Role of the Naval Brigade in the Transvaal, 1881

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Role of the Naval Brigade in the Transvaal, 1881

Postby Liz » 22 Jul 2009 04:35

This is one of several posts I am making in the interests of improving our coverage of the role of the Victorian navy and the conflicts it took part in. This particular post draws on W H G Kingston's Our Sailors: Gallant Deeds of the British Navy during Victoria's reign.

Mr Kingston died in 1880 so his writing does not benefit from modern perspectives and technologies, but it remains very easy to read. Many of his works have been digitised as part of Project Gutenberg, to download this particular title in full go to

After Kingston died in 1880 many of his works continued to be updated, including this one. The writer/editor of this later material is not stated but I'd guess it was his wife Agnes Kinloch Kingston, who produced a number of the titles published under her husband's name (a common practice in the era).

W H B Kingston wrote wrote:
Chapter Twenty Eight... 1881

Two years after the conclusion of the Zulu war, when the troops who had been hurried from England to take part in that campaign had for the most part returned, and the country was almost deserted of troops, the Boers, saved by our arms from all danger of a native rising, longed again for independence, and they determined to have it. They had, in fact, never acquiesced in the act of annexation. At the time, the residents in the towns had desired it for the sake of law and order, and in the general helplessness of the State many of the country Boers acquiesced, and to many it seemed the only way to save the country from the Zulu. But it was expected and promised that some form of self-government would be left to the Dutch community. As time went on, the discontent grew, and it was fomented by the speeches of party leaders in England, where the Liberal party were violently attacking the colonial policy of Lord Beaconsfield; and Mr Gladstone, referring to the Boers’ country, actually said, that if the acquisition was as valuable as it was valueless, nevertheless he would repudiate it. When Mr Gladstone came into office, the Boers, who did not understand the ethics of election campaigns, expected him to reverse an act which he repudiated; and when they found that though he disapproved the act he did not intend to revoke it, they saw that they must take up arms, thinking that their cause would have many supporters among the English, who would put pressure upon the Government to give way,—a view which subsequent events proved to be correct.

The burghers have always objected to paying taxes even to their own republic, and naturally the opposition to our rule presented itself, in the first place, by a resistance to the payment of taxes. Meetings assembled, at which rebellious speeches were uttered; and the rising commenced by an attack upon the English at Potchefstroom, the investment of the garrisons of Pretoria, Leydenburg, Standerton, and other positions, and by an attack upon a column of the 94th on their way from Leydenburg to Pretoria, ending with the slaughter or captivity of the whole force. The instant the news arrived at Pietermaritzburg, the capital, Sir George Colley, the governor, commenced preparations for marching to the frontier, and the ships in harbour were called upon to furnish a naval contingent. A hundred and fifty bluejackets and marines were landed and marched rapidly to Newcastle, an English town within a few miles of the frontier of Natal.

At the attack upon the Dutch lines at Laing’s Nek, the Naval Brigade were in reserve, and took no active part in the engagement. But on the 26th of February a portion of them accompanied General Colley on his night march to Majuba Hill. This mountain was situate on the flank of the Boer position. The Dutch were in the habit of occupying it during the daytime with their videttes, but these at night fell back, leaving the place open to the British assault.

All through the night the troops, who with the bluejackets numbered between 500 and 600 men, laboured across an extremely difficult country; but, after encountering immense fatigue and difficulty, they reached the top of Majuba Hill before sunrise. It was not until two hours later that the Boer videttes, advancing to occupy their usual look-out, found the English in position. The Boers at once perceived the danger, as their position was made untenable by the possession of Majuba Hill by the English. Had the force left in camp been sufficiently strong to threaten a direct attack at this moment, the Boers would doubtless have fled: but the paucity of numbers there prevented any demonstration being made in favour of the defenders of Majuba Hill, and the Dutch were able to use their whole force against these.

