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The Upington Border Scouts Cloth Notes of 1902

The Upington Border Scouts Cloth Notes have captured the imagination of numismatists both locally and abroad for decades. These exceptionally rare notes tell an extraordinary tale of ingenuity, perseverance and defiance against incredible odds.

A brief history of the Upington Border Scouts

The Upington Border Scouts were raised at Upington in May 1900 as a local defense force. The men were all half-castes, chiefly descendants of Boer farmers and native women; many of them were well-to-do farmers having large herds, others were hunters in the Kalahari Desert and all could ride and shoot. Their knowledge of the country and excellent eyesight made them invaluable as scouts. In November 1900 the regiment was increased to 300, in January 1901 to 500, and shortly afterwards to 8 squadrons totaling 786 men.

The Scouts patrolled a broad area in the north-western district of Cape Colony, which extended from Oomdries Vlei in the south to Rietfontein in the north, a distance of 400 miles and from Prieska in the east to Ookiep in the west, about 350 miles. Kenhardt and Upington, two towns roughly in the center of this vast area, were garrisoned and entrenched. These towns are seventy-two miles apart over heavy sandy roads and rough terrain.

Scouts in action

In April 1901, 300 of the regiment were ordered to join Major Jeudwine's column at Van Wyk's Vlei. These 3 squadrons remained on column for seven months, the last three of which they were under Colonel Capper. During this time they did most of the scouting for the main body, and a day seldom passed without the advance or flanking scouts being fired on by the enemy, who, however, fled as the column advanced. Some very hard and trying marching was done, but the rebels generally kept a day or two's march in advance, and owing to its transport the column could not move as fast as the enemy. The 6th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers was in this column, and in their war record it is noted, to illustrate the difficult nature of the country, that on 28th May only six miles were covered in nine hours' marching.

Occasionally the wagons were left behind, and the mounted men, 1 squadron of Orpen's Cavalry, 1 of Nesbitt's, and 3 of the Scouts would, by a long night-march, try to surround the enemy. Twice Maritz was all but surrounded in very hilly country, but on each occasion he and his men escaped with the loss of a few men and all his spare horses.

At Ganabosch the column fought the combined commandos of Maritz and Louw; the enemy held some high ridges until dark, and then fled. In November 1901 the Border Scouts were ordered to return to the north-western district, as several commandos had moved north. On this trek they had a running fight with Van Reenan's commandos, but owing to the horses being in a miserable condition only two prisoners were captured. They arrived in Upington in December, after having been as far south as Piquetberg Road Station. On one occasion they had been snowed up for three days in the hills near Sutherland.

Scarcity of funds and an ingenious solution

The regiment received no pay during the time it was on column, and Major Birkbeck (4th Scottish Rifles), the commander, found on his return to Upington that all communication between that place and De Aar had been cut for several months. The wire was down for miles, and post-carts had been captured by the enemy, while there was hardly enough food for the garrison for one month, apart from the civilian population. Lastly there was hardly twenty pounds of money in the town. Meat rations became the order of the day, and remained so until the corn ripened at Keimeos, on the banks of the Orange River, thirty miles from Upington. At this time there were about 600 rebels under arms in the district, while several commandos were being pushed into it by the columns in the south. On one occasion at this time 60 Border Scouts, under Captain Bracy Ramsbotham, DSO, did a good piece of work. They had gone out to get sheep, and, hearing of the enemy, they succeeded in ambushing a party of 80 Boers under Conroy. The enemy fled, almost after the first volley, being completely surprised. They left 15 dead and 8 severely wounded.

The Scouts by this time not having drawn any pay for many months, and with the authorities stating that it was impossible to get money safely through, Major Birkbeck decided to take matters into his own hands and make his own money. A block stamp was cut out of wood to represent a jackal, as that animal's skin was worn on the men's hats. Underneath was written, "Issued by Paymaster Border Scouts, pay to Bearer"; then signature, John Birkbeck, Major, OCBS.

The notes were “printed” in the following denominations: 2 Shillings, 10 Shillings, 2 Pounds and 5 Pounds. All were made on unbleached calico or khaki cloth material however I have personally seen a 2 Shillings made on red material which I am told is probably unique and the only one known to have survived. The red material cloth was used for the notes that were used to pay higher ranking members of the Scouts. In the end, as the tale goes, even tablecloths were cut up and used to make these unbelievable pieces. The vast majority of these notes were redeemed and then destroyed at various banks throughout the country some as far afield as Natal.

Only a handful of these notes have come up for sale over the years suggesting that a very limited number were “printed” and an even lower number having survived in the years succeeding the Second Boer War.

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