Botswana Notes and Records, Volume 31

  A lost story: Francistown and the Anglo-Boer War

Rob S Burrett*

   In this year, 1999, marking the centenary of the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War, there has been much made of the drama of that era. The war saw many dramatic events, and these have been discussed in great detail over the years from a variety of perspectives (Creswicke 1902, Gibbs 1957, Kruger 1967, Pakenham 1982). These sweeping chronicles adequately record the wider history. Yet like all great events' there are many smaller cameos which have gone unrecorded. These events often concerned only a few people and may have had little direct impact on the pursuit and outcome of the war, but they are all part of the history. These micro-events are the basic blocks from which the greater story is created. Very often they can give us insight as to the actual general population and their reactions and reasons for their responses, rather than focusing on the "kings & queens at the top as they challenged each other. Such is the story of Francistown in north-eastern Botswana and its little remembered involvement in the Anglo-Boer War.

   The majority of this text originates from reports compiled by the general manager of the Tati Concessions Ltd., Umfreville Percy Swinburne, son of Sir John Swinburne, a British Parliamentarian who led the London & Limpopo Exploration Company during the 1868 Tati gold rush (National Archives of Zimbabwe, Historical Manuscripts section, TA 2/4/1/2). I also considered what term I should use to refer to the community we call today the Afrikaners. The events were before the formalisation of the Afrikaans language and thus identity in the 1 920s, while at that time they were referred to as either Boers (i.e. farmers, which is not really true for all participants) or Dutch (which is equally untrue). For this article I have followed people such as the historian Rayne Kruger (1967) and use the term Boer/s. I have also used the original term 'native guides'  for the troops of local Africans who participated.

   At the closing of the nineteenth century Francistown was the main settlement in the Tati Concession. This territory was the preserve of a private company, the Tati Concessions Limited which had its historical roots in a number of companies involved in gold exploration in the district since the late 1 860s (see Baxter & Burke 1970: 458-64 for background). Although the area was treated by the imperial authorities as part of the sphere of influence of the British South African Company (and it was probably due for eventual incorporation into Southern Rhodesia), Tati Concessions Limited was frequently at loggerheads with its larger, more powerful competitors as it sought to establish its own identity. There had been territorial border disputes, cattle raiding and counter raiding, and serious tensions over issues and rights relating to 'native labour' and hut tax ( Baxter & Burke 1970: 458-64; Burrett, in prep ). The Tati Company always maintained a stronger imperial connection and, compared to the BSA.Co, its policies towards the indigenous peoples of the region were a little more open - conciliatory rather than confrontationary. This more liberal' approach possibly results from the history of the Tati Company having derived its rights of occupation on the basis of earlier concessions from more equal partners - Lobengula and Khama rather than as victor over vanquished as was the case of the BSA.Co. Because of these differences, the Tati Company initially tended to distance itself from the actions of the BSA.Co. It was only with the Anglo-Boer War and its threat to wider British interests that the activities of the two parties drew closer together.

   Previously the headquarters of the company and its predecessors, had been at Old Tati, some 60 km to the south-east (TA 2/1/3/6). With the extension of the railway from the Cape to Matabeleland in the latter part of 1897, the company found it expedient to move their administrative centre to the open plain at the base of the Nyangabgwe Hill, some 60 kms north-west and the

*Teacher, Peterhouse School, Marondela, Zimbabwe.


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present site of Francistown (TA 2/1/1). While the earliest dates located concerning the movement, which involved negating the existing gold claims pegged by White's Consolidated Syndicate, are from May 1897, it would seem that the formal relocation was 18 October 1897 (TA 2/1/3/6). Thereafter the little settlement grew rapidly and, although administratively fiercely separate, it was always the economic and social child of Beltway.

   In early 1899 the clouds of war, already created by the fiasco of the Jameson Raid in 1895/6, began to gather along the Transvaal-Rhodesia Border. In order to organise matters on this northern frontier Colonel R. S. S. Baden-Powell, who was later to found the Boy Scout movement, and 19 other imperial officers were sent to the area from Britain in July 1899. Their briefing was to begin recruiting men, make the necessary defences, and to create a diversion along the western borders of the Transvaal, thus drawing off Boer forces from Natal and the Cape (Hickman 1970:59-60; LO 7/1/1; Pakenham 1979:399).