Surrounding the hill, and climbing upwards towards the precipitous summit, they kept up for some hours a heavy fire upon the defenders. Presently this lulled, and the garrison thought that the attack had ceased. The Dutch were, however, strongly reinforcing their fighting line, creeping among the bushes and gathering a strong force on the side of the hill, unseen by the British. Suddenly these made an attack, and this in such force that the defenders at the threatened point fell back in haste before they could be reinforced from the main body, who were lying in a hollow on the top of the small plateau which formed the summit of the mountain.

The first to gain the summit were rapidly reinforced by large numbers of their countrymen, and these, covering their advance with a tremendous fire of musketry, rushed upon the British position. The defence was feeble. Taken by surprise, shot down in numbers by the accurate firing of the Boers, attacked on all sides at once, the garrison failed to defend their position, and in a moment the Boers were among them. At this point a bayonet charge would have turned defeat into a victory, but there were no officers left to command, all had been picked off by the accurate shooting of the Boers, and the soldiers were panic-stricken. All cohesion became lost, and in a few minutes the whole of the defenders of the position were either shot down or taken prisoners, with the exception of a few who managed to make their escape down the side of the hill and to lie concealed among the bushes, making their way back to camp during the night. Sir George Colley stood still, and was shot down at close range as the men ran down the hill.

This was the only affair in which the Naval Brigade were engaged during the war, as, shortly afterwards, just as they were hoping to retrieve the disasters which had befallen the force,—the reinforcements from England having now come up to the spot,—peace was made, the Transvaal was surrendered to the Boers, and the sacrifices made and the blood which had been shed were shown to have been spent in vain. The intense disappointment of the troops at this summary and unexpected termination of the campaign was fully shared by the bluejackets and marines.

The defeat at Majuba Hill was a great blow to British prestige, but it was one that, in the course of the war which all the world expected to follow, could have been speedily retrieved, but the effect upon the Dutch must have remained. It seemed, indeed, as if in fighting for freedom they were truly invincible, and as if they could withstand the power of Great Britain, and defeat it, just as their fathers, a few hundred in number, had withstood Dingaan and defeated his thousands of warriors. This impression was greatly strengthened by the action of the British Government.

The Liberal party in England had undertaken the war with very little fervour, to many the cause of the Boer was the cause of freedom, and the sight of a small peasant nation, armed as it then was only with rifles, rising against the power of Great Britain, appealed to the sentiment of many people, to whom the great popular orator had repeatedly declared that the act of annexation was an act of tyranny.

Still the war was the act of their great leader, and had therefore been supported; moreover, regarded as a military matter only, the defeat was of no importance; the various British garrisons in the country were manfully holding their own; Sir Evelyn Wood was gathering sufficient force to take action; he held, he said, the Boers in the hollow of his hand,—so the war must go on, and Sir F (now Lord) Roberts was sent out to take command.

Mr Gladstone now suddenly changed his mind; further prosecution of the war, he said, would be “sheer blood-guiltiness.”

He gave the Boers their independence, but they and all the world noted that he did not discover the blood-guiltiness of the war before the defeat, and they drew their inferences; and to their dislike of British rule, added a contempt for British courage, which led their leaders into a course of action which culminated in an ambition to substitute Dutch for British throughout South Africa, and thus brought down upon the two republics the ruin and disasters of the great war of 1899-1901.
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Re: Role of the Naval Brigade in the Transvaal, 1881

Postby Peter » 10 Jun 2011 12:27

There are some references to the Naval Brigade in Volume 3 of Creswicke, Louis, South Africa and the Transvaal War, Edinburgh, T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1900.

(There also may be in the other volumes. I didn’t check)

All eight volumes are available on Internet Archive: vol.1 [] (1900), vol.2 (1900), vol.3 (1900), vol.4 (1900), vol.5 (1900), vol.6 (1900), vol.7 (1900), vol.8 [] (1900).

There is a photograph of a “Naval Field Gun” team from Creswicke posted on Pagan555's flickr photostream, Set: South Africa and the Transvaal War, ... 96/detail/.
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