First Boer War (1880–1881): History, Causes, and Effects

The First Boer War, which has many other names in history, including the Transvaal Rebellion, the Transvaal War, the First Transvaal War of Independence, and the First Anglo-Boer War, was a short but bloody war between the Boers of the Transvaal (what was then known as the South African Republic) and the United Kingdom.

It began on December 16, 1880, and ended on March 23, 1881. The Boers were the victors of the war, and it was a brutal response to their disagreement with British oppression. However, their victory was also the primary catalyst for the eventual independence and freedom, brief as it was, of the South African Republic from British rule.

What events precepted the Boer War? Who were some of the major commanders during the war? And how did the Boers emerge victorious?

Background & History behind the First Boer War

The Boers, sometimes called Afrikaners, were the direct descendants of Dutch travelers who had began settling in Southern Africa around the late 1600s and early 1700s under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch sailors settled in the Cape Peninsula and went on to establish the areas a the Cape of Good Hope, which proved very useful for Dutch sailors on their way to Indian subcontinent.

By the first decade of the 1800s, the Cape colony had become a very thriving region, which many European powers, including the French and British eyed. In 1806, the Cape fell into the hands of the French by virtue of Napoleon’s forced incorporation of the Netherlands into his new empire.

Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Dutch were able to get back their country and many of its foreign territories. They did however lose some territories in the Americas as well as the Cape. Britain seized control of the Dutch (Boer) Cape Province in 1815. And so the Cape became a part of the British Empire.

Over time, many British people settle in the Cape alongside the old Dutch colonists. As Britain expanded the Cape colonies further and further into the interior of Southern Africa, so did the English language and culture begin to dominate the Cape.

Not only did this rapid social change in culture and politics cause a great deal of unease among the Boers, but it also incited rebellion from the Boers, who desired for things to return the old days. There were even some Boers that began pushing for independence from British rule.

Around the mid-1830s, the Boers decided to head further into the interior of Southern Africa. They would go on to form three Orange Republics along the Orange River, Orange River and the eastern coast. With the 1852 Sand River Convention, the British agreed to recognize two of those republics – Orange Free State and Transvaal Republic – as independent nations. The Natal coast had been earlier annexed by the British in 1843.

It’s also said that the Boers opposed Britain’s anti-slavery rules and the Anglicization of Southern Africa. Thus in the mid-1830s, the Boers embarked on an exodus (i.e. the Great Trek) into the South African tribal territories and founded two republics around the Vaal River and the Orange River: the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State, respectively.

The British later recognized the independence of the two newly established Boer Republics in two treaties, with the 1852 Sand River Convention recognizing the Transvaal Republic’s independence, while the Bloemfontein Convention in 1854 acknowledged the independence of the Orange Free State.

It was in Britain’s own interest that those Boer republics remain as they not only pioneer the exploration, but they also served as a buffer against the native African tribes. Unfortunately, Britain’s attitude towards those republics following the discovery of diamonds on the borders of the neighbors.

It must be noted that at no point in time did the British try to stop Boers headed into the South African interior in the 1830s. It’s also been said that some Trekboers ventured into places deep into the interior, including arriving in what is now Mozambique. The Great Trek was seen as beneficial to the British as those Boers provided a buffer (against native tribes in the interior) to English settlers down south.

Causes of the First Boer War

In the mid-1860s, large deposits of natural treasures, such as gold and diamonds, were discovered in the lands of Southern Africa. These discoveries sparked the desire of the British to conquer the territories in those zones.

A bitter confrontation soon ensued because of Britain’s desire to conquer and unite the South African regions of Natal, Cape Colony, Transvaal, and the Orange Free State. The Boers, on the hand, were determined to maintain their independence.

Those two conflicting goals served as a catalyst for what came to be known as the First Boer War.

Below are detailed explanations of the causes of the Anglo-Boer conflict:

  1. The discovery of large quantities of mineral deposits in Southern Africa and Britain’s expansion into Southern Africa.

The discovery of gold in Southern Africa in 1867 raised the stakes in the region and Britain’s appetite to take control of the territory. The discovery led to the gold rush in 1886, which saw a large influx of British people into the zone. In addition, the British had an overwhelming desire to conquer the territory and protect it from other European colonial powers, such as the Germans, French, and Portuguese Empires. However, the Boers saw the British as a threat to their culture and stood to their stance on being independent, making a battle against the British inevitable.

  1. Problems within Transvaal’s Government which led to its annexation.

In the 1870s, the Transvaal Republic experienced devastating financial issues. This was primarily due to a war between the Pedi people and the Boers. As a result, the Boers refused to pay their taxes, which led to a collapse in the finances of the Republic.

