27 February 1881: British routed at Majuba Hill

Surprise attack on rebels in First Boer War goes badly wrong

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“It was the first time I had been under fire,” wrote Thomas Fortescue Carter, “and I confess that the sensation was not a pleasant one.”

Carter had signed on as a war correspondent to cover the rebellion of the Boer-dominated Transvaal, in southern Africa, against the British empire. But after fighting broke out in December 1880, the campaign went badly. Both sides were pretty small, with battles involving hundreds rather than thousands. But the Boers had the best of it, and in mid February 1881, negotiations for a ceasefire began.

Then events took a twist. With hundreds of reinforcements newly arrived from the south, the British commander, Sir George Colley, decided to mount a surprise attack on the Boers that would force them to agree to Britain’s terms. On the night of the 26th, his troops climbed Majuba Hill, above the main Boer camp. Then, at first light, the firing began.

As Colley had anticipated, the battle was a walkover – but for the wrong side. As the Boers charged up the hill, taking cover in the long grass, British resolve faltered. Suddenly, wrote young Thomas Carter, men started running. “Five, six, seven, eight more men broke from the ranks in front of us and fled,” he wrote. “The rest wavered, and... the whole lot went rushing wildly over us down into the bottom of the basin.” And as Boer gunfire echoed around the hill, Carter admitted, “it was not long before I was on my feet and running with the rest”.

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By now, Colley was dead, shot by a Boer sniper as he tried to rally his men. He was one of 92 killed, while dozens more were captured, among them Thomas Fortescue Carter. For the British, it was a disaster; at the ensuing peace conference, they were forced to recognise the independent Transvaal Republic. But they never forgot Majuba. And two decades later, they got their revenge.

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Authors

Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

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