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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.


Bristlecone pines on Griffith Peak January 13, 2014

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature.
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Bob and bristlecone.

Bob and bristlecone.

Come away from the waterlogged Smokies for a bit, and visit a desert mountain range in Nevada.

I was talking with a couple of friends recently about the bristlecone pines of the Southwest. I have great reverence for the bristlecones, a species that includes the world’s oldest living trees. But you will see that this post is not really about reverence toward nature.

First, a bit of background. Bristlecones live at elevations between 5,600 and 11,200′ in desert mountains. The oldest ones live in the White Mountains of California on the border with Nevada. White Mountain Peak, one of California’s two non-Sierra Fourteeners, is located near the groves that contain the oldest bristlecones. Up until recently, a tree called “Methuselah” was considered to be the oldest living specimen, at an astounding 4,789 years old. But in 2012 an older one was found, measured at 5,062 years old.

I have a book that I bought at the Death Valley gift shop that features drawings of bristlecone cross-sections with historical events indicated at points among the concentric rings: “Babylon flourished as a nation,” “Alexander the Great conquers Egypt,” “Religious Crusades to Jerusalem,” and “First man walks on the moon.”

The dense, resinous wood of the trees protects them against insect infestations, fungi, and rot. The Wikipedia article says, “Rather than rot, exposed wood, on living and dead trees, erodes like stone due to wind, rain, and freezing, which creates unusual forms and shapes.” In any case, they aren’t subject to much in the way of rainfall.

Mike, Bob, and I had done a hiking/backpacking trip to the Sierras. Now we were on our way back to Vegas for our flight home. But we were going to visit the Spring Mountains of Nevada, not far outside Vegas, before flying back East. The highest point in the Spring Mtns. is Charleston Peak (11,916′), but the dimensions of that hike were too big to fit into our schedule: 21 miles, 4900′ elevation gain, 11 hours. So we opted for the second highest, Griffith Peak, 11,056′, 3100′ elev. gain, half-day hike.

Charleston Peak is the distant point to the right.

Charleston Peak is the distant point to the right.

Behind the youngster bristlecone to the right (probably less than 500 years old), you can see Charleston Peak with its slides and talus fields. This was the view from the South Loop trail. The path switchbacked and climbed more and more steeply toward the top. No problem at all for us—we’d thoroughly acclimatized in the Sierras.

Finally we reached the top, which we had to ourselves. We could see miles in all directions. Around us, groves of bristlecones stood scattered across the dry, open slopes of the mountain. A great silence hung in the air.

I think it was Bob who came up with the idea of Interpretive Dance. He always had the funniest, stupidest, best, worst ideas. And so we had an Interpretive Dance session. I pictured Isadora Duncan in flowing robes, a long scarf of course fluttering from her neck, moving in harmony with the deep beneficent pulse of the natural world.

Mike moves in unison with the shape of the tree.

Mike moves in unison with the shape of the tree.

And so we spent a rewarding time on the summit before heading down to play a few rounds of blackjack at one of the Vegas casinos.

Bob has become one with the tree.

Bob has become one with the tree.

Siege of Mafeking: Fiasco at Game Tree Fort January 10, 2014

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
Tags: , , ,
"The Attack on Game Tree Fort" by H. C. Seppings Wright.

“The Attack on Game Tree Fort” by H. C. Seppings Wright.

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 26, 1899, British troops at Mafeking made a bold strike at their besiegers. It proved disastrous for them. From that point onward, they made no more major attacks on the Boers, opting to wait for the arrival of a relief column. That would not come for another five months, and food was starting to run short.

Col. Robert Baden-Powell ordered the attack—that we know. But we don’t know exactly why he decided to mount an assault on a fort that turned out to be impregnable: a blockhouse eight feet high, roofed over, with three tiers of loopholes for the defenders to fire through.

A number of explanations emerged. Lady Sarah Wilson was told the object of the attack was to capture a Boer gun that had been wreaking havoc in the town. H.W. Wilson, author of With the Flag to Pretoria, contended the purpose was to “open up communication to the north and to extend the area of pasturage for the large number of cattle in the town.”* Other accounts say B-P thought it would be a morale booster, like his other “kicks” at the Boers—taking action of some sort seemed better than sitting around.

Accounts from the British perspective uniformly explain that the fort had been strengthened since the last reconnaissance—even that it had been transformed overnight from a small structure with just one tier of loopholes into a real fortress—because B-P’s plan had been betrayed by “Dutch spies.” But how recently had that last reconnaissance taken place? Had it actually been done the day before, Christmas Day?

Each account gives different numbers for the troops that went out, but it seems that of more than 60 men who went out to fight, only ten returned. Around twenty-five were killed and twenty-eight wounded. The assault began at 4:15 a.m. with an attempt by the feeble British artillery to damage the fort. This accomplished nothing, and “Creechy” and the other Boer guns soon returned fire. At 5:00 a signal was given to the British artillery to cease fire, and two squadrons of the Protectorate Regiment marched forth.

H.W. Wilson wrote, “The men dashed forward in swift rushes, keeping admirable order, their officers well in front, with such spirit and gallantry that all who saw were filled with admiration.” They paused to fix bayonets and pressed on toward the fort. “And now the Boer fire blazed up with a fury and intensity that appalled the onlookers. The fort vomited bullets in sheets from every loop-hole.”

Capt. Charles Fitzclarence.

Capt. Charles Fitzclarence.

Captain Fitzclarence, who had a reputation as a brave and aggressive fighter,  fell with a severe wound to his thigh, but his fellow officers led the way to the fort, where they attempted to empty their revolvers into the loopholes. There more were killed, including Captain Ronald Vernon, who succumbed after being wounded three times. Lady Sarah wrote, “I could hardly realize in particular the death of Captain Vernon, who had been but a few short hours before so full of health, spirits, and confidence.”#

Captain Vernon.

Captain Ronald Vernon.

But isn’t that always what happens in battle?

With most of the officers killed or wounded, “there was no one left to lead and none to follow,” H.W. Wilson wrote. The few still standing retreated—walking slowly. B-P raised the Red Cross flag, and the Boers ceased fire.

Angus Hamilton of The Times of London described the aftermath. “The scene here was immensely pathetic, and everywhere there were dead or dying men…. The attitude of the Boers around us was one of stolid composure, not altogether unmixed with sympathy…big and burly, broad in their shoulders, ponderous in their gait, and uncouth in their appearance, combining a somewhat soiled and tattered appearance with an air of triumph…. Here and there they made some attempt to rob the wounded and despoil the dead.”**

Lady Sarah walked to the hospital, where she was asked to superintend a convalescent home being organized to manage the heavy load of new patients.  She arranged for beds, crockery, kitchen utensils, and food to be supplied from the town store. “As I ran back to my quarters, the bugle-call of the ‘Last Post,’ several times repeated, sounded clear in the still atmosphere of a calm and beautiful evening, and I knew the last farewells were being said to the brave men who had gone to their long rest.”

"A Gleam of Sunshine Between the Storms." Wilson wrote, "The Boers on this occasion crowded around the British wounded with sympathetic interest."

Wilson wrote, “The Boers on this occasion crowded around the British wounded with sympathetic interest.”

(To be continued)

* H.W. Wilson, With the Flag to Pretoria. London: Harmsworth Bros., 1901.

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

**Quoted in Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War. New York: Random House, 1979.