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Majuba Hill, battle of

Majuba Hill, battle of, 1881. Majuba Hill was the only major battle of the first Boer war (1880–1), which arose from the British annexation of the Republic of the Transvaal in 1877. In December 1880 the Boers rose in revolt, laying siege to isolated British garrisons. A relief column of 1,100 soldiers and sailors led by Major-General Sir George Pomeroy-Colley was checked at Laing's Nek (pass) in January 1881. The area is dominated by Majuba Hill, rising 1,100 feet above it. At night, on 26 February, Pomeroy-Colley led a force of about 400 men onto the hill, failing to reach the summit by dawn. The defending Boer force of 3,000 men also sent contingents onto the hill, and in the ensuing fight the British were driven off with 287 casualties compared to 7 Boers. Pomeroy-Colley was killed, and (the future General Sir) Ian Hamilton lost the use of his hand. By the convention of Pretoria of 5 April the Transvaal regained its independence.

Stephen Badsey

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Majuba Hill

Majuba Hill (məjōō´bə), E KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, in the Drakensberg Range. On Feb. 27, 1881, a British force of 500 was routed there by Boer (Afrikaner) troops under the command of P. J. Joubert.

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Majuba Hill

MAJUBA HILL

The vexed question of taxation led to a declaration of independence from British rule by the South African Boer states on 16 December 1880. Four days later at Bronkhorstspruit Commandant Frans Joubert intercepted and destroyed a British army column. Major-general Sir George Pomeroy-Colley (1835–1881), the British governor, was sent reinforcements and by 24 January 1881 the newly formed Natal Field Force numbered 65 officers and 1,397 men and was ready to move north from the town of Newcastle.

Boer military organization was based on the commando, a unit drawn from a given locality in which all males between sixteen and sixty years of age were obliged to serve, bringing their own horse and rations and often their own rifle. These ad-hoc formations elected their own officers and when given orders might cooperate or not, as they deemed prudent. All were skilled in their use of arms.

The border between Natal and the Transvaal is north of the pass called Laing's Nek, which is over-looked from three miles to the southwest by the mountain, some 2,000 feet higher, called Majuba Hill and from the east by a feature called, in British reports, Table Mountain. About four miles southeast of Majuba, the road to the north runs past a place named Mount Prospect. On 1 January 1881 the Boers, under Piet Joubert (1831–1900), occupied and fortified Laing's Nek. General Colley's force moved out of Newcastle on 24 January and arrived in rain and mist at Mount Prospect two days later. The weather prevented movement on 27 January. By that time Joubert had some 1,000 men on the high ground on either side of the Nek. On 28 January the British attacked Table Mountain, but the Boer left easily repulsed the Mounted Squadron, while the red-coated 58th Regiment found themselves facing the Boer trenches, from which volleys of rifle fire raked them. The colors were saved and the retreat was made in good order, but 84 men had been killed and 110 wounded. Colley's staff, ostentatiously riding into action, had been almost completely destroyed.

On 8 February the Boer forces of Nicolaas Smit (1837–1896) attacked a supply column's escort between Newcastle and Mount Prospect and inflicted serious losses on them with accurate and persistent rifle fire. The action was broken off when thunderstorms broke out, and during the night the British managed to withdraw in silence. Next day Smit returned to find his enemy gone.

As fresh British forces arrived from India, Colley was, to his disgust, instructed to negotiate an armistice. Joubert agreed, but the news failed to arrive before the next battle. In the meantime Colley had decided to occupy Majuba, presumably in order to dominate the Nek.

As midnight approached on 26 February, Colley himself led a force of 595 officers and men out of Mount Prospect and up the flank of Nkwelo Mountain to gain the ridge leading to Majuba. He secured the line of communication as they climbed and 405 men reached the dished summit of Majuba in darkness. Dawn broke to reveal that the full perimeter had not been occupied, a stony ridge having been mistaken as the northern edge. The 92nd Highlanders pushed forward, thinning the line further and establishing an exposed post on Gordon's Knoll, a hillock dominating the northern side. Colley and his staff made a leisurely inspection as the sun rose and made no further provision for the defense of the position.

The Boers reacted by sending men both to Majuba and the Nek, but when they found the pass peaceful, they concentrated on the mountain. While the older men maintained fire from below on their enemy silhouetted on the skyline, the younger, in two groups, worked their way up the gullies that shielded them from observation. In spite of warnings, nothing was done to strengthen the five-man outpost on the Knoll, which was taken by seventy Boers at 12:45 p.m. Their covering fire allowed their comrades to secure the northern slope. A counterattack by the British reserves collapsed and the stony ridge became the front line. Scattered thinly over the terrain, the soldiers' will to resist evaporated. The end came when, threatened by a Boer flanking movement, a wild rush took the survivors back off the mountain, allowing the Boers to pick them off from above. Only the 92nd (later the Gordon) Highlanders stood on the left of the line, commanded by the defiant Lieutenant Hector Archibald MacDonald (1853–1903) who, when he was one of only two men left unwounded, resorted to his fists in a final act of defiance. Colley was killed and thus spared the disgrace of having commanded the British in a humiliating defeat in which they suffered casualties of 85 killed, 119 wounded, and 35 missing or taken prisoner. The fieldcraft and marksmanship of the Boers, who lost one man killed and six wounded, had revealed the weakness of tactics devised to overcome poorly-equipped foes. Peace was agreed on 21 March.

See alsoBoer War; Imperialism; South Africa.

bibliography

Bond, Brian, "The South African War 1880–1881." In Victorian Military Campaigns. London, 1967.

Castle, Ian. Osprey Campaign Series 45: Majuba 1881. London, 1996.

Lehmann, Joseph H. The First Boer War. London, 1972.

Troup, Freda. South Africa: An Historical Introduction. London, 1972.

Martin F. Marix Evans

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