top of page
TRANSORANGIA & THE ORANGE RIVER SOVEREIGNTY(1845-1853)
Anglo-Boer Conflict 1845-48
The Philippolis Intervention and Battle of Zwartkoppies (30 April 1845)
Armed clashes at Zuurfontein and Hout Haal, in ungoverned Transorangia, between the mixed-race Griqua followers of Adam Kok III on the one hand and boer settlers/trekkers of republican bent on the other, led the Civil Commissioner of Cape Colony's Colesberg District , Mr Fleetwood Rawstorne, to request the presence of troops at Alleman's Drift on the Orange. Rawstorne's object in so doing was to prevent Dutch citizens residing within the British jurisdiction crossing the river to fight under Kommandants Jan Mocke and Jan Kock, the principal republican militants. Major Glencairn Campbell eventually arrived at the head of three companies of the 1st Bn. the 91st (The Argyllshire) Regiment, amounting to 7 officers & 185 NCOs and men. Rawstorne's attempts at mediation were rebuffed by the republicans, so on 22 April 1845 he crossed into the ungoverned territory with Campbell and his infantry, so as to be able to protect the Griqua settlement at Philippolis in accordance with a treaty obligation of 1843. Rawstorne met face to face with Mocke and Kock, only to meet with a further rebuff. On 27 April, after a week's hard riding from the Eastern Cape frontier, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Richardson, 7th DG, arrived in the north with two troops of the 7th Dragoon Guards, a company of the Cape Mounted Rifles (CMR) under Capt. Henry Warden and two horse-drawn 6-pounders from No. 3 Coy/7th Bn., Royal Artillery, under Captain Shepherd. Richardson promptly issued an ultimatum demanding the unconditional surrender of, "the Emigrant British subjects unlawfully assembled in arms," together with a warning failure to comply with his demand would lead to the boere under arms being treated as rebels, on the grounds that the Cape of Good Hope Punishment Act stated that trekkers abiding beyond the frontiers of Cape Colony were still considered to be British subjects and could be held accountable for crimes committed beyond the formal border. Kock and Mocke had something around 500 burghers in the field, with a solitary 3-pounder by way of artillery. On 30 April 1845 Richardson moved the British force forward, in concert with Kaptein Adam Kok and about 400 mounted Griquas. His ensuing attack precipitated the Battle of Zwartkoppies, in which the 7th DG played the leading part. While one of the troops skirmished from horseback on the right, by way of a fixing operation, the other drew swords and charged the boer left. The republican force quickly crumbled and fled the field, abandoning the 3-pounder. One of the British cavalry officers killed 'the French gunner', name unknown, who had charge of the piece. Casualties were minimal on both sides, but the defeat of the republicans was wholesale. The defeated rebels were treated with leniency, being required only to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown and to disperse to their farms.
3 February 1848: Lt-Gen. Sir Harry Smith, newly appointed as Her Majesty's High Commissioner for Southern Africa, Governor of Cape Colony and C-in-C South Africa, annexed ungoverned Transorangia to the Crown and re-styled it the 'Orange River Sovereignty'. Sir Harry engaged politically with Andries Pretorius, the former commandant-general of the voortrekkers in the already defunct republic of Natalia, in advance of the annexation, but in concluding that his proposal to extend the British jurisdiction commanded majority support amongst the Dutch-Afrikaaner settlers living north of the Orange, but south of the Vaal, was deluding himself. The annexation saw the boere divide politically into loyalist and republican factions. The much smaller number of English settlers living north of the Orange were to be counted hard-core loyalists of course.
Fledgling Bloemfontein was to be the administrative capital of the Sovereignty and it was there that Major Henry Warden, CMR, established himself in the role of British resident. In its ungoverned guise Transorangia had much been much plagued by war, violence, stock theft, outright land grabbing and other more lingering forms of land dispute. Sir Harry had secured a degree of consent from the principal African and 'Hottentot' chiefs resident in the great swathe of territory affected, substantially on the basis that Warden would act as an honest broker between them.
