers suffered from both the accurate rifle fire of their enemies and a lack of water. This action cost the British another fifty-eight dead and more than sixty wounded. During a heavy evening thunderstorm, the Afrikaners pulled back, and Colley seized his chance to escape with his men back to Mount Prospect. There he awaited reinforcements from Great Britain and India.

With the arrival of fresh British troops at Mount Prospect on February 23, Colley planned the occupation of Majuba Hill Majuba Hill, Battle of (1881) , which overlooked both Laing’s Nek and the Pretoria road. In a difficult night-time maneuver, Colley and about six hundred troops climbed the rough slopes of Majuba. At daybreak on February 27, Colley’s Colley, Sir George Pomeroy troops could see the entire road and the Afrikaner camp below the hill. Joubert then called for an Afrikaner immediate attack to dislodge the British. At about 6:00 a.m., three separate commandoes, of about 150-200 men each, began threading their way along the gullies, ravines, and boulders toward the summit of Majuba. By noon, the British were under a barrage of accurate and heavy rifle fire from advancing Afrikaners. By 2:00 p.m., the Afrikaners had gained the summit and were firing down on the fleeing British troops. Majuba was a disaster for the British, who lost 240 killed and wounded. Among the dead was Major-General Colley himself. The Afrikaners counted fewer then 10 dead in the assault.

On March 6, 1881, the British accepted the Afrikaner offer of an armistice at Mount Prospect. During a meeting at a farmhouse near the base of Majuba Hill on March 21-23, British officers and Afrikaners leaders agreed to terms that would restore nominal independence to the Transvaal and withdraw British forces from the Transvaal. This agreement was officially guaranteed by the Treaties of Pretoria (1883) and London (1884).


The First Boer War resulted from the developing strains between Britain’s colonial rulers and the emigrant Afrikaners and added to those strains. Although the Treaties of Pretoria and London guaranteed Afrikaner independence, the discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1884 attracted a large-scale influx of British prospectors and settlers, as well as British investment in both the economic and political sectors of the Transvaal. The British desire for revenge against the Transvaal Afrikaners, the continued British planning for federating South Africa, and Transvaal’s informal alliance with Germany made for an uneasy peace between 1881 and 1899.

The war also demonstrated the prowess of highly mobile Afrikaner commando units against professional British soldiers in both guerrilla tactics and set-piece battles. Nevertheless, when the British fought the Afrikaners again in the South African War, they repeated many of the same military and political mistakes.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Castle, Ian. Majuba 1881: Hill of Destiny. London: Osprey Press, 1996. Well-illustrated and detailed text covering the 1880-1881 war, with useful information on the leaders, regiments, equipment, and weapons used in the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Villiers, Marq. White Tribe Dreaming. London: Penguin Books, 1989. Part Afrikaner history and part genealogy, De Villier’s work describes the evolution of the Afrikaner community and nationalism from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giliomee, Hermann. The Afrikaners: Biography of a People. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2003. Balanced study of the historical construction of Afrikaner identity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Le May, G. H. L. The Afrikaners: A Historical Interpretation. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1995. Analysis of changing concepts of Afrikaner identity through three centuries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Omer-Cooper, J. D. History of Southern Africa. 2d ed. London: James Currey, 1994. Solid general history of the numerous peoples of Southern Africa, their interactions and development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paulin, Christopher M. White Men’s Dreams, Black Men’s Blood: African Labor and British Expansionism in Southern Africa, 1877-1895. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2001. Examination of the exploitation of African workers that looks closely at competition between the British and the Afrikaners for control of the Transvaal.

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Categories: History