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Siege of Mafeking: Conclusion February 11, 2014

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
Tags: , , , ,
B-P on the lookout.

Colonel Baden-Powell on the lookout.

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 day after the siege was lifted, the Mafeking garrison turned out for a memorial service at the cemetery. They stood at attention in a hollow square formation as a preacher slowly read the names of those slain in the defense. Three volleys were fired over the graves, the buglers played the “Last Post,” and everyone sang the national anthem.

Colonel Baden-Powell dismissed the remnants of his force, passing them in review and addressing them with a few words of thanks. That afternoon Colonel Plumer’s column departed to repair the rail line to Bulawayo before heading off to see action in the eastern Transvaal. Colonel Mahon’s column remained in town another week, then moved south to join the massive army of Field-Marshall Lord Roberts as it crossed the Vaal and approached Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Far away from this small town on the edge of the Kalahari, celebrations burst out in all parts of the Empire. “MAFEKING RELIEVED” blared the headlines. Parades, fireworks, commotion: the public rejoiced so enthusiastically that a new word was coined to describe the exuberance—“mafficking.” The reaction was much more intense than what followed the relief of Ladysmith and Kimberley back in February.

Mafeking headline

Why the mass hysteria? Two reasons stand out. First of all, the British public had a suitable hero to worship—B-P. Second, the war was finally going the way folks in England had expected. The army of Lord Roberts stood nearly on the doorstep of Pretoria,  having marched inexorably across the Orange Free State. With the capture of the Transvaal capital, surely the war would be over quite soon.

B-P’s heroic image

The newspapermen in town had filed reports throughout the siege, keeping the public informed about the small garrison’s stubborn resistance to the enemy. At the siege’s start, a surprising five correspondents were posted in the little town far removed from the main action of the war. (That was reduced to four after a soldier of the garrison murdered one of them in a dispute.)

War correspondents at their "bombproof" in Mafeking.

War correspondents at their “bombproof” in Mafeking. Hamilton’s dog, pictured here at right, was named “Mafeking.” He was wounded three times but survived the siege.

From their reports the people back home learned of how B-P responded to Boer acts of aggression with the cool-headed politeness valued so highly in Victorian times. For instance,  Angus Hamilton of the Times wrote that when the enemy first shelled the town, “Commandant Snyman presented his compliments to Colonel Baden-Powell, and desired to know if, to save further bloodshed, we would now surrender. Colonel Baden-Powell received this message with polite astonishment, and while not telling the deputy of Commandant Snyman that his shell had only spilt the blood of a fowl, and knocked small pieces out of three buildings, replied, that so far as we were concerned, we had not yet begun.”*

B-P’s calm demeanor intrigued Hamilton: “Outwardly, he maintains an impenetrable screen of self-control, observing with a cynical smile the foibles and caprices of those around him…. He seems to close every argument with a snap, as though the steel manacles of his ambition had checkmated the emotions of the man…. ” Hamilton accompanied B-P on one of his nocturnal spying missions into Boer territory: “As he makes his way across our lines the watchful sentry strains his eyes before him, until the undulations of the veld conceal his progress…. He goes on, never faltering, bending for a moment behind some bushes, crawling  upon his hands and knees…. In a little while he moves again, his inspection is over, and he either changes to a fresh point or startles some dozing sentry as he slips back into town.”

And yet this was a man of peculiar talents. He could draw caricatures simultaneously with left hand and right, sing comic songs, and appear on stage in a wig and a girl’s dress. Lady Sarah Wilson observed that in the theatricals B-P assumed different roles with “Fregoli-like rapidity.” She was referring to the Italian actor Leopoldo Fregoli, who had entertained London audiences on an 1897 tour with his quick-change act, exiting stage left as a street musician and reappearing moments later as a woman stage right.

Leopoldo Fregoli.

Leopoldo Fregoli.

But if the town alarm bells happened to ring during such a performance, B-P instantly put aside the masquerade and calmly took charge. Quite an interesting personality: full of earnest patriotic fervor one moment and indulging in whimsy the next. Whatever his contradictions, the important thing for the British public was that B-P had held the town during those long, hard days.

The “glorious” phase of the war

The Empire entered the war October 1899 thinking it would be over by Christmas. But the ragged Boers, with their unkempt beards and dirty hats, proved a tougher foe than expected. They used their deadly Mauser rifles to win a major victory at Ladysmith, and in mid-December the British suffered the crushing Black Week defeats at Stormberg, Magersfontein, and Colenso.

