German military in German East Africa, 1909.

German military in German East Africa, 1909.

Gräfin Bülow von Dennewitz, Tanzania, 1910-1912

Gräfin Bülow von Dennewitz, Tanzania, 1910-1912

Woman (armed) with child and dog. British colony of Kenya, 1953.

Woman (armed) with child and dog. British colony of Kenya, 1953.

(1901) The British Ugandan protectorate.

(1901) The British Ugandan protectorate.

Christian missionaries with Africans, date unknown.

Christian missionaries with Africans, date unknown.

People standing next to Statue of Dr. David Livingstone - Victoria Falls, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)

People standing next to Statue of Dr. David Livingstone - Victoria Falls, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)

Colonial official carried in a hammoch by natives in the Belgian Congo

Colonial official carried in a hammoch by natives in the Belgian Congo

Portuguese troops in northern Angola during the Colonial War, 1972.

Portuguese troops in northern Angola during the Colonial War, 1972.

After Transvaal formally declared independence from the United Kingdom, the war began on 16 December 1880 with shots fired by Transvaal Boers at Potchefstroom. This led to the action at Bronkhorstspruit on 20 December 1880, where the Boers ambushed and destroyed a British Army convoy. From 22 December 1880 to 6 January 1881, British army garrisons all over the Transvaal became besieged.
Although generally called a war, the actual engagements were of a relatively minor nature considering the few men involved on both sides and the short duration of the combat, lasting some ten weeks of sporadic action.
The fiercely independent Boers had no regular army; when danger threatened, all the men in a district would form a militia organised into military units called commandos and would elect officers. Commandos being civilian militia, each man wore what he wished, usually everyday dark-grey, neutral-coloured, or earthtone khaki farming clothes such as a jacket, trousers and slouch hat. Each man brought his own weapon, usually a hunting rifle, and his own horses. The average Boer citizens who made up their commandos were farmers who had spent almost all their working life in the saddle, and, because they had to depend on both their horse and their rifle for almost all of their meat, they were skilled hunters and expert marksmen. Most of the Boers had single-shot breech loading rifle such as the Westley Richards, the Martini-Henry, or the Remington Rolling Block. Only a few had repeaters like the Winchester or the SwissVetterli. As hunters they had learned to fire from cover, from a prone position and to make the first shot count, knowing that if they missed, and in the time it took to reload, the game would be long gone. At community gatherings, they often held target shooting competitions using targets such as hens’ eggs perched on posts over 100 yards away. The Boer commandos made for expert light cavalry, able to use every scrap of cover from which they could pour accurate and destructive fire at the British with their breech loading rifles.
The British infantry uniforms at that date were red jackets, black trousers with red piping to the side, white pith helmets and pipe clayed equipment, a stark contrast to the African landscape. The Highlanders wore the kilt. The standard infantry weapon was the Martini-Henry single-shot breech loading rifle with a long sword bayonet. Gunners of the Royal Artillery wore blue jackets. This enabled the Boer marksmen easily to snipe at red-clad British troops from a distance. The Boers carried no bayonets leaving them at a substantial disadvantage in close combat, which they avoided as far as possible. Drawing on years of experience of fighting frontier skirmishes with numerous and indigenous African tribes, they relied more on mobility, stealth, marksmanship and initiative while the British emphasised the traditional military values of command, discipline, formation and synchronised firepower. The average British soldier was not trained to be a marksman and got little target practice. What shooting training British soldiers had was mainly as a unit firing in volleys on command.

After Transvaal formally declared independence from the United Kingdom, the war began on 16 December 1880 with shots fired by Transvaal Boers at Potchefstroom. This led to the action at Bronkhorstspruit on 20 December 1880, where the Boers ambushed and destroyed a British Army convoy. From 22 December 1880 to 6 January 1881, British army garrisons all over the Transvaal became besieged.

Although generally called a war, the actual engagements were of a relatively minor nature considering the few men involved on both sides and the short duration of the combat, lasting some ten weeks of sporadic action.

