Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

Upon Majuba's Height

After the Transvaal was annexed to Britain, many British colonists went to make their homes there, and the country grew much more prosperous. But in spite of that most of the Boers were still discontented. As months and years went on and they saw no chance of regaining their freedom quietly they made up their minds to fight for it. As their leaders they chose three men, Kruger, Joubert, and Pretorius, the son of that Andries Pretorius who had been first President. Then as Pretoria was in the hands of the British they chose the town of Heidelberg as their capital. And there on Dingaan's day, 16th December 1880, the flag of the Republic was once more hoisted, and that very day fighting began.

The Boers set out to fight in the spirit of the old Puritans. To the God of battles they committed their cause, sure that He would fight for them. When the Boers won a battle the British said it was because they knew the country and could shoot well, but the Boer said that it was God's will, and from the rejoicing camp! arose the sound of prayer and psalm-singing.

In the first skirmish the British were beaten, and afterwards many misfortunes fell upon them. On January 1881 there was a battle fought at a place called Laing's Nek, a ridge between Majuba Hill and some other hills running along the banks of the Buffalo River. Here the Boers were encamped in a very strong position, and when the British attacked they were driven back with great loss.

It seemed then to the commander-in-chief that there was but one way of dislodging the Boers from their strong position. That was by taking possession of Majuba Hill, and from there firing down upon their camp until they were obliged to march away. This the British leader resolved to do.

So one dark, moonless night the commander-in-chief with about six hundred men, led by Kaffir guides, began the steep ascent. On and on up the rugged slopes the men scrambled in silence. Breathless and panting they stumbled on over boulders and stones, now hanging on to shrubs and bushes, now crawling on hands and knees. They crept round rocks and clambered along sheer precipices where one false step would have sent them headlong.

Every few yards the leaders whistled softly and the men paused to gather breath. Then on again they struggled, laden with guns and ammunition, picks and shovels, and food for three days. Up and up they went, until after a climb of five hours the first men reached the top. Panting and exhausted they flung themselves down to rest. Then in the darkness each man sought his own regiment.

There was not much time for rest, for already the darkness was fading, and as early dawn streaked the sky point after point of light shone out in the Boer camp two thousand feet below. One by one the lights shone, grew bright, and faded again in the growing sunlight. The Boer camp was all astir, and above them the British soldiers were already rejoicing in the thoughts of victory. But although they had gained a point of vantage they had brought no rockets up with them with which to shell the Boer camp. It seems difficult to understand what good the position was without cannon.

Very soon the Boers, looking up at the hill, saw the British there. At first they were filled with dismay, and thought that they must abandon their camp. Then they took courage again, and resolved to storm the hill. And so from bush to bush, from boulder to boulder, they crept up. They went carefully and fearfully at first, but when they found that the British bullets which whizzed and whistled around them passed over their heads, doing no harm, they gained courage. Faster and faster up the hill they came, firing all the time with deadly aim. At last they reached the summit and charged, and the British, suddenly seized with panic, fled down the way that they had come. And now the path up which they had toiled so painfully the night before was strewn with dead. And upon the hill-top, fighting foremost among his men, fell the commander, Sir George Colley. "He fought well," said the Boers as they stood beside his dead body. "He did not think that we were wrong, but he was a soldier and he must obey orders."

He needs no tears who, in the van

And foremost of the fight,

Met death as should an Englishman

Upon Majuba's height.

The rout was complete. Two hundred or more of the British lay dead or wounded, while only one of the Boers was killed. "They fought like true heroes," said their general, "but our God who gave us the true victory and protected us, exceeded gloriously all acts of courage."

Majuba was a great disaster for the British, but it by no means ended the war. Pretoria and other towns were besieged, but the Boers were not strong enough to take them, and now many more troops came from home to help the British. But when the news of Majuba reached England a message was sent out to the new general, Sir Evelyn Wood, telling him to make a truce. The truce became a peace, and the Transvaal was once more acknowledged to be a free state. But although the Transvaal was really free again, Queen Victoria was acknowledged as Overlord or suzerain. This treaty of peace was called the Convention of Pretoria, and was signed on August 8, 1881. Three years later another agreement was made giving back to the Transvaal every freedom except the right to make treaties with foreign states, so that the overlordship of Queen Victoria was little more than a mere form.

Once more the Transvaal took its old name of South African Republic, and Mr Kruger became President. The flag of the Republic was hoisted, and the Union Jack, which had been run up so light-heartedly four years before, was hauled down and solemnly buried by those who grieved that British rule in the Transvaal was over. For although the Boers were pleased with the change, many of the British settlers who had come into the land since 1877 were very angry, and declared that they would never rest until British rule was restored. Many others, indeed, who thought that to annex the Transvaal had been a blunder, thought that it was a still greater blunder to restore it after the disaster of Majuba. To them it seemed a disgrace to British arms.

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