   Throughout the war the battle front remained some distance from the Tati Concession and Francistown, but the town was certainly the largest, and most strategic settlement in the region. It controlled the northern sections of the railway, a strategic link between the Cape Colony and the rest of British territory to the north, all of which threatened the western borders of the Transvaal Republic. The capture, or at least neutralisation, of these centres and lines of threat to the weak western flank of the Boer Republics would undoubtedly have been of importance to their military leaders (Hickman 1970: 96; LO 7/1/1). In addition the large amount of stores laid up at the settlement, both consumables and mining explosives, were also seen as being a highly desirable prize. The general feeling of unease amongst Francistown's Anglophile population was heightened once they learnt about the early encirclement of Mafeking and Kimberley further down the main railway line. Would they be next? This dread of invasion from the Transvaal, by either an organised Boer force, or later haphazard commandos, remained a constant fear in the minds of the Protectorate, Rhodesian and Tati Concession authorities (see comments throughout the 15 volumes of correspondence BSA Company London Office, LO 7/1/1-15).

   Locally the first indication of the coming storm was in early July 1889. Most of the BSAP No. I (Bechuanaland) Division, who were stationed in Francistown under the command of Sub-Inspector H. J. Kinsman, were withdrawn and reassigned to the border with the Transvaal Republic. Kinsman was the local Chief of Police, Special Justice of the Peace for the entire Tati Concession, and the most senior government official in the area. Only one white police sergeant, Sergeant Beamish (Quick pers comm. 3/1/1999), and the Francistown gaoler remained as local representatives of imperial government authority. To fill the vacuum, initially from July to the beginning of September, Francistown was visited regularly by the Assistant Commissioner (North) for the Bechuanaland Protectorate who was normally resident in Palapye. Monthly court sessions could continue, although word soon got out about the lack of government police and several problems arose. Many so called undesirables' began to arrive in the territory when they heard there was no civil control. These were probably white drifters from the gold mines which were then closing on the Rand, white criminals and simply elements of the poor white' community who were subject to significant British-colonial class snobbery. There was therefore a very real danger of complete failure of the peace because of potential internal strife.

   In response to repeated requests Swinburne was, in August 1899, appointed by telegram from the Resident Commissioner as Justice of the Peace in place of Kinsman. After the 2nd September, however, the Assistant Resident Commissioner found he could no longer come from Palapye to Francistown and the civil court had to be suspended. About the middle of September 1899 the local African inhabitants showed signs of unrest and civil disobedience. Swinburne was informed that local Boers, who in turn had been incited by some Dutch strangers' were encouraging trouble and tampering with the natives'. Given the seriousness of both white and black discord Swinburne decided on a show of legislative force despite his lack of legal authority to do so. He held court illegally and fined heavily the first man brought before him. Later he passed on the judgement to Palapye for ratification.

   The authorities were obviously in agreement with both the verdict and the need for real action,


Botswana Notes and Records, Volume 31

for on 21st September Swinburne was appointed Special Justice of the Peace. This judicial responsibility enabled him to hold a regional court. In addition he was asked by imperial and Rhodesian authorities for lists of the inhabitants of the territory, and was requested to watch closely the movements of any strangers. Swinburne effectively became the government authority in the Concession. A controversial action on the part of the imperial authorities when one remembers how they had if specifically separated the roles of company manager and civil control in the BSA Co territory after the Jameson Raid.

   With his increased authority Swinburne issued a decree that all arms and ammunition in the Concession should be collected and placed under a central controller. These were then given out to trustworthy men - one assumes Anglophiles. The Company stores were completely overhauled and six months of supplies were laid in. The local chiefs were also requested to have ready any number of native scouts' to assist in operations if need be.

