"I know Burnham," the President wrote in 1901. "He is a scout and a
hunter of courage and ability, a man totally without fear, a sure shot,
and a fighter. He is the ideal scout, and when enlisted in the military
service of any country he is bound to be of the greatest benefit."
The truth of this Burnham was soon to prove.
In 1899 he had returned to the Klondike, and in January of 1900 had been
six months in Skagway. In that same month Lord Roberts sailed for
Cape Town to take command of the army, and with him on his staff was
Burnham's former commander, Sir Frederick, now Lord, Carrington. One
night as the ship was in the Bay of Biscay, Carrington was talking of
Burnham and giving instances of his marvellous powers as a "tracker."
"He is the best scout we ever had in South Africa!" Carrington declared.
"Then why don't we get him back there?" said Roberts.
What followed is well known.
From Gibraltar a cable was sent to Skagway, offering Burnham the
position, created especially for him, of chief of scouts of the British
army in the field.
Probably never before in the history of wars has one nation paid so
pleasant a tribute to the abilities of a man of another nation.
The sequel is interesting. The cablegram reached Skagway by the steamer
_City of Seattle_. The purser left it at the post-office, and until two
hours and a half before the steamer was listed to start on her return
trip, there it lay. Then Burnham, in asking for his mail, received it.
In two hours and a half he had his family, himself, and his belongings
on board the steamer, and had started on his half-around-the-world
journey from Alaska to Cape Town.
A Skagway paper of January 5, 1900, published the day after Burnham
sailed, throws a side light on his character. After telling of his hasty
departure the day before, and of the high compliment that had been paid
to "a prominent Skagwayan," it adds: "Although Mr. Burnham has lived in
Skagway since last August, and has been North for many months, he has
said little of his past, and few have known that he is the man famous
over the world as 'the American scout' of the Matabele wars."
Many a man who went to the Klondike did not, for reasons best known to
himself, talk about his past. But it is characteristic of Burnham that,
though he lived there two years, his associates did not know, until the
British Government snatched him from among them, that he had not always
been a prospector like themselves.
I was on the same ship that carried Burnham the latter half of his
journey, from Southampton to Cape Town, and every night for seventeen
nights was one of a group of men who shot questions at him. And it was
interesting to see a fellow-countryman one had heard praised so highly
so completely make good. It was not as though he had a credulous
audience of commercial tourists. Among the officers who each evening
gathered around him were Colonel Gallilet of the Egyptian cavalry,
Captain Frazer commanding the Scotch Gillies, Captain Mackie of Lord
Roberts's staff, each of whom was later killed in action; Colonel Sir
Charles Hunter of the Royal Rifles, Major Bagot, Major Lord Dudley, and
Captain Lord Valentia. Each of these had either held command in border
fights in India or the Sudan or had hunted big game, and the questions
each asked were the outcome of his own experience and observation.
Not for a single evening could a faker have submitted to the midnight
examination through which they put Burnham and not have exposed his
ignorance. They wanted to know what difference there is in a column of
dust raised by cavalry and by trek wagons, how to tell whether a horse
that has passed was going at a trot or a gallop, the way to throw a
diamond hitch, how to make a fire without at the same time making a
target of yourself, how--why--what--and how?
And what made us most admire Burnham was that when he did not know he at
once said so.
Within two nights he had us so absolutely at his mercy that we would
have followed him anywhere; anything he chose to tell us, we would have
accepted. We were ready to believe in flying foxes, flying squirrels,
that wild turkeys dance quadrilles--even that you must never sleep in
the moonlight. Had he demanded: "Do you believe in vampires?" we would
have shouted "Yes." To ask that a scout should on an ocean steamer prove
his ability was certainly placing him under a severe handicap.
As one of the British officers said: "It's about as fair a game as
though we planted the captain of this ship in the Sahara Desert, and
told him to prove he could run a ten-thousand-ton liner."
Burnham continued with Lord Roberts to the fall of Pretoria, when he was
During the advance north he was a hundred times inside the Boer laagers,
keeping Headquarters Staff daily informed of the enemy's movements; was
twice captured and twice escaped.
