A new history of Anglo-Boer War


Centennial: As a commemoration nears, a South African tribe whose role in the siege was long ignored is suing Britain for damages incurred 100 years ago.


MAFIKENG, South Africa -- The centenary of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) is being marked here this year with a change of complexion.

Throughout this century the conflict has been known as "the white man's war," fought between English troops and the Dutch descendants of Boer settlers for control of gold-rich Africa. The involvement and victimization of thousands of blacks in the fighting have been all but ignored.

But today, with the black majority in control, new focus is being put on the Africans who fought beside the white soldiers and those who died or suffered in the war.

Here in Mafikeng, scene of the famous 217-day siege in which Robert Baden-Powell found fame and was inspired to start the Boy Scout movement, the local Tshidi-Barolong tribe is preparing a $6.5 million claim against the British government.

They want compensation, in the form of development aid, for the military services, suffering and deprivation of their forefathers during the siege.

"It a pathetic story," said Chief Stephen Setumo Montshoia, whose great-grandfather was commander in chief of the Barolong forces when the Boers surrounded the town in October 1899 and for the next seven months tried to bombard and starve it into submission.

"Some of the descendants of the people who suffered during the war didn't know of this history," said Montshoia. "It was ignored until we got our independence as South African citizens in 1994, when everyone was free."

Mafikeng's mayor, Mandla Magwetyana, a member of the ruling African National Congress, recalled that at school he learned only of English and Boer involvement in the war and the local siege.

"South African history that was taught during apartheid was very biased," he said. "The real reason for downplaying the involvement of the Barolong in the war mainly has to do with the past discrimination here.

"All our lives in South Africa, black lives have always been considered to be very cheap and not important. In those years blacks were considered more to be slaves than to be ordinary people. It had to do with downgrading the human dignity of black people," he said.

In fact, according to Geoffrey Phillips, curator of the Mafikeng Museum, blacks were the major combatants during the siege, defending the town from Boer attack, conducting raids to steal enemy cattle for food for themselves and the English, and risking their lives to carry messages through the encircling Boer lines.

More than 400 Barolong died in combat and 600 were wounded, according to Phillips. Hundreds more starved to death or were hunted down by the Boers while trying to flee the town after Baden-Powell, with food running short, gave them the ultimatum: Starve or leave.

But over recent decades the Mafikeng Museum took little note of the Barolong's role in the historic siege.

"It was very biased," admitted Phillips.

This is now being changed for the official commemoration of the start of the siege in October. A new siege room will give a "balanced" image of both military and domestic life during the siege.

New diaries and photographs of black participants have been unearthed. Previously, acknowledged Phillips, no effort was made to find them because of the prevailing racist ideology.

"The fact that there will be a lot, lot more about the African contribution is not because we have deliberately become biased in the opposite direction, but we are getting at the truth," he said.

The truth, according to a new book, is that Baden-Powell was a self-aggrandizing racist, who exploited the services of the Barolong, then watched many starve to death and finally denied they had helped him withstand the siege of Mafeking, as the town was spelled in colonial days.

He left the local Africans without any compensation for their military endeavors, their suffering and the loss of their land and livestock.

Pat Hopkins and Heather Dugmore, in their book, "The Boy: Baden-Powell and the Siege of Mafeking," identify the Boers, who rose from defeat to political power and imposed apartheid on the blacks in 1948, as the "long-term winners" and the blacks as "the big losers" of the war.

The outcome was "achieved by a massive betrayal by Britain of her black allies during and after the war," they write. "The story of Mafeking is a contained clone of this nightmare."

Baden-Powell, later knighted and created a baron, was central to that nightmare. A young officer, of upper middle-class family, he had made his mark in colonial service in India and Africa before being posted here to help confront the Boers. His resistance, and his own colorful accounts of it to London, made him an instant hero in faraway Britain.

"He was not a hero," said the museum's Phillips. "He did nothing heroic. He didn't put himself at risk. He didn't take part in any fighting. He never went out on a raiding party or a skirmish. He spent most of his time sitting near Dixon's Hotel."

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