   On the 12th October the Adjutant in Mafeking telegraphed through the declaration of war from the previous day, but soon all communications to the south were cut off. In response on 15th October a general meeting of all the town's inhabitants was held. A defence committee was elected and it was decided to fortify the town. Swinburne also decreed that if the territory was attacked all Europeans were to come to Francistown and not remain on the many scattered mines and claims - "as we would be stronger in force . Although some residents left soon after for Bulawayo, 50 men put their names down on the defence roll.

   It was agreed to keep a train engine under steam day and night, to enable the rapid removal of all women, children and other non-combatants in the event of an attack. A large number of refugees left on a train to Bulawayo on the 19th October when the town was gripped by the first serious wave of anxiety after the declaration of war. A large patrol of Boers numbering about 800 men, accompanied by an unspecified number of armed native sympathisers', was said to have crossed Baines Drift on the Limpopo on the 18th, and cut the telegraph lines between the first line of defence at Macloutsie and Francistown (LO 7/1/1). The fear was that Francistown would be the next target. Although certainly the line was cut, it would seem that the report may have been exaggerated, and there was no direct attack on the town, or even Macloutsie, during the entire conflict.

   In addition to his general preparedness in the town  Swinburne established a system of telephones and other signals, such as fires on selected hilltops, which would allow rapid communication between the town, outlying mines and farms. 50 native scouts' were then provisioned for a month and assigned duties along the Tati Concession borders. 4 white scouts were also sent out to patrol the area between Francistown and Macloutsie.

   Later the native scouts' were further reinforced by more volunteers through the collaboration (insistence) of Chief Rawe who, like many of the Bechuanaland tribes, had little love of the Boers, following clashes dating back several decades. There is evidence that some Boer Commandos took the opportunity presented by the crisis to raid kraals and cattle posts along the Macloutsie and Crocodile Rivers (AM 4/1/1). This could have only heightened the anti-Boer sentiments of the indigenous population in the Tati Concession and Protectorate.

   The Francistown defences were completed in 2 weeks. They consisted of 6 small, sandbag redoubts around town, while a large stone store in the centre was fortified and provisioned. This was to form the main laager or central fort. Most of the town assisted in building these defensive works, while a large group, mainly Tonga from the Zambezi Valley, were also drawn from the mines to complete the forts and trenches. Of these works no remains can be traced today. The relative speed of the construction was chiefly the result of the efforts of the Tati Medical Officer, Dr Gem, and the Transport Manager, W. Lakie. Fearing that the water supply might be cut off, 7000 gallons were stored in large tanks in the laager and at the Tati Concession's offices. To strengthen the small white force, a town guard of 30 of Chief Rawe's people was formed and assigned to guard one of the town redoubts nearest the African section. In case the presence in Francistown of a large herd of cattle belonging to the Company might attract raiding parties, all the livestock (regardless of ownership) were sent to a Company cattle post 35 miles NE of the town and kept there under native guard.


Botswana Notes and Records, Volume 31

   On 20th October 1899 a system of white and native scouts commenced a regular series of patrols and information gathering which continued for the next eight months. This would have given the Francistown inhabitants at least 24 hours notice of any intended Boer attack. A number of fixed outposts, especially along the southern border, were also established.

   After the completion of the town's defences Swinburne paraded all the civil volunteers and allotted each man his position in the town's trenches. This group was named the Francistown Defence Force. Instructions were also issued to the captains of the 6 redoubts to draw off their men from the trenches and take shelter in the main laager in case of an overwhelming attack.

   During these rather trying times Swinburne faced many problems, not least of which was to prevent panic amongst the inhabitants and the abandonment of the town and mines within the Concession. It must be remembered that he remained the general manager of a commercial unit which required continued mining to generate profits for the Tati Company. There was also a vested interest held by the imperial authorities, who wished to retain this British presence on the war front. Generally Swinburne appears to have been successful, and the same report which includes these war details outlines concurrent mining developments in the Company territory for that period.

