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Siege of Mafeking: Lady Sarah Wilson December 31, 2013

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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Lady Sara Wilson.

Lady Sara Wilson.

The story of the siege starts here. For background on the causes and major events of the war, go here. To see all the posts in the series, go to the “tag cloud” in the column at right and click on “Siege of Mafeking.”

On December 6, Mafeking saw the arrival of a person who did much to liven the spirits of the town’s beleaguered residents.

Lady Sarah Wilson was the wife of Lt.-Col. Gordon Chesney Wilson, aide-de-camp of Col. Baden-Powell. They had both been at Mafeking on the eve of the war, but B-P had insisted that Lady Sarah leave town before the Boers rushed the town. She set off in a Cape cart pulled by six Government mules, accompanied by her maid and an African driver.  My white pony Dop brought up the rear, ridden by a Zulu called Vellum, she wrote in her book South African Memories.*

She was born Lady Sarah Isabella Augusta Spencer-Churchill, the youngest daughter of the Duke of Marlborough and the aunt of Winston Churchill. Supremely confident, accomplished, witty, and adventurous, she was an outstanding member of the upper class of the world’s most powerful empire. She was entitled, in the most literal sense of the word.

She shared the virtues, the attitudes, and the prejudices of her class. She had a strong sense of civic responsibility and, once she returned to Mafeking, did much to help out at the town hospital. She presided as a hostess at B-P’s Sunday events, distributing prizes to winners of cricket matches and bicycle races. She hosted dinners for officers of the garrison at the “bomb-proof” that was constructed for her upon her arrival, complete with a telephone.

Below is an illustration from her book, showing B-P at top and the bomb-proof at the bottom.

B-P at top; interior of bomb-proof at bottom.

B-P at top; interior of bomb-proof at bottom.

She was condescending in her attitude toward the Boers, sharing anecdotes about their ignorance that were intended to amuse. Their appearance disgusted her. I never could have imagined so many men absolutely alike: all had long straggling beards, old felt hats, shabby clothes, and some evil-looking countenances. It is understandable that a citizen of a nation at war wouldn’t feel kindly toward the opposing side—but then again, not a few accounts of the war written by British soldiers described their foes in terms of respect. See for instance With Rimington by L. March Phillipps.

Her attitudes toward blacks were typical for her class and for the time. The British prided themselves on their more enlightened attitudes, and after all they had banned slavery in 1834—which led the Boer Voortrekkers to head off into the veld, away from the British-controlled Cape. But this didn’t mean the British saw the Africans as equals. Like others in her set, Lady Sarah called blacks “Kaffirs” or “niggers,” complaining for instance that “only Kaffirs were available as servants.”

When B-P sent her away from Mafeking on the eve of the siege, October 14, she journeyed southward in her cart, into the dry, empty country of Bechuanaland, and proceeded to a tiny town called Setlagoli. But the Boers were said to be approaching there, and so she departed for Mosita, where she stayed for more than a month. During the weeks I remained at Mosita, the only book I had to read was “Trilby,” which I perused many times.

Trilby was the very popular book by George du Maurier published 1895.Trilby O’Ferrall, the novel’s heroine, is an Irish girl working in Paris as an artists’ model and laundress; all the men in the novel are in love with her. A leading character is Svengali, the evil mesmerizer.

Svengali at work.

Svengali at work.

Lady Sarah stayed with a Mrs. Keeley, whose husband, the veld-cornet of the district, was shut up at Mafeking. The family were sympathizers with the British. Lady Sarah followed the news from Mafeking as best she could, making a risky trip to the larger town of Vryburg to get better information. Restless and bored, she made up her mind to try to get back into Mafeking.

She returned to Setlagoli and sent a letter to General Snyman, who by now had taken over command of Boers at Mafeking. She requested a pass into the town, but Snyman refused. Not easily discouraged, she went in person to Snyman’s laager to suggest she be exchanged for a Dutch lady who wished to leave Mafeking. Quickly surrounded by curious Boers, she found they would only be willing to exchange her for a Dutch horse thief by the name of Petrus Viljoen, now held prisoner in Mafeking. They took her off to stay at the camp hospital, and she waited for news, sending messages to her husband in town.

At last the exchange was agreed, and she rode into town in her cart under a truce, accompanied by Boer artillery officers. Petrus Viljoen was led out under a white flag, and the exchange was accomplished. From the first redoubt Colonel Baden-Powell and Lord Edward Cecil ran out to greet me, and the men in the trench gave three ringing English cheers, which were good to hear; but no time was to be lost in getting under cover [as the truce was expiring] and I drove straight to Mr. Wiel‘s house, and had hardly reached it when “Creechy”…sent a  parting salute, and her shell whizzed defiantly over our heads.

Lady Sarah at the entrance to her bomb-proof.

Lady Sarah at the entrance to her bomb-proof.

* Lady Sarah Wilson, South  African Memories. London: Edward Arnold, 1909. Available on Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14466/14466-h/14466-h.htm#158 .

(To be continued)

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