The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 13 No 1 - June 2004


by David Saks

The 1880-1881 war should really be termed the 'Third' and the 1899-1902 war the 'Fourth' Anglo-Boer wars since there are at least two preceding Boer-British confrontations to which the labels 'First' and 'Second' Anglo-Boer Wars can persuasively be attached.

In October 1899, nearly a century of rivalry between the British Empire and the Afrikaner people in South Africa came to a head with the commencement of what is now generally referred to as the 'Second Anglo-Boer War'. The First Anglo-Boer War, so goes the conventional wisdom, had occurred some two decades previous to this when the Transvaal Boers, in a series of sieges and engagements taking place from December 1880 to the end of February 1881 successfully challenged British overlordship and regained their independence. In fact, the 1880-81 war should really be termed the 'Third' and the 1899-1902 war the 'Fourth Anglo-Boer wars since there were at least two preceding Boer-British confrontations to which the labels First and Second Anglo-Boer wars can persuasively be attached. This disregards even earlier engagements, such as Muizenberg (1795) and Blouberg (1806), at which burghers and British regulars fired on each other for the first time. In the latter cases, local Boer militias formed only part of a greater colonial Dutch force, which also included Dutch and German regular troops and, in the case of Blouberg, a strong contingent of French sailors. The real 'First Anglo-Boer War', fought solely between the British Empire and a nascent Afrikaner nation seeking to establish itself as an independent entity in the South African interior, took place in and around Port Natal (later Durban) in May-June 1842. The second was fought six years later in the Orange River Sovereignty, when an attempt by the Winburg Boers to win their independence from Britain came to a swift end at the battle of Boomplaats. (Incidentally, in both affairs, the British commanding officer was called Smith, Captain Thomas Charlton in the first case, and the famous Major-General Sir Harry in the second. The legendary Voortrekker leader, Andries Pretorius, commanded the Boer forces on both occasions.)

The war of 1842 brought to an end the short-lived Boer republic of Natalia. This had been established in 1838 soon after the defeat of the Zulu king, Dingane, but it had never been recognized by the British government and its founders, the so-called Voortrekkers, continued to be regarded as subjects of the Crown. In March 1842, Cape Governor Sir George Napier finally decided to send a small force to occupy Port Natal most of the residents of which were English. On 1 April, a column under the command of Captain Thomas Charlton Smith of the 27th Regiment (Inniskilling Fusiliers) crossed the Mzimvubu River into Natalia. Smith was an experienced campaigner, having served in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo. With him were some 323 fighting men, comprising two companies of Inniskillings, a detachment of Cape Mounted Riflemen (a mixed-race, locally-raised regiment with white officers which took part in numerous nineteenth-century South African campaigns), a handful of sappers and miners, and artillerymen to man two six-pounder field guns and a 24-pound howitzer. Women camp followers, scouts and drivers increased the total to nearly 600.

Smith arrived in Port Natal on 3 May, having completed a difficult 300km overland journey the crossing of dozens of rivers and streams - Private J Devitt of the 27th became the first British casualty during the march listed as having 'died of exhaustion at the Umkomaas River , 30th April' - and set up camp on the north-west side of Durban Bay. He made his intentions clear by provocatively spiking the Boer guns and replacing the republican flag with the Union Jack, almost as soon as he arrived. Earthworks were thrown up to make a small triangular-shaped fort situated on a dry, sandy flat surrounded on three sides by marshes.

The Natalia Volksraad (Parliament) viewed these developments with alarm and sent a written protest to Smith. When it was ignored Commandant Andries Pretorius was authorized to raise a commando. The first of a long line of great Afrikaner military leaders, he had commanded the Voortrekkers in their decisive victory over the Zulu at Blood River in 1838.

With burghers riding in every day from all parts of the republic, as well as from other trekker settlements further inland, Pretorius set up his laager at Congella, some five kilometers south of the British camp. By the middle of May, he had 364 volunteers under his command, many of whom had fought under him against the Zulu. By this time, it had become evident that the British had no intention of leaving and, concerned lest his citizen militia begin breaking up through prolonged inaction, he decided to provoke a confrontation.

On 23 May, several Boers were allegedly fired upon during a dispute over cattle and horses which had become intermingled with those from Smith's camp. Pretorius responded by ordering the seizure of 600 oxen belonging to the British and, on the same day, he sent a strongly-worded ultimatum to Smith, demanding his withdrawal from Voortrekker territory. Smith, as anticipated, reacted by resolving to teach the insolent Dutchmen a lesson and set about preparing to attack their camp that very night.

