Now Mafikeng is the capital of the Northwest Province of South Africa, but in 1899 Mafeking was a small town divided into an African town of about 7500 and a 'white' settlement of about 1350. It was an important railway siding on the line from the Cape to Rhodesia.
Earlier Mafeking had been used as the base for the Jameson Raid - an unsuccesful raid by the British colonists against the Dutch speaking Boer republic of Transvaal. Although the raid failed, it added to the buildup towards the Anglo-Boer War in 1899.
As the war drew closer, Colonel Baden-Powell was commissioned to raise a force in Rhodesia to defend the border on the north of the Transvaal republic. He chose Mafeking as a supply base on the 800km frontier, and made moves to defend these supplies against the Boers. In addition to defending the frontier, he was also told to keep the enemy forces occupied and away from the main British forces to the south.
However until the declaration of war, B-P was prevented from making public preparations for war, for fear of offending the Boers and the Dutch living in the Cape colony. So his force could not recruit openly, or even arm itself adequately to defend the town.
'He could not call for volunteers, for instance, or arm the civilians, distribute ammunition or inquire into the supplies of the police openly - but he did these things nevertheless, secretly, with the connivance of Mafeking's British Mayor and Resident Commissioner. He could not fortify Canon Kopje, a height overlooking the town, but did it anyway under the pretence of building a rifle range. He could not requisition sandbags for fortifications, but collected all empty grain sacks usable for the purpose. He could not ask to have a couple of armoured trains sent up from Cape Town, but had two constructed clandsetinely in the railway yard at Mafeking by walling up long `bogie trucks' with steel rails.'He did not even have decent armament for the defence: and the two guns he was sent from the Cape turned out to be obsolete 7-pounders. One was called 'Crooked-tail Sal'. Against this the Boers would bring the 94 pound siege gun known as Grietje, or 'Old Creechy' to the English townsfolk.
- Hillcourt in Baden Powell: the two lives of a hero
B-P's regiment consisted of 700 soldiers, to which he added 300 volunteers from the white men of Mafeking. He also armed 750 Africans, although orders were that they could only defend their own land and not take part in the main defence. With this force he would have to defend a frontier around the town of 10 km, against a Boer force of more than 6000.
War was declared on 11 October 1899, and by 13 October the town was surrounded by the Boer forces, cut off by rail and telegraph from the outside world.
Baden-Powell would have to improvise...
Illustration of Mafeking monument from a supplement to the Mafikeng Mail and Botswana Guardian, 3 September 1982