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The truth about Baden-Powell and the Boy Scouts

BRIAN MORRIS, in the November Freethinker, examines the life of a “devious, authoritarian imperialist”.

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Boy Scout movement, an event now being celebrated. Legend has it that it was started by the Boer War hero Lord Baden-Powell. But was it? And what sort of man was B-P?baden-powell.jpg

When Lord Baden-Powell died in Kenya in 1941, he was known throughout the world and almost universally acclaimed as one of the “greatest benefactors” of humankind. As founder of the Boy Scouts he had been showered during his own lifetime with the highest honours – civilian orders from numerous countries, a peerage, honorary degrees from six universities (including both Oxford and Cambridge), the freedom of the city of London, as well as the Order of Merit, and had it not been for the Second World War, he would certainly have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Few men have received such universal acclaim. His public image was that of a warm, jolly, considerate man, exuding tolerance and goodwill, and, in spite of his bare knees and a little eccentricity, a personality to be admired and respected. It thus seems almost sacrilege to suggest anything that might mar such an estimable reputation. But the evidence suggests that Baden-Powell was something of a fake and a charlatan.

One of the many biographical studies of Baden-Powell is entitled The Wolf That Never Sleeps. This is a translation, given by B-P himself, of the Ndebele word impeesa. We are told, again by B-P himself, that this was the name given to him by the Matabele people during the 1896 campaign in the Motopo Hill near Bulawayo – one of the many colonial affrays that went to make the British empire. It is a revealing translation. Actually, the word means hyena and it would be difficult to find in the Ndebele language a more abusive or insulting word. For the hyena, as in other African cultures, is associated with witchcraft, deceit and evil intent. What this innocent translation indicates is that B-P’s whole personality was tinged with a guile and a craftiness that was quite unique. For B-P, with characteristic adroitness, if not deceit, makes it sound as if the Ndebele were actually paying him a compliment!

Tim Jeal’s well-known biography of Baden-Powell was largely an attempt to defend the integrity of the Boer War hero, to present a “balanced” portrait – between the early biographers like William Hillcourt who tended to depict Baden-Powell as a saint and a hero, and his later detractors, specifically Piers Brendon and Michael Rosenthal. Yet even Jeal, who at times is almost sycophantic towards B-P, cannot help but indicate that Baden-Powell was ruthless, vain, crafty, devious, often a liar, and in his dealings with the artist-naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, thoughtless and none too scrupulous. This, as we shall see, is a mild way of putting it.

Baden-Powell was certainly no hero, for all recent studies of the Mafeking episode and Baden-Powell’s other activities during the South African war seem to indicate that he was something of an incompetent. Highly imaginative and full of tricks, yes; but hardly the great hero or military strategist.

Brian Gardner’s study of Mafeking (1966) had already damaged his reputation as a hero; more recent studies depict him in even more sinister light. For in order to save the garrison B-P commandeered all the food for the white population, giving Africans the choice of starvation in the town or dispersal on the veldt – where around a thousand died through lack of food, mainly women and children. Starving Africans were flogged or shot for stealing food during the siege, while caviar was being served in the Mafeking hotel.

Yet the studies of Piers Brendon and Tim Jeal, though containing some penetrating observations on B-P’s personality – or should it be “persona”? – seem somewhat apologetic in surveying Baden-Powell’s hardly creditable military career and thoroughly reactionary outlook. They seem to want to excuse B-P for his misdeeds and attitudes.

This is done by suggesting that B-P was no worse than his contemporaries, that he was somewhat naive when it came to politics, and that he was somewhat of a perennial schoolboy.

B-P’s racism, war-mongering and antidemocratic attitudes are depicted, even ridiculed, but hardly censored. And they seem to conclude that whatever his faults, early misdeeds and eccentricities, no one can deny Baden-Powell the credit for creating the largest and most flourishing youth movement in the world.

seton.jpgYet this was B-P’s greatest con of all. For anyone who examines the historical record, or even looks at Ernest Thompson Seton’s booklet Birch Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians, will come to realise that B-P appropriated, in a devious fashion and without acknowledgement, all the essential ideas of the American artist-naturalist. Brendon’s suggestion that BP was strongly influenced by Seton is an understatement; B-P simply pinched Seton’s ideas.

