- The Transvaal Rebellion: The First Boer War, 1880–1881
"Majuba" no longer has the resonance it once had. This 1881 battlefield victory was long honored in Afrikaner South Africa as a symbol of the white tribe's resistance to Britain's abolition of their South African Republic (Transvaal) of 1852–77. Majuba was an early strike against British imperialism. In post-apartheid South Africa, however, new issues produce new icons. Nowadays visitors can take frequent ferries to tour Robben Island, Nelson Mandela's former prison in Cape Town's harbor, but the state no longer maintains Majuba as a historical site.
John Laband's new study, widely and deeply researched from printed and archival materials, is much needed, as Joseph Lehmann's excellent The First Boer War (1972) is now more than thirty years old. Laband has chosen his book's title carefully, for he sees the conflict in 1880–81 as a restricted regional rebellion rather than the "first war of independence." An indicator more of Boer resentments than of incipient nationalism, the conflict near the Transvaal-Natal border was—or should have been—a wake-up call to British incompetence to wage colonial wars against the kinds of fighters that the Illustrated London News derided as "undisciplined bands of yeomen" (157). Laband argues that Britain's military setbacks resulted both from Boer deadliness with small arms fire and from "the ingrained arrogance of the imperial stance" (139)—too many patronizing and contemptuous British officers making poor leadership decisions in the field.
The Transvaal Rebellion can be read profitably on two levels: general history and specialist military history. In a crisp, colorful writing style, Laband eases his readers into a description of Boer society and values and British governance of the Transvaal, an area home to only 35,000 Boers and 5,000 British in a vast sea of 750,000 Africans. Although both military systems were small (there were 1,800 British soldiers and 7,000 Boer commandos in the whole Transvaal) they were very different: the British were highly disciplined, drilled, and uniformed; the Boers were ruggedly individualistic. Britain's military rigidly separated officers from enlisted men; the Boers were self-activating egalitarians, although British officers thought of them as "country bumpkins in disreputable civilian clothes" (60). For Laband, one incident vividly illustrates the difference. In the British defeat at Ingogo the dead had to be hurriedly buried, yet British policy was always to bury officers separate from the rank and file. Thus, four days after the battle, a British detail returned to exhume the officers' bodies for later proper reburial; amid constant rain, mud, and scavenging vultures, "many of those opening the pits were violently sick at the disgusting work" (176). Laband also has an eye for irony and humor. As British losses mounted, for example, officers organized [End Page 571] group athletics in order to build morale; the mule race, reported Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, was "great fun" (176). Laband's sympathies seem to lie with the Afrikaners, yet he takes care to be scrupulously fair: while the Boer irregulars were often humane and generous to Britain's wounded or prisoners, he notes that on occasion they would ambush or fire on a white-flag party of Britons.
Much of Laband's book is pure military history. Readers eager to recreate, analyze, and critique battles will find fascinating his on-the-ground, sometimes nearly minute-by-minute accounts of the battles of Bronkhorstspruit, Laing's Nek, Ingogo, and Majuba, as well as the sieges of more than a half-dozen British forts throughout the Transvaal. While the book does contain ten handsome drawings and maps, more would have been welcome. The addition of engravings or portraits of the main British and Boer leaders would also have enhanced Laband's story.
The Boers' sieges of British forts led mostly to stalemates, but the "country bumpkins" were overwhelmingly successful on the battlefield. Eschewing the high casualties inherent in hand-to-hand fighting, "Boers...