   The maintenance of the Rhodesian Railways was one vital element and the BSAP, under Commandant-General John Sanctuary Nicholson in Bulawayo, were anxious that the system go unhindered. Their efforts enabled the continued transport of troops and materials down the line from the north maintaining the war effort on this flank of operations (Hickman 1970: 183-198). The war in the Transvaal and Natal, however, limited the railway's access to coal supplies and operations were threatened. Accordingly on 27th October Swinburne instructed that the rail authorities were allowed to cut free of charge any wood fuel, something previously strictly forbidden and subject to much controversy Also it was agreed they could use at cost any of the Tati Company's already amassed wood chords at the mines. The result was that the railway was able to maintain operations throughout the war, although the area along the line was quickly denuded of trees.

   On the 26th October 1899 the BSA Co sent its Native Commissioner for the neighbouring Mangwe area to investigate the loyalty or otherwise of the African inhabitants of Southern Rhodesia and the Tati Concession (AM 4/1/1). Native Commissioner Hepburn found strong support of the imperial cause, although the villagers near the borders were very concerned about enemy attack. In response Hepburn requested police assistance to protect these people from possible incursions (AM 4/1/1). Manpower was, however, in short supply. As a result on 28th October the Rhodesian Commandant-General, Nicholson, sent down to Francistown a quantity of arms and ammunition, requesting that Swinburne allocate them to certain specified loyal African chiefs living in the BSA Co territory near the Tati border. This was for their defence only, and Swinburne saw that these materials were promptly distributed. Also on that day, through the courtesy of the Rhodesian authorities, Swinburne was enabled to borrow 10 more rifles and another 1 000 rounds of ammunition for the defence of Francistown.

   On the 4th November, owing to the opinions openly expressed by some of the Boer residents, Swinburne issued instructions to disarmed all Dutch' inhabitants and travellers in the Concession area. To prevent any possible dispatch riding for the enemy they also appropriated all the Boer horses, which were handed over to the BSAP to care for at the Tati Company's expense. These

The illustration on page 15 is entitled FRANCISTOWN DEFENCE FORCE 1899

Including one up the tree, the picture shows 31 men, but there are only 22 names in the caption - Lombard (Bank Manager), Maleham, Waterson (Bank Acct), Creasy, Maggs (Sho-Sho), Lesser, Rouncivill, Sgt Beamish, Roden C Grenfell, J Haskins, A Murray, J Joyce,  O Thomson, J.Downie, Russell, UP Swinburne, Gregson, Lt Robinson, Maleham (Sr), J Rouncivill (Jr), Rey, Lloyd, J Haskins is near the horses in a dark suit. Rey' may be a name or a misprint for Rev', as Lloyd was the chaplain.

This photograph is the property of J Haskins & Sons, and is reproduced by permission.




Botswana Notes and Records, Volume 31

horses were returned to their rightful owners once British success had become clear. It pre-empted by several weeks similar efforts by the Rhodesian authorities, but the latter's efforts were much more hard handed, and considerable resistance was encountered. One Boer resident who openly boasted that he was going to cross over and assist the enemy was locked up in the goal for a few days. Swinburne says in passing "this was as much for his own protection as ours". One can imagine that the jingoistic feeling of the time was not tolerant of such statements, which were probably alcoholic bravado anyway. The Tati Company supported his family while he was in goal.       

    About this time a number of Boers and other stragglers were moving into the Tati territory. All were well equipped with wagons, horses and stores. By the sounds of it most were simply refugees - Boers who had settled many years previously in the Protectorate (LO 7/1/1); Transvaal Boers not endowed by the nationalist war; those of mixed marriage and allegiance; and others were simply non-Boer residents of the Transvaal who had feelings towards neither cause. To avoid possible problems in terms of sabotage and friction with the Anglophile residents, all these newcomers were requested to move on out of the Tati Concession. At the same time the Boers in these parties were forbidden to carry arms. All groups were eventually persuaded to leave, entering either the Bechuanaland Protectorate or Rhodesia. Their details, however, were closely recorded and reported by telegraph to the police in these neighbouring areas.

