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Siege of Mafeking: Introduction November 4, 2013

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
Tags: , , , ,
The least competent of Boer generals

The least competent of Boer generals, J.P. Snyman.

To see all the posts in the series, go to the “tag cloud” in the column at right and click on “Siege of Mafeking.”

It was a contest between the Boer old guard and a British colonel who was both arrogant and resourceful. The Boers laid siege to the isolated town of Mafeking at the very start of the three-year war, in October 1899, and with their superior numbers, they should have been able to force a quick surrender. Instead, the siege dragged on for 217 days, and the “Relief of Mafeking” in May 1900 caused the British public to swoon with delight.  The celebrations were so extravagant that the word “maffick” was coined to mean “to celebrate exuberantly.”

Postcard showing Colonel Baden Powell, circulated after the siege ended.

Postcard showing Colonel Baden-Powell, circulated after the siege ended.

I’ve written many posts about the Boer War on this blog, but I’ve never treated the subject of Mafeking even though it has been described as the most important British victory of the conflict. It was probably the event cheered most loudly in the Empire, but I can’t see the relief of a small isolated town on the border of the Cape Colony as having much strategic importance. It didn’t free up very much British manpower—only about 800 men from the Bechuanaland Rifles and the Protectorate Regiment had been involved.

The truth was, South Africa was something of a nightmare for the British. There were not many glorious victories, and it took a long grueling series of small advances in Buller and Roberts’ campaigns, followed by Kitchener’s “scorched earth” tactics that involved civilians as well as combatants, before the war was won. The Empire had expected the conflict to be over in something like three months rather than the three years that it actually took.

The siege gripped the imagination of the British public, much more than the other two sieges that started at the same time—Ladysmith and Kimberley—because Baden-Powell made such an appealing hero, and the fumbling Boers made him look so good.

Readers of this blog know that my bias is generally on the side of the Boers. In the first months of the war, before so many Tommies were shipped into Cape Town and Durban that the British had overwhelmingly superior numbers, the Boers subjected them to one embarrassment after another. Even after that,  the talents of Boer leaders such as De Wet, De la Rey, Botha, Smuts, and Viljoen kept their citizen fighters battling successfully, switching over to guerilla tactics for the second and third years of the war, until exhaustion and starvation forced them to surrender.

Another thing about Mafeking is that there are no good Boer accounts about the siege. There were always many more people writing about the war among the British than among the Boers, not surprising considering that most of the Boers were poor, uneducated farmers. Despite this, some highly memorable books were written from the Boer perspective, all after the war: accounts by Deneys Reitz, Roland Schikkerling, Christiaan de Wet, and Ben Viljoen.

But if any of the Boers at Mafeking were inspired or insightful, they made no record of their observations.

It was not a British account of Mafeking that inspired me to tackle the subject, it was the very unusual and interesting diary of an unlikely man, Sol Plaatje—an African. His is the only written account concerning the war by an African that I know of, although several good books have been written by scholars about the experience of blacks during the war.

I also finally got around to reading the amusing diary of the siege by Lady Sarah Wilson, sister of Lord Randolph Churchill and aunt of Winston Churchill (who was in  South Africa during the first part of the war). She was sometimes snobbish and irritating, but she was also an intelligent observer who described many lively details.

(To be continued)

Lady Sarah Wilson.

Lady Sarah Wilson.


1. Rick Stevenson - November 4, 2013


How are you?

I have to keep this brief for right now, but . . . after a few years of way too many work and home committments, and a couple minor foot injuries . . . . my nailing the NH48 is imminent! Hope to have it by end of this weekend, and the finale will be one of your favorites -Moriah! Finally did some of your other top favorites at end of Sept – the Bonds.

I’m at 45, and doing Galehead and S. Twin Weds, then Moriah on the weekend weather and body permitting!

Let’s catch up on news next week!

Jenny - November 4, 2013

Fantastic! Moriah is a fine peak to finish up with! May the weather gods smile upon you!

2. Brian Reed - November 4, 2013

Looking forward to more of your history posts! I enjoyed all those Deneys Reitz stories. History and wilderness adventures are the two subjects I can never get enough of.

I have the impression that views of Baden-Powell went seriously negative at some point. Not sure if that has to do with “boy scout” being an insult in some quarters or something more sinister.

Jenny - November 5, 2013

Thanks, Brian! Regarding Baden-Powell, there are two main lines of criticism, one of which is not really a criticism: that he was a latent homosexual. As I understand it, the biographical consensus is that he never had a physical relationship with another man, let alone do anything like preying on boys. The other is more serious. He was active in several “native campaigns” in Rhodesia, including the Matabele War. He is alleged to have allowed the execution of a captured native who had been promised he’d be let go, and to have allowed one group of tribesmen to massacre another. At Mafeking, there is a controversy about whether he starved Africans to keep feeding the whites. I’ll go into that in a later post.

3. T E Stazyk - November 5, 2013

Great read and glad you are back to posting Boer history again!

Jenny - November 5, 2013

Thanks, it’s nice to see interest from people outside as well as inside South Africa!

4. Gary - November 5, 2013

It’s a great photo of Snyman. From the ‘boy scout” stuff, I guess
Baden-Powell was the founder of the Boy Scouts ? ( I can still tie
a bowline, a square knot, a clove hitch, etc.,)

Jenny - November 5, 2013

Yes, he was. At Mafeking during the siege there was a Cadet Corps of boys who helped out by carrying messages, running errands, and doing chores. He wasn’t the person who established the Cadet Corps, but after the war, when he decided to start a scouting movement, he used them as a model.

5. james mariri - March 22, 2015

sol plaatje is coming from the royal family of barolong boo modiboa bt i ask myself tha where is barolong boo modiboa.he fought for land bt where is that land

Jenny - March 22, 2015

Good question. As I’m sure you know, the town of Mafikeng is part of the modern nation of South Africa. But I believe the Baralong territory extended into Botswana. All those old territories have been turned into national boundaries. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest problems in Africa these days: the old territories don’t match the new boundaries.

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