B-P on patrol in the Matopo Hills. Matabele War, 1896

Chapter VI: Matabeleland.

After the Ashanti show I was quartered with my Squadron of the 13th Hussars at Belfast. One day I received a telegram from General Sir Frederick Carrington to the effect that he was ordered on service to South Africa and was starting in three days time; if I could join him he would take me as his Chief Staff Officer. This was the 29th April and he was sailing on the 2nd May.

I left at once and while on the journey I sent a telegram to my Colonel at Regimental Headquarters at Dundalk, saying that I was off to South Africa and asking his leave not quite the orthodox procedure but excusable—at least I thought so—under the circumstances. The Colonel did not recall me so I went; and I have owed a debt of gratitude to that Colonel ever since, for without knowing it I went then for the best adventure of my life.

Cecil Rhodes chatting with General
Sir Frederick Carrington
Sketched from life by Robert Baden-Powell.

The reason for the sudden call for General Carrington was that the Matabele tribe in South Africa had broken out, and its warriors were murdering the white settlers there. The Matabele were originally Zulus who under the leadership of ‘Msilikatsi, son of Matshobane, had been sent on a raiding expedition by the Zulu King, Tshaka in 1847.

Their attack having failed they were expected to return according to custom, and to be disarmed and then to have their necks broken by the women of the tribe. On this occasion they did not see it in the same light, and elected not to return home but to go off, on their own, with unbroken necks, to the northward, until they could discover a suitable country to settle in.

This they eventually found in what is now known as Southern Rhodesia, where, having wiped out the unwarlike Makalaka inhabitants, and having bagged their women and cattle, they settled down at Gubulawayo and formed a new tribe.

This was in 1850.

‘Msilikatsi, fine old warrior, died in 1868 and was succeeded by Lobengula. In 1888 Rhodes secured an agreement from Lobengula to take over and colonise Mashonaland, the territory lying to the east of Matabeleland. This, in 1890, he placed under the governorship of his friend, Dr. Jameson. But the Matabele could not get over the habit of raiding their neighbours and continued to make incursions over the border and finally took to fighting and killing the Mashonaland Police.

Matabele Warrior
Sketched by Robert Baden-Powell

Eventually, in 1893. Dr. Jameson organised a counter-offensive with the white pioneer settlers in Mashonaland, and after some sharp fights with the Matabele he captured Lobengula’s head kraal at Bulawayo and Lobengula fled northward along the Shangani River till he got in touch with a fresh part of his army, under M’jaan and Gamba, which had been away raiding and was not back in time to take part in repelling the British.

Major Wilson, with an advance party of thirty-four mounted men from Major Forbes’ column, had pursued Lobengula with a view to capturing him, but by bad luck only overtook him just as he reached this fresh army of warriors. By a further mischance the river which they had just crossed rose in flood behind them and cut them off from their supporting column.

Thus, surrounded by a horde of unbeaten warriors, though they fought it out gallantly to the very last, every of the patrol met death. The story of their last stand has become an epic in the history of the country and their bones are laid near those of Rhodes himself at " The World’s View " in the Matopos.

Nityana, the Chief who led the last attack against them, thus described Wilson’s end:

"The Induna was bewitched. We shot him with six rides and he still fought. A wounded man passed a new gun up to him all the time. But we killed him at last and the wounded men who could not fight just put their hands over their eyes while we ran assegais into them. Ah I they do not die like the Mashonas. They never cry or groan. They are Men."

This was in 1893, and Lobengula died two months later, a fugitive in the bush.


We now come to 1896, when the Matabele had settled down and had been hoping that the British invasion of the country was merely a temporary raid, such as they were in the habit of dealing themselves.

Finding that the British intended remaining there they turned in their dilemma to the " ‘Mlimo "—their god— whom for generations past they had been wont to consult for advice on national emergencies.

This oracle gave out his instructions in a certain cave in the Matopos, and also in two or three other places in Mashonaland.

On this occasion his advice was that the Matabele warriors should make their way to Bulawayo on a certain night and massacre the white people in the place, and after that should go out and kill the individual white settlers on their farms.

This plan miscarried owing to the impatience of the warriors when making their way to the rendezvous, as they could not resist the temptation of killing some of the farmers as they passed near their homesteads. Several of these men, however, managed to escape and to get away in to Bulawayo and to give warning of the impending attack. Among those who escaped was Selous, the celebrated big game hunter, who had a farm some thirty miles out of Bulawayo.

The townspeople in Bulawayo formed a strong defensive laager in the Market Square, into which they all congregated for safety against attack. The Matabele coming to the town in the night found it all dark and unnaturally quiet and suspected that this must mean some sort of trap.

Therefore they did not venture to enter the place but contented themselves with destroying outlying farms and murdering any stray white people they could come across.

Meantime the settlers organised themselves into fighting units mounted and dismounted, and carried out bold attacks on the enemy when and where they found it possible.

Relief forces were meantime raised amongst the residents in Salisbury in Mashonaland and by Colonel Plumer in Cape Colony, and it was to take command of these forces and of the general situation that General Carrington was now summoned.

The nearest railway station to Bulawayo was at Mafeking —587 miles away- and the road thither was a heavy sand track, waterless for the greater part of the distance. Ox wagons were the only means for transporting heavy goods and at their usual pace of two miles an hour it was naturally a long job to get supplies of food and ammunition, equipment and hospital stores, up to the front.

