26 AUGUST 1899
When the Transvaal Boers took up arms to recover their independence Alfred Aylward—the man who had raised a green flag over the diamond-fields and proclaimed and Irish South African Republic—became secretary to Joubert. Aylward is dead this twelve or fifteen years, but his name is remembered with affection by the Boers and democrats of the sub-continent and with hatred by the African Imperialists still. He was a ‘traitor to both the Fenians and the British, a born conspirator, a secret service agent, a soldier of fortune, an adventurer, a buccaneer, a filibuster, and many other things,’ say the pro-Britishers who plotted his murder in Natal. I will not now stop to vindicate the memory of the gallant and adventurous Dublinman who worked against the British Empire all his life and succeeded in giving it one staggering blow in Africa. To Aylward when they raised the Vierkleur the Boers looked, and he took his stand by them like a man, knowing well that his capture by the British meant that he would swing as high as Haman,
The Boers invested Pretoria, Potchefstroom, and other places, but it was not until the 20th of December, 1880, four days after the uplifting of the banner, that the first shot was fired. This was at Bronkhorst Spruit, about forty miles east of Pretoria. A Major Anstruther set out from Lydenburg with 250 men to march to Pretoria. On his way through Middelburg he was warned by a Boer, who was a personal acquaintance of mine, that his passage would be disputed and advised to turn back. But your Britisher never turns back when he thinks his enemy doesn’t mean to fight, so Anstruther pressed forward. At Bronkhorst Spruit he found the Boers under Franz Joubert waiting for him. A messenger was sent by them to him with a flag of truce, requesting him to return to Lydenburg. ‘My orders are to go to Pretoria and to Pretoria I will go,’ replied Anstruther. ‘Then your blood be on your own head,’ said the Boer, galloping back. The bluffing Britisher ordered the band to strike up and the troops to march forward. They did so, and ten minutes later Anstruther and 150 of his officers and men were dead or wounded and the remainder prisoners in the hands of the Boers. This is what the lying British Press calls ‘The Massacre of Bronkhorst Spruit.’
The British stuck tight to the towns after this and the Boers hemmed them in, waiting patiently for hunger to compel them to surrender as they had no artillery to take them by assault. Meanwhile General Colley collected his troops in Natal and advanced to the relief of the beleaguered Lang’s Nek, the pass in the Drakensberg Mountains leading from Natal to the Transvaal, he found occupied by the Boers under Joubert and Aylward. Thereupon he wrote an insolent letter to the Boer general in which he said, ‘The men who follow you are, many of them, ignorant and know and understand little of anything outside their own camp, but you who are well educated and have travelled cannot but be aware how hopeless is the struggle you have embarked upon and how little any accidental success can affect the ultimate result. To save, therefore, the innocent lives that must be sacrificed and the blood that must be uselessly spilt in a prolonged resistance, I call upon you to dismiss your followers.’ To this Joubert replied that so long as he was addressed as a rebel and contemptuous misleader of an ignorant multitude he could find no words to reply, and thereupon Colley with 1,100 men attacked the Boer position and was routed, with a loss of 250 men. A few days later the British and the Boers met on the heights of Ingogo and the former only escaped annihilation by darkness falling, under cover of which they escaped, abandoning their dead and wounded to the number of 160.
Colley determined to have revenge and to smash the Boers. And here let me say a word about him. His memory has been vilified by his countrymen, who like their Carthaginian prototypes, crucify their unsuccessful generals. They have described him as a carpet knight, an incompetent, a martinet, and a vain and obstinate man. Now, Colley was none of these things; he was a brave and experienced soldiers who had fought through six of England’s wars, had spent years in Africa, and was extremely popular with his men. The crucifiers allege that he shot himself on the top of Amajuba to escape being courtmartialled. I have half a dozen men who were eyewitnesses of his death, and they all agree that he was shot by a Boer whom he was about to fire at with his revolver.
To return to the war: Amajuba is a flat-topped hill rising about 1,400 feet above the plain. It lies within the Natal border, about two miles from Charlestown on the Natalian frontier and five from Volksrust, the Transvaal border town. Its sides are rocky and precipitous, and it commands Lang’s Nek and Ingogo and the surrounding country. I was amused at reading the other day in the Ananiasian British Press the explanation of how the British were defeated. It was perfectly simple. ‘The Boers took possession of a higher hill from which they shot down our soldiers, whose ammunition having run out could only reply by firing stones, etc.’ This is an excellent explanation, save for the fact that there is no higher hill than Amajuba in the neighbourhood and that the British didn’t bother about throwing stones at the Boers—they hadn’t time they ran so quickly. Anyhow, on the morning of Sunday February 27, 1881, when the Boers looked up at Amajuba they saw the redcoats on top of it, and they felt annoyed and alarmed—annoyed because your Boer is a Sabbatarian and doesn’t care for fighting on Sundays and alarmed because Amajuba looks as impregnable as Gibraltar, to which indeed it bears a rude resemblance in outline. Aylward proposed that an attempt should be made to scale the hill, but the Boers wavered. To climb a rocky mountain with 723 British soldiers pot-shooting at the climbers seemed a hopeless task; but the young Boers back Aylward. 150 men, including all the Irish soldiers who had deserted from the British army to the Boer side, volunteered for the scaling, and the remainder of the Boers lay below protecting the volunteers by picking off any ‘rooi-baatje’ who exposed himself. It took hours for the volunteers to reach the summit, but when they got there ten minutes sufficed to wiped out of the British, who outnumbered them three to one. The Naval Brigadiers fled when the first volley was fired, and the soldiers all, with the exception of the highlanders, followed their example a moment or two later. The latter stood their ground for a few minutes, but when the Boers rushed in on them with clubbed rifles they broke and ran. The English lost 300 men in killed, wounded, and prisoners.
An armistice was arranged after Amajuba and peace concluded on the basis of complete self-government for the Transvaal under British suzerainty. Three years later, by the Convention of London, England waived any suzerain rights, stipulating only that the Transvaal should not conclude any treaty with any power other than the Orange Free State without her consent. But treaties or conventions never bound England when she had the interest and the opportunity to break them.