Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

The Dutch Republics in South Africa

"Later shall rise a people, sane and great,

Forged in strong fires, by equal war made one,

Telling old battles over without hate."

— Kipling

T HE diamond-fields had been ceded to England for a large sum of money, but this had not been done, without public protest on the part of many influential burghers of the Orange Free State. In the Transvaal, the financial embarrassments were greater, and the Zulus under Cetewayo, the successor of Dingan, threatened the frontiers of the state. An English commissioner, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, was sent to Pretoria to arrange matters, and on his recommendation, the Transvaal was once again placed under British rule. There can be no doubt that, however strong his conviction of the necessity of this action, it was opposed to the wishes of the great majority of the burghers, and that no sufficient opportunity was given to them of expressing their views.

On April 11, 1877, in the market-place of Pretoria, he read the proclamation declaring that the Transvaal had passed into the hands of the Queen of England.

For a time after this, all went well: Cetewayo promised peace, the country's debts were paid, trade revived, and pressing needs were relieved. Then came a boundary dispute with the Zulu king, and neither Natal nor the Transvaal was safe.

"Why do the white people start at nothing? I have not yet begun to kill. It is the custom of our nation, and I shall not depart from it."

This was the answer of Cetewayo, when remonstrated with by the English.

Peace was no longer possible, and in January 1879 an English army, under Lord Chelmsford, crossed the Tugela and entered Zululand. Although he had heard of the brave and reckless daring of the Zulus, Lord Chelmsford underrated their strength. On the morning of January 22, he moved out of his camp at Isandhlwana—the "little hand"—leaving it open and unprotected, with 700 Englishmen and some native soldiers. Towards mid-day, the British soldiers saw to their dismay 20,000 Zulus advancing towards the camp in full battle array. There was no thought of surrender. Back to back stood the British soldiers and fired coolly on the Zulu warriors. As long as they had ammunition, they kept the foe at bay. The Zulus fell by hundreds; they "dashed against the few white troops, as the breaking of the sea against a rock." But at last the Zulus overmastered them. "Fix bayonets, men, and die like British soldiers!" It was the last order. One more desperate struggle, and all was over. When Lord Chelmsford returned towards evening, his brave soldiers lay dead on the field of Isandhlwana.

The victorious Zulu army was now free to sweep into Natal. But the Tugela rolled between the black men's country and the white, and at the ford—Rorke's Drift—stood 130 Englishmen under two young officers. On the afternoon of this fatal 22nd, two men came furiously riding from Isandhlwana to Rorke's Drift, with the news of the sudden disaster, which meant that a huge Zulu army was advancing rapidly toward the ford.

In a moment, the young officers had decided to hold the drift at all costs. With biscuit-boxes and sacks of maize, they made their defences as best they could. Two hours later, swarms of Zulu warriors were upon them. All through the evening, the gallant little band kept some 3000 Zulus at bay. Night fell, and still they fought on—fought till four o'clock in the morning, when the Zulus gave up the contest, and the little band of heroic Englishmen stood victorious at Rorke's Drift. They had saved Natal from invasion, they had redeemed the defeat at Isandhlwana.

Strong reinforcements were now sent out from England to break the Zulu power. With a desire to fight under the British flag, and to gain experience in warfare, the young Prince Imperial of France, Louis Napoleon, sailed with the forces.

How the heir of the Napoleons was, one day, overtaken by a band of Zulus, and killed before he could escape, is a tragic story in the annals of the war.

Lord Chelmsford now advanced into Zululand with a large army. The battle of Ulundi was fought, Cetewayo was utterly defeated, and fled from his capital. The power of the Zulus was now broken for ever, the king was taken prisoner, and to-day, Zululand, a small territory on the coast, forms part of the Colony of Natal.

Delivered from the Zulus, the Boers were even more anxious than before to secure their independence. England's uncertainty in the past, led them to hope that she might once more be induced to change her mind; but she refused to withdraw her influence.

A powerful champion now arose to lead the Transvaal Boers. Paul Kruger had driven his father's sheep northwards in the Great Trek of 1836. He had grown up fearless and free, with other farmers' sons; he had hunted and fought with the rest of them, until his courage marked him above his fellows. A field-cornet at the age of twenty, he soon rose to be commandant. He had been chosen one of the three messengers to go to England with the new demand for independence, and he now took a leading part in securing that independence.

On December 16 (Dingan's Day), 1880, together with Pretorius and Joubert, he hoisted the national flag at Pretoria, and proclaimed the independence of the Transvaal. Then the whole mass of Boers rose and attacked the small bodies of English troops scattered through the country. The long-threatened storm had burst. The Governor of Natal, Sir George Colley, raised hurriedly what troops he could and marched northward to relieve the English garrisons in the Transvaal. But his way was barred by a strong force of Boers, under Joubert, at Laing's Nek, the entrance of the pass over the Drakensberg leading from Natal to the Transvaal.

On January 28, 1881, the British troops tried to storm the pass, only to be repulsed with heavy loss. A few days later, on the Ingogo heights, above Laing's Nek, they were again defeated. Sir George Colley, smarting under disaster and failure, and eager to retrieve his losses, now made a plan, which ended in his defeat and death on Majuba Hill.

At dead of night, with some 400 men, he left the British camp and began the long laborious climb up the mountain-side. Dawn was breaking, when they reached the top. Rising high above the ridges of Laing's Nek, Majuba Hill commanded the surrounding country. Below them lay the Boer camp. It was Sunday morning. Suddenly the Boers discovered the British soldiers in their red coats standing against the sky-line on the summit of Majuba. At first it seemed as if the Boer position was hopeless; then some of the bravest among them offered to climb the hill and dislodge the English. Undaunted and unopposed, they climbed upwards, taking cover as they went. It was one of the finest things ever attempted; and the personal bravery of the Boers was beyond all praise. So secure did they feel on the summit of Majuba Hill, that the English had prepared no defences. Suddenly the small Boer detachment stood at the top, pouring a deadly fire upon the English, who were utterly surprised. Entirely demoralised, the British forces broke and fled down the steep sides of the mountain. Sir George Colley was shot at once, and the tragedy was complete.

"The troops fought like heroes," said Joubert simply; "but God gave us the victory."

Then, once more, England changed her mind. Mr. Gladstone was Prime Minister, when it was determined to give back the Transvaal to the Boers, subject to the suzerainty of the Queen. This was in 1881, and from this time, under the Presidency of Mr. Paul Kruger, the Transvaal State pursued its uncertain course till war again broke out in 1899.

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