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The First Anglo-Boer War (16 December 1880 - 23 March 1881)

Causes of the War

The First Anglo-Boer is also known as the First Transvaal War of Independence because the conflict arose between the British colonizers and the Boers from the Transvaal Republic or Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR). The Boers had some help from their neighbours in the Orange Free State.

There were several causes of the First Anglo-Boer War.

  • The expansion of the British Empire.
  • Problems within the Transvaal government.
  • The British annexation of the Transvaal.
  • The Boer opposition to British rule in the Transvaal.

The 4th Earl of Carnarvon was the British Secretary of State for the Colonies under Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who was premier from 1868 to 1880. At the time the British government wanted to expand the British Empire.

Carnarvon wanted to form a confederation of all the British colonies, independent Boer republics and independent African groups in South Africa under British control. By 1876 he realised that he would not be able to achieve his goal peacefully. He told Disraeli that: “By acting at once, we may ... acquire ... the whole Transvaal Republic after which the Orange Free State will follow.”

He was prepared to use force to make the confederation a reality, a fact that was proved by the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879.

Problems within the Transvaal Government

T.F. Burgers. © unknown

T. F. Burgers was the president of the Transvaal Republic from 1872 until its annexation in 1877. The Republic was in serious financial trouble, especially as a war had just started between the Boers and the Pedi under their leader, Sekhukhune, in the North Eastern Transvaal, and because the Boer people not paid their taxes.

The Transvaal public was disappointed with their leadership and although Sekhukhune agreed to peace in February 1877, and was willing to pay a fine to the Republic, it was too late. Carnarvon sent Sir Theophilus Shepstone, the former Secretary for Native Affairs in Natal, to the Transvaal as special commissioner. Shepstone arrived in the Transvaal on 22 January 1877 with 25 men as support. Initially, he was vague about his real purpose. He used the weakness in the Transvaal government by making the Boers aware of the dangers of a bankrupt state and focusing on the government’s lack of control over black people like the Pedi and the Zulu. This demoralised the Boers.

Burgers did very little tried to stop Britain from taking over the Transvaal. Shepstone had told Burgers what his intentions were by the end of January 1877 and Burgers tried to convince the Transvaal government to take the situation seriously, but they refused to see the urgency of the matter.

The British annexation of the Transvaal

Carnarvon thought that annexing the Transvaal would be the first step to confederation. English speaking people in the republic were positive towards the idea and the Boers were disappointed in their own government, which the thought would make it easier to convince them that they could not avoid annexation. Shepstone said that he had more than 3 000 signatures from people who wanted to be part of the British Empire.What he did not tell Carnarvon was that these were many more - the Boer population - who were against the idea and wanted to retain their independence.

On 12 April 1877 a proclamation of annexation was read out in Church Square in Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal Republic. There was no resistance and the Union Jack replaced the Vierkleur. The Transvaal Republic or Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) did not exist anymore, but was now the British Colony of the Transvaal Colony.

The Volksraad decided in May 1877 to send a delegation to England to make sure that the British government knew that most of the residents of the Transvaal Republic did not agree with the annexation but this delegation faild.. They also asked citizens not to resort to violence because this would create a negative impression in Britain.

The Boer opposition to British rule in the Transvaal

The flag of the Transvaal Republic or Zuid- Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR), or the Vierkleur (Four Colours).

Former President T. F. Burgers and other people loyal to the former Transvaal Republic objected to the annexation and Paul Kruger and E. J. P. Jorissen went to London, England, in 1877 to present their case to Carnarvon. They failed and in 1878 they took a petition with more than 6 500 signatures from Boers to London, but the British government insisted that the Transvaal remain a British possession.

Sir Theophilus Shepstone was now the administrator of the Transvaal Colony and he realised that running it was going to be much more difficult than annexing it. The British government had made promises to the Boers to allow them some self-government, but Shepstone was slow to initiate this process. The colony remained nearly bankrupt and British plans to build a railroad to Delagoa Bay had to be put on hold.

Shepstone became increasingly unpopular with the Colonial Office in London. British Native commissioners were trying to control the black people in the area, but they could not get Sekhukhune and the Pedi to pay the fine he owed to the Transvaal Republic because they did not have enough soldiers to force him to do so. Shepstone also failed to control the Zulus on the southeastern border of the colony and many farmers had to leave their farms. Sir Owen Lanyon replaced Shepstone as administrator in 1879. In September of the same year Sir Garnet Wolseley was appointed High Commissioner of South East Africa and governor of Natal and Transvaal.

The Anglo-Zulu War in 1879 was supposed to increase British standing in South Africa, but had the opposite effect. The Zulu and Pedi were both defeated by the British in 1879, but non-violent Boer opposition had grown. In January 1878 a large group of Boers gathered in Pretoria to protest against the annexation. Another Boer delegation had gone to London in 1877, but they also returned unsuccessful in 1879, even though they spoke to Sir Michael Hicks Beach, Carnarvon’s successor, who was far less committed to confederation.

The Boers had hoped that the election of the Liberal Party in Britain in April 1880 would mean independence for the Transvaal, but the new Prime Minister, W. E. Gladstone, insisted on maintain British control in Pretoria. The Volksraad of the Orange Free State, south of the Vaal River backed the Transvaal Boers in their call for the independence of the Transvaal in May 1879. Even Boers in the Cape Colony gave moral support to their comrades in the north. In October 1880 a newspaper from Paarl in the Cape Colony took the view that: “Passive resistance is now becoming futile.”