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SOUTH AFRICA / PHOTOGRAPHY / SIEGE OF MAFEKING / BADEN-POWELL, FOUNDER OF THE BOY SCOUTS: Collection of 37 Glass Photographic Slides of the Siege of Mafeking (1899 – 1900).



A fascinating and lovely artefact from the Siege of Mafeking (1899 – 1900), the highest profile event of the Second Anglo-Boer War and one of the greatest global media spectacles of the fin de siècle era, being a set of 37 diapositive glass photographic slides made from contemporary photos apparently by Frank Whiteley, the Mayor of Mafeking and one of the protagonists of the city’s resistance, featuring a diverse array of fascinating images of profound historical documentary value, including several images of Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, the garrison’s commander who later founded the Boy Scouts.

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Set of 37 diapositive glass photographic slides (each 8 x 8 cm / 3.25 x 3.25 inches), with original glass backing and black paper mount, bearing contemporary manuscript titles, each within a later manila envelope, the whole set housed within a period wooden box (28.5 x 11 x 10 cm); accompanied by a 1930s typescript list describing provenance and contents (Overall Very Good, most slides in stellar condition, but slide nos. 6, 8, 19 and 25 with single hairline cracks; slide no. 28 with multiple cracks, repaired with tape, but no significant loss to image; slides nos. 36 and 37 lacking glass backing, mounts and mss. titles; *Please see list below for comments on the condition of specific slides; wooden box is in very good condition with some minor abrasions).


This a lovely artefact is from the period of the Siege of Mafeking (1899 – 1900), the most famous event of the Second Anglo-Boer War and one of the first truly global modern media sensations.  For 217 days, from October 1899 to May 1900, an Afrikaner army surrounded and besieged the British colonial town of Mafeking, in the northern Cape Colony.  The heroic resistance of the town’s civilians and its small military garrison, led by Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, captured the World’s imagination.  A cadet corps of town’s boys formed during the siege was the primary inspiration for Baden-Powell to create the Boy Scouts in 1908, granting a permanent legacy to this momentous event on the Highveld of South Africa.

Present here is a stellar set of 37 diapositive glass photographic slides, housed in a period box, said to have been made by Frank Whiteley, the Mayor of Mafeking during the siege and one of the foremost heroes of the resistance.  A typescript note found with the set, seemingly written by an English antiques dealer during the mid to late 1930s, explains the story behind the slides: 

“All these slides were taken by Mr. Frank Whiteley C.M.G. who was Mayor of Mafeking during the siege. He was a keen photographer, but the art was in it’s infancy at the time. The slides are the old “3 1/4 x 3 ¼” size, black and white. The vendor was given them by Mrs. Whiteley after her husband’s death [in 1933]. They form a unique facet of the Boer War, when the relief of Mafeking after the siege raised the whole nation to a state of enthusiasm never equalled since.”

Curiously, the note mentions only 35 of the 37 slides (the final two slides do not have titles or glass backings, so for this reason may have been omitted).  The slides are of the turn-of-the-century vintage and were likely made by Whiteley shortly after the siege itself, based on photograph taken during and around the time of the event.

While some of the slides may be based on original photographs taken by Whiteley, many of the photos seem to come from other contemporary sources.   For instance, Slide 25: “Baden-Powell’s Heads of Departments” was published under the titleMajor-General Baden Powell and the principal men who helped him to defend Mafekingwithin a popular contemporary periodical covering the war, The Black and White Budget (vol. 3, no, 35, p. 297); although Whitley, who is pictured in the photograph, may possibly have had some role in the photograph’s creation and dissemination.  Regardless of the sources of the original photos that were the basis for the slides, it is nevertheless an extraordinary collection.

The images presented upon the slides are of profound historical documentary interest.  They include views of key sights around the town (fortifications, homes, hospitals, bomb shelters, places damaged by bombardment); scenes of daily siege life (‘Siege Food’ and horse soup!); images of extraordinary curiosity (such as the “Big Guns” and “Armoured Train”); portraits of the key defenders; images of the opposition (the Boers), as well as seven different portraits of Baden-Powell.  In sum, the slides present one of the most valuable and authentic insights into life in Mafeking during the time of siege, images selected by Mayor Whiteley, one of the protagonists of the event.

The present set appears to be unique; we cannot trace any references to another set of a similar description.  The slides, which would have been very expensive to produce, seem to have been made by Whiteley as a personal keepsake not long after the siege.  They were evidently retained by him upon his return to England in 1901, where he likely showed them while regaling friends of his exciting siege-time experiences.  

The slides are listed below, employing the text used on the typescript sheet (except correcting some transcription errors and adding references to Slides 36 and 37):

{* Defects or points of damage are noted beside specific slides; slides without such notes can be assumed to be in Very Good condition, without major flaws}.

