For the honour of Scouter, Lt Gen Robert Baden-Powell

A statue of Robert Baden-Powell is seen in Poole, Britain, on June 11, 2020. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Afp

Mass movements are characterised by a euphoric tempo. Thus, it was understandable when on June 7 "Black Lives Matter" (BLM) demonstrators in Bristol brought down and defaced the statue that commemorated 17th Century slave trader Edward Colston. Perplexing though was the inclusion of the statue of Baden-Powell, the founder of the worldwide Scout Movement, in their "Topple the Racists" list of sixty statues. 

BLM activists claim that Baden-Powell aka Lieutenant-General Robert Stephenson Smyth of the British Army, while besieged in the Mafeking garrison during the 2nd Boer War (1899-1902), starved two thousand black Africans of food and water, even of their own, which he had earlier forcibly taken over. However, about 30 years ago, his biographer Tim Jeal had categorically stated in Baden-Powell (1989), "This is an absolute lie. He (actually) opened soup kitchens and shot all of his cavalry horses so that he could feed them."

Baden-Powell's 217 days of "somewhat voluntary" siege at Mafeking was all heroics.

He had demonstrated lack of military wisdom, and was guilty of insubordination. Whereas he was ordered to maintain only a mobile cavalry force on the frontier with the Boer republics (Transvaal and Orange Free State), Baden-Powell amassed stores, established a garrison, and deactivated half his force to remain surrounded in Mafeking by a Boer army of at times 8,000 men, against his two thousand.

Baden-Powell had sufficient forces to escape throughout much of the siege, especially since the Boers lacked adequate artillery, but he questionably remained in the town to the point of his intended mounted soldiers starving to death.

Historian Thomas Pakenham had opined in an earlier book The Boer War (1979), that Baden-Powell sacrificed the lives of the native African soldiers and civilians by drastically reducing their rations. Conversely, after subsequent research over two decades, Pakenham reversed the allegation in The Siege of Mafeking (2001), but in which he distressingly stated that Baden-Powell's "failure to properly understand the situation and abandonment of the soldiers, mostly Australians and Rhodesians, at the Battle of Elands River led to his being removed from action".

Another more serious breach of protocol landed him in further trouble. Baden Powell judged and executed prisoner of war, the African Chief Uwini of the 1896 Matabeleland rebellion, who had surrendered in response to a pledge that his life would be spared. BP was later cleared by an inquiry conducted by his victorious country.

At Mafeking, Baden-Powell had witnessed his Chief Staff Officer, Lord Edward Cecil forming the Mafeking Cadet Corps of white boys below fighting age (12 to 15 years old), who stood guard, carried messages, assisted in hospitals, and released the men to fight, wrote David C Scott in The Siege of Mafeking (2008), a fact duly acknowledged by Baden-Powell in his Scouting for Boys (1908). The cadets' phenomenon inspired Lt General Baden-Powell to organise an experimental camp at Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, Dorset, in August 1907 for UK boys to benefit from the Mafeking sort of activities. The Boy Scouts movement was born. Three years later his younger sister Agnes initiated the Girls Guides movement.

Baden-Powell or BP, as he is lovingly known to over 54 million active Scouts and Girl Guides, and millions others in 216 countries and territories, dedicated his post-military life 1910 onwards to the development of young people as responsible, supportive and dutiful citizens of their country and the world through achieving their full physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual potentials as individuals.

Baden-Powell was among the few brave ex-soldiers to admit as early as 1908 about (British) colonies, "… in the past many mistakes have been made…The first consideration now is, how can we best help the peoples—whatever their colours…". BP instituted the "worldwide brotherhood" of Scouts within a decade of the Mafeking "racial" allegations, declaring that a scout is "a friend of all the world". It is therefore hard to imagine that Baden-Powell was driven by the vile of racism.

BLM activists further claim that Baden-Powell was "enthusiastic about Nazism, and an admirer of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf (My Struggle, 1925) and the Hitler Youth movement", an inference possibly deducible from BP's 1937 letter, after he held talks with the head of the Hitler Youth movement in London, and was invited to meet Adolf Hitler, which did not transpire. Wrote BP: "… true peace between the two nations (Britain and Germany) will depend on the youth being brought up on friendly terms together in forgetfulness of past differences". BP noted in his diary (1939): Mein Kampf was "a wonderful book, with good ideas on education, health, propaganda, organisation, etc.," written years before Hitler showed his brutal Nazi colours.

Perhaps it was naïve of Baden-Powell to stretch the hand of friendship because since Hitler's appointment as chancellor (1933), the Nazis were operating concentration camps to incarcerate and intimidate anti-Nazi political, social, and cultural leaders. Simultaneously, Hitler Youth's proclamation that it alone represented German youth led to the Scout Movement being prohibited as young enemies of the new state (May 1934). Hitler Youth were a compulsory Nazi formation, which had consciously sought to breed hate, treachery and cruelty into the mind and soul of every German child.

BP's biographer Tim Jeal said any admiration for the Nazi leader's autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf was confined to their shared ideas about boys' education, and outward bound life, and not Hitler's hatred of Jews, which became pronounced much later.

Three decades earlier, BP had written, "Scouts from all parts of the world are ambassadors of goodwill, making friends, breaking down barriers of colour, of creed, and of class". He must have meant it to include the German youth. Was it BP's lion heart talking in 1937 because of the Scouting principles he laid out, "promoting friendship among all"?

BP was never in the Nazi good book, and would have been killed among 2,800 others "in the event of a successful invasion of Britain", as outlined in the Nazi's 1940 plan. Inclusion in the list of Nazi targets exonerates BP from supposed Nazi fraternising.

Gifted with the flair to stimulate the imagination of the young, BP cast them challenges of camping, hiking, trekking, discovering nature, and working in small groups to pick up lifesaving leadership skills. Committed to inclusion of all and valuing the diversity of nations, BP promoted camaraderie, tolerance and global solidarity. Young and old of every creed, colour, country, community and class adopted Scouting as a means of involving youth towards "creating a better world".

The man's character is enshrined in the Scout promise and law that has lasted now over a century and a dozen years: …to do our duty to Allah and our country, to help others at all times, to obey the Scout law. The spark of Baden-Powell ignited passion across the face of the earth.


Dr Nizamuddin Ahmed is a practising Architect, a Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow, a Baden-Powell Fellow Scout Leader, and a Major Donor Rotarian.


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