Siege of Mafeking: A young court interpreter December 6, 2013Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
Tags: Baralong, Fingo, Montshiwa, Shangan, Siege of Mafeking, Sol Plaatje, Tshidi-Baralong, Tswana
This post is dedicated to the memory of Nelson Mandela, July 7, 1918 – December 5, 2013.
When Sol Plaatje came to Mafeking in October 1898, exactly a year before the siege began, he was a newly married man starting a career as a clerk and court interpreter. He would go on to play an important role as an advocate for African rights. In 1912, he became the first secretary of the South African Native National Congress, forerunner of the African National Congress.
He was born 1876 at Doornfontein in the Orange Free State, where his parents were active in a Missionary Society. The family moved to Pniel, near Kimberley, and Plaatje was educated at mission schools. A bright young man, he took a job at 17 as a messenger with the Post Office—but his goal was to eventually become an interpreter. He belonged to a community of church-goers with progressive ideals.
Most of that community were of Xhosa or Mfengu descent; Plaatje was descended from the Baralong of Modiboa. During his time in Kimberley, he became proficent in English, Dutch, Xhosa, Sesotho, and German in addition to his native Tswana. He developed a liking for Shakespeare and attended performances at the Kimberley Theatre. Later in life, he translated several Shakespeare plays into Tswana.
The place name “Mafeking” was a corruption of the name “Mafikeng,” or “Place of Rocks,” established by the family of Montshiwa, the chief in the Malopo region. Montshiwa was in conflict with the Transvaal Boers for many years and received aid from the British imperial government, which created the Bechuanaland Protectorate to stave off the Boers’ territorial incursions. In 1885 the British settlement of Mafeking was established a mile from Montshiwa’s court. The whites referred to the black settlement as the “Stadt.”
At the time the war started, the majority of blacks in the area were Tshidi-Baralongs—Montshiwa’s people. But there were also Shangan (Tsonga) refugees—workers from British-owned gold mines on the Rand who’d been run off by the Boers as the war approached—as well as Fingos (Fengu) and mixed-race “Cape coloured boys.” The differences between the groups—who “belonged” there and who didn’t—would become an issue in latter days of the siege when food ran short.
Plaatje had plenty of work to keep himself busy. In addition to his interpreting work, he provided translation and transcription services to several newspaper reporters in Mafeking. But he also found time to keep a diary. And a most interesting diary it was, full of humor and observant of detail.
His first entry, for October 29, describes the experience of hearing the Boer guns firing on the town and listening to the response of the British Maxims. No music is as thrilling and as immensely captivating as to listen to the firing of the guns on your own side. It is like enjoying supernatural melodies in a paradise to hear one or two shots fired off the armoured train; but no words can suitably depict the fascination of the music produced by the action of a Maxim, which to Boer ears, I am sure, is an exasperation…
He goes on to tell of a moment as he walked along the street with Mauser bullets making a “screech” and a “whizz” all around him. He felt something hit him behind his ear and decided that he must be in the act of dying. Dead! To rise no more. A few seconds elapsed after which I found myself scanning the bullet between my finger and thumb, to realise it was but a horsefly.
(To be continued)
*Sol Plaatje, Mafeking Diary: A Black Man’s View of a White Man’s War. Edited by John Comaroff with Brian Willan and Andrew Reed. Meridor Books, Cambridge, UK, 1990. All quotes from Plaatje come from this edition of his diary. I am indebted to the book for historical background as well, particularly about the history of African peoples. The subject is complex; the names used have invariably changed over the years; any errors are my own.
Right fork of Trout Branch December 2, 2013Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains, winter hiking.
Tags: Alum Cave Trail, Mt. LeConte, Trout Branch
I’ve been up Trout Branch maybe four or five times over the years, but I’ve always gone to the left at the major junction just below 4400′. Most times I’ve gone up what you might call the right fork of the left fork, the one that leads up to the Alum Cave trail directly below Cliff Top. Once I took the left of the left, which goes to the West Point ridge. The right fork was the only one I hadn’t explored.
I was accompanied by Cindy McJunkin and Chris Sass on this fine outing. They are great hiking companions. Chris and I have done a lot of hiking trips together, but this fall he’s been swamped with work at his teaching position at Young Harris College in north Georgia (he teaches math). He hadn’t been able to get out for a good bushwhack adventure since August… way too long. Cindy has been bitten by the off-trail bug in the past couple of years—she’s an experienced backpacker who’s put in a lot of mileage on the A.T.—so I was glad she was able to join this outing. Fellow female bushwhackers don’t come along all that often.
We started a little after 9:00 and proceeded up the lower stream. Even in this photo you can see a hint of red discoloration on the rocks caused by landslide activity that exposed sulfuric Anakeesta bedrock.
As we got closer to the base of the big landslide, we could see patches of the “tomato soup” water that you encounter after these cataclysmic events. For photos of a trip up the slide, go here. Recent heavy rains have diluted the water.
The logjam at the base of the slide is just amazing.
The slide is fun to climb in dry conditions. In the ice and snow we encountered this day, it would’ve been pretty challenging.
All along the stream I enjoyed the ice formations.
There is a particularly beautiful pool a little above the landslide junction.
We had a treat a little further along: paw prints in the snow.
We saw a large waterfall ahead. In this photo you see the sunlight hitting the treetops above. We were in and out of sunlight in this stream valley.
We did some serious rhodo thrashing to get around the waterfall and finally got to the top, where the photo at the top of this post was taken. We got into pitches of steep terrain.
At around 5100′, several small valleys converge, some too small to show up on the map. At first we stayed with the largest, easternmost valley, but when we reached a point where it was clogged with blowdowns, we opted to follow a draw that angled to the left, going close to due north.