 “Subjects of the Set of 35 [actually 37] Slides taken in Mafeking during the Boer War”

1. General View of Mafeking.

2. Garrison of De Kock’s Fort.

3. Muossom’s Fort

4. Armoured Train.

5. Nordesfeld gun in Armoured Truck.

6. Women’s Laager + Roland’s House. {hairline crack in upper-left corner}

7. Distribution of Water.

<8. Cannon Koppe before October 31st. {hairline crack in upper-left corner}

9. Maxim Gun on Cannon Fort.

10. Officers of the Bechuanaland Rifles.

11. Officer of the British South-African Rifles.

12. Officers of the Western Outpost.

13. Lady Sarah Wilson and Convalescents.

14. Cape Police galloping Maxim Gun.

15. Boer Fort at Game Tree.

16. Lady Sarah Wilson’s Bombproof.

17. Major Godley’s Bombproof (exterior).

18. Major Godley’s Bombproof (interior).

19. Room in Algie’s House. {vertical hairline crack though centre}

20. Siege Food.

21. Distribution of Horse Soup.

22. Col. Hore’s Fort.

23. Victoria Hospital.

24. Mafeking’s “Big” Guns.

25. Baden-Powell’s Heads of Departments. {hairline crack, lower right corner}

26. [No Mss. Title to slide, but title given as part of image, “Portions of shells fired by Boers into Women’s Laager Oct / Nov 1899”]

27. Baden-Powell’s Headquarters.

28. Baden-Powell in His Study. {Damaged, several cracks repaired with tape, but image still intact}

29. Baden-Powell Outside his House.

30. Baden-Powell on Horse-back.

31. Baden-Powell on his Elevated Look-out.

32. Baden-Powell typewriting sat on stool.

33. Boer Column.

34. The Boers.

35. Baden-Powell – portrait. {paper mount loose, but else fine}.

[36., not on typescript list] [No Title, but] {lacking glass backing, mount and mss. title}

[37., not on typescript list] [No Title, but] {lacking glass backing, mount and mss. title}

The Siege of Mafeking, Baden-Powell and the Inspiration for Scouting

The Siege of Mafeking was a 217-day long melodrama (lasting from October 13, 1899 to May 17, 1900) of the British colonial town of Mafeking in the northern Cape Colony (today Mahikeng, South Africa) by Afrikaner forces during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902).  The siege was the most publicized aspect of the entire war, generating a global media circus of extraordinary proportions.

Mafeking, while small town of 1,500 residents, occupied a strategically vital location near the northern tip of the Cape Colony, along the rail line that ran from Cape Town up to Rhodesia.  It was a vital supply centre for mining expeditions and safaris into the interior, as well as the administrative centre of the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), although it was located outside of that jurisdiction’s boundaries.    

A generation of conflict and tension between the British colonial regime in South Africa and the independent Afrikaner republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal) had come to a head in 1899.  The Afrikaners could no longer contain Britain’s desire to capitalize on the ‘Mineral Revolution’ fuelled by the discoveries of inestimably large quantities of diamonds and gold on their lands.  By September of that year, both sides knew that war was imminent.

Britain was defeated by the South African Republic during the First Anglo-Boer War (1880-1), as the Afrikaners were able to use their superlative, highly mobile guerrilla tactics to tie down and defeat larger and better armed British forces.  For the upcoming contest, General Wolseley, the British commander in South Africa, understood his forces needed to remain light, fast and mobile, lest history repeat itself.

Colonel Robert Baden-Powell (1857 – 1941) was chosen to raise a force of 2,000 men mainly from Rhodesia and to create a diversion operation in the Mafeking region, such that the Afrikaners would redirect resources away from their rumoured invasion of Natal.  Baden-Powell hailed from a well-regarded family of intellectuals and military officers.  His father was Reverend Baden Powell, Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford University, while his maternal grandfather was the famous hydrographer Admiral William Henry Smythe.  Baden-Powell entered the British Army in 1876, and served with distinction against the Zulus in Natal, and later against the Ashanti in the Gold Coast.  The operation in the Mafeking region was to be his first major command.

Wolseley ordered Baden-Powell to keep his force highly mobile to compel the Afrikaners to send troops to defend their western frontier (which lay a short distance from Mafeking).  Under no circumstances was he to allow his force to be pinned down, as this would either result in it being picked off by the Afrikaners (as during the previous war) or would cause it to be besieged, which would require immense British resources to relieve.

Baden-Powell, for reasons that are not really known to this day, disobeyed his instructions and prepared to make a stand against the Afrikaners at Mafeking.  Signiant amounts of supplies and armaments were brought in and the city was surrounded by trenches and makeshift fortifications, even before the war commenced. 

The region’s Afrikaner commander, General Pieter Arnoldus “Piet” Cronjé was aware of Mafeking’s strategic significance.  It was reasoned that swiftly taking it out would secure his nation’s western frontier and allow precious resources to be refocused elsewhere.

On October 13, 1899, Cronjé besieged Mafeking, cutting all telegraph lines, as well as passages in and out of the town.  While his forces far outnumbered the 1,500 civilians and 2,000 soldiers inside Mafeking (at times the Afrikaner force peaked to 8,000), he unwisely hesitated, believing erroneous reports that Mafeking was far better defended than was the case.  The Afrikaners shelled the town, while snipers tried to pick-off British individuals, yet as the days mounted nothing decisive occurred.  Eventually, Cronjé withdrew many of his men, such that his force scarcely exceeded that of the defenders.

