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Raising the siege of Mafeking

Image of a group in front of the convent at Mafeking showing the effects of a ‘Long Tom’ Boer 94.8lb shell, [May 1900]. Christopherson stands second from left. (J.B. Christopherson collection, Sudan Archive Durham. Reference: SAD.335/4/17)
Group in front of the convent at Mafeking showing the effects of a ‘Long Tom’ Boer 94.8lb shell, [May 1900]. Christopherson stands second from left. (J.B. Christopherson collection, Sudan Archive Durham. Reference: SAD.335/4/17)

Among the collections in the Sudan Archive is that of Dr John Christopherson (1868-1955), who was Director of the Sudan Medical Department and then Director of Khartoum and Omdurman Civil Hospitals, serving in Sudan from 1902 until 1919. He is best known for his discovery of the intravenous use of antimony to cure for the first time the parasitic flatworm disease schistosomiasis (or bilharzia) and which is still endemic in many tropical countries. In two conflicts he served outside Sudan: during the First World War in Serbia (for the Red Cross) and France, and before that in South Africa during the Second Boer War when he volunteered as a Medical Officer in the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital at Deelfontein.

The above photograph was taken shortly after the raising of the siege of Mafeking (now Mahikeng) on 17 May 1900. It shows damage sustained by St Joseph’s Convent from shell-fire during the siege; in the group are Christopherson (second from right), Sister Mary Patrick, Acting Mother Superior, Mother Mary Magdalen, and two postulants. Christopherson had been on the first train to enter the town from the south after its relief, on 12 June. There was intense public interest in the plight of the town’s defenders, who under the command of Colonel Robert Baden-Powell had resisted their Boer besiegers for 217 days. Like many, Christopherson was keen to document the events of the war and his part in it, and his collection contains 87 photographs that he collected and took himself of scenes at Deelfontein, Cape Town, various battlefields, and Mafeking.

Image of bisected Mauser bullet (front) transformed into a brooch commemorating the siege of Mafeking
Image of bisected Mauser bullet (back) transformed into a brooch commemorating the siege of Mafeking
Bisected Mauser bullet transformed into a brooch commemorating the siege of Mafeking (Private collection). Photo credit: Bill Buxton.

Still remaining in private hands is this souvenir brooch manufactured from a Boer Mauser bullet “fired during the siege”. It was presented to Christopherson by his colleague John Chiene FRSE, then a Consulting Surgeon to the Field Forces in South Africa, and who had himself arrived at Mefeking on 1 June. On his return to Edinburgh Chiene gave a lecture on his experiences to the Edinburgh Medical Chirugical Society in which he briefly dismissed the rumour of poisoned bullets having been used by the Boers; a chemical analysis suggested rather a tallow coating which in turn corroded the copper and nickel plated bullet giving it a sinister green appearance. Perhaps this bullet was one he had carried home with him for such analysis.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.

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