Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941) was a military officer who helped protect Britain's imperial empire for over 30 years. He was especially talented in military scouting. Baden-Powell was a prolific writer who often chose his military experiences as the subjects of his works. He is best known for starting a worldwide scouting movement.
Robert Baden-Powell was born Robert Stephenson Smyth Powell on February 22, 1857 in his parents' house in London, England. His father, Professor H.G. Baden Powell was a vicar and a professor of natural science. His mother, Henrietta Smyth, was Professor Baden Powell's third wife. The couple had seven living children together, of whom Robert was the fifth, and they also raised three children from the vicar's previous marriage. Baden-Powell's father died just after his last child was born, when Robert was only three years old. In 1869 Henrietta changed the family name to Baden-Powell out of respect for her late husband.
Mrs. Baden-Powell educated her children in the outdoors. Through long walks in the country, she taught them about plants and animals. They were also allowed to read books from their father's collection on natural history. Baden-Powell's formal education started with a Dame's School in Kensington Square. In 1868 he attended the Rose Hill School in Tunbridge Wells, where his father was also educated. Two years later he won a scholarship to the Charterhouse School in London. In 1872 the school moved to Godalming, which was surrounded by woodlands known as "The Copse." The wilderness was an important part of Baden-Powell's childhood experience. As a schoolboy, he did not excel either academically or athletically. He was mainly interested in the outdoors and theater.
By 1876 Baden-Powell had to decide upon a career. He was denied admittance to Balliol College in Oxford, where two of his older brothers had attended. Without much forethought, Baden-Powell decided to participate in an open examination for an army commission. Of the 700 people who took the exam, he finished second for cavalry and fourth for infantry. On September 11, 1876 Baden-Powell became a sub-lieutenant in the thirteenth Hussars. On December 6 of the same year, he joined his regiment in Bombay, India.
Baden-Powell took his new profession seriously and excelled in the military. He became a captain at the young age of 26. In 1884 his regiment returned to England for two years. During this time he published a book called Reconnaissance and Scouting. He also worked as a spy, traveling to Germany, Austria, and Russia to learn about their latest technological and military advances. In 1887 Baden-Powell's uncle, General Henry Smyth, was appointed governor and commander-in-chief of South Africa. He asked his nephew to be part of his staff. Baden-Powell participated in several non-combative missions with the Zulu and, in recognition, was promoted to brevet-major. In 1889 General Sir Henry Smyth was sent to Malta as governor and commander-in-chief and he again took his nephew as part of his staff. However, Baden-Powell was anxious for combat and, therefore, resigned from his position as military secretary in Malta in 1893 and rejoined the thirteenth Hussars in Ireland.
In 1895 Baden-Powell was sent to command a campaign against the Ashanti, whose king had broken British treaties. He thought he would have an opportunity for military action, but in the end there was no fighting. Due to his success on this mission he was promoted to brevet-lieutenant-colonel at the age of 39. Despite the honor of the promotion, Baden-Powell was disappointed that he had not yet had any combat experience in the military. He thought this was the key to having his own command in Africa. Based on his experiences with the Ashanti, Baden-Powell published a book called The Downfall of Prempeh in 1896. In 1889 he wrote his next book called Pigsticking or Hog Hunting about boar hunting.
Baden-Powell was next sent to deal with the Matabele Rebellion in the African nation of Rhodesia, as the chief of staff of Major-General Sir Frederick Carrington. Since there was not a corps of scouts available for this mission, Baden-Powell conducted his own scouting trips to learn about the terrain and the people. He would later publish his experiences in a book called The Matabele Campaign. Baden-Powell cited the adventure as a crucial learning experience in the ways of scouting.
After returning home from Africa, Baden-Powell was offered command of the Fifth Dragoon Guards back in India. He dedicated much of his position to training the troops in tracking and surveillance techniques. In 1899 he published Aids to Scouting, which was intended for the military, but had also gained surprising interest among the general public. In the same year, the commander-in-chief of the British army sent Baden-Powell back to South Africa to deal with an expected war between the British and the Boers.
The Boer War was a bloody struggle between English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking whites for control of South Africa's mineral wealth—the world's richest gold reefs. While the chief of the British army, Lord Wolseley, wanted to send 10,000 troops to South Africa, the British cabinet disagreed and instead sent 20 special service officers to organize a defense of the frontiers, one of whom was Baden-Powell. He was assigned to raise a small regiment to protect Rhodesia and to deceive the Boers into thinking that more British forces were on the way. The Boers surrounded Baden-Powell and his men in Mafeking, a small town about 175 miles west of Johannesburg. Baden-Powell managed to defend the town against over 7,000 Boers for 217 days. Some viewed this as the first real victory for the British against the Boers and Baden-Powell was considered a hero.
