From the Archives: Word with a Past: Maffick

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?


This post originally ran on June 21, 2011.

Hero of the Empire

I don’t always get to books when they first come out.* And that’s not a bad thing. Speaking as a writer, I want people to continue to find and read my books long after their publication date.** Speaking as a reader, I love digging into the backlist of authors who have newly crossed my path.

All of which is a long way of saying I recently pulled Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill off the shelves where it has aged since it’s release in 2016. And is so often the case when I am late to the party, I wonder what took me so long. Because it is so very, very good.

Hero of the Empire is a slice-of-life biography: it tells the story of Winston Churchill’s capture by the Boer army in 1899, his escape, and his journey to safety through hundreds of miles of enemy territory, with a great deal of reliance on the kindness of strangers. Millard puts the story in the context not only of the Boer War but of Churchill’s overweening ambition. She tells the story of the escape with as much building tension as if it were a thriller—quite a trick when the reader knows full well that Churchill will succeed. (Though now that I think about it, in most thrillers we know that the hero will succeed, or at least survive. What keeps us reading is the how, not the what.) And she convinces us that this seemingly small, and in many ways totally unnecessary, incident in Churchill’s life has important repercussions for Britain’s morale at a demoralizing moment in the Boer War as well as for Churchill’s own career.

If you want a measure of just how good this book is: I am not a Churchill fan. And none of his actions in the book did anything to make me like him more than I did going in. In fact, I may have ended the book with less respect for Churchill as a human being than I had going in. And yet Millard kept me fascinated, page after page.

Her newest book, River of the Gods: Genius, Courage and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile*** is already on my TBR pile.

* What can I say? The To-Be-Read shelves runneth over and at any given moment I am juggling 10 or 12 Big Fat History Books related to the book I am currently writing.

**And I am happy to say that they do. Yesterday I got an email from someone who had just finished my book on socialism, LINK which came out in 2011. (This is the way to make an author’s day.)

***About Richard Burton, the explorer. Another man I have significant doubts about.

Road Trip Through History: The Littleton Brothers Memorial


Moving south along the river, we stopped to visit the Toolesboro Mounds site, outside Wapello, Iowa, because I am a sucker for the Mound Builders and My Own True Love is a good sport. The site was interesting enough, but it paled in comparison to a memorial across the street.*

The Littleton Memorial is a privately maintained monument to the Littleton brothers, six brothers who died in the American Civil War. They are the largest single group of siblings known to have died in any single American war. One died in battle. One died of wounds sustained in battle. Two died of the illnesses that plagued army camps. One died at Andersonville Prison while a prisoner of war. One died as a result of an accident during troop movements. In some ways, their deaths  present a microcosm of America’s losses in the war.

A descendant of one of the brothers was tending the grounds when we stepped across the street to look at the monument and we had a chance to talk to him. It turns out that the story of the memorial is as interesting as the story of the brother. At least to those of us who are interested in how history is preserved.

It turns out that the family had forgotten the story. It came to light again in a variation of the “lost documents in the attic” that every historian dreams of. A woman named Olive Mary (Kemp) Carey who was born in the area, subscribed to the local paper for her entire life as a way to keep in touch with her hometown. In 2010, her family reached out to the local historical society to see if any one was interested in her scrapbook. Someone there rightly said “Hell, yes” “yes please.” Going through the clippings, a member of the found a “Local History” column from 1907 talking about men from the county who had served in the war, including the tragedy of the Littleton family.

It took a lot of work to get from that clipping to today’s monument to loss and memory.

*In all fairness, The Toolesboro Mounds interpretive center does a very good job in a limited space of describing what we know about the Hopewell culture . It does an even better job of describing the discovering of the Toolesboro Mounds in the mid-nineteenth century and the changing relationship of archaeologists to the mounds over time. (It will not surprise you to learn that I was particularly taken with the career of Mildred Mott Wedel, 1912-1995, one of the women to work as a professional archeologist.) Not much new if you are familiar with mound builders sites, but a good introduction if you are not.

Traveler’s Tip:

If you are in Burlington Iowa for breakfast, I highly recommend Jerry’s Main Lunch, where their motto is “No great adventure ever started with a salad.” The posted menu is limited, but within minutes of ordering the “regulars” sitting next to us at the counter let us know that there were lots of “secret” variations available. I ordered the original “hot mess”. It was so delicious that I’d have gone back for lunch if we hadn’t been on our way out of town.