The British subsequently took advantage of the issue, sending Sir Theophilus Shepstone as a special commissioner for Transvaal. He capitalized on the weak financial management of the Transvaal government by informing the Boers that their state was on the brink of bankruptcy. He also emphasized the government’s lack of control over the Zulu and Pedi people. Basically, Westminster’s goal was to incite the Boers against their government.

Eventually, on April 12, 1877, the British read out an annexation proclamation of the Transvaal Republic in Pretoria.

Thus, the Transvaal Republic no longer existed and was now a British colony. T.F. Burgers, the former president of Transvaal, warned the Boers against the disadvantages of the proclamation, but they were initially not convinced. In the end, the Transvaal government and the Boers joined hands to oppose what they saw as British oppression.

  1. The effect of the Anglo-Zulu War

The British hoped that the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War would help expand their influence in South Africa, but instead, it had an inverse effect. This was because although the British defeated the Pedi and Zulu people during the war, a fierce Boer opposition was on the uprising. In 1877, a Boer delegation traveled to London to end the annexation and British control; however, they were unsuccessful.

In January 1878, many Boer people assembled in Pretoria, protesting against British oppression and the annexation of Transvaal. Despite the Boer uprising, the British still maintained control. However, many Orange Free State and Cape Colony people backed the Boers in their campaign for the independence of the Transvaal state. By October 1880, it had become apparently clear that passive resistance from the Boers would only lead to fruitless results.

War ensues between the Boers and the British colonizers

The war was first triggered when a Boer called Piet Bezuidenhout refused to settle his tax because it was unduly increased. On November 11, 1880, British colonial authorities confiscated his wagon and tried selling it at an auction to pay the tax. However, hundred armed Boer men, led by Commandant-General Piet Cronjé, interrupted the auction and reclaimed the vehicle. The armed men fired back against colonial forces who were later sent after them.

On December 13, 1880, the Boer leaders declared the Transvaal Republic to be restored, and three days later, in Heidelberg, they flew the Vierkleur flag in defiance of British rule. The events of December 13, 1880, started the war.

The First Anglo-Boer War featured four main battles and many sieges. The battles occurred at Laing’s Nek, Schinus Hoogte, Laingsnek, and Majuba, while the sieges occurred at Pretoria, Rustenburg, Standerton, Potchefstroom, Lydenburg, and Rustenburg.

During the initial stages of the war, it was evident that the British colonizers had gravely underestimated the Boers and their resolve. They assumed that the military strength of their army would be insurmountable against the Boers. However, the Boers forces had the advantage of familiarity with the surrounding terrain. In addition, the Boers were more proficient with firearms than the British since they were primarily hunters and farmers.

Unfortunately for the British soldiers, their red uniforms made them easy targets, while their opponents wore regular civilian clothes, which provided them with adequate enemy cover.

The British suffered heavy losses during the battles at Schuinshoogte and Lainsnek. As a result, on February 16, 1881, British General Colley agreed that they would lay down their weapons if the Boers agreed to give up their request for the Transvaal’s independence.

However, the negotiations were delayed. On February 26, 1881, General Colley decided to launch an attack on the Boers at Majuba. His decision to initiate the offensive at Majuba Hill when discussions were underway was reckless, especially given their minimal strategic values.

Colley’s command and awareness of the situation seemed to decline as the Battle of Majuba Hill unfolded. Colley conveyed contradictory messages to the British troops at Mount Prospect using heliographs, asking for reinforcements and later claiming that the Boers were fleeing.

At the Battle of Majuba Hill February 27 1881, over 400 British forces made their way to the top of Majuba Hill to secure an advantage over the Boers. With no artillery, the British forces were soon overran by the Boers who stormed the mountain using natural cover. British forces, led by Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, were forced off the mountain. The British soldiers fled down the hillside completely humiliated by the Boers. That day, 92 British soldiers died, including General Colley, who was shot in the head. 134 British soldiers sustained injuries and about 58 were taken prisoners. Image: the Battle of Majuba on February 27, 1881

Many British soldiers, including General Colley, died due to his poor leadership. In addition, the Boers only lost one soldier, compared to Britain’s almost 200 killed and injured. The Boers lost just one soldier with six injuries.

The humiliating British loss at Majuba Hill ended the First Anglo-Boer War and ushered in a temporary peace.

Did you know: The Dutch word for ‘Farmer’ is ‘Boer’?

Strength of the Boer fighters

The First Boer War ensued after the Boers declared independence from Britain. The Boers had no army, instead they were made of militia men who organized themselves into units called commandos. Those units were then placed under an elected officer.

