Reign of Queen Victoria - M. B. Synge

In South Africa

It is curious how a single event sometimes seems to alter the whole course of history. In 1867 a little Dutch child was found playing with a brilliant pebble given to him by a native boy from the Orange River. It was discovered to be a diamond worth 500! Two years later, a Dutch farmer gave 400 for a famous diamond known as the "Star of South Africa"; it was sold later for nearly thirty times that sum.

When the discovery became known, a rush was made for the banks of the Vaal River by hundreds of adventurers from all countries, and the quiet, pastoral life of the Dutch colonists was turned into a feverish search for riches. A new town—Kimberley—sprang up in the midst of the diamond fields, and a new era opened in South Africa.

Zulu Kraal


Up to this time the Orange Free State had claimed the adjoining country north of Cape Colony, called Griqualand West. It was bought from them by Britain in 1876. A year later the Transvaal was, somewhat unexpectedly, annexed to the British possessions in South Africa with a declaration that "so long as the sun shone the Transvaal would remain British territory". Britain had thus interposed with the idea of helping the Dutch farmers, or Boers, against their fierce neighbours, the Zulus, who threatened to overrun the country. For a time after the annexation there was peace.

Vaal River


Then Cetewayo, King of the Zulus, grew aggressive, and threatened Natal. Britain peremptorily ordered him to disband his forces within a month.

Thirty days passed and there was no answer. Then (it was January 1879) the British forces, consisting of British soldiers, colonists, and Basutos, crossed the Tugela River, and entered the land of the Zulus, little thinking they were to sustain one of the few great defeats in the modern history of the Empire.



Although the fierce fighting power of the Zulus was well known, the English commander, Lord Chelmsford, underrated their strength, when he moved out of camp at Isandhlwana with the bulk of his force, bound for Cetewayo's capital, Ulundi, leaving some 3,000 men, half of them being whites, in an unfortified camp. Down into that camp suddenly burst some 15,000 Zulu warriors, who had evaded Lord Chelmsford.

In vain our men stood back to back, firing on their savage foes; so long as ammunition lasted they fought with all the courage of despair. The Zulus fell thick, but they "dashed against the few white troops, as the breaking of the sea against a rock". At last the white men were overwhelmed.

"Fix bayonets and die like British soldiers"—thus rang out the last command, and almost to a man they died.

When Lord Chelmsford returned towards evening, he found 50 officers and 1,000 men stretched dead on the field of Isandhlwana, while guns, rifles, wagons, oxen, and stores had been carried off by the Zulus. It seemed now as if nothing could prevent the triumphant Zulus from entering the fair garden colony of Natal. But between Zululand and Natal rolled the River Tugela, only to be crossed at one point known as Rorke's Drift.



The defence of this ford by a handful of British soldiers has been called one of the finest achievements of the century. For here some hundred men, under two young English officers, held the fort in the face of fearful odds, right through the long evening and night succeeding the battle of Isandhlwana.

Hearing that a large body of Zulus were hastening towards the river, they prepared to defend the ford at all costs. They made parapets with bags of "mealies" and biscuit boxes, and they were hardly ready when swarms of Zulu warriors had begun to storm their defences. From behind their parapet the little band of heroes held the Drift; night fell and found them still fighting for it, till at last, about four o'clock next morning, at the approach of Lord Chelmsford's column, the Zulus gave up and fled, leaving some 400 dead bodies on the field. So the British saved Natal, redeemed their prestige after the recent defeat, and made the obscure ford of Rorke's Drift immortal.

Despite this, the Zulu power remained unbroken. Further preparations were made, and the battle of Ulundi at last ended the Zulu War. Cetewavo was taken prisoner, and a few years later Zululand was annexed to the Empire, as part of the Colony of Natal.

Zulu Warrior


Now the Boers of the Transvaal had never liked annexation to the Empire, and in 1880 they hoisted the Dutch flag, and once more proclaimed the independence of the Transvaal. A general rising of Boers followed, the British in Pretoria were surrounded by a rebel force, and various detachments of British troops were besieged in their garrisons. Sir George Colley, Governor of Natal, led a body of troops to the relief of these. But his way was barred by a strong contingent of Boers at Laing's Nek, the entrance to the pass over the Drakensberg, leading from Natal to the Transvaal. Here Colley was repulsed with heavy loss, and a few days later, on the heights of Ingogo, he was again beaten back by the Boers.

Smarting under failure and defeat, eager to retrieve his fortunes, he now planned the ascent of Majuba Hill, from which splendid position he expected to crush the Boers once and for all. "At dead of night, with some 400 men, he left the British camp and began the long, laborious climb up the mountain side. Dawn was breaking when they reached the top. Rising high above the ridges of Laing's Nek, Majuba Hill commanded the surrounding country.

"Below them lay the Boer camp. It was Sunday morning. Suddenly the Boers discovered the British soldiers in their red coats standing against the sky line on the summit of Majuba. At first it seemed as if their position was hopeless; then some of the bravest, among them offered to climb the hill and dislodge the English from their stronghold.

"Undaunted and unopposed, they climbed upwards, taking cover as they went. It was one of the finest deeds ever attempted, and the personal bravery of the Boers was beyond all praise. But so secure did the English feel on the summit of Majuba that they had prepared no defences.

"Suddenly the small Boer detachment stood at the top pouring a deadly fire upon the astonished British troops. Utterly demoralized, the British forces broke and fled down the steep sides of the mountain. Sir George Colley was shot at once, and the tragedy was complete."

And now a curious thing happened. Mr. Gladstone wished for peace, so he gave the Transvaal back to the Boers, who joyfully proclaimed their independence. But even this did not solve for ever the problem of the Transvaal. In 1852 the State had been given independence, in 1877 that independence had been taken away, in 1881 it was again givens and soon after the Queen's death it was again taken away.