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How Scouting Began

In 1900, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, author of the British Military Manual, AIDS TO SCOUTING, with only 700 soldiers, 300 men, 600 women and children, and 7500 Baralong natives, was surrounded by as many as 7500 Dutch Boer soldiers in the town of Mafeking in what is now South African.

This siege lasted 217 days before Baden-Powell was reinforced by 1900 troops (including his brother, a major) and the siege was lifted. Because there were no telephones or radios, he needed lookouts and messengers to run information all over the village, to keep watch at the battlements at night, and thus to relieve soldiers during this war. He recruited boys, aged nine to fifteen, mounted them on bicycles, gave them uniforms and called them the Mafeking Cadets.

He believed in them and he proved that when you trust a boy to do a duty, he will do it, even under great personal danger. They were the essential precursors of the Boy Scouts. From these ideas and others he evolved the Boy Scouts, its Motto and its Oath and Law as they are today.

“Previously in 1896, Major Fred Burnham of Pasadena, California, the great American Army scout in the Apache Indian wars, was Chief of Scouts for Lt. Gen. Lord Roberts in the British army. He was scouting with Major Robert Baden-Powell, the greatest British army scout, during the second Matebele (B-P also wrote of them as the Zulus) war in South Africa. They talked around their hidden campfires. There, B-P started to develop his ideas of citizenship training, character building and personal fitnes. Then Burnham gave him one of his two prized beaver fur felt Stetson hats with four pinches in the crown. These hats were called ‘Boss of the Plains’. The B-P initials again! This eventually became the Boy Scout hat.”

BADEN-POWELL AT MAFEKING, 1957, and personal note from Rod Burnham

In 1907, Lt. General Sir Robert Baden-Powell conducted the first Boy Scout camp on Brownsea Island, England. In 1908, he published the first handbook, SCOUTING FOR BOYS. On the title page it stated, “A Handbook For Instruction In Good Citizenship.”

In 1909, a British Scout guided American publisher William D. Boyce to his destination in a white-out London fog and refused a tip for his “Good Turn”. At Boyce’s request, he then took him to B-P. Eighty-four years ago on February 8, 1910, Boyce and others stated that they were interested in boys and in good citizenship, and incorporated the Boy Scouts of America.

The Boy Scout movement would never have begun, and thus there never would have been a Camp Emerson to record, if twice in history things had turned out differently.

The first event occurred when B-P was shot in the back in 1896, as recorded by Major Fred Burnham in his forward to TAKING CHANCES:

“During those early years of my association with the then Major Baden-Powell, certain incidents occurred which may prove of interest even at this late writing. B-P was fitted by nature for the art of scouting. Only once do I remember his doing a really incautious thing, and it may be worth of mention, since we all like to feel that our heroes are human. One day, during the second Matabele War, after a sharp fight from daylight until noon, in which our forces had driven a large impi in wild retreat, our men returned over the same ground, slowly leading their exhausted horses. The trees in that part of Africa were rather scrubby and not dense enough to conceal a man, but in one spot there was a clump of fairly large trees with thick foliage, making it a natural gathering place for the weary men and horses. Baden-Powell, following up the rear, joined the group, and dismounted without glancing up into the trees. Suddenly there was a roar of an elephant gun directly overhead and a bullet grazed his spine and plowed into the earth at his feet. Almost simultaneously the bullet-riddled body of a black crashed to the ground. The body was that of an old warrior of the famous Ingubu regiment of King Lobengula…An old sergeant of the Cape Mounted Rifles remarked dryly: “And with victory within three feet of the muzzle of his gun that fool savage jerked his trigger instead of squeezing it! Oh, well, after all, I have always had a hell of a time getting the precaution into the boneheads of my own white recruits!”

B-P in telling this story in his book, THE MATABALE CAMPAIGN, 1896 said: “…I had one close shave…I was under the tree when something moving over my head caught my attention. It was a gun barrel taking aim down at me, the firer jammed so close to the tree stem as to look part of it. Before I could move he fired, and just ploughed into the ground at my feet…I have his knobcane and his photo now as mementos.”

Jim Teal in his biography, BADEN-POWELL, 1989 repeated B-P’s version, but he did not have F.R. Burnham’s book, TAKING CHANCES, 1944 available as a reference and neither did the archivist for the B-P House, London, in 1994. Regardless of which version of the incident is correct, it was a close call for the eventual establishment of Scouting.

The second event occurred at Mafeking in what is now South Africa in 1899:

“It is safe to say that there would have been no further development of the Scout Movement as we know it had there been no Siege at all or had the Boers been successful in their initial assault. Without the long resistance and final victory, B-P’s celebrity would not have become world-wide, his personality and his methods would not have been universally popularized, nor would the boys the world over have flocked to him as they did to urge him on with trust and affection.


“The Matabele had given B-P the name “Impeesa — the wolf that never sleeps” but B-P preferred an alternate translation: the beast that prowls all night. He considered this one of his highest complements.”

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