The Disaster at Majuba, 1881

The Battle of Majuba Hill during the First Boer War, had immense political and military significance to British armsand not only in South Africa. Its chief cause, writes Brian Bond, was a gross underestimation of the Boer’s tactical aptitude and courage.

Shortly after midday on Sunday, February 27th, 1881, Major-General Sir George Colley and a detachment of 354 men—including 64 sailors—were routed by an inferior Boer force in a supposedly impregnable position on the summit of Majuba Mountain, which they had occupied during the night. Colley himself was killed and only a handful of his men escaped to the British camp.

Though the numbers involved were small, this disaster to British arms had immense political and military significance. It caused Gladstone’s Government, already hesitant in pursuing the war, to make peace on terms favourable to the Transvaal Boers; exposed deep-seated weaknesses in British military tactics; and contributed, through its tonic effect on Boer self-confidence, to the much more serious struggle that began eighteen years later.

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