Victoria's Wars 1860-1899 - British Empire 1815-1914

British Empire
Go to content

Victoria's Wars 1860-1899

The Asanti War 1873-4
The first of a number of colonial wars fought in the last quarter of the c19th was one fought in west Africa with the Asanti people who lived in what is now Ghana. This war was very much a test of the British view of Imperialism. For many it was a clash between British Christianity and an Africa that was full of pagan illiterate peoples with childish customs and debased art. The Asanti though were people with an advanced culture. They were excellent  craftsmen in gold, silver and wood and had a capital city, Kumasi that was full of well designed  buildings in streets that were clean with avenues of trees and with houses that had toilets, boiling  water and with regular disposal of rubbish. The Ashanti though did practice human  sacrifice with hundreds slaughtered to provide a retinue for the King. To the British the Ashanti appeared murderous and backward and when they began to make raids on the coastal tribes where British trading forts were based, the British government decided to act.

The man  given command of the force sent against the Ashanti was  the classic  Victorian colonial soldier, Garnet Wolseley. Wolseley gathered together his force in late 1873 - 4,000 British regulars from the Black Watch and the Rifle Brigade with native artillery. Wolseley did all he could to minimise the possibility of  his men falling  ill through any of the tropical diseases which plagued that area of Africa. They had specially made uniforms and had various devices to combat the heat. They had respirators against the heat, veils for insects, cholera belts and quinine. Three hospital ships lay off the coast and a second army of 8,500 men were kept in reserve  in case of losses.

An ultimatum was delivered to Kumasi but was ignored. Diversionary attacks were made and Wolseley had roads and bridges built through the thick rain forest. Despite being continually harried by the Asanti, Wolseley steadily advanced until he arrived at the village of Ejiasi where the Asanti were  virtually invisible but their muskets were no match for the British superior fire power. The advance continued and on February 3 1874 the Black Watch entered Kumasi, the Asanti  having fled. Wolseley who had been at Peking in 1860, sent  an ultimatum to the Ashanti wanting them to agree to terms. Wolseley wanted to leave Kumasi as soon as possible concerned about the possibility of disease. With no word coming he ordered that  the city be destroyed. With that, messengers of peace were sent and Wolseley's terms were agreed to. Hostages were  released, claims to the coastal fortress of Elmina were renounced and the independence of certain coastal tribes were recognised. The campaign led to Wolseley being  hailed as 'Britain's only General' and the phrase 'All Sir Garnet' being introduced into the English language. He was given £20,000 by a grateful Parliament and made a Grand Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George.
The Asanti War stoked the fires of Imperialism and excited the public imagination. In magazines, novels and newspapers, stories of Imperial victories would now appeal to owners who wanted  to boost sales figures. Yet the British public  understood little about the real nature of the war and of Ashanti society. This was to be characteristic of many of the succeeding campaigns in Africa. It  also gave reassurance to a British public that was becoming increasingly concerned about the nature of British power, particularly coming just after the Prussian armies had destroyed the French armies and occupied Paris. With the victory against the Asanti, the British felt  they were quite capable of meeting the demands of empire.
British forces arrive in Kumasi
The Zulu War 1879
In 1877 Sir Theophilus Shepstone, a colonial officer,  was the envoy sent to Pretoria to bring about the annexation which would signal the beginning  of a federated South Africa with the Boers at last again under the control of the British. Before a federation could be constructed though, the new  Governor of the Cape, Sir Bartle Frere, decided it was necessary first to destroy the power of the Zulu nation.

The Zulus, under the leadership of Cetewayo, were themselves increasingly concerned at the British annexation of the Transvaal and what it meant for them as the  Boers were the traditional enemies of the Zulus.

Throughout 1878 the Zulus were seen as being more and more aggressive particularly towards British missionaries. Missionaries were reporting to Frere incidents of torture and the murder of converts. In May 1878 the Reverend Filter asked for help for his community of 160 at Luneberg, Transvaal believing it to be threatened by the Zulus. In July a force of 100 Zulus crossed the Tugela into Transvaal to take two Zulu women who had taken refuge - women who they subsequently killed. Events such as these convinced that he had to act to destroy the power of the Zulus.