But before examining this issue, let us look at B-P’s philosophy of life, and the social “reality” that lay behind the jolly exterior.

First, B-P was not a man of peace. The suggestion that he may, had it not been for the Second World War, have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize is ironic in the extreme when one examines his record and his social values. What did B-P consider the greatest “sport” in the world? Apparently espionage and soldiering, or “man-hunting” as he described it. Nothing gave him more excitement and enjoyment than active war service, which is why he found his Matabele experiences so rewarding. Looking back over his life he records, in his autobiographical Lessons for the Varsity of Life (1933), the exhilaration and emotional satisfaction, the glorious feelings, he got from military service. But more than this, he advocated the army as the training ground for the virtues he admired, and these of course are all the military virtues – loyalty, courage, patriotism, self-discipline, obedience and sense of duty; not, we may note, knowledge, self-expression, humility, human wellbeing, reciprocity and love.

Is it to be wondered then that he quotes from Kaiser Wilhelm II – a genial man, “full of wise sayings” – and Machiavelli in his autobiography, and relates stories about his old friend “Maori” Brown, whose only claim to fame was that he went around killing the “natives” and liked to be photographed standing over one of them with a bayonet. When in later years B-P suggested friendly interchanges between the Scouts and the Hitler Youth, this was consonant with the kind of philosophy he espoused.

Coupled with this militarist outlook and its anti-intellectual accompaniment was an intense nationalism which had marked racist overtones and which runs counter to the public image that the man fostered. In reality B-P was neither an internationalist nor a humanist, let alone a socialist or a pacifist, but rather a staunch and bigoted imperialist.

In fact, he was almost a reincarnation of one of Henty’s heroes. The famous book Scouting for Boys (1908) is essentially a book of right-wing political propaganda, or, as Samuel Hynes puts it, a “crude and insistent expression of Tory imperialism” (The Edwardian Turn of Mind, 1968). It expresses B-P’s concern for national unity, his social imperialist outlook (which he shared with Roberts, Beresford and Meath), and his impassioned defence of the British Empire which permeates almost every page of the book. In his concern for national unity, BP was not only extremely disparaging about democratic procedures, but he clearly saw the rise of socialism as a threat to “class unity”.

He therefore denounced trade union leaders as “professional agitators” and described socialist ideas as “extreme” or utopian. As for his racism, this is evident in many of his writings, particularly his travel books.

Given B-P’s imperialism and motivations in founding the Scout movement – the effective maintenance of the British Empire – it is hardly surprising that the Boy Scout movement today embodies Baden-Powell’s essential ideas in being immensely nationalistic. What other voluntary organisation supports the state and the monarchy with such fervour? Who but a Scout knows the history and composition of the Union Flag? The Scout law and promise, with its stress on obedience and loyalty and duty, clearly reflects B-P’s patriotic and reactionary credo.

Linked with this, and representing a third aspect of B-P’s philosophy, is the strong authoritarian attitude that runs through his writings. “A Scout obeys orders without question”, is one of the Scout laws. B-P was generally sceptical of individual self-expression or any freedom of thought. For him the State always took priority over the individual. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Scout movement is a very undemocratic institution; its council, constituted by Royal Charter, has autocratic control, and there are no procedures or electoral system through which the rank and file can channel their views. At the troop level, too, the mode of organisation, as B-P intended, is basically authoritarian, the scoutmaster being a kind of benevolent dictator ruling through his patrol leaders. A stress on hierarchy is naturally associated with the cultivation of the military virtues, and by discipline B-P meant “patient obedience to authority”.

Finally, given the close association between the State and religious institutions, it is not surprising that B-P was a highly religious man, in a rather orthodox sense. Again, his reputation for broad-minded tolerance in religious matters is something of a facade. Indeed, one only has to read his chapter on “irreligion” in Rovering to Success to realise how narrow-minded and bigoted he could be. He was quite unable to accept that any decent person could be an atheist – atheism being highlighted as one of the “rocks” to avoid when “paddling your canoe” through life – the others being “horses” (gambling),
“wine”, “women” (sexual relations outside marriage) and “cuckoos and
humbugs” (that is, socialists and intellectuals).

