Jan Grootboom - an African scout

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Jan Grootboom

Baden-Powell learnt many of his Scouting skills in Africa. During the Matabele Campaign in 1896, he frequently mentioned the name of Jan Grootboom, a Xhosa from the Eastern Cape (although Baden-Powell refers to him as a Zulu). Grootboom had come to Matabeleland as a wagon driver for a missionary named Helm. At the height of the campaign, Grootboom distinguished himself as a courageous and exceptional man especially when it came to scouting around the Matabele camps and outposts. Grootboom had great respect for Baden-Powell, and as we shall see below, the feeling was mutual.

Baden-Powell writes:

He had the guts of the best of men. Though I knew Zululand, I was new to Rhodesia and its people and I needed therefore a really reliable guide and Scouting comrade.

To do our job he and I used to ride out from our outpost as soon as night had set in. This enabled us to get through the intervening 25 miles of country in good time to conceal ourselves near the enemy position at dawn, then to ascertain his exact whereabouts by observing his camp-fires as they lit up for cooking the morning meal. Our work lay among rocky kopjes. I found with my rubber-soled shoes I was able to get about more rapidly than Jan and in fact the enemy. In this way the enemy got to know me fairly well; they gave me the name of 'Impeesa'- the beast that creeps about at night.

One night we had crept down to near the enemy stronghold and were waiting there to see his morning fires so as to ascertain his position. Presently the first fire was lit and then another and yet another.

Jan suddenly growled: "The brutes are laying a trap for us." He slipped off all his clothing and left it lying in a heap and stole off into the darkness practically naked.

The worst of spying is that it makes you suspicious, even of your best friends; so as soon as Jan was gone I crept away in another direction, taking the horses with me, and got among some rocks where I would have some chance if he had any intention of betraying me. For an hour or more I lay there while the sun rose until, at last, I saw Jan crawling back through the grass - alone. Ashamed of my doubts, I crept to him and found him grinning all over with satisfaction while he was putting on his clothes again.

He said that he had found, as he had expected, an ambush laid for us. The thing that made him suspicious was that the fires, instead of flaring up at different points all over the hillside simultaneously, had been lighted in steady succession, one after the other, apparently by one man going around to light them. He himself had pressed in towards them by a route from which he was able to perceive a party of them lying out in the grass close to the track which we should probably have used had we gone on.

Primary sources[edit]

  • Scouting About, March 2002
  • Baden-Powell, My Adventures as a Spy, 1915