Although the conflict with the Xhosa in the Eastern Cape had come to an end in 1878, Frere asked London for  more soldiers to deal with the situation but wars in Afghanistan and the possibility of war with Russia over Constantinople brought a refusal from London, both for troops and for any war with the Zulus. Despite this  Frere and Shepstone determined to bring the situation with the Zulus to a  head. Another telegram from London had been sent to Frere reiterating  the Government's opposition to  war but before Frere  had  seen it a group of English envoys  met with Zulu leaders on the banks of the Tugela river, and in a  four hour speech Frere read out a list of demands for Cetewayo to consider, including the disbanding of the Zulu army, the abrogation of the Zulu laws on marriage and the handing over of those Zulus responsible for the murder of the two captured women. Cetewayo was given twenty days to respond. When  no  response had  been received by 1 January 1879, Frere  had his  excuse to wage war on the Zulu nation.
At daybreak on  20 January a force of 1,200 troops led by the new commander in chief in South Africa Lord Chelmsford crossed the Buffalo to establish a camp at Isandlwana.  Leaving the main force to establish the camp, Chelmford took a reconnaissance force to search for the  main Zulu force thought  to be to  the south. Whilst Chelmsford was still away from the main force, it was attacked and all but  wiped out by a Zulu force  that had enveloped them. Only six men survived.
The Battle of Isandhlwana
Rorke's Drift
In defiance of orders a Zulu force of 3-4000 then crossed into Natal and attacked  the mission station at Rorke's Drift which was  defended by 139 men from the 24th regiment, many of them invalids. In  a battle that lasted over twenty fours the attacking Zulus were beaten off suffering losses of 500 dead. The Zulus were exhausted  from their  endeavours at Isandlwana and had  not eaten for two days and could not get the better  of the British fire power. Eleven soldiers at Rorke's Drift were awarded the Victoria Cross. The Zulus always used the same tactics, a frontal  attack with two side horns  surrounding the enemy.
Chelmsford had attacked Cetewayo  in complete defiance of the British  government that had replaced him Wolseley.  Wolseley had learnt in May that he  was  to  be sent to Africa to make peace with the Zulus and to  safeguard existing  British territories. Wolseley reached Cape Town on 23 June 1879 and Durban  on 28 June. It was whilst he was at Pietermaritzburg  that he heard that Chelmsford was defying orders and marching on Ulundi with 4000 British soldiers and 1000 native allies.

On 4 July Chelmsford attacked and defeated the Zulu army of  an estimated number of 20,000. Even though Cetewayo had urged  the use of guerrilla tactics the Zulus did not change their tactics and the British this  time kept their  army together and in the attack on Cetewayo's stronghold of Ulundi used the traditional tactics of the  red-square to concentrate their fire power and defeat the frontal attacks of the Zulus.  Chelmsford though decided to vacate Ulundi without  capturing  Cetewayo.

It was left to Wolseley to arrange the surrender  of  the Zulu chiefs which he had done by mid-August although Cetewayo remained at large. Wolseley setup a series of patrols and eventually Cetewayo was captured on  31  August. The  government did not want to annex Zululand so it was  divided into thirteen  provinces under chiefs from  the  pre-Chaka period. Every chief was required to sign a document agreeing to the abolishment of the Zulu military system and not to make war or seize land. British residents  were  not to  be imposed on the chiefs though, much to the disgust of Bartle Frere. Zululand kept its independence only until 1887 when  it too became a British protectorate. It  was then annexed to Natal ten  years later in  1897.
First Anglo-Boer War 1880-81
The pacification of the Zulus after the Battle of  Ulundi removed a threat to the Boers who had never accepted British rule. General Wolseley made it clear in a meeting with Joubert  that British rule  was  irrevocable but  once the Boers realised  this, they rebelled. In December 1880 the Boers of the Transvaal declared their independence from the British. Small parties of British soldiers in the Transvaal were attacked bringing a larger force to re-exert British control. This force under the command of Colley was routed at at Majuba Hill on 27 February 1881. Wolseley had made it clear to the British  government that the Transvaal was rich in minerals and  that gold had already been found.
The Battle of Majuba Hill
The new government in London though decided to drop plans  for federation and  restore  Boer independence. In negotiations at Pretoria (1881) and London (1884) independence was conceded  although the British government clung to the notion that they still had sovereignty over  the Boer republic -  this was part of the justification for the war in 1899.

Egypt 1881-2
In  1869 the Egyptian-French financed Suez Canal was opened. Little interest in  the project had been  taken by the British but when opened it was realised that it shortened by some considerable distance the journey to India. The distance  around  the Cape to Bombay was 10,450 miles but just 6,000 miles through the canal.The opening  of the canal increased the  need for Britain to remain the dominant power in the middle east as it was now India's lifeline. In 1875, Disraeli was able to buy a controlling interest in the company on behalf of the  British government for £4 million by buying the 40% allocation of the ruler of Egypt who had  gone bankrupt. The canal now became part of Britain's strategic interest.