He was first captured while trying to warn the British from the fatal
drift at Thaba'nchu. When reconnoitring alone in the morning mist he
came upon the Boers hiding on the banks of the river, toward which the
English were even then advancing. The Boers were moving all about him,
and cut him off from his own side. He had to choose between abandoning
the English to the trap or signalling to them, and so exposing himself
to capture. With the red kerchief the scouts carried for that purpose he
wigwagged to the approaching soldiers to turn back, that the enemy were
awaiting them. But the column, which was without an advance guard, paid
no attention to his signals and plodded steadily on into the ambush,
while Burnham was at once made prisoner. In the fight that followed he
pretended to receive a wound in the knee and bound it so elaborately
that not even a surgeon would have disturbed the carefully arranged
bandages. Limping heavily and groaning with pain, he was placed in
a trek wagon with the officers who really were wounded, and who, in
consequence, were not closely guarded. Burnham told them who he was and,
as he intended to escape, offered to take back to head-quarters their
names or any messages they might wish to send to their people. As
twenty yards behind the wagon in which they lay was a mounted guard, the
officers told him escape was impossible. He proved otherwise. The trek
wagon was drawn by sixteen oxen and driven by a Kaffir boy. Later in the
evening, but while it still was moonlight, the boy descended from his
seat and ran forward to belabor the first spans of oxen. This was the
opportunity for which Burnham had been waiting.
Slipping quickly over the driver's seat, he dropped between the two
"wheelers" to the disselboom, or tongue, of the trek wagon. From this he
lowered himself and fell between the legs of the oxen on his back in the
road. In an instant the body of the wagon had passed over him, and while
the dust still hung above the trail he rolled rapidly over into the
ditch at the side of the road and lay motionless.
It was four days before he was able to re-enter the British lines,
during which time he had been lying in the open veldt, and had subsisted
on one biscuit and two handfuls of "mealies," or what we call Indian
Another time when out scouting he and his Kaffir boy while on foot were
"jumped" by a Boer commando and forced to hide in two great ant-hills.
The Boers went into camp on every side of them, and for two days,
unknown to themselves, held Burnham a prisoner. Only at night did he and
the Cape boy dare to crawl out to breathe fresh air and to eat the food
tablets they carried in their pockets. On five occasions was Burnham
sent into the Boer lines with dynamite cartridges to blow up the
railroad over which the enemy was receiving supplies and ammunition. One
of these expeditions nearly ended his life.
On June 2, 1901, while trying by night to blow up the line between
Pretoria and Delagoa Bay, he was surrounded by a party of Boers and
could save himself only by instant flight. He threw himself Indian
fashion along the back of his pony, and had all but got away when a
bullet caught the horse and, without even faltering in its stride, it
crashed to the ground dead, crushing Burnham beneath it and knocking him
senseless. He continued unconscious for twenty-four hours, and when he
came to, both friends and foes had departed. Bent upon carrying out his
orders, although suffering the most acute agony, he crept back to the
railroad and destroyed it. Knowing the explosion would soon bring the
Boers, on his hands and knees he crept to an empty kraal, where for
two days and nights he lay insensible. At the end of that time he
appreciated that he was sinking and that unless he found aid he would
Accordingly, still on his hands and knees, he set forth toward the sound
of distant firing. He was indifferent as to whether it came from the
enemy or his own people, but, as it chanced, he was picked up by a
patrol of General Dickson's Brigade, who carried him to Pretoria. There
the surgeons discovered that in his fall he had torn apart the muscles
of the stomach and burst a blood-vessel. That his life was saved, so
they informed him, was due only to the fact that for three days he had
been without food. Had he attempted to digest the least particle of the
"staff of life" he would have surely died. His injuries were so serious
that he was ordered home.
On leaving the army he was given such hearty thanks and generous rewards
as no other American ever received from the British War Office. He was
promoted to the rank of major, presented with a large sum of money, and
from Lord Roberts received a personal letter of thanks and appreciation.
