in South Africa
Russell Freeman’s Scouting with Baden-Powell provides an easy to read and enjoyable account of B-P’s two lives — as a serving officer in the British Army, and as the Founder of the World Scout Movement. His chapter on B-P in South Africa in the 1880’s gives a good second-hand account of B-P’s service there.
THE 13TH HUSSARS landed at Durban, the chief seaport of Natal, and marched through the streets to the British garrison just outside town. Their orders were to stand by in case of war between British and Boer settlers in South Africa.
"Boer" comes from a Dutch word meaning "farmer." The Boers were descendants of Dutch farmers who began settling in South Africa during the late 1600’s. They were followed by British settlers, and as the rival groups competed for fertile land and for control of the region’s rich gold and diamond mines, angry disputes started to break out.
By the mid-1800’s, Britain had established two crown colonies in South Africa—Cape Colony on the southern coast and Natal on the eastern coast. Many Boers, dissatisfied with British rule, left these coastal areas and moved into the interior. They set up two independent republics—the Orange Free State south of the River Vaal, and the Transvaal north of that river.
The disputes between the British and the Boers continued, however, and grew steadily more bitter. The latest dispute concerned the vast region of Bechuanaland, which lay west of the Transvaal and north of Cape Colony and was inhabited mainly by African tribes. Many Boer settlers were beginning to move into Bechuanaland, and the British feared that the Transvaal government might attempt to take over the region.
As a precaution, a British army of four thousand men entered Bechuanaland and moved into positions near the Transvaal frontier. British reinforcements, including Baden-Powell’s regiment, were ordered to stand by in Cape Colony and Natal. Meanwhile, British and Boer negotiators were trying to reach a peaceful settlement.
In Natal, the 13th Hussars drilled, paraded, and waited. If war came, Colonel Baker Russell was to lead his men across the rugged Drakensberg Mountains, which marked the frontier between Natal and the two Boer republics. The main mountain passes would be heavily guarded by the Boers during a war. There were other little-known passes over the mountains, however, and Colonel Russell needed accurate information about them. He ordered his adjutant, Captain Baden-Powell, to go into the Drakensbergs and get that information.
B-P’s scouting experience and his skills as an artist made him the ideal man to survey this mountain region and draw maps and sketches. His acting ability would help too, for he would have to carry out his mission in absolute secrecy. He decided to pose as a newspaper correspondent collecting material for a series of articles about settlers in South Africa. This disguise would explain why he was wandering about, asking questions, taking notes, and drawing maps.
He grew a scraggly red beard, bought some second-hand civilian clothing, then disappeared into the mountains, riding one horse and leading another that carried his tent, blankets, and rations. For the next month he rode back and forth through the Drakensbergs, sketching and surveying, living on army rations, sleeping at night in open fields or at friendly farmhouses, and talking to everyone he met—Boer farmers, British traders, Zulu tribesmen. As he went along he corrected existing maps of the region, made new maps of his own, and constantly sought suitable ways to cross the mountains. He covered nearly six hundred miles and gained his first intimate knowledge of the country that was to play such an important part in his life.
When he returned to his regiment, deeply freckled by the sun, his red beard more scraggly than ever, he wrote a detailed report, added the maps he had drawn, and submitted it to Colonel Russell. Soon afterwards, British and Boer negotiators settled their dispute peacefully. Not a shot had been fired. For the time being, there would be no war, no sudden marches across the Drakensbergs.
The 13th Hussars sailed home to England in the autumn of 1885. Captain Baden-Powell was put in command of a regimental detachment stationed first at Colchester, on the east coast of England, and later at Liverpool, on the west coast. He took a course in veterinary medicine, then taught the skills he had learned to his men. And he worked out a unique system of drilling the men by means of silent hand signals instead of shouted commands. With this system, he could move an entire mounted troop forward without speaking a word, an obvious advantage if an enemy was nearby.
He also conducted precision riding drills until his men were able to perform a musical dance on horseback to the accompaniment of the regimental orchestra. While B-P delighted in this accomplishment, it was no mere stunt. Any cavalry troop expert enough to dance to music would acquit itself well on a battlefield.