Baden-Powell’s decision to remain in Mafeking was inarguably foolish, and his folly was compounded by the fact that most historians believe he could have and should have broken out of the Afrikaners’ cordon on various occasions, so self-liberating his army.  However, he was a master morale-booster and organizer who, despite the progressively diminishing resources, managed to keep everyone reasonably calm, while continuing to convince the Afrikaners that Mafeking was a nearly impregnable citadel through a series of clever ruses.  Sports activities were organized to raise spirits, while a well-planned system of kitchens and hospitals was organized.  Baden-Powell was assisted by a competent headquarters team that included Mayor Frank Whitely, the man who made the present slides, and who showed great leadership in organizing the civilian side of the operation. 

It is worth noting that Lord Edward Cecil, one of Baden-Powell’s officers, and the son of the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, organized the town’s boys aged between 12 and 15 into the Mafeking Cadent Corps, which is thought to have served as Baden-Powell’s prime model for the Boy Scouts.

By May 1900, the situation in Mafeking was becoming dire.  Food and ammunition were running short, a point underled when Baden-Powell was forced to eat his own horse!  On May 13, Cronjé’ finally made an all-out attack upon Mafeking’s defences, and although this caused considerable damage, it was fended off before the town fell.  Fortunately, on May 17, a flying column of 2,000 troops, sent by the supreme British commander Lord Roberts, arrived to relieve the siege and compel the Afrikaner’s to retreat from the area.

While Baden-Powell’s superiors were privately furious with him for disobeying orders and allowing the Siege of Mafeking to occur in the first place, the London papers had made him into an international celebrity-hero.  As the overall war had proven tortuous and bloody (Britain would not win the conflict until 1902), Westminster desperately needed a ‘good news story’, so instead of censoring the wayward colonel, they allowed the almost hysterical adulation of Baden-Powell to continue.  Baden-Powell’s subsequent unfortunate performance at the Battle of Elands River (August 4-16, 1900) confirmed his superiors’ doubts about his fitness for high command, yet this did nothing to diminish his popularity with the public.

Scouting for Boys (1908), which having sold 150 million copies, became the fourth best-selling book of the 20th Century.  He cited the Mafeking Cadets in the work as one of the role models for the Boy Scouts, while Baden-Powell’s status as a media-created hero did much to attract attention and membership to the movement during its early years.


Frank Whiteley: Frontiersman, Mayor and Siege Hero

Frank Whiteley (1856 – 1933) led a fascinating life.  Born to modest circumstances in Bradford, Yorkshire, he left home at sixteen to seek fame and fortune in South Africa.  Landing at Durban, he had little interest in finding employment in the city, so headed to the northern frontier of the Cape Colony, establishing himself in the ivory and ostrich feather trade.  He was an intrepid frontiersman, who mounted expeditions to places hundreds of miles beyond where Europeans normally roamed, such as way up the Zambesi River and as far north as the Lake Malawi.  He established a vast trading network, and forged alliances with powerful tribal leaders, most notably Khama III, the legendary chief of the Bamagwato people of what is today Botswana. 

In 1890, he settled down in Mafeking, a rough, yet vibrant frontier town in the northern Cape Colony that served as the gateway to Bechuanaland and Rhodesia.  That year he founded, with a partner, Whitley, Walker & Co., which became a leading supplier of ivory, skins and feathers, as well an expedition outfitter, with branches in Bulawayo and Palapye.  He married Sarah Emily Walker (1866 – 1850), and soon became a leader of the community, first as the President of the Mafeking Chamber of Commerce, and then as the town’s mayor.

During the 217-day-long Siege of Mafeking (1899-1900), Whiteley showed unusually brave and skilled leadership.  His experience as an expedition outfitter led him to have a profound understanding of supply and rations, while his strong and upbeat persona reassured the town’s civilian population.  He became a close friend of Baden-Powell, who credited him with playing a leading role in holding the defences firm.  In 1901, Whiteley was honoured by King Edward VII by being made a Commander of the Order of St. Michael & St. George (C.M.G.).

Whiteley’s business premises were largely destroyed during the siege.  He had already made a great fortune, and decided that instead of rebuilding in Mafeking, he and his family would return to England to enjoy the fruits of his labours.  He divided his time between Yorkshire and Llandudno, Wales, engaging in Conservative Party politics, diverse business ventures, as well as various philanthropic activities.  He died on December 28, 1933 at the age of 77, after a life well-lived.

Sadly, the Whitely name re-entered the news on July 4, 1943, when Frank Whiteley’s son, Brigadier General John Whitely, a key figure at the Bletchley Park intelligence centre, was killed in Gibraltar in the same plane crash that also took the life of General Władysław Sikorski, the leader of the Polish WWII Resistance.  

References: N / A – Seemingly a Unique Set.

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