In part the Field-Marshal wrote: "I doubt if any other man in the force
could have successfully carried out the thrilling enterprises in which
from time to time you have been engaged, demanding as they did the
training of a lifetime, combined with exceptional courage, caution, and
powers of endurance." On his arrival in England he was commanded to dine
with the Queen and spend the night at Osborne, and a few months later,
after her death, King Edward created him a member of the Distinguished
Service Order, and personally presented him with the South African
medal with five bars, and the cross of the D. S. O. While recovering
his health Burnham, with Mrs. Burnham, was "passed on" by friends he had
made in the army from country house to country house; he was made the
guest of honor at city banquets, with the Duke of Rutland rode after the
Belvoir hounds, and in Scotland made mild excursions after grouse. But
after six months of convalescence he was off again, this time to the
hinterland of Ashanti, on the west coast of Africa, where he went in the
interests of a syndicate to investigate a concession for working gold
With his brother-in-law, J. C. Blick, he marched and rowed twelve
hundred miles, and explored the Volta River, at that date so little
visited that in one day's journey they counted eleven hippopotamuses. In
July, 1901, he returned from Ashanti, and a few months later an unknown
but enthusiastic admirer asked in the House of Commons if it were
true Major Burnham had applied for the post of Instructor of Scouts at
Aldershot. There is no such post, and Burnham had not applied for
any other post. To the Timer he wrote: "I never have thought myself
competent to teach Britons how to fight, or to act as an instructor
with officers who have fought in every corner of the world. The question
asked in Parliament was entirely without my knowledge, and I deeply
regret that it was asked." A few months later, with Mrs. Burnham and his
younger son, Bruce, he journeyed to East Africa as director of the East
During his stay there the _African Review_ said of him: "Should East
Africa ever become a possession for England to be proud of, she will owe
much of her prosperity to the brave little band that has faced hardships
and dangers in discovering her hidden resources. Major Burnham has
chosen men from England, Ireland, the United States, and South Africa
for sterling qualities, and they have justified his choice. Not the
least like a hero is the retiring, diffident little major himself,
though a finer man for a friend or a better man to serve under would not
be found in the five continents."
Burnham explored a tract of land larger than Germany, penetrating a
thousand miles through a country, never before visited by white men,
to the borders of the Congo Basin. With him he had twenty white men and
five hundred natives. The most interesting result of the expedition
was the discovery of a lake forty-nine miles square, composed almost
entirely of pure carbonate of soda, forming a snowlike crust so thick
that on it the men could cross the lake.
It is the largest, and when the railroad is built--the Uganda Railroad
is now only eighty-eight miles distant--it will be the most valuable
deposit of carbonate of soda ever found.
A year ago, in the interests of John Hays Hammond, the distinguished
mining engineer of South Africa and this country, Burnham went to
Sonora, Mexico, to find a buried city and to open up mines of copper and
Besides seeking for mines, Hammond and Burnham, with Gardner Williams,
another American who also made his fortune in South Africa, are working
together on a scheme to import to this country at their own expense many
species of South African deer.
The South African deer is a hardy animal and can live where the American
deer cannot, and the idea in importing him is to prevent big game in
this country from passing away. They have asked Congress to set aside
for these animals a portion of the forest reserve. Already Congress has
voted toward the plan $15,000, and President Roosevelt is one of its
most enthusiastic supporters.
We cannot leave Burnham in better hands than those of Hammond and
Gardner Williams. Than these three men the United States has not sent to
British Africa any Americans of whom she has better reason to be proud.
Such men abroad do for those at home untold good. They are the real
ambassadors of their country.
The last I learned of Burnham is told in the snapshot of him which
accompanies this article, and which shows him, barefoot, in the Yaqui
River, where he has gone, perhaps, to conceal his trail from the
Indians. It came a month ago in a letter which said briefly that when
the picture was snapped the expedition was "trying to cool off." There
his narrative ended. Promising as it does adventures still to come, it
seems a good place in which to leave him.
Meanwhile, you may think of Mrs. Burnham after a year in Mexico keeping
the house open for her husband's return to Pasadena, and of their first
son, Roderick, studying woodcraft with his father, forestry with Gifford
Pinchot, and playing right guard on the freshman team at the University
But Burnham himself we will leave "cooling off" in the Yaqui River,
maybe, with Indians hunting for him along the banks. And we need not
worry about him. We know they will not catch him.
End of Project Gutenberg's Real Soldiers of Fortune, by Richard Harding Davis
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