“No music is as thrilling and as immensely captivating as to listen to the firing of the guns on your side,” reads an early entry into the diary of Sol T. Plaatje.These were the initial days of what would be known in the British press, and history, as “Mafeking Siege”. Plaatje – a diarist, writer and court interpreter – was both an observer and accidental participant in a conflict that would reverberate in Britain, South Africa and Botswana (Bechuanaland Protectorate). For one man in particular, that moment was one of the two subjects that have written his name in history forever – the other being the Scout movement.
That man was Robert Baden-Powell, a colonel who commanded the British North West Frontier Forces in South Africa at the outbreak of the Second Boer of 11 October 1899 – 31 May 1902.Fought between the British Empire and two independent Boer republics, Transvaal and Orange Free State, the war was primarily over the British influence in South Africa, but the spark that ultimately lit the powder keg was the discovery of two highly sought-after precious minerals – diamonds and gold – in the Boer states.Baden-Powell was charged with defence of British territory from Mafikeng (Mahikeng) through Botswana to Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). But what brought him international acclaim, instead, was his holdout of the little town of Mafikeng, which was also the administrative capital of Bechuanaland Protectorate, while engaged in battle with the Boer commandos for 217 days until relief came.
Col. Baden-Powell had been sent to southern Africa in July 1899 in anticipation of the war, with orders to raise two battalions and train them, and to take command of the Rhodesian and Bechuanaland Police. Under strict orders to keep his mission secretive to avoid alerting the enemy, most of the training took place inside Bechuanaland at Ramatlhabama (Ramatlabana). Baden-Powell’s men were then covertly moved to Mafikeng in September. Such movement of troops had to be kept clandestine for fear that there might have been some presence of Boer spies in the town since some of the residents were of Dutch descent.Though Baden-Powell and the British administration had expressed the view that this was to be a white-man’s war, it was never to be. Historians have shown how various Batswana tribes under the command of their chiefs fought valiantly on the side of the British and significantly debilitated the Boers. Barolong, especially, played a major role during the siege.Incidentally, the first act of the war, as historian Neil Parsons has noted, happened right inside Bechuanaland (Botswana).
On Thursday October 12th, the Boers cut off the critical Cape-Rhodesia telegraph on the night that war was declared. This commission of sabotage happened just south of Mahalapye.At Mafikeng, the Boer general Piet Cronje led a force estimated to have numbered between 2, 000 and 6, 000 to lay siege against Baden-Powell’s 1, 200 regular troops and other volunteer militias. The history writer John L. Comaroff has noted that during the first week of the siege, there was only one serious battle fought, while for the most part, fighting was restricted to sniping and artillery bombardment.Baden-Powell and Cronje had agreed on the rules of engagement very early in the combat. While these were occasionally violated, it seems there was one sacrosanct rule that both sides observed throughout most of the siege, and that was complete silencing of the guns on Sundays. The other rule was that both sides would allow the mule-driven ambulance that flew the Red Cross flag unrestricted access to the battle scene after the soldiers had withdrawn.
Whenever belligerence set it and violations occurred, as the Boers often did, Baden-Powell would transmit one of his lengthy and angry dispatches to his opposite number.Historians as well as military scholars and strategists have debated Baden-Powell’s defence of Mafikeng. One view is that the siege was effective to the extent that it tied down significant Boer military power, and thereby made it possible for the invading the forces that had made incursions into Bechuanaland to be successfully pushed out.“My sense,” says historian Jeff Ramsay, “is that the defence of the town was a success,”The contrary view, which is less than complimentary of Baden-Powell’s as a military strategist, is expressed by Parsons and questions why the commander chose to be besieged with his main force and to cut himself from lesser British and allied forces in the hinterland he was meant to protect.While seemingly militarily illogical and insignificant, the siege turned Baden-Powell into a national hero in his home country. It has been suggested that the “Siege of Mafeking” received wide attention in class-obsessed Britain due to the presence in the town at the time it happened of notable figures such Lord Edward Cecil, the son of the British prime minister, and Lady Sarah Wilson, a daughter of the Duke of Marlborough and aunt of Winston Churchill, another future wartime prime minister.
The siege ended on 17th May 1900 when Mafikeng was relieved by a 2, 000-strong British and allied force that interestingly included the brother of the man at the centre of it all, Major Baden Baden-Powell. The elder Baden-Powell was feted and promoted to Major General, even though his military superiors took a dim view of his performance and even so some of his choices in the theatre of war – such as allowing himself to be besieged, in the first place.After retirement from the British army at the rank of Lieutenant General 10 years later, Baden-Powell dedicated himself to the scouting movement whose ideas he had developed while still on active duty.Last week, Baden-Powell’s legacy was brought into question once again in the wake of the Black Lives Matter campaign. He is being accused of having been sympathetic to the German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, as well as racist and homophobic views, and some protesters in Britain questioned whether a man who espoused views so inimical to the civilised world should continue to be honoured by a statue in a public area.
In 2010, declassified files by the British intelligence organ MI5 revealed that Baden-Powell was invited to meet Hitler about forming closer ties with the Hitler Youth organisation. However, there is little evidence to suggest that he was overtly pro-Hitler. In all fairness to the scouting movement, it was banned by the Nazis in 1934, as it was seen as not only competition to the Hitler Youth, but also as attractive to young boys opposed to the new state.Was Baden-Powell racist?There is a view, though seemingly disputed by people like Plaatje, that during the siege he deliberately starved African residents of Mafikeng so that the whites could have better food rations.And what are we to make, for instance, of the language of his “NOTICE TO THE BURGHERS OF THE Z.A.R AT PRESENT UNDER ARMS NEAR MAFEKIBNG” dated 10th December 1899 in which he refers to African people as “Kaffirs”? Is it possible that he only referred to people who were his war allies in such a derogatory term only to appease the audience he was appealing to in this particular correspondence? That still has to be explained, especially in light of the current conversations around race, gender, and sexuality in which we are being forced to reassess attitudes and views of past heroes, some of whom, when viewed with the eye of now, are bound to be knocked off their exalted pedestals.
What we do know with certainty is that after the war, the British did betray Barolong and other Africans who had supported them during the war by acquiescing to the exclusion of the majority from the new Union of South Africa that emerged out of the peace. Of course, that was not on Baden-Powell’s watch. The disenchanted Africans realised once again that they were on their own. Plaatje would become founding Secretary General of the African National Congress (ANC), which emerged to fight for the Africans’ birthright.What about the charge of homophobia?This is an interesting accusation because Baden-Powell himself is said to have been a closeted gay man. Tim Jeal’s biography of Baden-Powell, “The Boy-Man” sketches the outline of a man who fought hard to suppress his sexuality in order to conform to the norms of the time and society of his era. Apparently, as Jeal shows, the young Baden-Powell was greatly influenced by his widowed mother. He was a sensitive boy who liked to play with dolls and formed deep attachments to other boys.
Throughout his life, he is said to have openly admired muscular men and pretty boys, while attractive women sent him into a state of anxiety. He only decided to marry at the age of 55. But even then, his biographer says, he severely panicked soon after his union with the lovely young Olave Soames, who was 32 years his junior, developing agonising headaches that were relieved only when he left the matrimonial bed and returned to his ascetic soldier’s cot.Baden-Powell’s strongest emotional bond appears to have been with a fellow army officer called Kenneth McLaren, whom he met when they both served in India in 1881.
Baden-Powell nicknamed McLaren “The Boy”, and the two remained extremely close for years. It is said that McLaren’s second marriage, in 1910, gravely strained the friendship since Baden-Powell did not hide his disapproval of the match, or his distaste for his friend’s bride. Ironically, it was Baden-Powell’s own marriage that ended the partnership, since Olave was jealous of her husband’s old friends in general and of this special favourite in particular. The two men never met again; “The Boy” went into clinical depression and spent the last few years of his life in an asylum. Baden-Powell himself died aged 83 on 8th January 1941 in his cottage in Nyeri, Kenya, where his grave is a national monument.