The most powerful chief by far was Moshoeshoe, paramount chief of the Basotho, who had spent the previous 25 years coalescing and moulding a people, successfully forging a great chieftaincy or nation in the process. Where rulers of the ilk of Shaka, Mzilikazi and Dingane were remarkable primarily in respect of their ruthlessness, Moshoeshoe was cut from altogether different cloth, being much more remarkable for his powers of reason, moderation, tolerance and diplomacy. Even so he was a tough operator and when forced into a corner was prepared to fight as hard as any other major chief one could name, to protect his interests, territory, cattle and standing. Arrayed against the Basotho as a particular enemy was Chief Moroko, the leader of the Rolong (pl: Barolong) people, whose great place was at Thaba Nchu, squarely inside the boundaries of the Sovereignty. There was no settled agreement as to where the Sovereignty ended and Moshoeshoe's realms began, but the Basotho paramount was determined to remain close to the British and to rub along with the settlers where possible. The common understanding amongst the principal chiefs and settler leadership figures was that Warden's touch as a political administrator would be very light.
Since there were no troops to spare for its policing, it was plain that the Sovereignty could only work by common consent, which was perhaps an unrealistic prospect in so deeply riven a region as Southern Africa in the 1840s and 1850s. It might have worked, or at least might have survived longer, had not the combination of the Eighth Cape Frontier War and the Kat River Rebellion, of December 1850 to April 1853, sucked up every military asset at Sir Harry Smith's disposal, over so lengthy a time frame. In 1848 there were few politicians in London who considered that the Sovereignty was likely to work or even that extending British rule so far into the interior was to be counted in any way desirable. For the immediate future the best that Sir Harry could hope for was to be indulged by the Colonial Office. By contrast mission societies and the anti-slavery lobby, interests greatly at loggerheads with both the freebooter inclination and the racial dogmas commonly encountered amongst the worst-behaved trekkers, welcomed any extension of the British jurisdiction. Even before the annexation settlement, the Caledon River Valley had become a source of friction between the newly arrived boere and the in place Basotho. The least scrupulous settlers soon found that they could stay on the right side of the Basotho by trading with them in two particularly sought after commodities - horses and guns. This spurred on a process that had already been underway for a decade, whereby the Basotho fighting man was swiftly transitioning from his old guise as a traditional African warrior - armed with throwing assegais and a small winged shield - to a new and wholly different guise as a musket-armed mounted infantryman. It was not Moshoeshoe and the Basotho who would cause the first great crisis in the governance of the Sovereignty, however, but Pretorius and the republicans.
The Pretorius Rebellion and the Battle of Boomplaats (29 August 1848)
In June 1848 Pretorius crossed into the Orange River Sovereignty at the head of a 200 strong commando of Transvaal republicans, with the intention of overthrowing British rule north of the Orange. His destination in the first instance was the 'town' of Winburg, where the majority of the boere (farmers) in the surrounding countryside were opposed to British rule and in all likelihood would be prepared to support an uprising. Once he had installed himself in Winburg, Pretorius espoused a 'with us or against us' doctrine, so as to cow the broader boer population into compliance with the republican agenda. Those boere who did not rise against the British would face confiscation of their land, and be expelled back across the Orange into Cape Colony. Any boer of fighting age who went anywhere near the republican commando was effectively press-ganged into joining it. Outraged 'Dutch' and 'English' loyalists flew into centralized laagers and prepared to defend themselves. Field Cornets (veldkornet) Hermanus Wessels and Gery Meyer took command of the loyalists laagered on the Vet River, while Commandant Jacobus Snyman led about 500 others, (counting men women and children all), concentrated on the Caledon River. Pretorius's attempts to bully Moshoeshoe into joining him were shrewdly sidestepped by the Basotho paramount, whose understanding of European politics was sophisticated, thanks in no small part to his close friendship with Eugene Casalis, a pioneering missionary of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society (PEMS), who had founded a mission station at the foot of the paramount's mountain top stronghold Thaba Bosiu. Casalis's advice had always been that there was far more for the Basotho to fear from land hungry trekkers than from British sovereignty. Moshoeshoe knew full well of course that a man of action like Sir Harry Smith was bound to come flying north from Cape Town with a vengeance.
