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Siege of Mafeking: Horse-meat soup January 19, 2014

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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Black soldiers at Mafeking. Blacks and whites had unequal rations.

Black soldiers at Mafeking. As food ran short, blacks and whites had unequal rations.

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.”

The unavoidable, morbidly fascinating question about any siege is, “What did they end up eating, as weeks and months went by?”

Kimberley ration ticket.

Kimberley ration ticket. I’m sure the soup was delicious…

The siege towns

The three towns besieged from the first days of the war—Kimberley, Ladysmith, and Mafeking—faced very different challenges. Kimberley was the diamond-mining town, and Cecil Rhodes himself figured among the besieged population of 50,000 total, 10,000 of them black mineworkers confined in big compounds for the duration of their contracts. These fenced, guarded barracks were rationalized as a means to prevent theft of diamonds. For an interesting discussion of the subject, go here.

The white townspeople were able to subsist on dwindling rations of bread and questionable meat supplemented by vegetables grown in home gardens. The “mine boys” had no gardens. They made do with less than a pound of rationed mealies (corn and corn meal) per day. Many suffered from scurvy, and mortality ran high.

Ladysmith, having figured in critical action before the siege, had 14,000 troops in tent camps or dug into dog holes around the perimeter. In town resided 3,000 white civilians and 2,400 black servants and workers who’d failed to get away in the two days between General Sir George White’s crushing defeat by the Boers and the start of the siege.

Shell damage to Ladysmith town hall.

Shell damage to Ladysmith town hall.

Vegetables were scarce, but at least the supply of meat and bread remained adequate, especially after the painful decision was made to sacrifice the mounts of the cavalry brigade. This was supplemented by tough, chewy portions of “T.O.”—trek oxen. As it turned out, food was less of a problem for Ladysmith than typhoid and dysentery.

By contrast, Mafeking was a Twin City of sorts, an African settlement dating to the 1850s consisting of thatched-roof huts, paired with a white town established 1885, featuring the usual hotel, shops, church, and tin-roof bungalows. The population of the “native Stadt,” together with refugee mineworkers from the Rand gold mines, totaled 7,500 blacks, while the white townspeople plus the garrison of two regiments numbered 1,300.

Residents of Mafeking would have fared better than those of Kimberley and Ladysmith were it not that the Mafeking siege ran until May 17, 1900, while Kimberley was relieved February 15 and Ladysmith February 28. News trickling in about the other siege towns only added to the frustrations of Mafeking residents as they festered those three long months from February to May.

Controversy over Mafeking food rationing

Baden-Powell (center front) and staff

Baden-Powell (center front) and staff

B-P’s handling of the food shortage became a matter of controversy among historians in recent times, although the private diary of Col. Vyvyan of his staff reportedly shows that B-P made adjustments to his policy when it was shown to him that it could have inhumane consequences. Yet certain aspects of that policy cannot be disputed. In a nutshell, the daily food ration for whites was more generous than the ration for blacks; the ration for horses was reduced so as to give horse food (oats) to blacks, while whites did not share in this plan; in the last months of the siege blacks were pushed out of town, running the gauntlet of hostile Boers, in order to reduce the number of mouths to feed; blacks suffered from starvation, particularly the refugee workers from the Rand gold mines who had arrived at the start of the war.

In all this, it’s easy to pass judgment on the attitudes of the past. These attitudes are unacceptable to us today, but the simple reality was that neither the Boers nor the British of that time regarded blacks as equal to whites. I look at the diary of Sol Plaatje, an African with many unusual insights, to try to understand his attitude about the situation.  In his entry for January 13, he wrote, “The following shows that there is a very great difference between black and white even in a besieged town. ‘Fresh meat rations to be reduced to 3/4 lbs. from Monday inclusive.’ It is a notice by Capt. Ryan…to the townites [the white civilian residents].” The implication is that blacks received smaller or no portions of meat.

Plaatje’s tone is matter-of-fact, not angry or bitter. He never did take an angry position, maintaining his good humor, leavened by sardonic touches, throughout the siege. Here is an excerpt from his diary entry for February 27, describing horsemeat given to the blacks who were being led away from the town. It is a rather horrifying description: “I saw horseflesh for the first time being treated as human foodstuff. It looked like meat with nothing unusual about it, but when they went to the slaughter-pole for the third time they found that there was no more meat left and brought the heads and feet. I was moved to see their long ears and bold heads, and those were the things the people are to feed on. The recipients, however, were all very pleased to get these heads and they ate them nearly raw.”*

March 15: “The administrators of martial law have authorized the municipality to levy dog tax as they want to get rid of as many dogs as possible. Some unlicensed dogs were found, destroyed and buried by the town ranger. Our local Zambesi friends unearthed them, immediately the ranger’s assistants left the scene, and promptly cooked them for dinner, which gave the Barolong sections of the community the impression that there is more in a dog than they were ever told…”

March 21: “I have not seen my siege friends (the beggars) today. There were always scores of them every day at the residency and they were relieved by the soup kitchen…. It is really pitiful to see one who was too unfortunate to hear soon enough that there was a residency in Mafeking, and being too weak to work, never had a chance to steal anything during the last six days, and so had nothing to eat. Last month one died in the Civil Commissioner’s yard. It was a miserable scene to be surrounded by about 50 hungry beings… and to see one of them succumb to his agonies and fall backward with a dead thud.”

Lady Sarah Wilson observed: “All the natives objected most strongly to partaking of horse soup, supplied by the kitchen…as they declared it gave them the same sickness from which the horses in Africa suffered, and also that it caused their heads to swell. The authorities were therefore compelled to devise some new food, and the resourceful genius of a Scotchman introduced a porridge called ‘sowens….’ This nutriment, said to be well known in the North of Scotland, was composed of the meal which still remained in the oat-husks after they had been ground for bread and discarded as useless.”

But we see from Plaatje’s description that the “natives” were quite willing to eat even the ears of horses when they were starving.

Lady Sarah did experience reduced rations herself. “Occasionally I used to be allowed a tiny white roll for breakfast, but it had to last for dinner too.” And, “On April 3 I cabled to my sister in London as follows, “Breakfast to-day, horse sausages, lunch minced mule, curried locusts.”#

How long could this go on? The Mafeking residents anxiously followed every scrap of news about the approach of the relief column, part of the army of Lord Roberts that had been advancing northeastward for months—slowed down by fighting major battles such as at Magersfontein. And before that could happen, the Boers decided at last to make an attack on the town.

(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. Cambridge, UK: Meridor Books, 1990.

#  Lady Sarah Wilson, South  African Memories. London: Edward Arnold, 1909.



1. Brian Reed - January 29, 2014

I wonder if any native aversion to horsemeat was learned from Europeans in the first place. Horses did not previously exist in southern Africa, right? My impression is horse consumption is uncommon most places for economic reasons but not necessarily taboo outside Europe.

Jenny - January 29, 2014

My impression is that even in Europe there’s a lot of variation in attitudes about horsemeat. The French eat it, the English don’t. Lady Sarah Wilson said the natives were afraid they might get the horse sickness, which is a particular illness suffered by horses in Africa in warm, swampy places. It’s odd they would have that fear and not the Europeans in town. It doesn’t seem that the whites in Mafeking taught the Africans to be afraid.

P.S. Horses were introduced to South Africa in the mid-1600s by the Dutch East India Co. One article says they were brought over from Indonesia (a Dutch colony). They were introduced to northern Africa about 2000 years ago.

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