The picture stayed grim in early 1900. General  Sir Redvers Buller experienced so many setbacks along the Tugela River that he became known as “Sir Reverse.” But shipload after shipload of fresh troops poured into Cape Town and Durban, and Piet Cronje’s February 27 defeat at Paardeberg marked a changing of the tide. Lord Roberts’ huge army of 30,000 pushed aside the outnumbered commandos that opposed it, steamrolling northeast to capture the Free State capital of Bloemfontein and press on toward Pretoria.

The Tommies marching on Pretoria.

The Tommies marching on Pretoria.

The relief of Mafeking came just two weeks before Roberts captured Johannesburg. Six days later the British flag flew over Pretoria, Paul Kruger and his Government officials fled in a railcar, and it seemed victory had been achieved. Many of the war correspondents went home, never suspecting the war could continue until May 1902.

Two years of guerilla warfare lay ahead. General Lord Kitchener came in to wage war with scorched-earth tactics, burning down the Boer farms, forcing the commandos against barbed-wire fences in gigantic “drives,” and putting the women and children into concentration camps. When the Boers finally surrendered, they were wearing grainbags for clothing and subsisting on game and handfuls of plundered corn.

Postscript: Sol Plaatje

The adroit young African Sol Plaatje stopped keeping his diary at the end of March, too busy with his work as a court interpreter and freelancing work he did for the British newspapermen—he had access to information unavailable to the white community.

When the siege ended, town officials paid tribute to the residents of the Stadt. The blacks had contributed much to Mafeking’s defense, in organized units such as the “Black Watch” and more informally, as when they prevented Sarel Eloff’s men from escaping through the Stadt.

The Africans who’d arrived at the Stadt as refugees to live alongside the resident Baralongs were promised their own farm as a reward, and all were promised protection from the Boers.# But British authorities disarmed them after the siege. The blacks therefore found themselves defenseless against a raid in January 1902, when a party of Boers carried off all their livestock. Meanwhile, the promised farm never materialized.

Mafeking’s Civil Commissioner, Charles Bell, commended Plaatje as “a faithful interpreter” and praised the reports he drew up on “the Native situation.” This emboldened Plaatje to ask for a raise, and he did receive a small increase in salary. In December 1900 Plaatje went to Cape Town to take a civil service exam, but his ultimate ambitions lay higher. He started a bilingual newspaper, The Bechuana Gazette, aimed at advancing black interests. He became a prominent spokesman for African opinion and went on in 1912 to become the first secretary of the South African National Congress, forerunner of the ANC. But his hopes of equality for blacks were never realized before he died in 1932.

His diary of the siege, contained in a dilapidated leather scrapbook, was given by his grandson to a researcher named John Comaroff in 1969 and first published in 1973.

#  #  #

*Angus Hamilton, The Siege of Mafeking. London: Methuen & Co., 1900.

#A discussion of Plaatje’s later life can be found in Sol T. 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.

Sol Plaatje, undated photo but probably after the war.

Sol Plaatje, undated photo.


1. Gary Howell - February 14, 2014

I enjoy learning a bit about the Boer War. Last year I was helping a grad student from Bulawayo ? now in Zimbabwe. She showed me pictures of the market in her mother’s home village. Bulawayo shows up in your narrative as a place to which troops come and go.

One of her stories here was of her roommate, who after being bitten by a dog, went to an emergency room. After the 10 thousand dollar bill, he realized he should have just flown home to Europe and taken a bit of a holiday.

Didn’t B.D. then start the Boy Scouts ?


Jenny - February 14, 2014

The Beira to Bulawayo route was used by the British on occasion for moving troops to the northwestern Transvaal. The major ports used were Cape Town and Durban (in the British colonies). They couldn’t use the other port in Portuguese East Africa, Lourenco Marques (Maputo), because major troop movements there would have jeopardized Portuguese neutrality. The Portuguese were willing to overlook minor arrivals of troops at Beira if they went to Rhodesia and not directly to the Transvaal as they would from Lourenco Marques.

Regarding B-P, he honed his Boy Scout idea in 1907-1908, starting a camp for boys and writing a scouting handbook. It caught on like wildfire and was firmly established by 1909.

2. T E Stazyk - February 18, 2014

I’ve been way behind in my reading but very much enjoyed this series! Thanks.

Jenny - February 18, 2014

Thank you! I gave so much information that it must have felt more like reading a book than a blog. I truly enjoyed putting these pieces together. I’ve decided to start a new history blog as a separate thing so that I don’t subject casual readers to these huge infusions of information.

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