Mafeking Besieged!

Before we get to the siege of Mafeking, which is quite a yarn, I must present some preliminary information. Our story picks up long before the siege in 1899. Back in the 1880s, the Cape Colony asserted its prerogatives over mineral-rich Griqualand West, a Boer stronghold, and in addition Stellaland, a Boer “republic” created for the sole purpose of forestalling British ambitions, as far as I can tell. 

This was happening as diamonds, gold and other resources were being discovered in nearby Kimberly and environs. The land of the Griquas was smack in the center of things. The mining rush that ensued, engulfed the areas known as Griqualand East and the considerably larger Griqualand West, with Boer and Brit interests clashing, often violently, until the eventual outcome — more an entente between white supremacists than a true reckoning. 

In any case, both Griqualand West and Stellaland, which only was in business for fullsizeoutput_4ab0about a year, issued stamps. In the case of Griqualand, the stamps were simply Cape of Good Hope rectangles overprinted “G” in myriad ways. (See illustrations here from my collection). Stamp collectors beware: collecting all 102 Griqualand overprints could get expensive.  



















In the case of Stellaland, a set was issued under Boer authority displaying a coat of arms like a “real country.” Just one set — three stamps —  but there you have it. And the stamps aren’t cheap. (I  paid
$25 for these three in 2005.)



The fortunes of the Boers and the Brits rose and fell from the 1870s on, culminating in the brutal Second Boer War of 1899-1902. Early on, the Cape Colony usurped the Boers in Stellaland and took over in the mid-1880s — but not before there occurred an odd philatelic pas de deux. Check out the two so-called “Vryburg” stamps presented at right, named for the capital city of Stellaland.  One stamp is a replica of fullsizeoutput_4ab5an extremely rare Boer stamp overprinted  “V.R.: (Victoria Regina) for the British occupiers. The other is a Cape Colony rectangle overprinted “Z.A.R.” for the Boer occupiers (Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek). And wow! Check out the price. What we have here, then, is both European forces asserting their fullsizeoutput_4ab4primacy by cancelling the stamp y of their enemy with the overprint of their own] side. Who was really in charge here? Did it matter as far as the local black population was concerned? It certainly mattered as far as it resulted in black lives lost during the fighting between the white “tribes” — the Boers and the Brits! 

By the way, if you think this is confusing, wait until we take up the subject of Tansvaal/Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek. There we face alternating Boer and British authority, as well as local overprints and who-know-what-else. Ah well, that is for another day …


fullsizeoutput_3465Now take a look at this stamp (right). It is quite extraordinary. The overprint “Mafeking Besieged” on the Cape of Good Hope half-penny stamp identifies the desperate straits faced by the inhabitants of the Cape Colony’s inland city and strategic railway town. Stamps with this Mafeking overprint sell for a premium — I bought this average-quality one for L19.25. Other Mafeking stamps are much more valuable. My example has a somewhat rounded corner, upper left. But really, considering what a rarity it is, I’d expect you to be on my side on this.

When I showed this stamp to my Syracuse Stamp Club buddies, one of them came up with an obvious, if incisive, question: If British Mafeking was indeed besieged by the Boers, how come there is this cancelled stamp, indicating that the mail got through? If it was a siege, how could letters reach their destinations?

I hadn’t confronted this obvious question before, but it led to further inquiry into the Mafeking siege — in particular the heroic eccentricities of British scion Col. Robert Baden-Powell. Much of the following account is drawn from Wikipedia, and is well-sourced. There is no good reason to doubt the authenticity of this narrative. If anything, it may be overly Eurocentric, that is, glossing over the multi-racial nature of the campaign.  

First, though, an editorial comment — a prologue to the dramatic tale of the Siege of Mafeking. This story could should be made into a movie — there are  many cinematic episodes in a compact narrative crammed into a mere seven months. The backdrop is the standoff between the Brits and the Boers, between Col. Baden-Powell and Gen. Piet Cronje. The screenplay could be constructed as drama, tragedy or farce. As farce, you might cast John Cleese — at least a young, supple version of him — as the languidly energetic and boyishly resourceful Baden-Powell. Gen. Cronje might be Cpl. Klink from the TV show “Hogan’s Heroes.”  Then you’d enlist a veritable Monty Python cast to concoct and carry out the various pranks and tricks Baden-Powell pulled off to hoodwink the stolid Boers, who might as well be Keystone Kops in their dim-witted and ineffectual rage. 


Here is one of the two locally produced Mafeking stamps. the image is from the internet — I couldn’t afford the hundreds of dollars it would cost to buy either one. (Plus, the catalogue warns, there are “excellent forgeries.”) It seems the plucky designers used a photographic technique in reproducing the image of Col Baden-Powell — though his collar makes him look decapitated! The banner on top reads, ”Mafeking Siege 1900” — an oddly celebratory touch. To be sure, Col B.-P. put a lot of emphasis on maintaining morale, and may have encouraged his troops to keep these stamps as souvenirs. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he was a stamp-fancier himself. 

