For Want of a Wagon

Prime Minister Gladstone, seen here killing the photographer with his mind. Photo Credit: London Stereoscopic Company.
British Prime Minister Gladstone, seen here killing the photographer with his mind.
Photo Credit: London Stereoscopic Company.

While the Anglo-Zulu War had ended in their favor, the British quickly learned that removing Cetshwayo had simply cut a regional ally from the picture. The result led Frere and the British to step onto another political rake. The Boer’s traditional enemies were now gone, and the Transvaal had essentially burned through the attached bailout loan the British had given for their compliance. The Transvaalers began to clamor for a return to the good old days when they were independent. One of our era’s most important men really starts to step into his own here. Paul Kruger would later become synonymous with the Boers as their mangy bearded leader, and his role here was to head a delegation asking now Prime Minister Gladstone to restore their national sovereignty. Gladstone had been in and out of power a few times already, and Transvaal’s annexation had been something he had opposed, mostly it seems because his arch nemesis was in favor of it. Now that he was back in the driver’s seat, he decided he really didn’t mind bringing the Boers to heel as much as he thought.

As London made it clear a return to nationhood wasn’t in the cards for the Transvaal, they coupled this with a deeply tone deaf approach to on the ground political developments. The Transvaalers were particularly ticked off by the new taxes put into place to administer the region. The Boers had always been opposed to just about everyone, and had resented taxes more than enough to keep their own states underfunded. When yet another Boer named Bezuidenhout refused to pay the new (and much higher) price, the local authorities tried to confiscate his wagon. In response the region’s Boers snatched the wagon, daring the authorities to arrest them. Sensibly recognizing that the hundred or so Boers had showed up packing their rifles, the local sheriff backed off. Events spiraled out of hand fast. Bezuidenhout might not seem like a common name to non-Afrikaners, but it was a historically loaded one. Another Bezuidenhout had been hanged by British authorities back in the 1830’s, helping to launch the Great Trek in the first place. This time our second Bezuidenhout is the match that sparks the First Boer War, though the British didn’t know it yet.

A breach loading Martini-Henry Rifle. Highly accurate, though slower to reload than clip fed rifles.
A breach loading Martini-Henry Rifle. Highly accurate, though slower to reload than clip fed rifles.

It’s worth taking a moment to assess what both sides were about to bring to this conflict. Though the Boers had no formal military, Boer culture revolved around firearms; and each Commando could pride themselves on owning a gun as good as anything in the British had. This ownership was sensibly rooted in the Boer’s own experience tussling with the locals. Weapons like bayonets only played to the strength of their enemies, so the Boers had adopted marksmanship as a social norm. Shooting competitions were a popular event at town gatherings, and relied on targets like eggs on fence posts a hundred yards off to thin out the best shooter. Additionally, the Boers had a remarkable grasp on modern tactics helped by their complete lack of any institutional or bureaucratic thinking. Leaders could only count on the Boers to follow orders if they saw the sense behind them, and it encouraged an officer’s corps that was both pragmatic and approachable. The Boers had no field uniform, so most wore the khakis and dark neutral colors that blended into the surrounding bushveld country. They also mostly owned horses, but didn’t utilize them for cavalry charges. Transvaal’s commandos fought from behind cover, and used their horses to move themselves to the best spot faster than their enemies could react.

Reenactors from the Anglo-Zulu war showcase their uniforms. "Shoot me" signs were optional. Photo Credit: Marc Carlson, Flickr.
Reenactors from the Anglo-Zulu war showcase their uniforms. “Shoot me” signs were optional.
Photo Credit: Marc Carlson, Flickr.

By contrast, the professional British army was well trained, disciplined, and sometimes well led. They also wore bright white helmets, crimson tunics, and marched in nice long columns. On a landscape of sandy brown bushveld, few things stood out more to the marksmen of the Boers. In spite of all their natural and learned advantages, the Boers were still guaranteed to lose if the British brought their full weight around. By 1880 the British Empire was a global one almost at its zenith. While the Boers outnumbered the local British garrison in the Transvaal three to one, this wasn’t even a drop in the bucket of the sum force Britain could bring to bear if needed. They had more than enough men to drown all of Transvaal’s Commandos in British blood if that’s what it took to win this conflict. As with most asymmetrical wars though, the Boers were hoping it wouldn’t come to that. If they could make themselves enough of a nuisance, the British would probably just throw up their hands and deal with the many other headaches that came with wearing the crown of empire.

The first sign of trouble the region’s authorities had was when a local spy was sent to look in on a rally one province’s Boers were throwing late in the year 1880. The British expected a couple hundred rabble rousers would be there to drink a few brews, grouse about the government, and mutter a few biblical phrases. What they got was an incredible 5,000 of the region’s 8,000 Boers, all there to declare their independence and put an end to British interference. Most had come with their families, and all of them with their guns. They wouldn’t have to wait too long to use them.

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