South Africa: Boer war siege that gripped the nation

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The history of the town was so dramatic, in British eyes, that its name even entered the English language - if in somewhat distorted form. "Maffick, v.i." is officially defined in the dictionaries as "to rejoice with hysterical boisterousness".

Mafeking was the name the English colonists gave to Mafikeng - literally "place of stones", a town in the dusty, sparsely populated northern Cape. Now, it is the capital of the Northwest Province of South Africa. But at the time of the Boer War, Mafeking was a small town divided into an African town of about 7,500 residents and a "white" settlement of about 1,350.

Mafeking had been used as the base for the Jameson Raid - an unsuccessful raid by the British colonists against the Dutch-speaking Boer republic of Transvaal. Although the raid failed it was part of the build-up to the Boer War which was fought between Britain and the Transvaal and the Orange Free State between 1899 and 1902.

The total British military strength reached half a million, whereas the Boers could muster less than 90,000. But the British were fighting in hostile territory over difficult terrain. The Boers besieged Mafeking, Ladysmith and Kimberley during "Black Week", in December 1899. But with the landing of more British troops the fortunes of the war turned. The British relieved the besieged towns. There were street parties in London at the news of the relief of Mafeking on 17 May 1900, after 217 days under siege.