The siege of Mafeking may have had its farcical qualities, and the actual number of deaths was not large. However, the Boer War — actually there were two wars, about 10 years apart — was no picnic. Casualty estimates later put the total number of dead at 22,000 on the British side, 25,000 on the Boer side. At least 350 British soldiers perished in the Battle of Spion Kop alone (the Boers suffered 300 casualties), and 7,000 Brits were killed or wounded during the relief of Ladysmith, a city in Natal besieged by the Boers. Many of the Boer dead were women and children penned up by the British as prisoners in the deplorable conditions of new “concentration camps.”  The Brits’ scorched-earth policies, and their appalling treatment of prisoners, helped bring about the Geneva Conventions, ratified in 1904.

The siege of Mafeking began Oct. 13, 1899, with a shelling by the Boers. It  ended May 17, 1900, with the arrival of British reinforcements — including Baden-Powell’s brother, Baden Fletcher Smyth Baden-Powell (played by Hugh Grant in the movie, I suggest.)  Though initially outnumbered four-to-one, the plucky British held out for 217 days.

Here are a few cinematic examples of Baden-Powell’s schemes;

*** He devised a series of interlocking trenches to allow his troops to circulate  without being seen.

*** He had his men conspicuously place “mines” around the perimeter, all of which were fakes.

*** Troops went to elaborate lengths to mimic avoiding (imaginary) barbed wire while moving about.

*** Col. B.-P. transferred his limited supply of guns from one place to another so Boer spies would overestimate his arsenal.

*** Using an acetylene lamp and a biscuit tin, he concocted a search light that would be displayed in multiple locations to suggest numerous beacon emplacements. 

*** He noticed that while the Boers had cut telephone lines and stopped the trains, they had not damaged the tracks; so he commandeered an armored train from Mafeking’s rail yards, loaded it with sharpshooters and sent it careening into the heart of the Boer camp — and back safely. 

*** A makeshift howitzer was built in the Mafeking rail workshops; rail workers also repurposed a century-old cannon.

*** Troops cross-dressed as women when doing chores or moving about the camp to increase enemy confusion.

Day after day, week after week, Baden-Powell and his stalwarts taunted and defied the Boers. One after another, the hijinks and stunts of the British confounded the would-be attackers. A final Boer assault in May was thwarted by Baden-Powell’s strategic counterattack. The toll in that encounter was 12 dead, eight wounded on the British side, most of them blacks; the Boer toll was 60 dead or wounded and 108 captured. Days later, the Boers threw up their hands and went home. (British reinforcements were arriving anyway.)

Two days after the siege was lifted, an American agent reported to The Times: “Baden-Powell is a wonderfully able scout and quick at sketches. I do not know another who could have done the work at Mafeking if the same conditions had been imposed. All the bits of knowledge he studiously gathered have been utilized in saving that community.”


This popular stamp was the other local issue, known as the “1d Cadet Sgt-Major Goodyear ‘Bicycle’ “ stamp. How to break that down, I don’t quite know. The stamp reportedly portrays a native Cadet cyclist, aged 12, who was among the boys carrying letters and news across enemy lines. If you examine the design closely, you will notice that the bicyclist is black.

Yes, there was drama in the derring-do of the besieged in Mafeking — including the young black cyclists and runners who crossed through enemy lines to carry the mail from Mafeking, complete with duly cancelled stamps overprinted “Mafeking Besieged.” Eventually there was a pair of locally designed and produced postage stamps. The drama continued after the siege of Mafeking was relieved and news reached Mother England, to great jubilation. A new verb was coined, “to maffick,” meaning to celebrate extravagantly. The home country made a great fuss over Baden-Powell: there were parades, honors, etc. etc. He was named the Army’s youngest major general, then ennobled. Lord B.-P went on to found the Boy Scouts — mindful of those scrappy African boys who risked their lives doing their duty. 

And yes, there was tragedy in the siege of Mafeking. It was supposed to be a battle between whites — Boers and Brits — so why were so many of the casualties blacks? The majority of fighters on the British side were white, but Baden-Powell recruited hundreds of blacks to guard the city’s perimeter. No matter which side won the siege, or the larger Boer War itself,  black Africans had little to gain. The dream of multi-racial self-government, envisioned by Prime Minister John Molteno in the Cape Colony 20 years earlier, was fading. The racist policies of the Boers and the British Crown were on the ascendant. While Britain may have subdued the Boers, the outcome ensured that the future of South Africa would be built on white supremacy, not equal rights.   


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