In the meantime Pretorius turned his attention to Major Warden at Bloemfontein. He may possibly have had a thousand men with him by the time he arrived at the administrative capital, at that time a mere cluster of buildings on the open veldt. There were no defences and Warden would have been lucky to muster a hundred men between the single CMR company at his disposal (57 strong) and the loyalist population living in the near vicinity. In order to evade a fight he could not win, the resident came to terms with Pretorius and agreed to withdraw his people across the Orange. To betoken his determination to return, however, Warden parked his wagons on the south bank of the Orange, raised his tents and went not a step further. Like Moshoeshoe he expected the famously hard-riding Sir Harry to join him at Botha's Drift in very short order. The British knew they would be able to rely on the support of the multi-ethnic Griqua communities at Phillipolis, where Adam Kok III was still the kaptyn/kaptein, and at Griquatown, where Andries Waterboer held sway in the same capacity. The Griquas practised much the same tactics as the boere, in that they too operated in the mode of irregular mounted infantry. Adam Kok, most directly at risk from the republican line of advance, succeeded in bluffing Pretorius, by pretending to prevaricate in his loyalties, but when at length the British came north of the river both Kok and Waterboer joined Sir Harry at the head of a combined Griqua commando of about 250 men. A party of about 40 boer loyalists under Commandants Pieter Erasmus and J. T. Snyman also joined up with the British and would function as a scouting unit in the campaign ahead.
The regular element of the 'army' that Sir Harry Smith was able to concentrate at Botha's Drift was small but experienced, largely as a result of the lately concluded conflict with the amaXhosa, (the 7th Cape Frontier War of 1846-7). There were four CMR companies, including the one from Bloemfontein, a Royal Artillery detachment equipped with three ox-drawn 6-pounder guns, a handful of Royal Sappers & Miners with the pontoon equipment necessary to get wagons across the Orange, and two companies apiece from the Reserve Battalion of the 45th (The Nottinghamshire) Regiment, the Reserve Battalion of the 91st (The Argyllshire) Regiment and the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. The word 'reserve' has the potential to confuse, but these were all fully fledged regular army units; the term 'reserve battalion' being merely an expedient way of describing a temporarily constituted second battalion in such a way as to avoid any suggestion of permanency. Temporary or not, reserve battalions might be in existence for years: some endured for safely more than a decade, indeed, before eventually they were stood down and all personnel were re-absorbed into the parent 1st Battalion or its depot companies at home. All told the British force came to about 800 officers and men. The nominal force commander, subordinate to Sir Harry in his capacity as C-in-C South Africa of course, was Lieutenant Colonel George Buller, ordinarily the commanding officer of 1st Rifle Brigade.
It was not long before the press-ganged and less committed elements of the republican force started to evaporate. Pretorius probably had about 500 men left to him, (but certainly no more than 750), when, five weeks into the rebellion, he took up a defensive blocking position some little way shy of Bloemfontein, at Boomplaats farm, where the marshy Krommellenboogspruit (stream) and the low koppies commanding it from the home bank would provide a viable line of defence. There was also a rocky ridge on the other side of the spruit, which would provide an ideal first or forward line of defence. Finally there was an ambush element to the republican plan, in that all the boer positions were well concealed, while Pretorius also took particular care to conceal Kommandant Adriaan Stander and an outlying party on some low koppies in front of the spruit. Crucially Stander's koppies overlooked the Bloemfontein road, from what would be the British right flank, at a range of only 50 yards.
