My latest pre-South Africa trip reading covers John Laband's book on the Transvaal Campaign of 1880-81, often called the First Boer War, which fizzled out after the Battle of Majuba Hill.
Britain had annexed the Transvaal in 1877, with only modest protest due to the sate of the territory following Boer-Pedi War of 1876-77. However, initial British reverses in the Cape Frontier War, Anglo-Pedi War and then the Anglo-Zulu War did not inspire confidence. Boer agitation grew and colonial officials were alarmed at the solidarity being shown by the Orange Free State and Boers in the Cape Colony. The election of Gladstone and the Liberals in the 1880 election gave the Boers hope because of Liberal opposition to the Tory policy of creating a confederation of South African states - the white governed ones at least.
On 16 December 1880, a large gathering of Boers proclaimed the independence of the Transvaal and besieged small British garrisons spread across the state. A belated attempt to concentrate forces at Pretoria was undermined by the ambushing of Colonel Anstruther's column at Bronkhorstspruit on 20 December.
To relieve the garrisons, the Natal Field Force was established by Major-General Colley. This was a cobbled-together force with insufficient cavalry and mounted infantry to take on the mobile Boer commandos. None the less he proceeded to the border where Boer forces had dug in on the pass at Laing's Nek. A disjointed attack was repulsed, forcing the British back to their camp at Mount Prospect.
Colley then tried a flanking move, by capturing Majuba Hill which overlooked the pass. He did this without waiting for the reinforcements being assembled in the Cape by Sir Evelyn Wood. The Boers quickly surrounded his position and the British were forced to retreat. Colley died in the battle.
This was pretty much par for the course in colonial campaigns. Initial incompetence and defeats followed up by bringing overwhelming force to bear. The troops to carry this out were arriving in South Africa, but Gladstone's government favoured a peaceful solution. The compromise was an independent Transvaal under British suzerainty. Needless to say, this didn't resolve the internal issues inside the Transvaal or the imperialists desire to create a confederation. These all kicked off again in the Second Boer War.
John Laband has written a concise and very readable study of the campaign and the forces involved. It is well illustrated with period photos and clear maps. Published by Helion, it is well worth a read. For wargamers, the Boer forces for the later campaign are pretty similar, at least in smaller scales. The British would still be in Zulu War redcoats, although the arriving reinforcements from India had started to adopt Khaki.