1900-1919 | Famine | Racism | South Africa

Africans starved to save the white garrison of Mafeking

Baden-Powell is commemorated across Britain as a national hero who also inspired the scouting movement. This statue at Poole Quay.
David Dixon – CC BY-SA 2.0 – via Geograph.

[ 17 May 1900 ]

On 17 May 1900, a British army relieved the besieged city of Mafeking during the Second Boer War. It led to street celebrations across Britain and the commander of the besieged garrison, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, became a national hero.  B-P had ruthlessly maintained food stocks for British troops and European settlers by allowing at least 478, according to the official records, and probably over a thousand Africans to die of starvation. Hundreds more, who helped defend the city, were never paid.1

There were about seven or eight thousand Africans entrapped by the siege in Mafeking who formed the majority of the population and at least a quarter of the garrison. They included around five thousand inhabitants, Baralongs, and the remainder were war refugees, including Mfengu farmers and Shangaan ‘mine boys.’ Some of them worked as grooms, drivers, runners, scouts, spies and cattle herders. Others played a crucial role in digging the town’s defences, while 300 of the fittest men were armed with rifles to help defend the six mile perimeter. This had been fully enveloped by Boer rebel forces by mid October 1899, and by 14 November, B-P noted in his diary the disparity in food stocks available.

‘Whites: men, 1,07, women 229, children 405. Natives: 7.500 all told… White rations required daily 1,340. Native rations required daily 7,000… Thus we have 134 days for whites, 15 days for natives.’2

Thomas Pakenham in his monumental history of The Boer War explains how ‘the white garrison took part of the rations of the black garrison. And part of the black garrison was accordingly given the choice of starving to death in the town or running the gauntlet of the Boers.’ The colonel was not prepared to share any of the white garrison’s rations with the black population under any circumstances, though he did allow part of the horses’ rations of grain and oats to be fed to them. A further economy was made by ensuring that, whereas the white garrison were allocated rations regardless of the ability to pay, ‘Africans were all made to pay, and pay handsomely, for their food, including food commandeered from their own stocks.’3

Many could not afford anything like enough to eat and inevitably hunger, malnutrition and disease began to take its deadly toll. On 9 February, Emerson Neilly, the correspondent of the pro-Empire Pall Mall Gazette at Mafeking, reported on the ‘terrible incubus’ of ‘the half starving Barolong tribe, who hunger in their kraals, and are rapidly loosing flesh,’ and by 23 February, Angus Hamilton, the correspondent of The Times was informing his readers that ‘the native population is starving. The mortality among them is five a day.’4 B-P’s response was to ensure the black population feared him even more than starvation, and he had several starving Africans, who had been caught steeling food, executed and another 115 flogged.5

Even those few Africans who received part of their wages in food or who could afford the famine prices, were also soon facing starvation. After a rations stock check on 8 February, B-P noted in his diary that the ‘white’ rations would last another 105 days, but the ‘black’ rations would only stretch to thirty four days. Conditions deteriorated still futher for those Africans who were refugees when the colonel closed down their grain store, and banned them from any further employment. It was the beginning of what Pakenham describes as B-P’s ‘leave-here-or-starve-here policy.’6 This was an almost certain sentence of death as the Boer rebels surrounding the town were unwilling to allow them to escape to safety. ‘The Boers,’ Hamilton reported in The Times, ‘from the beginning of the siege have shown an inclination to slaughter natives without provocation.’7 Hamilton also voiced his anger over B-P’s policy of selective starvation, declaring that ‘there can be no doubt that the drastic principles of economy which Colonel Baden-Powell has been practising in these latter days are opposed to… the dignity and liberalism which we profess,’ but his words were too uncomfortable for newspaper to publish.8

The African population of the town was forced to devise the most desperate measures to survive, some searching for bones among the outcast rubbish and others digging up the corpses of dogs. ‘I have seen,’ reported Neilly in the Pall Mall Gazette, ‘a horse killed by a shell, and five minutes after it fell the natives had cut it in pieces, and were hurrying towards their kraals with the flesh or preparing to boil or roast the welcome provender over fires lighted on an ash-heap beside the railway. Occasionally a horse in the sick lines passes out and the result is the same. The farrier-corporal is saved the trouble of having the carcass removed. It is hurried away and “scoffed” by the poor hungry Baralongs.’9 A few months later, Neilly, writing in Besieged with Baden-Powell, recounted in harrowing detail the emaciated condition of those Africans lucky enough to be allowed rations.

‘Hunger had them in its grip, and many of them were black spectres and living skeletons… their ribs literally breaking through their shrivelled skin – men, women and children. I saw them, too, fall down on the veldt and lie where they had fallen, too weak to go on their way…. words could not portray the scene of misery: five or six hundred human frameworks of both sexes and all ages.. each holding an old blackened can or beef tin, awaiting turn to crawl painfully to the soup kitchen… It was one of the most heart-rending sights I have ever witnessed.’10

There is no doubt that B-P was able to extend the rations for the white garrison only by deliberately withholding food from Mafeking’s black population, and forcing all the African refugees to choose between running the gauntlet of the besieging Boer rebels or facing near certain death from starvation within the town’s perimeter. As Pakenham concludes from his own research on the siege: ‘The Africans were there to be useful to white men. When no longer useful, they must go back to where they belonged, wherever that might be. So, in the “white man’s war,” they had to pay, like the animals, a terrible price.’11 Nor, after the siege was broken, was there any attempt by the British to compensate the black population for the loss of so many lives, once they were deemed no longer indispensable for the town’s defence. Instead, a relief fund of £29,000 was raised for the white soldiers and settlers – not a penny going to the African children who had become orphans or to African families who had lost their loved ones to the ruthless system of Baden-Powell’s apartheid rationing.12


  1. Peter Warwick, Black People and the South African War, 1899-1902, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983, p. 37, Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997, Jonathan Cape, London p. 220 and ‘Remembering the Boer War’s Black Victims,’  BBC News 12 October 1999 accessed online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/469216.stm
  2. Robert Baden-Powell’s Staff Diary cited in Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War, Abacus, London, 2006, p. 406.
  3. Ibid., p. 406 and p. 407.
  4. Emerson Neilly, ‘Mafeking Day by Day,’ dispatched 9 February 1900 and published in The Pall Mall Gazette, 21 April 1900, p. 3 and Angus Hamilton, ‘The Siege of Mafeking,’, dispatched 23 February 1900 and published in The Times, 14 March 1900, p. 12.
  5. Thomas Pakenham, op. cit., p. 402.
  6. Ibid., p. 408.
  7. Angus Hamilton, ‘The Siege of Mafeking,’ The Times, 2 May 1900, p. 5.
  8. Thomas Pakenham, op. cit., p. 408.
  9. Emerson Neilly, ‘Mafeking Day by Day,’ The Pall Mall Gazette, 21 April 1900, p. 3
  10. J.E. Neilly, ‘The Siege of Mafeking, South Africa, April-May 1900,’ in John Lewis-Stempel (editor), England: The Autobiography – 2,000 years of English history by those who saw it happen, Penguin Books, London, 2006 and Peter Warwick, op. cit., p. 37.
  11. Thomas Pakenham, op. cit., p. 408.
  12. Ibid.

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