On the morning of 29 August the governor, his staff and the leading CMR company rode straight into the ambush, largely because Sir Harry, who knew full well that Boomplaats farm was in enemy hands, expected Pretorius to negotiate before any recourse to fighting. A few casualties went down in the first fusillade, but by some miracle Sir Harry survived, though his saddlery was hit and he was struck painfully in the shin by a ricochet. Startled and infuriated the governor galloped back to his main body, quickly positioned his guns and ordered the four 45th Regiment (5 & 170) and Rifle Brigade companies (4 & 160) into the attack, the 45th in the centre and the Rifles driving for Stander's Koppie on the right. Further to the British rear DACG Henry Green had control of the commissariat wagon train, consisting of 117 ox-wagons and about 350 wagoners, the majority of whom would have been African or Hottentot workers. Sensibly Green brought his wagons about and formed a laager, as the fighting echelon went about its business in front. The Griquas held back from the main fight in order to cover the laager. An early round-shot not only unhorsed Stander, but came perilously close to decapitating him: by some accounts the round had actually made faint contact with the side of his head. In any event he was stunned, dazed and out of the fight at an early stage. The Rifles were able to drive the boere from the forward koppies, but not before both company commanders, Captains Murray and Hardinge had been wounded. Murray was struck a second time, this time mortally, even before his men could help him down from his horse. Sir Harry rode around amongst the two 45th Regiment companies so imprudently that his staff officers thought he would be killed at any moment. The loss in the 45th was significant, so the governor brought up the two 91st Regiment companies and extended the attack on the rocky ridge to the left of the road. This sufficed to carry the position, as the boere fell back across the spruit and prepared to defend the main koppie and farm on the other side.
There was a sudden crisis on the British left, or at least the appearance of a crisis, when Kommandant Jan Kock led his commando down from the high ground to the right of the main boer position and proceeded to launch a mounted attack, with something around 150-200 men. The men in Henry Green's laager prepared to defend themselves. They traded shots with Kock's people, as did some of the Griquas, but Major Johnny Armstrong CMR was on top of the situation and swiftly organized a mounted counterattack by the four CMR companies. Additionally one of Lieutenant Dyneley's 6-pounders, operating apart from the other two guns, and protected by the small party of greenjackets who usually functioned as Sir Harry's personal bodyguard, was swung around by the sergeant in charge and proceeded to fire a couple of rounds to excellent effect. Armstrong's charge served to scatter Kok's people to the four winds and with that the battle turned. It was not long before the 45th and 91st had crossed the spruit to begin ejecting the boere from the stone sangars they had erected atop the low koppie. Dyneley meanwhile had pushed his guns forward to new fire positions, from which he was able to engage Kok's men as they fled through the nek in the hillside behind the farm. On the right flank the Rifle Brigade companies ran up against the farmstead and a number of stone cattle kraals, which the boere defended for as long as their courage lasted. Colonel Buller was hit in the thigh by a ball that passed clean through his leg to kill his horse beneath him, but it was not long before the Rifle Brigade soldiers were able, largely through the accuracy of their Brunswick Rifles, to again the upper hand and put the enemy to flight. With the position carried at all points the battle was over.
The British had suffered 2 officers & 20 men killed, two of whom were Griquas, and 7 officers & 33 men wounded. The magistrate Thomas Biddulph was also wounded. Sir Harry overstated boer losses in his official report, claiming that 49 had been killed, probably as a propaganda exercise. It is commonly accepted that the kommandants' claim to have lost only 9 dead is altogether closer to the mark. Certainly only seven of them are memorialized by name on the battlefield monument. Nine dead would generally imply something around 18 wounded, although the role played by the British artillery might conceivably have increased the number of wounded beyond the usual statistical proportion. Pretorius made a frantic overnight flight from the battlefield, escaped across the Vaal and was swiftly declared an outlaw in the British jurisdiction. The British reoccupied Bloemfontein on 2 September, where two prisoners taken on the battlefield, one of them a British deserter, were court martialled and shot by firing squad. There was no continuation of resistance when Winburg was reoccupied shortly afterwards.
A full, substantive account of the campaign and battle, together with more annotated battlefield photographs like the one below, is to be found in Volume II (British Battles in Colonial South Africa 1834-53) of Snook MBE PhD, Col. Mike, Cape Warriors (2 vols), (Nottingham, 2016), available exclusively from Perry Miniatures.
Boomplaats Battlefield viewed along the line of the British axis of attack.
bottom of page