Tuesday, 10 April 2012

What a Relief

                    The third essay in Essays and Reviews (mentioned yesterday) was On the Study of the Evidences of Christianity by the Rev. Baden Powell MA. Powell was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford University. As can be expected from a Victorian theologian and mathematician with such a pedigree, his Study is a learned, densely argued work, regarding, amongst other things, the evidence for miracles. Powell regarded God as a lawgiver, and as miracles broke the edicts and laws issued by God at the Creation, it follows that a belief in ‘miracles’ is atheistic. Powell died in 1860, just months after the publication of Essays and Reviews, and the remaining children from his third marriage changed their surname to Baden-Powell in his memory.

Powell fathered fourteen children; his first marriage was childless, after the death of his first wife, Eliza, he remarried and Charlotte produced four children. Charlotte died in 1844, and Powell then married Henrietta, who bore ten children. The eighth of these, Robert Stephenson Smyth Powell was born in 1857. His godfather was Robert Stephenson, the railway engineer and only son of George Stephenson (inventor of The Rocket steam locomotive), and Stephe (as he was known) was named after him.

Robert Baden-Powell served in the British Army during the Second Boer War. As Colonel Baden-Powell, (or Bathing Towell as he had been nicknamed at school), he took command of the garrison at Mafeking, South Africa, hoping, by defence rather than attack, to tie up Boer resources and men. There were about 1000 fighting men at Mafeking, and a cadet corps of teenage boys who worked as messengers and orderlies. President Kruger of the independent Boer Republic of South Africa declared war on October 12th 1899, the railway and telegraph lines to Mafeking were cut on the same day, and the siege began on the following day. The town was first shelled on October 16th. Baden-Powell organised an extensive network of trenches and gun emplacements, and through a variety of ruses tricked the Boers into thinking that Mafeking was much more heavily defended than it was. He laid a false minefield around the town, had his men simulate avoiding ‘fake’ barbed wire when out on patrol, and used improvised searchlights to fool Boer night reconnaissances.  By these means he tied up a force of over 8000 Boer soldiers, more than four times the number of his own men. 

Scans from The Black and White Budget dated May 19th 1900

Although so heavily outnumbered, Mafeking held out for 217 days, before the Siege came to an end on May 17th 1900, when a relief force led by Col. B T Mahon fought their way in. A total of 212 people died in the Siege, with 600 wounded, but Boer losses were very much higher. Baden-Powell became a national hero – and a Lord, The Siege of Mafeking was viewed as a decisive victory for the British and a devastating blow to the Boers, and so great were the celebrations that a new verb, ‘to maffick’ – meaning to party extravagantly and publicly – was coined. (A similar back-formation is found in the old joke, “Do you like Kipling?” – “I don’t know, I’ve never kippled.”)

Baden-Powell had been so impressed by the work and spirit of the Mafeking Cadet Corps that he used them as a model when he founded the Boy Scout Movement in 1907. A year later he published Scouting for Boys (try getting away with a title like that these days), and he included an account of the Mafeking cadets in the first chapter.

The cover of my 1947 edition

Scouting for Boys was originally published in six weekly instalments, priced at 4d. each. The Scouting movement spread rapidly around the world, and in 1910 Baden-Powell and his sister Agnes founded the Girl Guides.

The Relief of Mafeking inspired a poem of the same name by William Topaz McGonagall (full text here). The Great McGonagall is celebrated as the worst poet in history of the English language, indeed “… so giftedly bad that he backed unwittingly into genius”.  McGonagall seems to have been oblivious to adverse criticism (which included being pelted with vegetables during recitals), although some have suggested that this was a shrewd pretence, and he published volumes of his works in a series titled with variations of the phrase Poetic Gems – More Poetic Gems, Still More Poetic Gems, Yet More Poetic Gems, Further Poetic Gems, Yet Further Poetic Gems and Last Poetic Gems.

Success to Colonel Baden-Powell and his praises loudly sing,
For being so brave in relieving Mafeking,
With his gallant little band of eight hundred men,
They made the Boers fly from Mafeking like sheep escaping from a pen.

I mentioned Baden-Powell’s nickname earlier. The word ‘nickname’ comes from a misdivision of ‘an ekename’, eke is derived Old English eac meaning ‘also’ or ‘in addition to’, so a nickname is how someone is also named. In linguistics this misdivision of morpheme boundaries is called metanalysis (a word coined by the Danish linguist, Otto Petersen), rebracketing, or juncture loss. Quite a few English words have been formed this way, as in medieval script it is often difficult to see where one word ends and the next one begins. The Middle English word for a snake – a naddre – became ‘an adder’, Middle English a napron (cognate with napkin) became ‘an apron’, whilst ‘a newt’ comes from an eute (or an eft). ‘An umpire’ is from a noumpere, coming from Old French nonper – ‘odd number, not even’ - a third person to arbitrate between two others. The entrails of a deer were called numbles, and a poor person, who might eat a pie made from these, would eat ‘a numble pie’, which over time became ‘an (h)umble pie’, hence the phrase ‘eating humble pie’. The French une norange became une orange – ‘an orange’. Middle English al one (all one) turned into ‘a lone’, as in a single thing.

1 comment:

  1. Feel highly honoured to have visited the study yesterday..yes it is as amazing at the pictures show...no, much more so....too much to take in on one visit and too many questions to ask....