So between B-P’s moral pronouncements and his own life – which embodiedhis philosophy – there is a wide gulf. “A Scout is a friend to animals” is another Scout law, yet a whole chapter of B-P’s autobiography is devoted to describing how he stalked and killed everything from woodcock in Albanian woods to lions on the African veldt, and it includes a spirited defence of both pig-sticking and fox-hunting.

In summary, B-P’s political and moral philosophy can be described as militarist, imperialist and authoritarian – almost fascist.

Although Baden-Powell was indeed a cagey opportunist, if it had not been for the Mafeking episode he would probably have ended his days as a retired and relatively obscure army officer. As it was, he suddenly found himself a national hero at the age of 43.

It is to his credit that he sought to put his fame to the service of youth, although it is clear, as Brendon suggests, that the army found him a bit of an embarrassment.

The initial stimulus came from William Smith of the Boy’s Brigade, who invited B-P to attend some of the Brigade’s annual inspections. B-P was evidently impressed by these displays, and in 1906 he sent a paper to Brigade headquarters with suggestions for a “scouting” badge. But the real stimulus came later in the same year when B-P met Ernest Thompson Seton, who was in Britain promoting his Woodcraft Indians organisation. B-P was even more impressed by what he learned about Seton’s ideas on outdoor education.

Seton, who at that time was a very popular writer of animal stories, had begun around 1900 holding nature camps for boys on his Cos Cob estate, Connecticut. As these became more successful Seton began to formulate a programme of activities and a mode of organisation for an outdoor movement for children.

The first public announcement of the organisation was in a series of articles in the influential Ladies’ Home Journal, beginning in May 1902. The articles achieved wide popularity, and bands of Seton or Woodcraft Indians sprang up spontaneously in many parts of the United States. In 1906 Seton published The Birch Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians, giving an outline of the organisation, a programme of outdoor games and activities (focusing on camp craft and nature study), and a system of badges based on set standards. The organisation was based on American Indian ideals, and the camps were organised along tribal lines, very much like an Indian encampment.

Seton had sent B-P a copy of his handbook, and at their meeting had told him all about his youth organisation. B-P realised that here was an idea of great potential. He sent Seton a copy of his own booklet, Aids to Scouting, and in an accompanying letter, remarked that “our principles seem practically identical”. In fact they weren’t; but the important point is, that whereas Seton in 1906 had already had a carefully worked-out plan for an outdoor movement for children, B-P had formed nothing substantial, having merely a vague idea of introducing the scouting programme he had used in the army as a supplementary aid to existing boys’ organisations.

Anyway, the two men agreed informally to cooperate and share ideas: the launching of a new outdoor movement for boys was seemingly to be a joint enterprise.

The birth of the Boy Scout movement is well known. After holding an experimental camp on Brownsea Island in the summer of 1907 – an event celebrated this year – B-P brought out the following year Scouting for Boys in six fort-nightly parts. It received an electric response throughout Britain. By September 1908, 100,000 boys had enrolled as Scouts.

The product of an era rather than a man, the rapidly growing organisation was finally controlled by B-P, and the shape it eventually assumed was largely moulded by the outlook and philosophy of this one man. It differed radically from the type of nature movement that Seton had envisaged and founded.

The difference was that Baden-Powell, unlike Seton, was an able administrator, and he quickly gained the support of many influential men and of the Establishment generally. Particularly important was the support of the promoter of the Boy Scout scheme. A staunch imperialist like B-P, Pearson guaranteed the movement financially for a year, and gave the organisation maximum publicity through his newspapers. Taken together, Pearson’s financial support, B-P’s organising ability and guile, his charismatic presence as the hero of Mafeking, and Seton’s woodcraft programme guaranteed the success of the new movement.

Yet when you subtract from Scouting for Boys the political tracts on the Empire and patriotism, the moralistic discourses on religion, continence, discipline and the duties of
the citizen, the anecdotes about B-P’s own colonial experiences – and all this constitutes a greater part of the book – and when you focus on the core of the book dealing with the organisational framework of the future outdoor youth movement, it is clear that B-P has taken over all the essential principles of Seton’s woodcraft scheme. These are worth enumerating, as Seton explicitly outlined them in the Birch Bark Roll long before the Boy Scouts came into existence.

