The siege and battle for Mafeking constitutes one of the most famous, but also one of the most controversial, episodes in British imperial history. Over 217 days, from 13 October 1899 to 17 May 1900, little more than 1,000 totally outgunned and outnumbered European and African defenders, ultimately only surviving on starvation rations and led by Col Baden-Powell, were initially besieged by 8,000 and, from mid-November 1899, a reduced number of around 2,000 Boer fighters, led respectively by Generals Cronje and Snyman.
Whilst this epic struggle made a hero out of the British leader, Baden-Powell, who eventually went on to achieve everlasting fame as founder of the Scouting Movement, his personal role has recently attracted criticism for alleged gross neglect of the Mafeking African population, leading to a significant number of unnecessary deaths from starvation.
As the quote by Gen. Cronje above graphically exposes, the battle for Mafeking also represented one of the first events of the Anglo-Boer War to highlight the deep racial tensions underpinning this conflict; tensions directly generated by Baden-Powell’s equally controversial decision to arm large numbers of his African defenders, which, from the Boer perspective, constituted a gross violation of the sacred principle of fighting a ‘white man’s war’.
Therefore, it was a battle which presented a major challenge to the existing pre-war social order, whereby a white South African minority sought to sustain, in wartime as well as in peacetime, their coercive dominance over a black South African majority.
TIMELINE OF EVENTS
1652 — Dutch occupy Cape region of South Africa
1806 — Britain occupies the Cape
1814 — Britain annexes the Cape
1830s — Boer communities commence ‘Great Trek’ away from British control, penetrating deep into the Southern African interior
1843 — Natal annexed as a British colony, raising fears of British encirclement
1852 and 1854 — Foundation of the independent Boer Republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal
1860s — Diamond discoveries in the Orange Free State renews British interest in dominating the region
1875 — Lord Carnarvon officially launches South African Confederation policy to secure British control and to reduce costs of her South African possessions
1877 — Britain annexes the bankrupt Transvaal Republic, reinforcing Boer fears of British imperial domination
1879 — The Anglo-Zulu War. After defeats at Isandlwana, Intombe Drift and Hlobane, and major victories at Rorke’s Drift, Gingindlovu and Kambula, Britain finally defeats the main Zulu army at Ulundi. The last African obstacle to Confederation is removed
1880−81 — Outbreak of the First Anglo-Boer War. British suffer a series of defeats, culminating in Majuba Hill
1881−84 — The Pretoria and London Conventions; Britain recognises Boer independence
1886 — Gold discoveries in the Transvaal reawaken British interest in controlling the Boer Republics
1886−95 — Disputes between the Boer Republics and Britain, particularly over the implementation of the ‘Uitlander’ franchise issue, raises political tensions
1895 — Jameson Raid: this failed armed coup, backed by diamond and gold magnates Cecil Rhodes and Alfred Beit, is launched against the Transvaal government, greatly exacerbating tension between Britain and the Boer Republics
1895−99 — Political tensions reach crisis point as the new British High Commissioner to South Africa, Sir Alfred Milner, backed by the Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, and determined to demonstrate imperial unity and power via the ‘Uitlander‘ issue, directly clashes with President Kruger
1899 — British significantly strengthen their forces in South Africa during the spring and summer months
12 October 1899 — After the expiry of a two-day Boer ultimatum demanding guarantees of Boer independence and the withdrawal of British troops and reinforcements arriving after 1 June, Boer forces attack, besieging the key British-held towns of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith
13 October 1899 — Siege of Mafeking begins
December 1899 — British forces suffer a series of defeats, notably at Colenso, Magersfontein and Stormberg (known as ‘Black Week’)
February 1900 — Lord Roberts occupies Bloemfontein. Kimberley and Ladysmith relieved. Cronje surrenders at Paardeberg
17 May 1900 — Mafeking relieved
June 1900 — Lord Roberts occupies Pretoria
1901−02 — Last ‘Bitter-ender’ Boer guerrilla campaign is crushed by Roberts and Kitchener’s twin policies of the ‘blockhouse’ and ‘concentration camp’ system, denying both resources and battle space to the mobile Boer commandos
31 May 1902 — Peace of Vereeniging signed; war ends
Extracted from Battle Story: Mafeking 1899-1900 by Edmund Yorke