A man and his manual

Scouting: Robert Baden-Powell is the caricature imperialist, whose thoughts and words today defy parody, as indeed does his …

Scouting: Robert Baden-Powell is the caricature imperialist, whose thoughts and words today defy parody, as indeed does his brother's name - Baden Baden-Powell. Yet he was - and remains - one of the most influential guides to the education of young people in the 20th century, writes Kevin Myers

His scout movement foreshadowed the ecological movement by 80 years, and his regard for the environment, and his desire that city-boys come to know and love it, was extraordinarily far-sighted, sensitive and wise.

Baden-Powell was nonetheless a criminal, a crude and cruel racist whose defence of the besieged British garrison of Mafeking during the Boer War nowadays defies belief. Faced with food shortages, he simply chose to deprive most Africans in the town of any food whatever, even their own, which he had earlier forcibly requisitioned. A few vital African labourers were allowed to buy rations. Others were reduced to scavenging dog corpses in rubbish heaps.

He ordered one group of 33 Africans out on a cattle-drive of Boer herds, or otherwise be flogged. The Boers captured and murdered all but one of the poor devils. Unperturbed, Baden-Powell then evicted several hundred African women from the town. Many were murdered by the Boers, and the few pitiful survivors were stripped naked, flogged, and sent back - yet their shameful fate troubled him not the least.


The war over, B-P returned to Britain a hero, and added to his laurels with his extraordinary book, Scouting for Boys. It caused an instant sensation. Like the man, it was very much of its time. Firstly - and this is hard to grasp - Scouting for Boys was deemed socially revolutionary. Far from being what it seems now - repressive, prudish and sometimes mad - it was regarded as being courageous, frank and progressive towards existing sexual taboos. Not coincidentally, Mary Wood-Allen's book, What A Young Girl Should Know, appeared at the very same time in the US. W-A and B-P shared a pathological sexual phobia, as - we may gather - did society generally at this time.

"Self-abuse", warned Wood-Allen, would make a girl "conspicuously peevish, irritable, morose, indolent and disobedient". Soon, "guilty" girls would be eating clay, salt and, worst of all, spicy foods. In Scouting for Boys, the process was reversed - it was the diet which was at fault. Baden-Powell warned that for teenage males, spicy foods - alongside constipation and too many blankets - would actually lead to the same "vice". The result? "Weakness of the heart and the head, and if persisted in, idiocy and lunacy."

There were other, equally abiding preoccupations of Baden-Powell's, the most outspoken of course being his imperialism. For him, the boy-scout movement was an unarmed paramilitary expression of the empire. As Elleke Boehmer points out in her splendid introduction, the astonishing racism of the very first edition had to be toned down in later editions, which sold throughout the world; for Baden-Powell's kind, scouting - a combination of tribal pride with a return to nature - was an international movement just waiting to happen.

Much of what he wrote is today risible, as will be much of what we write today in 2104. However, Baden-Powell's Scouting for Boys is one of the seminal (so to speak) works of the 20th century. And it's no coincidence that the first generation of boy scouts, of many countries, went on to become the first generation to fall in a world war. For across the globe, each culture instantly nationalised and rebranded the boy-scout movement.

Here in Ireland there were, almost from the outset, multiple scouting divisions, along Catholic, Protestant, unionist and republican lines. (For the 1916 Rising, the Irish Citizens' Army's leaders solemnly bought their uniforms from the scout-shop in Arnotts). Even today, Na Fianna remains a deviant, semi-fascist scouting auxiliary of the IRA, whose grandsire was the racist, imperialist Robert Baden-Powell. Ah yes. They have so much in common.

However, after the Great War, most local jingoistic forms of scouting gave way to a conscious brotherhood, and in the 1930s, the first great celebrations of multi-racial harmony were expressed in scout jamborees. Moreover, it says something about serious nature of the scouting movement that 78 per cent of FBI agents, 26 of the first 29 US astronauts, and 72 per cent of all Rhodes scholars were once boy scouts.

So, it is easy to jeer at scouting, but I confess, I was a scout too. As a young teenager, with another scout or two, I would go on regular 20 or 30 mile hikes with rucksack and compass, trekking (a Boer word Baden-Powell introduced to English) to map reference-points, making camp in unprepared fields, cooking over open fires, and, often enough, awaking, bitterly cold and soaking-wet, in puddles of freezing water. These were often dire, at times challenging, but ultimately deeply rewarding and permanently enriching experiences, which few of today's McMicrosoft generation of teenagers can ever possibly know.

Kevin Myers is an Irish Times columnist