The fiercely independent Boers had no regular army; when danger threatened, all the men in a district would form a militia organised into military units called commandos and would elect officers. Commandos being civilian militia, each man wore what he wished, usually everyday dark-grey, neutral-coloured, or earthtone khaki farming clothes such as a jacket, trousers and slouch hat. Each man brought his own weapon, usually a hunting rifle, and his own horses. The average Boer citizens who made up their commandos were farmers who had spent almost all their working life in the saddle, and, because they had to depend on both their horse and their rifle for almost all of their meat, they were skilled hunters and expert marksmen. Most of the Boers had single-shot breech loading rifle such as the Westley Richards, the Martini-Henry, or the Remington Rolling Block. Only a few had repeaters like the Winchester or the SwissVetterli. As hunters they had learned to fire from cover, from a prone position and to make the first shot count, knowing that if they missed, and in the time it took to reload, the game would be long gone. At community gatherings, they often held target shooting competitions using targets such as hens’ eggs perched on posts over 100 yards away. The Boer commandos made for expert light cavalry, able to use every scrap of cover from which they could pour accurate and destructive fire at the British with their breech loading rifles.

The British infantry uniforms at that date were red jackets, black trousers with red piping to the side, white pith helmets and pipe clayed equipment, a stark contrast to the African landscape. The Highlanders wore the kilt. The standard infantry weapon was the Martini-Henry single-shot breech loading rifle with a long sword bayonet. Gunners of the Royal Artillery wore blue jackets. This enabled the Boer marksmen easily to snipe at red-clad British troops from a distance. The Boers carried no bayonets leaving them at a substantial disadvantage in close combat, which they avoided as far as possible. Drawing on years of experience of fighting frontier skirmishes with numerous and indigenous African tribes, they relied more on mobility, stealth, marksmanship and initiative while the British emphasised the traditional military values of command, discipline, formation and synchronised firepower. The average British soldier was not trained to be a marksman and got little target practice. What shooting training British soldiers had was mainly as a unit firing in volleys on command.

British South Africa

As the 18th century drew to a close, Dutch mercantile power began to fade and the British moved in to fill the vacuum. They seized the Cape in 1795 to prevent it from falling into French hands, then briefly relinquished it back to the Dutch (1803), before definitively conquering it in 1806. British sovereignty of the area was recognized at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

At the tip of the continent the British found an established colony with 25,000 slaves, 20,000 white colonists, 15,000 Khoisan, and 1,000 freed black slaves. Power resided solely with a white élite in Cape Town, and differentiation on the basis of race was deeply entrenched. Outside Cape Town and the immediate hinterland, isolated black and white pastoralists populated the country.

Like the Dutch before them, the British initially had little interest in the Cape Colony, other than as a strategically located port. As one of their first tasks they tried to resolve a troublesome border dispute between the Boers and the Xhosa on the colony’s eastern frontier. In 1820 the British authorities persuaded about 5,000 middle-class British immigrants (most of them “in trade”) to leave Great Britain and settle on tracts of land between the feuding groups with the idea of providing a buffer zone. The plan was singularly unsuccessful. Within three years, almost half of these 1820 Settlers had retreated to the towns, notably Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth, to pursue the jobs they had held in Britain.

While doing nothing to resolve the border dispute, this influx of settlers solidified the British presence in the area, thus fracturing the relative unity of white South Africa. Where the Boers and their ideas had before gone largely unchallenged, white South Africa now had two distinct language groups and two distinct cultures. A pattern soon emerged whereby English-speakers became highly urbanized  and dominated politics, trade, finance, mining, and manufacturing, while the largely uneducated Boers were relegated to their farms.

The gap between the British settlers and the Boers further widened with the abolition of slavery in 1834, a move that the Boers generally regarded as against the God-given ordering of the races. Yet the British settlers’ conservatism stopped any radical social reforms, and in 1841 the authorities passed a Masters and Servants Ordinance, which perpetuated white control. Meanwhile, numbers of British immigrants increased rapidly in Cape Town, in the area east of the Cape Colony (present-day Eastern Cape Province), in Natal. The discovery of diamonds at Kimberley and the subsequent discovery of gold in parts of the Transvaal, mainly around present-day Gauteng led to a rapid increase in immigration of fortune seekers from all parts of the globe, including Africa itself.

A blog dedicated to the history of the European colonization of Africa.

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