As a result of their farming and hunting activities, the Boer fighters had become expert marksmen. When hostilities broke out, men between the ages 16 and 60, under the Kommando system, were conscripted into the militia. The fighters were required to come along with their won weapon, hunting rifle and horses.

The Boer forces used weapons like the single-shot breech-loading rifle, usually the .450 Westley Richards that had an accuracy of more than 500 yards. Other weapons that they used included the Martini-Henry and the Swiss Vetterli.

The Boer fighters wore everyday clothes, including khaki farming clothes. This attire of theirs allowed them to blend into the landscape and avoid British fire. And since they had no bayonets attached to their rifle, they avoided close combat.

British forces and their brightly colored uniforms

Following its defeat, the British ended its Redcoat uniforms, a military attire that was worn during the American Revolutionary War. The British army began wearing khaki uniform.

During the war, British infantry forces wore red jackets, dark blue trousers and white pith helmets. The Royal Gunners wore the traditional blue jackets. If their goal was to avoid being noticed by the expert Boer marksmen, then the British made a huge mistake. The British forces stood out like a sore thumb in battle.

The Martini-Henry single-shot breech-loading rifle with a bayonet was one of the common weapons used by the British colonial forces.


All in all, about 400 British soldiers perished during the First Boer War. An additional 400 or so British troops sustained varying degree of injuries. On the other hand, the Boers lost less than 30 men, with slightly over 50 wounded.

Aftermath & Effects

The Boers and the British signed a peace treaty on March 23, 1881. Image – Peace talks between Paul Kruger and Sir Evelyn Wood in O’Neil’s Cottage near Amajuba Hill in March 1881

After the war, the British government, led by Prime Minister William Gladstone, understood that further war actions would incur high costs and army reinforcements. So, with less interest in fighting a distance and very costly war, the British pursued the path of peace.

On March 6, 1881, Sir Evelyn Wood of Britain signed and agreed to a truce to all hostilities with the Boers. On March 23, 1881, at O’Neil’s Cottage, South African leader Paul Kruger and Wood signed a peace treaty, officially ending the war.

Under the peace treaty (i.e. The Pretoria Convention), the British agreed to withdraw its forces from Boer territory and grant Boer full self-governance in the Transvaal under Britain’s suzerainty. In exchange, the Boers were required to accept British monarch’s nominal authority and dominance over African issues, native territories, and international ties.

The Transvaal Parliament (i.e. Volksraad) approved the Pretoria Convention on October 25, 1881, after it was signed on August 3, 1881.

For some time, the Boers seemed content with the treaty that maintained British suzerainty over the Transvaal but did not fully restore its independence.

After hostilities ended in 1881, the South African Republic, known in Dutch as Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR), was granted self-governance. Image – Boer family traveling by covered wagon circa 1900

However, in 1884, the Pretoria Convention was replaced by the London Convention (in 1884) after the withdrawal of British forces, which provided complete independence, autonomy, and self-governance, although still maintaining British authority over international affairs.

Some of the signatories at the convention included British colonial administrator Hercules Robinson, ZAR military officer and later politician Nicolaas Smit, and ZAR leader Paul Kruger.

Other interesting facts on the history of the First Boer War

It is a known fact the First Boer War was triggered by a rebellion mounted by the Boers of the Transvaal against Britain’s attempts to bring the republic into the South African confederation. However, unbeknownst to many people, there were some members of the Boer community that were loyalist and staunch supporters of the British cause. The following are other interesting facts about the First Boer War:

  • At the Battle at Bronkhorstspruit on December 20, 1880, Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Anstruther and his men of about 120 were fired at by the Boers. 56 British forces were killed and 92 wounded during the ambush. Only a few Boers died that day. The Boers were led by Commandant Frans Joubert – brother of General Piet Jouebert.
  • Aside the Battle of Majuba (on February 27 1881), other famous battles of the war include: Laing’s Nek on January 28, 1881, and Ingogo River on February 8, 1881.
  • One of the reasons why the British had to call for a truce was because it was afraid that anti-British sentiments could engulf the entire region.
  • During the war, it was obvious that the Boers had superior fighting tactics. Britain’s disastrous showing prompted it to revamp its army, including military tactics, training and command.
  • In history, the First Boer War is often overshadowed by the Second Boer War, a much more brutal and protracted war that ensued between 1899 and 1902. Unlike the first Anglo-Boer conflict, the British emerged the victor in the Second Boer War and thereafter took control of the region.
  • The First Boer War was the first conflict since the American Revolutionary War in the 1770s where Britain had to come to the negotiating table and accept a deal that was not in its interest.
  • Some of the notable Boer military officers that fought in the war include: Piet Joubert, Nicolaas Smit, and Piet Cronje. On the British side, it was George Colley and William Bellairs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *