Siege of Mafeking Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The masterful British defense of Mafeking under the leadership of Colonel Robert Baden-Powell was the most important psychological turning point in the South African War. The lifting of the siege marked the beginning of the end of Afrikaner resistance and prompted nearly hysterical displays of jingoism in England.

Summary of Event

In August, 1899, Mafeking was an important rail center between Cape Town and Rhodesia Rhodesia . A town with more than nine thousand inhabitants, 80 percent of whom were black, it had simple adobe buildings, arranged in orderly fashion around a small town square. Its unprepossessing appearance belied the strategic importance it would have if a war were to erupt between the British in the Cape Colony and the South African Republic, the Afrikaner republic in the Transvaal that lay only eight miles to the east. If the Transvaal Afrikaners could take Mafeking immediately after the opening of hostilities, perhaps all the Afrikaners would join them in driving the British from South Africa. Colonel Robert Baden-Powell was sent to Mafeking to make sure that this did not happen. Noted for his cunning and ingenuity, he proved the perfect officer for this difficult assignment. South African War (1899-1902);Siege of Mafeking Mafeking, Siege of (1899-1900) British Empire;and South African War[South African War] Afrikaners;South African War[South African War] South African Republic;and South African War[South African War] Baden-Powell, Sir Robert Stephenson Smyth [kw]Siege of Mafeking (Oct. 13, 1899-May 17, 1900) [kw]Mafeking, Siege of (Oct. 13, 1899-May 17, 1900) South African War (1899-1902);Siege of Mafeking Mafeking, Siege of (1899-1900) British Empire;and South African War[South African War] Afrikaners;South African War[South African War] South African Republic;and South African War[South African War] Baden-Powell, Sir Robert Stephenson Smyth [g]South Africa;Oct. 13, 1899-May 17, 1900: Siege of Mafeking[6420] [g]Africa;Oct. 13, 1899-May 17, 1900: Siege of Mafeking[6420] [g]British Empire;Oct. 13, 1899-May 17, 1900: Siege of Mafeking[6420] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 13, 1899-May 17, 1900: Siege of Mafeking[6420] Cecil, Lord Edward Herbert Cronje, Piet Roberts, Sir Frederick Sleigh Mahon, Sir Bryan

Through August and September, Baden-Powell developed and implemented a plan for the defense of Mafeking that was part bluff and part genius. The town lay in the middle of an arid plain with no natural defensive barriers. To remedy this, Baden-Powell supervised the construction of sixty sandbag forts along a perimeter well beyond the town limits. He expected that the Afrikaners would try to take Mafeking using long-range guns purchased from Germany and France. The farther from the center of the town their modern cannons were placed, the less damage the militarily inexperienced Afrikaners would be able inflict. Baden-Powell also wanted to ring Mafeking with land mines but did not have the proper materials to construct them. Working in a makeshift secret laboratory, his men instead created what appeared to be lethal weapons but which in fact were wooden boxes filled only with sand. To convince the spies in Mafeking that the bogus mines were genuine, and to reassure Mafeking’s inhabitants that everything was being done to protect them, Baden-Powell periodically secretly detonated a stick of dynamite along the circle of bogus mines to give the appearance of testing them. The controlled explosions convinced both groups.

On October 9, 1899, the South African Republic’s president Paul Kruger sent an ultimatum to the British government to remove its troops from South Africa within forty-eight hours or a state of war would exist between his republic and Great Britain. Two days later the first shots of the war were fired, and two days after that, on October 13, the Afrikaner siege of Mafeking began.

General Piet S. Cronje Cronje, Piet commanded the Afrikaner troops that ringed Mafeking. His demand that the British surrender the town at once was politely refused. Instead of waiting for the enemy to attack, Baden-Powell took the war to the Afrikaners in a series of well-planned forays. These brief sorties convinced him that his adversaries were mostly inexperienced soldiers, and that Cronje believed that heavy casualties would undermine support for the war among Afrikaners. Baden-Powell was determined that the Afrikaners would pay dearly for every foot of ground they might gain.

During the often brutal and seemingly endless Afrikaner shelling that reduced much of Mafeking to rubble, the civilian population behaved with a calm and steady courage. In fact, for the town’s young boys, the siege almost became a lark. To curb their energies and prevent a possible tragedy, Baden-Powell charged his subordinate, Major Lord Edward Herbert Cecil, Cecil, Lord Edward Herbert to organize the Mafeking Cadet Corps—the prototype of Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts. The effort was successful, and the boys provided valuable service in a number of roles.

Baden-Powell kept in touch with the outside world by using African runners, who risked their lives every time they slipped through the Afrikaner lines. Through the information the runners brought in, Baden-Powell learned early in the siege that a number of unexpected reverses would prevent General Frederick Sleigh Roberts, Roberts, Sir Frederick Sleigh the British commander in chief in South Africa, from relieving Mafeking in the foreseeable future. Baden-Powell and his fellow defenders were thus left alone with little hope of reinforcements or supplies. However, Baden-Powell had made his initial plans with that possiblity in mind. Rationing of food, fuel, and other supplies had been routine from the moment that war was declared.

Because the siege had begun in the midst of the Southern Hemisphere’s spring, residents of Mafeking had been encouraged to use every available plot of ground to grow fruits and vegetables to supplement the limited supplies of foodstuffs. The result was that everyone received enough rations to maintain an adequate and nourishing—if uninteresting—diet. When the supply of fresh meat from local livestock was exhausted, horses Horses;in African warfare[African warfare] and even stray dogs were consumed. There were certainly complaints about rationing and the often imperious manner in which Baden-Powell managed every aspect of town life during the siege, but most inhabitants of Mafeking did their part to win the struggle against the Afrikaners.

Finally, on May 17, 1900, a relief force under the command of Colonel Bryan Mahon Mahon, Sir Bryan reached Mafeking. After 217 days the siege was lifted, and the Afrikaners retreated. When the news reached London, the city erupted in a celebration of patriotism mingled with relief. The word “mafficking” then entered the language to describe hysterical celebrating, Baden-Powell became a national hero, and the newspapers were filled with details—both genuine and bogus—of his struggle against the Afrikaners. At an age when most army officers were looking forward to winding down their careers, Baden-Powell was about to begin another and more public phase of his life. He was barely forty-three when the Siege of Mafeking was lifted; half of his life—the most public part—lay before him.

Significance

While Mafeking was certainly valuable militarily, its real importance was psychological. The siege became a test of wills, achieving a significance far beyond its immediate strategic value. The victors at Mafeking would win the war. Because Baden-Powell was able to withstand the repeated Afrikaner attacks until relief arrived, Kruger did not receive the popular support that was crucial for a Afrikaner victory. Inspired by the resistance of the soldiers and civilians of Mafeking, the British forces achieved the final victory, and all of South Africa was added to the British Empire. However, the most lasting and positive outcome of the siege was the inception of the world scouting movement. Born of necessity in the midst of war, it would, under the leadership of Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell, transform the lives of millions of young men and women in the twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grinnell-Milne, Duncan. Baden-Powell at Mafeking. London: Bodley Head, 1957. Although somewhat dated, this is a well-written, concise, and entertaining biography of the hero of Mafeking.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hillcourt, William, and Olave Lady Baden-Powell. Baden-Powell, The Two Lives of a Hero. New York: Gilwellian Press, 1992. This is the best brief, but complete, biography of Baden-Powell, written by two who knew him well.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hopkins, Pat, and Heather Dugmore. The Boy: Baden-Powell and the Siege of Mafeking. Rivonia, South Africa: Zebra Press, 1999. Revisionist study of not only the siege but also Baden-Powell himself and the British presence in South Africa at the end of the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jeal, Tim. Baden-Powell. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Revisionist study that defends Baden-Powell from his late twentieth century critics, particularly those who contend that he used the South African War for his own aggrandizement. It has an extensive bibliography, which will prove useful to scholars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacDonald, Robert H. Sons of the Empire: The Frontier and the Boy Scout Movement, 1890-1918. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1993. Interesting study of the genesis of the international scouting movement and Baden-Powell’s role in founding it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Midgley, John F. Petticoat in Mafeking: The Letters of Ada Cook with Annotations and a Vindication of Baden-Powell. Kommetjie, South Africa: J. D. Midgley, 1974. Exciting eyewitness account of the siege and liberation of Mafeking.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Plaatje, Sol T. Mafeking Diary: A Black Man’s View of a White Man’s War. Edited by John Comaroff with Brian Willan and Andrew Reed. London: James Currey, 1990. Firsthand account of the siege by a resident African who would later become a prominent journalist and nationalist figure. Plaatje’s account provides an interesting alternative to the studies that place an emphasis on the heroic sacrifices made by the British to secure an empire in Africa.

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