   On the 10th of November, after hearing that the Rhodesian Regiment had suffered a series of setbacks along the Limpopo and a rumoured pull back from Tuli and elsewhere, Swinburne raised a body of 50 local men, providing them with mule transport and rations for 6 weeks. On 13th November this Border Force' was offered to the Commandant-General in Bulawayo for active service on the Rhodesia-Transvaal border. They remained ready to move from Francistown for several days, but the rumoured disasters proved overstated, and the active service of the corps was declined with thanks (LO 7/1/1). Shortly afterwards the Boers retired from the Tuli-Limpopo area where a stalemate had set in. Instead they began to concentrate their actions against the railway line, causing all the border towns and railway settlements great anxiety, Francistown included.

   About the middle of December 1899 the Tati Concession was invaded by quote "a well equipped party of mixed nationalities". From the first instant their movements were closely monitored by the scouts. I cite Swinburne here to give an idea of the emotional feelings of the era.

"These armed strangers were followed day and night, and eventually turned out to be a gang of freebooters on the look out for anything they could pick up, and willing to fight under the Dutch flag if necessary. All the cattle owners became greatly alarmed for the safety of their stock, and an attack on the bank and stores was only frustrated by the vigilance of the police and volunteers. After considerable trouble this gang was evicted from the Concession without any bloodshed or actual fighting. They left behind them a considerable amount of arms and ammunition, a Transvaal flag, and some obliterating branding irons for altering the brands of horses and cattle. A sworn declaration was made before me by one of the party that they were enrolled to fight under the Transvaal flag, but that their main objects were cattle and loot."

   With the retreat of the Boer forces from the Limpopo and the potential threat by way of the Tuli area somewhat reduced, it is probable that the FDF was dissolved. True they did not see action, but their efforts were commendable. At the end of December 1899 Colonel Plumer and most of the Rhodesian Regiment moved from Tuli to successfully prosecute the war south of Gaberones and the eventual relief of Mafeking in May the following year.

   During the first week of January 1900 it became obvious that the considerable numbers of local miners out of work, disbanded FDF Volunteers, wandering refugees and many others, were more than Swinburne's authority (and patience) could handle. Several had become so troublesome, probably alcoholically induced, that he was compelled to forcibly expel them from the Tati Concession.

    On 10th January 1900 Swinburne received what he terms "reliable information"  (but more probably rumour)  that there was an immediate danger of pro-Boer sabotage against the rail line. The purported plans being to uproot the lines and destroy all the bridges and drains. This would have cut off communications with Colonel Plumer's column, which was already further south and


Botswana Notes and Records, Volume 31

was aimed at stopping the highly successful system of armoured trains which supplied him from Bulawayo. Suspicions, justified or not, fell upon the local Boer residents and other sympathisers in neighbouring Southern Rhodesia where an arms cache had been located in the Mangwe area. In response the Rhodesian authorities requested that the Tati Company should ensure the permanent guarding of that part of the railway line and all bridges in its Territory. It should be remembered that, although in foreign territory, the line and associated infrastructure were all Rhodesian property - owned, maintained and operated by Rhodesia in Bechuanaland and later Botswana, and in fact only relinquished in the 1980s.

   In response to this request on 12th January Swinburne organised a railway patrol, and several guard posts were established. In addition the entire length of the line was watched over by native scouts and bridges were guarded day and night. On his own initiative, and without asking for consent from his London directors, Swinburne also offered through the Tati Concession Limited Company a reward of fifty pounds for the conviction of anyone damaging or tampering with any rail line, telegraph line or any bridge in the territory. No such rewards seem to have been paid out, to the relief of the Company no doubt.

   Early in February 1900 setbacks further down the line towards Gaberones and areas to the south along the Transvaal border heightened tensions yet again. It seemed that all able hands were now required further south both to prevent a possible invasion of the Tati Territory and to assist with that ultimate aim of jingoistic fervour of the period - the relief of Mafeking. As a result Swinburne left Francistown for active service on the front. Given his knowledge of the area and colonial thinking, he was required to assist with planning the attack against the Boer lines. "Through the courtesy of Colonel Plumer I obtained a commission in the Rhodesian Regiment, then engaged in keeping the enemy out of Rhodesian Territory".