Home duty wasn’t very eventful, however, and B-P was able to spend much of his time with his family in London. During his leaves he traveled to several European countries with his younger brother, Baden, now a lieutenant in the Scots Guards. Yet he soon grew restless. He was anxious to serve overseas again.
The opportunity came from his uncle, Henry Smyth. In December, 1887, General Smyth was named Commander-in-Chief of British forces in South Africa, and he asked Baden-Powell to go along as his aide-de-camp. B-P jumped at the offer. He was granted a leave-of-absence from the 13th Hussars, and by the beginning of 1888, he was back in South Africa.
But life as his uncle’s aide-de-camp was just as routine as home duty had been. General Smyth’s headquarters were in Capetown, the capital of Cape Colony and a large, modern city. Baden-Powell kept regular office hours and spent most of his time answering correspondence, reviewing military reports, and making appointments for the General. For excitement, he played polo twice a week, went deer hunting, joined an amateur theatrical group, and attended the endless round of dinners, receptions, and dances given by the British community in Capetown. "It was hardly what one would call soldiering," he complained.
That summer, a violent Zulu uprising gave the thirty-one-year-old captain a chance to do some real soldiering.
The Zulus were proud warriors and cattle-raisers who lived along the east coast of South Africa, mainly within the British colony of Natal. Early in the 1800’s they had fought bitterly against Boer settlers moving onto their lands, and later they had fought just as bitterly against the British. These conflicts had led to the great Zulu War of 1878-79, when British forces, after suffering several defeats, finally overpowered a large Zulu army.
After the war, British authorities divided Zululand into thirteen districts. Twelve of these districts were ruled by Zulu chiefs; the thirteenth was ruled by John Dunn, an old Scottish trader who had lived among the Zulus since his boyhood and who had gained their respect and trust.
This division did not bring peace to Zululand, however. Some of the stronger chiefs began to raid districts ruled by rival chiefs, stealing cattle and burning villages. Before long, civil war raged throughout the area. Several hundred heavily armed Boer adventurers took sides in this civil war and helped Chief Dinizulu of the Usutu tribe gain power over neighboring tribes. As their reward, the Boers demanded a large slice of Zulu territory.
Chief Dinizulu then turned to the British for protection against the Boer demands. Since British officials feared that the Boers would try to take over all of Zululand, they acted quickly. In 1887, Britain annexed Zululand and placed the territory under the administration of the Governor of Natal.
This was not what Dinizulu had expected. With a few other rebel chiefs, he began to attack the Zulus who had declared their loyalty to Britain, and he launched a campaign to drive all European traders and missionaries out of the territory.
In the summer of 1888, the Governor of Natal appealed to Capetown for military aid. General Smyth mustered an army of two thousand British troops and left for Zululand with his aide-de-camp, Captain Baden-Powell.
The General set up headquarters at Eshowe, the only large European settlement in Zululand. His most urgent task was to send help to a fort at the mouth of the River Umfolozi, where Dinizulu and his allies had besieged several hundred loyal Zulus and Europeans. Forty men defending the fort had already been killed.
General Smyth put Major McKean of the 6th Royal Dragoons in command of four hundred mounted British troops and two hundred loyal Zulu police. McKean picked Baden-Powell as his staff officer, and they set off immediately for the besieged fort.
On their second day out of Eshowe they joined forces with an "impi," or army, of two thousand Zulu warriors, led by the old Scottish trader, Chief John Dunn.
"I shall never forget my first meeting with a Zulu army," B-P wrote. "I heard a sound in the distance which at first I thought was an organ playing in Church, and I thought for the moment that we must be approaching a mission station over the brow of the hill. But when we topped the rise we saw moving up towards us from the valley below three long lines of men marching in single file and singing a wonderful anthem as they marched."
words of the Zulu anthem sounded like this:
"Both the sight and the sound were intensely impressive," B-P continued. "And the men themselves looked so splendid. They were as a rule fine, strong, muscular fellows with handsome faces…. their brown bodies were polished with oil and looked like bronze statues. Their heads were covered with ostrich plumes and they had swaying kilts of foxes’ tails and stripes of fur, while around their knees and elbows were fastened white cows’ tails as a sign that they were on the warpath.