The movement was to be purely recreational and concerned with conservation, camping
and outdoor life: there was to be self-government by the children with adult guidance; a
focus would be made on campfire ceremonial; there was to be a system of badges with
accompanying totemic symbolism; there would be a ten-point written code for camp
life, and woodcraft pursuits would be centred on outdoor athletics, scouting, wood lore, and nature study; there was to be an emulation of the American Indian with an emphasis on art, dancing, romance and the picturesque.

What B-P essentially did was to take this woodcraft programme and re-fashion it to his
own ends – without acknowledging the source of his ideas. He does mention Seton a few
times in Scouting for Boys, describing him as the head of the Red Indian Boy Scouts in America, and suggesting in his devious way that Seton had already founded a somewhat “similar” organisation that was having a “full and widespread success”, giving the erroneous impression that all the ideas expressed in the book were his own.

But in the process of appropriating and adapting Seton’s woodcraft organisation B-P made several fundamental changes. First, Seton’s aims – the promotion of interest in nature, conservation and wildlife and good fellowship – were discarded and “woodcraft” became merely a “means” to an end, and that end was the effective maintenance of the British Empire and capitalist hegemony.

Second, given this aim – “good citizenship” -B-P infused into the programme a militarist and authoritarian ethos entirely foreign to Seton’s scheme. This emphasis is apparent to anyone who reads Scouting for Boys, where B-P writes that “we ought not to think so much of any boy unless he can shoot and drill and scout”. Seton’s camp laws were then re-drafted as positive affirmations reflecting B-P’s conservative outlook, stressing such virtues as honour, loyalty, duty courtesy and obedience.

Duty to God and the State, accepted through a solemn oath, became a prerequisite for membership – something quite alien to Seton’s socialist outlook. The authoritarian “patrol system” replaced Seton’s democracy: scoutmasters replaced “medicine men” – and were to be addressed as “Sir” rather than by a woodcraft name – and the Scout camps largely continued to follow the pattern of the Boys’ Brigade and army camps with their morning inspections, flag-raising and regimentation.

Most of Seton’s practical ideas – the camp games and the badge system, for instance –
B-P simply took and re-named. Anything not consistent with his own militarist outlook was ignored, and it is of interest that the only dance that B-P mentions in his book was a war dance that he had witnessed amongst the Zulu.

Third, B-P rejected entirely Seton’s ideal type – the American Indian. It has been suggested by scout historians that this was a serious handicap and limitation to Seton’s programme, and that if B-P had adopted it the Scouts would not have become a worldwide movement. It has also been said that he had a wide first-hand knowledge of “primitive” peoples and did not blind himself to their supposed virtues. This interpretation leaves out some crucial points. First, B-P’s admiration of pre-literate peoples, like most of his colonial contemporaries, was restricted to lauding their tracking abilities and their martial qualities.

B-P, as his travel books indicate, took little interest in and had little knowledge of the culture and customs of the tribal peoples he harassed. To him they were “hostile savages”, and some of his writings have a decidedly racial slant.

Fourth, the ideal type that B-P advocated – the backwoodsman or the “pioneer civilising a savage country so that it becomes a colony for our Empire” – though an exact antithesis of Seton’s ideal, is every bit as romantic and limiting as Seton’s American Indian, and morally hardly more estimable. B-P’s model for the Scouts was the colonial – the white man was the precursor and forerunner of capitalism.

This ideal is apparent in all his writings, and the sort of man B-P himself was and advocated can be seen as embodied in this type – a muscular Christianity, a distrust of intellectuals, and an emphasis on self-abnegation and stoicism with the allied virtues of pluck, self-reliance, endurance and duty. But the important point is that B-P never put much emphasis on romance and the picturesque; his approach, in contrast to Seton, was dull and prosaic, for he was essentially a pragmatist. “Woodcraft” was simply the means to political ends and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Thus what eventually came to be known as the Boy Scout movement was in no sense Seton’s creation, and though Seton was for five years the Chief Scout of America he was eventually ousted from the organisation, largely because he took a pacifist and “unpatriotic” stand during the First World War.