   While Swinburne was on service much further to the south he retained constant contact with the acting general manager and Tati Company employees, both on the front and back in the Concession. In April 1900 he took leave from the front, visiting Francistown to settle several administrative matters which had arisen in his absence. After the final relief of Mafeking on 17th May 1900 he returned to his post in Francistown.

   Therein comes to an end the association of Francistown and the Anglo-Boer War. The settlement was no longer under any threat, real or imagined. It is an interesting cameo of local events, and gives one insight as to how people on the ground, not the higher echelons of the military arena, thought and reacted. It sheds light on the degree of Anglophile fears and determination, and it repudiates the now known fallacy that this was a white-mans' war'. The role played and motives behind Chief Rawe's and his peoples' involvement in the conflict have previously gone unrecorded, and this cries out for further research. It also answers the questions of one Francistown historian and resident who had relocated an old photograph in the town of the Francistown Defence Force - Who were they and what did they do ? They were another of the many voluntary corps in what was probably the last major war of voluntary corps rather than strictly enlisted national forces. But they are a corps forgotten.

   I think to end off it is useful to quote in full Swinburne's official letter summarising the impact of the war which was both a justification to the imperial authorities for his actions and to his London directors.

   "During the past 8 months many exceptional incidents have occurred in our territory which required to be promptly dealt with, and although every case brought before me was investigated as thoroughly as possible, yet in times like these we have passed through, it appeared to me to be necessary to deal very sharply with persons and cases that threatened the safety of the country, and it was perhaps not always possible to adhere to the strict legal notice laid down for times of peace".

"Practically isolated from any superior court I made it my object to enlist the residents here in their own interests to assist me in preserving peace and order. Our police being represented by one sergeant, a great deal of real police work has fallen on the Tati Concession employees and the residents were assisted by our chiefs".

"After seeing to the safety of our territory my great object has been to keep all our mines and


Botswana Notes and Records, Volume 31

claims working and to keep down the price of the necessities of life. Our work continued as usual through the war, our full staff was employed, and the town's and district inhabitants never suffered for want of provisions. Mr Gregson during my absence at the front was left in charge and was successful and untiring in pursuing the best interests of your Company".

"I was informed during November that Marshall law over the whole Protectorate had been proclaimed by the Resident Commissioner, but owing to the investment of Mafeking the proclamation had not reached us. During the war I took no steps to enforce Marshall law here except that I issued instructions that no flour was to leave the Concession without permit, and in court all the small civil cases were dealt with as in times of peace".

"My act of disarming the Dutch was at the time considered rather harsh, but the work that was done here on 4 November by myself and one constable, necessitated the employment of a special volunteer force when the Chartered Company (BSA C0) disarmed the Southern Rhodesian Dutch some weeks later. From the start the foreigners in the Concession have always been treated fairly and have not been unnecessarily harassed. There are several Boer families living here at present, who are carrying on with their usual occupations of mining and timber cutting".

"Defence Costs = total 125 pounds. U. P. Swinburne".


Baxter, T W & Burke, E E (1970) Guide to the Historical Manuscripts in the National Archives of Rhodesia. Salisbury: National Archives of Rhodesia.

Creswicke, L (1900-2) South Africa and the Transvaal War. 7 Volumes. Blackwood, Le Bas & Co: London.

Gibbs, P (1997) The Death of the Last Republic. Frederick Muller: London.

Hickman, A S (1970) Rhodesia Served the Queen Volume 1. Rhodesia Army: Salisbury.

Kruger, R (1967) Good Bye Dolly Gray. Nel Mentor: London.

Norris, F (1901) The Roll Call. F. Mudje: Cape Town.

Pakenham, T (1979) The Boer War. Weidenfeld & Nicholson: London.

National Archives of Zimbabwe Materials.

Historical Manuscripts: TA 2/1/3/6; TA 2/1/1; TA 2/1/3/6; TA 2/4/1/2

(main source not individually referenced)

Public Archives Pre-1923: AM 4/1/1; LO 7/1/1.


I am very grateful to the many people who have made comments on this note, but in particular to Mr G Quick, who stimulated an initial interest in the topic and in the Tati Concession in general.