The stability of Egypt was crucial to British  strategic interests in the Middle East, and the ambition of  Khedive Muhammad Ali seemed to be taking  Egypt towards becoming a modern state. There had been investment in railways, cotton plantations, and irrigation as well as schools but by 1882 total debt totalled £100 million. Despite attempts by an international commission to keep the country solvent, internal dissension with international interference led to unrest and a revolt by army officers in February 1881 led by Urabi Pasha. In September 1881 he carried out a coup d'etat and made himself Minister of War with full control of the army.
The British were concerned at the possibility of an anti-British  government. They sent an armed  ship to Alexandria but this had no  impact. A riot in Alexandria in  June 1882 was interpreted as the first step towards anarchy and Parliament demanded action. The French parliament decided against action but Gladstone's government decided that they had to  take action. The port of Alexandria was bombed and Gladstone declared that he would send an expeditionary force to restore order.
The opening of the Suez Canal
During August two armies, one of 24,000 troops from India and one of 7,000 from Britain and led by Wolseley converged on Egypt. Warships occupied the canal and the military force landed on 18 August at Ismailia. Four weeks later Urabi's camp at Tel-el-Kebir was stormed following a night march and overrun enabling Wolseley to march on Cairo. Urabi was captured and banished to Ceylon. Egypt became a virtual protectorate bwith power in the hands of British senior civil servants who saw it as their task to return Egypt to solvency. A British army of 5,000 men was kept in Egypt and Alexandria became the main Mediterranean base for the Royal Navy.
The Battle of Tel-el-Kebir which gave Britain control over Egypt
10,000 kingdoms become 40 states
In the period after 1880, Africa was to be divided between five European powers with Britain ending up ruling a third of the continent. 10,000 kingdoms became forty states, many of them British. The British land grab was a response to the new imperial ambitions of France and Germany at a time when Britain had lost its dominance of the world. The British conquests were achieved by resorting to the methods used in the c17th. Private chartered companies were set up and like the East India Company were given the powers to raise armies and make treaties with local rulers. These companies acquired land by negotiating treaties with local rulers and then sought settlers to buy land to farm or mine. With the aid of the maxim gun, any resistance to the companies'  militia could be easily overcome as when in  1893 Rhodes  invaded Matabeleland with a volunteer force  of 700 to confront Lobengula's force of 3.000. The Battle of Shangana River saw one of the first uses of the Maxim gun and the destruction of Lobengula's men who never got nearer than 100 yards. Men like Rhodes in South Africa, Goldie in Nigeria and Lugard in East Africa advanced the empire or dealt with local resistance with the aid of this new weapon. In this way Kenya, Uganda, Rhodesia and Nigeria were formed.

Second Anglo-Boer War 1899-1901
In 1897 Lord Milner was  appointed High Commissioner for South Africa. Already relations between Britain and the Boer republics were poor as a result of the Jameson Raid - a failed attempt at bringing down the Transvaal government. Milner was a  man who was an avowed British race patriot who wanted world supremacy for the British empire-he had no illusions about what was needed and he wasn't taken in by the flag waving and triumphalism that had been part of the 1897 Jubilee celebrations. Milner came to the view that for Britain to reassert her position in south Africa then Kruger's Transvaal would have to submit to British control. The question of the 'uitlanders' would be used as the excuse to achieve this.
In May 1899 the Cape PM, Schreiner and Hofmeyr, leader of the Cape Afrikaners, proposed to Milner that he should meet with Kruger to try and settle matters and so on May 30th Milner found himself steaming north to Bloemfontein to a conference with Kruger. He was determined that it should not succeed.

By this time the 'uitlanders' were paying 5/6th of the country's taxation, were the majority of the population but had no representation. At the conference, Milner was to push for a five year franchise, retrospective, which Kruger resisted until the last day when he agreed but with conditions. Kruger wanted in return negotiations on the Raid indemnity, Boer control of Swaziland and arbitration on rival interpretations on the London Agreement of 1884. The extra conditions were all that Milner needed to end the proceedings. Kruger's comment on the failure of Bloemfontein that what Milner wanted was not the franchise but his country.

In August clutching at straws, the Boers offered a 5 year franchise but still with some conditions including the non-interference by Britain in their internal affairs. Rejection in Britain convinced Pretoria that franchise was not the issue and that both sides were on a road that led to war. By this time Milner had convinced Chamberlain (and Salisbury in turn) that war was  the only course. All that needed to be done was to ensure that the Boers were  the aggressors so as to bring the British public on side.

Kruger decided that war was inevitable and as the Boers had the numerical advantage in October 1899 of 40,000 to 15,000, it was hoped that if they could struck a swift blow they might force the British to the table at which they would acknowledge the full sovereignty of the Boer republics. By throwing all their troops against Natal, they could capture Durban before the first ships brought reinforcements, and this would encourage the Cape Afrikaners to rise up. On 28 September the Transvaal mobilised followed by the OFS on 2 October.

On 9th October Kruger sent the British government an ultimatum demanding that the British withdraw their forces from the Transvaal border and send back forces on the way (8,000). When this ultimatum expired on 11th October the two sides were at war.
Back to content