The truth then about B-P was that he was not the true founder of the Boy Scout movement, but rather appropriated, without acknowledgement, all the key elements of Seton’s woodcraft movement and gave them new labels and meanings. A good idea, as Seton once remarked, was put to a bad use. In the process B-P chose to ignore or obliterate the source of his ideas. Whether he did so deliberately, for B-P was an extremely devious individual, or whether he felt he was developing his own embryonic thoughts, it is difficult to say. But I think Paul Wilkinson is close to the truth when he remarked in an article on “English Youth Movements” (Journal of Contemporary History, 1969) that what B-P essentially did was to combine the timeless quality of woodcraft and outdoor scouting which derived largely from Seton with social imperialism, fashionable at the turn of the century, which was represented by Pearson.

But it remains highly ironic that 100 years later we are encouraged to pay homage to Baden-Powell whose personal life and philosophy are hardly worth emulation, and cannot even be credited with founding the movement whose anniversary is being celebrated.

10 responses to “The truth about Baden-Powell and the Boy Scouts”

  1. James Hiller says:

    Any thoughts on how Wilfred Grenfell might fit into this discussion? Muscular Christian, evangelical, devoted to northern Newfoundland and Labrador (1892 and onwards). Hardly an intellectual Christian. Jim Hiller

  2. Scott Fuller says:

    Yesterday I was reading an article that concluded that maintaining an authoritarian system is the main purpose of some religions, and I got to thinking that atheists should stop worrying that Boy Scouts don’t want them, they should realize that the purpose of Scouting is to indoctrinate children into authoritarian obedience, and freethinkers should want nothing to do with such an organization, regardless of its acceptance or bigotry.

  3. […] can learn the truth about Baden-Powell here. Send this article to:             […]

  4. R Jensen says:

    Boy Scouts is a chance for the youth of today to grow and expand their knowledge of nature and self dependence not Authoritarian Obediance. Never saw that in my 40 years in scouts and hope never too. I appreciate the fact that Lord Baden Powell had his faults as do all of us. Perhaps Mr. Morris should look into his own life for bigotry and hatered I am sure its there.

  5. Aeromeba says:

    This is so interesting to me. I don’t doubt it for a minute. There are many boys in my son’s scout troop who would fit this same description. My son is an Eagle mind you. I’m proud of his accomplishment but he has had to put up with and stand up to far too many people like LBP. The ideals of scouts are wonderful and often touted by the Scouts. However, they are not always lived. Sadly. My son is one of the ones who really is a good man. He knows that Scout oath and he strives to live it.

  6. Pan Mittle says:

    Thank you for a great piece!

  7. lewis windsor says:

    Excellent piece of eye opening information that has been very useful for a project. Thanks!

  8. tom says:

    Nice liberal hit piece.

  9. […] as no surprise to anyone who has looked into the nature of Baden-Powell. A while back we carried a feature about the man, which revealed that was an imperialist, a war-monger – and a devoutly religious […]

  10. Mike says:

    I’m not sure I fully support the tone of this article, interesting as the history is.

    Whatever the ‘truth’ of the founders persona and beliefs is not really of a great deal of relevance to what scouting is today. It would be possible to critique many historical figures by the values of today, but would it really change or call in question the things they did which turned out to be useful.

    Here in the UK Scouting is a large organisation and wood-craft almost non existent. You could claim Microsoft windows was pinched from apple design, but that doesn’t really take away from the fact that it is the UK operating system of its type, like it or loathe it.

    I honestly think the majority of people in UK scouting today are liberally minded people interested in the development of young people. Most are liberally minded in their religion if they have one. They are internationalist and peaceful in outlook and promote largely positive values in a world where to promote any values at all is very frowned on in some circles.

    Humanism supports the rights of all to hold to their own beliefs, and I don’t feel it serves any purpose just to stand on the sidelines and question its history.

    Of course it is wrong that Scouting should claim to be for all young people when it excludes those of no religion. It is also wrong that it should get tax payer support without promoting the equality agenda. And it is right we should campaign on a change of heart in these matters. But let us do this in a friendly spirit with people of goodwill and not as adversaries or make them out to be supporters of Hitler!