One of the joys of knife collecting is what a knife’s history doesn’t tell you. Take a look as we remember a forgotten knife from a forgotten war:
When you’ve shouted “Rule Britannia,” when you’ve sung “God Save the Queen,”
When you’ve finished killing Kruger with your mouth,
Will you kindly drop a shilling in my tambourine
For a gentleman in khaki ordered South?
—Rudyard Kipling, “From The Absent Minded Beggar.”
The Boer War fought between the British Empire and descendants of the original settlers of South Africa, who called themselves Boers, was one of those nasty little wars (unless you are fighting in it) that seemed to bring out the best—and the worst—in nations.
And while knife collections are filled with knives documented to have come from the American Civil War, and World Wars, knives connected with the Boer War are rare. And this is what we know about one of them.
The Boer war does have more significance to history than just the ceding of control of a large part of South Africa to England—not so much the war itself, but the way the war was waged—and those who rose to prominence during it.
The British had taken a large part of South Africa from the Dutch in the 17th century and took complete control of the coastal towns during the Napoleonic Wars. The Dutch settlers who remained behind moved farther into the interior to form their own countries that they called the Orange Free State and the South African Republic. The British government recognized those republics in 1852 and 1854. But in 1877, England tried to annex the Transvaal, which led to fighting in 1880-’81 which the British lost.
The real problem began in 1886, when gold was discovered in the South African Republic, and a huge influx of gold seekers, mostly British, soon exceeded the number of Boer settlers in the towns. A British-sponsored expedition called the Jameson Raid of 1895 was a thwarted attempt to get the gold seekers to arise against the Boer government and take the gold fields for England. The summation of which there was not a lot of trust of British intentions from the Boers. To prevent the gold seekers from having any real political clout the Boers required stringent citizenship requirements, to which the British objected and demanded full equality for the mostly British gold seekers, who were called <uitlanders.>
The Boer president, Paul Kruger, had seen the writing on the wall and had purchased 30,000 or so state-of-the-art Mauser rifles, with smokeless powder cartridges, not to mention quite a bit of German-made artillery. The fighting broke out in October of 1899.
The Boers attacked first and besieged several towns, the most notable for knife collectors was Mafeking. (More on Mafeking a few paragraphs down.) Boer military units were the local farmers of the region who formed themselves into militia and organized as a military unit.
It was a situation in which British Army regulars and Colonial troops fought farmers who had banded together to resist. These farmers, who had been raised in the outdoors, hunting, proved to be dangerous adversaries.
The commander of Mafeking stubbornly resisted the attacks, and became a national British hero after the siege was lifted. One key component to the defense of Mafeking was he was able to put more soldiers on the firing line by using boys 12 to 15 years old to carry messages and be litter bearers. He gave this group a title of Cadet Corps.
The Boers were experts at roaming independent commands who make swift lighting attacks in small groups. In response, the British rounded up those suspected of being family members of the Boer fighters and put them in camps, where the death rates were high because of disease and poor living conditions. The condition of these camps aroused such an outrage in England, that public pressure demanded a truce, and eventually the war ended with the Boer states becoming a part of the British Empire.
It was during this war that a 25-year-old British reporter for “The Morning Post” had been captured by the Boers and, in a daring escape during which he jumped onto a train and hid himself under coal sacks, proved his courage and tenacity that would hold him in good stead in later life. During this war, an Indian served as a stretcher bearer in the British Medical Corp and discovered the price of violent rebellion and conflict.
And while there is nothing known about who carried this knife, we do know it was made in Sheffield, England, by Taylor’s Eye Witness knives. We do know that Taylor’s is a longtime Sheffield firm, began to make knives in 1832. In 1876, the company had 30 employees.
We also know that on September 10th, 1902, the council of the City of Sheffield placed on record an appreciation and recognition of the services of the volunteers, ambulance men, and telegraphers of Sheffield who went on active services with His Majesties army in South Africa. A copy of the resolution was signed by the Lord Mayor and presented to each volunteer.
In Weston Park in Sheffield, there is a marker that reads: “To the memory of the officers and men who gave their lives for their country in the South African War 1899-1902 of all the battalions of the York and Lancaster Regiments. This memorial was erected by their comrades.” So, was this knife engraved for a returning veteran? We’d like to think so. But there’s no proof, so it remains in the realm of probability.
By J. Bruce Voyles