The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal - Vol 8 No 3

A Royal Engineer's Report

by J J Hulme


Morosi, chief of the Baphuti, a tribe of Nguni origin, but owing allegiance to the House of Moshesh, committed various acts hostile to the Cape Colonial administration of Basutoland late in 1878, the final being the forcible removal of his son, Doda, from gaol at Quthing.

Refusing to surrender Doda, Morosi and his tribe withdrew to a mountain in southern Basutoland which he had fortified over a period of years, and there defied the Colonial government.

A Cape Colonial force with Basuto support was mobilized, and, under Col C D Griffith, reaced the mountain on 25 March, 1879. Early in April reinforcements arrived with two 7-pounder guns and some rockets. On the 8th of the month, after an artillery bombardment, the Colonial forces made an assault. This failed.

Further reinforcements under Col E Y Brabant, and a 12-pounder field gun arrived after the first assault Brabant, who took over command from Griffith, ordered a second assault on 5 June. This also failed. All this time the Colonial forces had maintained a blockade of the mountain.

In October Col Z S Bayly relieved Brabant, and after training his men thoroughly, ordered an assault on the night of 19/20 November. This succeeded, the mountain was taken, and Morosi and most of his men killed.(1)

During the course of the siege the Colonial forces had used various methods to overcome the Baphuti. Firstly, artillery bombardment, which apart from the use of a mortar, had not been effective. Secondly, they had employed a blockade of supplies, also not very effective since the Baphuti had succeeded in rushing cattle onto the mountain in September. Thirdly, three infantry assaults were made, of which the last was effective.

A fourth means of taking the mountain was by engineer methods, and for this purpose, the Colonial government commissioned a report by the Royal Engineers.(2)

The Report(3)

Major F W Nixon(4) was ordered to undertake the task. He reported to Col Hassard that he left Gape Town on 26 August with two NCOs, RE, by 55 Durban and arrived at Aliwal North on 2 September. He examined the resources of the place and found sufficient tools and materials to carry out any mining operations necessary. He requested the Civil Commissioner to get eight experienced miners. He arrived at Morosi's Mountain on 8 September.

'Morosi's Mountain is an isolated kopje, rising steeply on the south bank of the Orange River, about 1 500 feet, and connected with the range on the south by a low narrow nek.
The southern slope from this kopje to the next is about 700 yards by 100 yards. Three lines of defences cross this slope, formed of low walls built on natural ledges of rock, and flanked by walls, or scances as they are called in this country, on either side.
Below the lowest or first scance is a ledge of rock to which access can be obtained without much difficulty or exposure, and below which shelter can be obtained.
From this ledge is a comparatively flat and open space of about 200 yards to the saddle where is posted a picket night and day.
On the east side of the mountain about 50 yards beyond and 20 feet below the ends of this first scance is a cave capable of holding about 20 men, to which access might be obtained at night.

Colonel Brabant has under his command a force of about 200 Europeans, Gape Mounted Rifles and about 500 Hottentots, Fingos and Basutos. With this force he has endeavoured to invest the mountain by disposing his men in nine camps on all sides, and at the same he has to keep up constant patrols in a most difficult and rugged country. With regard to an attack upon the mountain I have the following observations to make:

I do not consider that mining operations would be of much avail.
I could hew a gallery from the cave I have mentioned in such a direction as to place a mine under the first scance. The moral effect of firing such a mine successfully might be great, but it would not materially assist the attack, because the rock is so steep that the actual effect would be to scarp it; of course the defenders would be driven from that part of it. But the difficulty of the attack would only have begun because the lines of the second and third scances are behind and could not be approached by mining, on account of the steepness.

I am therefore of the opinion that a force of 500 men, if this scance were first breached by a couple of guns of moderate calibre, 9 or 12 pounders - might be disposed under the ledge and near the cave above mentioned, and by a determined attack, but with the certain sacrifice of perhaps a tenth of their number, take the positions. But for such an attack well-disciplined men, accustomed to act together and ready to follow where they are led are absolutely necessary - for the advance from each scance in succession would have to made under fire up a steep ascent.

All their officers agree that the Colonial Forces, as at present organized and disciplined are not to be depended upon for such an attack.'


Although the report contains little of Sapper interest, it is important for other reasons. Major Nixon was a British regular and as a Royal Engineer an officer in what had always been the most professionally trained corps in the British Army. His comments are cold and factual. The last two paragraphs of his report sum up the whole matter, and interestingly enough, Col Bayly, a former British regular infantry officer took the required steps which led to success, i.e. trained his force thoroughly before the final assault.


  1. See Tylden The Rise of the Basuto (Juta & Co 1950), p. 128-136, of which the Introduction is a summary
  2. Tylden, op. cit. p.132 refers to the report, but had not seen the original. Personal communication from the late Major G Tylden to the Writer
  3. The original report is to be found in Cape Archives, D.D. 1/10 Misc, Major F W Nixon RE to Col Hassard CB, RE, CRE South Africa, dated 10 Sept 1879
  4. In addition to his other duties, Hassard was officially Cetewayo's gaoler at the Castle in the latter part of 1879. Nixon had served in the Gaika-Gcaleka War, 1878 in the Amatolas with Col Evelyn Wood. See Wood Midshipman to Field-Marshal, 5th ed, 1907, p.305

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