"They carried huge shields of ox-hide on the left arm, each regiment having a shield of its own special color, while in the right they carried two or three throwing assegais [spears} for hurling at the enemy, and a broad-bladed stabbing assegai which they kept for hand-to-hand fighting. In their girdles was slung a club or axe for polishing off purposes.
"With four impis of this kind against us, we felt that we were lucky in having at any rate one such force on our side, and under such a man as John Dunn."
John Dunn was at the head of his impi. B-P asked him to translate the Zulu anthem his men had been singing. Dunn laughed and replied: "He is a lion. Yes, he is better than a lion—he is a hippopotamus."
The combined force of British troops, Zulu police, and John Dunn’s impi advanced swiftly through rebel territory. Occasionally they caught a glimpse of rebel scouts disappearing into the bush. But when they reached the besieged fort, Dinizulu and his allies were gone.
Some of the men in the relief force remained at the fort. B-P and the others escorted the women, children, and badly wounded men back to Eshowe. Except for a few elusive enemy scouts, they saw no signs of Dinizulu’s warriors.
General Smyth now sent heavily armed columns into rebel territory, hoping to end organized resistance by a show of force. After a few skirmishes, many of the rebels surrendered. But Dinizulu and hundreds of his warriors continued to hide out in the bush.
At this point, General Smyth took advantage of his aide-de-camp’s scouting experience. He ordered Baden-Powell to find Dinizulu. B-P recruited a contingent of Zulu scouts, and accompanied by small detachments of British troops, they began to search for the rebel chief.
They soon found that Dinizulu was entrenched atop a forbidding mountain called the Ceza. General Smyth moved his headquarters to within a few miles of the rebel stronghold and prepared to attack. He put Baden-Powell in command of an advance column of British troops and Zulu warriors.
As B-P and his men climbed a ridge leading to the Ceza, they saw several rebel warriors scrambling into the caves of an opposite ridge. B-P’s men hit the ground, taking cover behind clumps of bushes and boulders. Bursts of gunfire echoed from the caves across the way, and bullets zinged off rocks and sent up spurts of earth. B-P ordered his men to spread out and attack the rebels from either side. Racing from boulder to boulder, then diving for cover again, firing constantly at the dark enemy caves, the men gradually closed in on the outnumbered rebels. Suddenly the enemy fire ceased and several warriors emerged from the caves with their arms held high above their heads. Four of their comrades had been killed.
That night, B-P led his advance column deeper into the Ceza bush, to the very foot of Dinizulu’s mountain stronghold. At daybreak his men stormed the mountain, racing up its steep slopes across boulders and ravines until they reached the network of small wooden huts and hastily built stone forts at the summit. But most of the huts had been burned. The forts were empty. The mountain was deserted.
During the night, Dinizulu had escaped with his followers across the frontier into the Transvaal Republic. Yet he realized now that further resistance was futile. A few days later he returned to Zululand and surrendered peacefully to British authorities. The rebellion was over.
Baden-Powell returned to the quiet routine of his Capetown office and spent another year and a half in South Africa. In 1889 he completed a new book, one he had been working on ever since he had left India. Called Pigsticking or Hoghunting, and illustrated with B-P’s own drawings and water-colors, it became the authoritative work on that once-popular sport.
Early in 1890, General Smyth’s tour of duty as Commanding General in South Africa ended. He was assigned to a new post on the island of Malta, a British possession in the Mediterranean, and he took his aide-de-camp along with him.
Excerpted from: Russell Freedman, Scouting with Baden-Powell, New York, Holiday House, 1967.
The ribbon to the left of this page displays an example of traditional Zulu beadwork adapted from Hilgard S. Schoeman’s web pages: "Eloquent Elegance, Beadwork in the ZULU cultural tradition"