That night, at 23.00, 137 officers and men, supported by the two guns, set out for Congella. They comprised 109 from the 27th Regiment, eighteen artillerymen, eight sappers and miners and two Cape Mounted Riflemen to act as Smith's escort. Smith had decided to take a circuitous route along the beach. This was about forty percent longer than a direct approach, but it had the advantage of bypassing the dense undergrowth that separated the two camps (and which, incidentally, covered what is today Durban's central business district). In addition, it increased the chance of taking Pretorius by surprise. Smith also gave orders for the longboat, bearing the howitzer, to take up a position directly opposite Congella and, from there, to provide supporting fire once the attack was underway. To say the least, this was over-optimistic, if not to say unnecessary. Perhaps Smith thought he could justify the existence of this clumsy piece of weaponry by giving it a share of the action.

As far as taking Pretorius by surprise, Smith nearly achieved his goal. While he expected to be attacked that night, Pretorius had not anticipated it would come through a beach march. Most of his men were stationed in the bush awaiting a direct advance, and were consequently bypassed. Nevertheless, he still had a rearguard of some two dozen men under his direct command. These he deployed in a mangrove thicket lining the beach while posting a picket of older Boer marksmen behind some sand dunes on the beach itself The women and children in his camp were evacuated to a position of safety deeper in the bush.

At about 01.00, Smith ordered his men to halt and signalled for the longboat to begin shelling the Boer camp. There was no response since the boat had run aground on a sand bank. Apparently, Smith had forgotten that it could only progress at high tide whereas a march along the beach was only possible at low tide. Greatly annoyed, he ordered his column to resume its advance, but the opening Boer volley was now only seconds away. The boom of an elephant gun announced the presence of the beach picket. A few more shots rang out, followed by a sustained roar of a score of muskets fired practically in unison at less than 100 meters' range.

Shaken by the unexpected fusillade, Smith's men completely wasted their return volleys, their balls whistling harmlessly overhead or ripping through the treetops. Though very much outnumbered, the Boers were well hidden whereas their opponents were completely exposed against the moon-lit sands. The six-pounders briefly came into action, but were quickly rendered unserviceable by the shooting down of a third of their crew and the chaos caused by the rampaging oxen. Casualties amongst the men mounted steadily.

The unequal contest had only been conducted for a few minutes before Smith, as he tactfully phrased it in his report, considered it 'expedient to retire'. He himself galloped back to the camp to arrange a last-minute defence. The remainder of the column, after abandoning the guns, painfully began retracing its steps. The retreat was conducted in reasonably good order at first, but soon dissolved into a rout as the Boers, steadily reinforced by those stationed elsewhere, pressed home their advantage, charging and firing in an extended line. Some of the soldiers were driven into the sea and at least two were drowned. By 03.30, the camp itself was under heavy attack, ringed on three sides by several hundred Boers. When the last shot had been fired, Smith had lost eighteen dead and 33 wounded, nearly 40% of the force with which he had set out. On the Boer side, five men had been killed, mainly in the closing stages.

Two days after their victory, the Boers had another success when they attacked and captured Fort Victoria on the Point, killing two of the garrison (and an old English resident named Charles Adams) and capturing the other seventeen, as well as an 18pounder, stores and ammunition. Smith had paid dearly for his over-confidence and now desperately needed reinforcements to extricate himself from his humiliating predicament. He had now lost a quarter of his original column within three days and had been thrown completely on the defensive, holed up within the makeshift walls of his fort and subjected to a constant bombardment, mainly from his own captured guns. On 26 May, a local Port Natal resident named Richard ('Dick') King slipped out of the town accompanied by his Zulu servant, Ndongeni, and set off on an epic ten-day ride (seven days less than the time normally taken) to Grahamstown to fetch aid.

