By the time I returned home I had several pages of information and, one wet afternoon, went the whole hog and typed these notes into a proper computer database. That was the start of the Mafeking Siege Register and an obsession that was to lead me halfway across the world and into numerous friendships. Some people borrow consolidate private student loans only to collect stamps; but I collect the names of the besieged. The obvious place to start was the public library. There I read every book on the Siege of Mafeking I could find. This fall into two main categories: commentaries on the siege and, wonderfully, a few siege diaries.
The more I read, the more I wanted to read. The Siege of Mafeking is an amazing story, one in which the truth outperforms the imagination of most novelists. Lasting from 13 October 1899 to 17 April 1900, Mafeking besieged was a microcosm of Victorian life, set on the edge of the Kalahari desert, eight miles from the border of the Boer republic of the Transvaal. Inside the beleaguered town, with the inspiring figure of its military commander, Colonel Baden-Powell, were important personages such as Lord Edward Cecil, the son of Lord Palmerston (Britain’s prime minister at the time), and Lady Sarah Wilson, Winston Churchill’s aunt. Just before the siege began Lady Sarah was sent out of Mafeking to a place of safety with the other officers’ wives, but she became a spy and eventually had herself exchanged back into the town.
Besides the 700 soldiers that `B-P’ had brought with him into the town there were about 300 European settlers who, with their families, had made Mafeking their home, and several thousand Baralong. These local native tribal people lived across the railway track in their own `Starlf [town]. In addition, there were several hundred refugees, both black and white.
During the ensuing siege, life continued as normally as possible. There was a bank robbery, and a murder. As the Boers did not choose to fight on Sundays, `13-P’ – as he was known even then – arranged theatricals (in which he played a part), polo matches, agricultural shows and even a competition to find the ‘best Siege Baby’, an infant born since the start of the siege. All this went on in between intense shelling, increasing starvation and military mayhem.