We got into a fun bit of steep rock scrambling. When we reached smooth icy ledge we headed off to the right and got into steep spruce forest. From there it was a strenuous but straightforward climb up to the trail.
We’d thought we might cross the trail and continue upward along a valley that in days past was used as a descent route by LeConte Lodge workers. However, sunset comes so early these days that we opted to head down, and it was a good thing we did, for it was getting dark by the time we reached the lower sections of the Alum Cave trail. Can you believe it took us from around 9:15 to 2:30 to go something like two miles on the off-trail portion? If you figure we’re especially slow or inept, I invite you to try it for yourself, in similar conditions of snow and ice.
As we descended the trail, we met J.P. Krol, the winter caretaker of LeConte Lodge. Most likely he was entertaining himself with a trip down to Alum Cave Bluff.
A great hike with two fine bushwhacking companions.
Siege of Mafeking: “Be Prepared” November 25, 2013Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
Tags: Boy Scouts, Matabele War, Piet Cronje, Robert Baden-Powell, Sarel Eloff, Siege of Mafeking
Up until mid-September, Colonel Baden-Powell had believed he was to take his two regiments on a raiding expedition into the western Transvaal. Then authorities in London instructed him to stay put in Mafeking and use the town as bait to divert Boer forces. Under B-P’s orders, the town went into a frenzy of activity. With only 1,000 white troops, it would be a challenge to defend a six-mile perimeter against a much larger enemy. Of course, African residents of the Stadt provided indispensable labor—and armed manpower, as it turned out. The native town with its thatched-roof huts was a “twin city” to the white town with its hotel, hospital, convent, general store, and houses.
Trenches were dug. A complex system of small forts was created, each holding up to 40 riflemen. “Bomb-proofs” were built. These were shelters dug into the ground with roofs made of steel rails topped by sheets of corrugated iron. In some of the fancier ones, built for high-ranking residents, porthole-like openings were created that could be closed with wooden flaps, and tarpaulins could be pulled over to keep out the rain.
Luckily for B-P, the postmaster “understood telephones,” as Lady Sarah Wilson described it. Phone lines connected a central bomb-proof with outlying ones, and a system of bells was set up so that any particular quarter of town could be warned when a shell was heading in its direction.
Most famously, B-P instituted dummy defenses. Fake mines were laid to supplement the scanty number of real ones. When he found the supply of barbed wire insufficient, B-P had fenceposts erected with no wire strung between them, and soldiers were ordered to pretend they were climbing over or between the imaginary wires. Guns and a searchlight were shifted from one location to another to fool the enemy into thinking they were more numerous.
Arthur Conan Doyle, in The Great Boer War, had this to say about B-P: [He] is a soldier of a type which is exceedingly popular with the British public. A skilled hunter and an expert at many games, there was always something of the sportsman in his keen appreciation of war. In the Matabele campaign he had out-scouted the savage scouts and found his pleasure in tracking them among their native mountains, often alone and at night, trusting to his skill in springing from rock to rock in his rubber-soled shoes…. Full of veldt craft and resource, it was as difficult to outwit as it was to outfight him. But there was another curious side to his complex nature…. An impish humour broke out in him, and the mischievous schoolboy alternated with the warrior and the administrator. He met the Boer commandos with chaff and jokes which were as disconcerting as his wire entanglements and his rifle-pits. The amazing variety of his personal accomplishments was one of his most striking characteristics. From drawing caricatures with both hands simultaneously, or skirt dancing [playing female roles in amateur theatricals], to leading a forlorn hope, nothing came amiss to him…
B-P’s artistic talents had merged with his military ones during a stint as an intelligence officer in Malta. He roamed the countryside disguised as a butterfly collector, sketching outlines of military installations within drawings of butterfly wings.
His experience in the Matabele War in Rhodesia proved controversial. The Colonial Office accused him of executing an African chief, Uwini, by firing squad after promising he would be spared if he surrendered. B-P admitted to the killing but said it had been justified, and he was let off the hook. It was also said he had allowed African warriors under his command to massacre women, children, and non-combatants among enemy prisoners.
B-P may have been “impish” in his manner, but he was above all a man who adhered to the Victorian concept of duty—the most unfashionable idea imaginable today. Old-fashioned values of strength and courage still have a place in today’s culture—though they must often be presented ironically—but duty? Nothing could provoke laughter more quickly in today’s world.
When after the war he published Scouting for Boys in 1908, using the Mafeking Cadet Corps as a model, he emphasized the notion of being a citizen of the Empire. A scan through his chapter subheadings gives a sense of this:
Play the game: don’t look on; The British Empire wants your help; Fall of the Roman Empire was due to bad citizenship; Bad citizenship is becoming apparent in this country to-day; Peace-scouting; Militarism; “Be Prepared”; Imagination; Responsibility to juniors; Discipline; Religion; Continence.
Ever the “Boy-Man,” B-P was very probably a homosexual—a strictly closeted one. His passionate attachments were to boys or boyish men; he married only at the age of 55, and then at the urging of his mother. He named his son Peter for Peter Pan, according to this YouTube biography.
Once the Boers besieged Mafeking on October 16, B-P had the most stolid of Boer generals, Cronje and Snyman, to serve as foils. When the shelling began, Cronje sent in a message: “Surrender to avoid bloodshed.” B-P replied, “When is the bloodshed going to begin?” It wasn’t until nearly the end of the siege that he would deal with a Boer commandant of a younger, more playful nature—Sarel Eloff, one of Paul Kruger’s numerous grandsons.
But now, B-P had to decide whether to venture attacks on the enemy that greatly outnumbered him.
(To be continued)