Ndongeni, who was riding without a saddle, was forced to drop out fairly early on but King reached his destination and raised the alarm. Before long the sloop Conch and the warship Southampton were setting out from Port Elizabeth and Cape Town respectively with substantial reinforcements to raise the siege. It was now a matter of Captain Smith hanging on until they arrived. Following the fall of Fort Victoria, the two sides settled down to sit out a dreary four-week siege. While never looking to actually storming the camp, the Boers managed to make life fairly uncomfortable for the demoralized little garrison crammed into it. Using the captured six-pounders and 18-pounder and their own field pieces first employed against the Zulu, they peppered the defences with over 600 rounds of shot riddling the tents and pinning the troops down, although causing few casualties. Pretorius did not have things all his own way, however, with several of his own men being shot dead by Smith's keen-eyed Coloured marksmen after foolishly exposing themselves. Six of the besiegers lost their lives while the British, despite being constantly bombarded, lost only three.

The only sortie of note made during the siege was by the British. On the night of 18 June, Lieutenant Molesworth led a bayonet charge on a trenching party temporarily dislodging the Boers from their forward positions, but losing four more dead and four wounded in the process. On the Boer side, three men were wounded, one of whom, Frederick Stockford, may have been a deserter.

Smith must have wondered if help would ever come and if not, for how much longer he could hold out. Fortunately for him, the question became academic when the Conch arrived on 24 June with the vanguard of the relieving force. The next day, the Southampton sailed into view, bearing 800 men of the 25th Regiment under the overall command of Lieutenant-Colonel Abraham Josias Cloete. Pretorius obviously knew that the game was up, but resolved to make a fight of it anyway. Leaving a skeleton force to man the defences in front of the British camp, he deployed his few hundred men in an extended line from the Durban Bay Bluff to the mouth of the Umgeni River ten kilometres further north. His guns, virtually useless by now through lack of ammunition and in any case, outranged by the batteries of the Southampton were positioned on the Bluff and the Point guarding the entrance to the bay.

The 'battle' of Durban Bay began at 14.00 on 26 June with a bombardment from the guns of the Southampton covering the advance of the Conch as it crossed the bar into the bay with four boats crammed with sailors and infantrymen, in tow. The Boers kept up a steady fire from the bushes and sand dunes, but most of their shots splashed into the water or thudded harmlessly against the yellowwood planks heightening the Conch's bulwarks. The troops disembarked without difficulty, having lost just two killed and six wounded. The Boers apparently sustained no casualties at all, but had no chance once their opponents were ashore and quickly melted away.

That afternoon, Smith was relieved and the little war was over. Though of short duration it had been packed with enough drama and incident to make it an enduring part of Natal folklore. On the British side, thirty men had been killed in action, as against eleven Boer deaths. Dick King was rewarded with a handsome farm for his efforts while Captain Smith, who had made such a shambles of dealing with Pretorius, was rather undeservedly promoted to major in September that year. He went on to retire with the rank of full general in 1877.

Interesting parallels albeit not exact ones, can be drawn between the siege and relief of Port Natal and the far more famous siege and relief of Ladysmith nearly sixty years later. Just as Captain Smith was disastrously repulsed in his attempt to drive off the encircling Trekkers at Congella, so did Colonel George White's 'Mournful Monday' (31 October 1899) attempt to break the Boer stranglehold collapse into a demoralising rout. Neither Smith nor White made any serious forays against the enemy after their shock setbacks, but fell onto the defensive. Several sorties on a smaller scale nevertheless did take place against the besieging forces. The Boers for their part (with the one exception in the Ladysmith case of their attack on the Platrand on 6 January 1900) were generally content to play a waiting game on both occasions, peppering the supine garrisons with artillery fire and hopefully awaiting their surrender. Finally, relieving forces arrived in overwhelming strength to save British blushes. All in all, the Durban-Ladysmith parallels are surely more than fanciful, calling to mind Santanyanas famous dictum that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

Three weeks after Smith's relief, the Volksraad formally tendered its submission to the Crown. Most of the Voortrekkers, embitterred at the way their hard-won republic had been so cavalierly snatched from them, packed up and migrated further inland, settling in the Transvaal and Transorangia regions. It was in the latter territory that the next round of Anglo-Afrikaner clashes was soon to be fought.


Evans S (ed.), Diary and Notes Connected with the 2nd British Military Occupation of Port Natal, 1842 (Johannesburg, 1986).
Holden W C, History of the Colony of Natal, South Africa (London, 1855).
Preller, G S, Andries Pretorius Lewensbeskrywing van die Voortrekker Kommandant-Generaal (Johannesburg, 1940)
Voigt, J C, 50 Years of the History of the Republic in South Africa (Struik facsimile reprint, Cape Town, 1969).

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