…as I believe we were just the other day, I was recently introduced to a vision of the siege that is very different from Lord Baden-Powell’s casually stiff upper lip.
Sol T. Plaatje was a twenty-three-year-old African court interpreter for the Resident Magistrate when the Boers besieged Mafeking, and its African older sister, the adjacent township of Mafikeng, in October 1899. (Yes, I know. It looks like a typo.)
Plaatje was uniquely placed to comment on the progress of the siege in both towns. As an accomplished linguist who was fluent in English and Dutch as well as several African languages, Plaatje worked with the English authorities during the siege. He expanded his translation work to include two new courts that were established following the imposition of martial law. He served as the liaison between the British authorities and the local African population. He organized African spies and dispatch runners, and wrote up their reports. He sold his secretarial services to the British war correspondents who were stranded in Mafeking.
And in his spare time he kept an English language diary. (At least he wrote most of it in English. He also played with language, using words and phrases from Dutch, Sotho, Tswana, Xhosa, and Zulu. Make you feel like an under-educated slacker? Me, too.)
First published in 1973, Sol T. Plaatje’s Mafeking Diary gives us a different picture of the siege than those that appeared in the flood of memoirs and diaries published soon after the war. Wry, humorous, and often self-deprecating, Plaatje details the day-to-day experiences of the African population during the siege. A population that is too often invisible in traditional accounts of Mafeking. (Possibly because they concentrate o Mafeking, not on Mafikeng, now that I think about it.)
Plaatje’s later career was a cross between Benjamin Franklin and the young Gandhi. In the years after the war, he became an important newspaper editor, the first General Corresponding Secretary of the South African Native National Congress (later the African National Congress), and one of the first black African literati. His published works include the historical novel Muhdi, the first novel in English by a black African. Plaatje never tried to publish his diary.
Plaatje was largely forgotten for several decades after his death. With the official end of apartheid in May, 1994, Plaatje has resumed his rightful place in South African history.
Now and then you stumble across history when you least expect it.
Yesterday my friend Nancy and I visited Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. Sometimes you visit a museum because there’s an exhibit you want to see. Other times you visit a museum because you want to hang out, talk, laugh a little . If you see something wonderful along the way, it’s a bonus. Yesterday was the second kind of museum visit. We had a choice between whales and horses. We chose The Horse
It was history nerd paradise. There was an evocative thought at every stop, from the evolution of horses in North America to modern therapeutic riding.
Here are some of the highlights, filtered through my own historical preoccupations:
• One of the recurring themes in the kind of history that I read is hordes of armed horsemen riding out of Central Asia: Scythian, Mongols, Timurids, Turks. Turns out there’s a good reason for that. Zooarcheologists* believe that the horse was first domesticated in what is now Kazakhstan.
• Pants, as opposed to say togas, kilts, or monastic robes, were first developed for riding horses. One more piece of civilization brought to you courtesy of Central Asia.
• The Pony Express only lasted eighteen months before the telegraph put it out of business. Evidently it doesn’t take long to become a cultural icon.
The exhibit will be on display at the Field Museum through August 14. If you’re in Chicago, or are looking for a reason to visit, trot on over.
*Zooarchaeologists (also known as archaeozoologists depending on your point of view) study animal remains located in archaeological sites. These people do some amazing things. For instance, they use fossilized horse teeth to tell them not only what ancient horses ate, but also what the environment was like in North American 55 million years ago.
The Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) started badly from the British point of view. British troops, supposedly the best trained and best equipped in the world, suffered a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of Boer farmers. (Anyone else hear echoes of another colonial war that pitted farmers against British regulars?)
The only bright spot in the morass of inefficiency and disaster was Colonel Robert Baden-Powell’s spirited–and well-publicized–defense of Mafeking, a small town on the border between British and Boer territory. (Yep. The guy who founded the Boy Scouts.)
The siege lasted for 219 days. Undermanned and inadequately armed, Baden-Powell improvised fake defenses, made grenades from tin cans, and organized polo matches and other entertainments to keep the garrison’s spirits high. The British public was able to follow “B-P’s” defense of Mafeking because the besieged town included journalists from four London papers, who paid African runners to carry their dispatches through the Boer lines.
When news of the garrison’s relief reached England, public celebrations were so exuberant that “maffick” became a (sadly underused) verb meaning to celebrate uproariously.
Maffick vt. To celebrate an event uproariously, as the relief of Mafeking was celebrated in London and other British cities.
So, have you mafficked something recently?