Mafeking was an important experience for Baden-Powell in two respects. First, he finally experienced real military action that he had desired for so long. The experience also gave him the respect of the military he was looking for and the recognition as a leader. He was promoted to the rank of major general because of his success with this mission. Second, Mafeking was the beginning of Baden-Powell's idea for boy scouts. Because the men were busy protecting the city, Baden-Powell organized the boys into a Mafeking Cadet Corps to take care of the smaller tasks around town. Mafeking became the subject of a 1907 book by Baden-Powell called Sketches in Mafeking and East Africa. In 1900 Baden-Powell was appointed head of the newly created South African Constabulary, a military police force, for three years. He was named inspector general of the cavalry from 1903 until 1907.
It was during this last appointment that Baden-Powell really began to develop his ideas about the scouting movement. In 1904 he attended the Annual Drill Inspection and Review of the Boys Brigade in Glasgow, where the founder, William Smith, had recruited over 54,000 boys. Smith had asked Baden-Powell to rewrite his book Aids to Scouting for a younger audience. According to Michael Rosenthal in The Character Factory, this gave Baden-Powell "the vision of a British society made strong by legions of well-disciplined, morally upright, patriotic youth who found their satisfaction in defending the interests of the empire and following the orders of their superiors."
Since Baden-Powell was still occupied as inspector general of the cavalry, it took a few years to put his ideas into action. In 1906 he wrote a short paper called "Scouting for Boys," where he put some of his ideas into print. His vision for scouting was strongly influenced by three of his contemporaries, William Smith, Ernest Thompson Seton, and Dan Beard. Seton and Beard had started similar youth organizations in the United States. This small paper turned into a six-part series called Scouting for Boys, which was published between January and March of 1908. The series included the first publication of the Scout Oath and Scout Law. This series then led to an official weekly magazine, called The Scout, which increased the visibility and appeal of the scouting movement in the public's eye.
In the summer of 1907 Baden-Powell acted upon his ideas and ran a demonstration camp for boys on Brownsea Island off the coast of Dorset. Twenty-two boys, from ages 10 to 17, took part in the weeklong exercise, which consisted of camping, cooking, tracking, singing, and storytelling. This was the beginning of what was called "unquestionably the most significant youth movement of the twentieth century " in Michael Rosenthal's The Character Factory.
In 1910 Baden-Powell resigned from the Army and became the chairperson of the Executing Committee of the scouting movement. This movement quickly spread to other countries. Baden-Powell traveled extensively to promote scouting, including trips to South America, Russia, Canada, and the West Indies. Interest in the movement was not limited to boys. By 1910 over 8,000 girls had registered with the scouts. Baden-Powell convinced his sister, Agnes Baden-Powell, to organize the girls into their own movement, which he called the Girl Guides. In 1912 Robert and Agnes Baden-Powell published the Handbook for Girl Guides. In the same year, the Boy Scout Association was granted a charter of incorporation.
In 1912 Baden-Powell met his future wife, Olave St. Clair Soames, on a voyage to the West Indies. The couple was married on October 30, 1912 and went on to have three children together: Peter (1913), Heather (1915), and Betty (1917). His wife was a strong supporter of the continuing development of the scouting movement.
In 1914 Baden-Powell created the Wolf Cubs for younger boys aged 9 to 12. During World War I he published several books including Quick Training for War, The Adventures of a Spy, Young Knights of the Empire, and The Wolf Cub's Handbook. After the war he created a third group of scouts for older boys (over the age of 16) called the Rover Scouts. In 1920 Baden-Powell organized the first International Jamboree in London. He wanted a special event to celebrate the tenth anniversary of scouting. According to Tim Jeal in the book Baden-Powell, the chief scout wrote that the goal of the Jamboree was "to make our ideals and methods more widely known abroad; to promote the spirit of brotherhood among the rising generation throughout the world, thereby giving the spirit that is necessary to make the League of Nations a living force."
Baden-Powell spent the later years of his life travelling and supporting the movement. He continued to write throughout his life with such books as Birds and Beasts in Africa (1938), Paddle Your Own Canoe (1939), and More Sketches of Kenya (1940). Baden-Powell died on January 8, 1941 and was buried at Nyeri in view of Mount Kenya.
The legacy of Baden-Powell lies in the popularity of the scouting movement throughout the world. However, its founder has also faced his share of criticism. In 1999 Baden-Powell's character came under attack when the Barolong-Boora-Tshidi Tribal Authority of South Africa sued the British government for millions of dollars in compensation for his alleged mistreatment of blacks during the Mafeking Siege. Despite this problem, the scouting movement has continued to grow. By the year 2000 there were over 25 million members in more than 216 countries.
Jeal, Tim, Baden-Powell, Century Hutchinson, Ltd., 1989.
Mac Donald, Robert H. Sons of the Empire: The Frontier and the Boy Scout Movement, 1890-1918, University of Toronto Press, 1993.
Plaatje, Sol T., Mafeking Diary: A Black Man's View of a White Man's War, Meridor Books, 1990.
Reynolds, E.E., A Biography of Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell, Oxford University Press, 1943.
Rosenthal, Michael, The Character Factory: Baden-Powell and the Origins of the Boy Scout Movement, Pantheon Books, 1986.
Saunders, Frederick Mafeking Memories, Associated University Presses, Inc., 1996.
Guardian, July 24, 1999, p. 1.
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