As if this were not sufficient handicap rinderpest now broke out and swept the country so that whole teams of oxen died in their tracks and hundreds of wagons were left stranded along the road.

Coach in Rhodesia
Sketch by B-P

From Mafeking the General, with his Staff (consisting of Colonel Vyvyan, as Assistant Adjutant-General, and Captain Ferguson as A.D.C., Colonel Bridge as Quarter-Master-General and myself as Chief Staff Officer), proceeded by coach, a regular old " deadwood " affair, with eight mules, on our long trek.

It took us ten days AND NIGHTS to get there, the most unrestful journey I have ever endured. We picked up fresh mules at the mail stations every fifteen miles or so. The marvel was that, though in the enemy’s country, the Matabele never interfered with the traffic on this roadway.

The reason which they afterwards gave for this was that they supposed that if they left open a way of retreat the people of Bulawayo would be glad to avail themselves of it and escape out of the country.

It was not in their programme that we should use it the other way on.

Immediately on arrival at Bulawayo we fixed up our office and started to organise.

There were a few fights about the district and the Matabele eventually retired to their great stronghold in the Matopo Hills. 

These hills consisted of a tract of country, broken up into piles of granite boulders, mounting in many places to eight or nine hundred feet in height, full of caves and deep ravines half hidden in vegetation of cactus, mahobahoba, and baobob trees.

The district extended for some fifty miles in length and twenty in depth and was the most damnable country that could be imagined for fighting over.

Here the enemy hid their cattle and women and took up strong positions for defence, not in one but in half a dozen different places. Though we had many friendly natives and plenty of white volunteers to act as Scouts we found the information which they brought back so lacking in military details as to be of little use for working out tactical plans, and in the end the General sent me to reconnoitre the positions, handing over my dunes in the office to my far abler assistant, Captain now Sir Courteney—Vyvyan.

These reconnaissances became the joyous adventure of my life even if they were a bit arduous.

In this work I was on several occasions associated with Major Fred Burnham the American Scout, whose adventures are fully described in his book Scouting in Two Continents.

The Matopo Hills were some thirty-Eve miles away from Bulawayo.

My usual method of procedure, after one or two essays, was to ride off with one assistant so as to get half-way there in daylight. The remainder of our journey had to be done ~ the dark in order to escape observation, our plan being to get into a position before dawn where we could watch unseen the doings and gather if possible the position and strength of the enemy.

A typical stronghold.
Sketch by Baden-Powell

This was best shown by the fires that he lit up in the early morning for cooking purposes.

The result was that we were able to locate the different positions held by the enemy and to attack them in detail.

These attacks required unorthodox methods owing to the very unusual terrain over which we had to work. The heights which formed the strongholds were mainly composed of gigantic boulders piled one upon another within which were natural caves and tunnels, and in some of them springs of water.

Thus the enemy were mainly out of sight and secure from shell fire with bolt holes in various directions.

Our colored contingent of Cape Boys were particularly apt at the kind of fighting required for clearing those caves. Under command of Major Robertson, a former Highlander, they would gallantly crawl in where even angels would fear to tread, and would get to work with the bayonet as their favourite weapon.

This Corps, by the way, was nicknamed " The Forlorn Hope " because, though they had rifles and bayonets, we had not sufficient equipment to supply them with belts and scabbards, consequently they always moved with fixed bayonets and thus looked particularly businesslike.

And so with some rough fighting we gradually overcame the resistance in the Matopos.


Eventually I was put in command of a flying column to dear the country of scattered bands of Matabele.

One job for my column was to capture if possible one of the two " ‘Mlimos " who were urging the people to go on fighting against us. Major Watts had succeeded in getting one of these, Makoni, and the man was tried and executed. Major Burnham had shot another.

About the same time my column came across the third, named Uwini, who, with about a thousand men, was holding a number of strong kopjes. These we proposed to attack severally, and in taking the first one we lost four men, but after an exciting scrap, in dark tunnels underground, our men captured the Chief himself, wounded but defiant.

There were various crimes against him including the murder of at least two white men. We tried him by courtmartial and he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

A few days later the surprising order came from the Governor of South Africa indicating that I should be tried by court-marital as being responsible for the execution of Uwini, since I had signed his death warrant, and directing that I should be placed under arrest.

Sir Frederick Carrington telegraphed to the Governor in reply requesting that " Colonel Baden-Powell should be spared the indignity of arrest as an officer who had done so much excellent service," but that a Court of Enquiry should be held.

This came off in due course at Gwelo. The charge against me was to the effect that, having arrested a malefactor, I should have handed him over to the nearest Police Station to be tried by civil authorities.

In my defence I rather confined myself to the legal point that according to Military Law I had the power to exercise my own judgment if I was over a hundred miles from a superior authority.

I was over a hundred miles from my General and over a thousand miles from the Governor, though had I been only fifty miles away I should have acted in the same way since summary punishment in the presence of his own people had given one the exceptional opportunity of smashing their belief in the ‘Mlimo It also gained their surrender and thereby saved the many lives which would have been lost, both among our own men and amongst the enemy, if we had had to continue our attack on the eight successive kopjes forming their stronghold.

Of course, the Court found me " Not Guilty " and I was released without a stain on my character, as it were.

If the Governor was not pleased with me my General was, and he told me privately that he had recommended me for the C.M.G. But I never got it — except in another form!

Some years later, when I was in Africa again for the Boer War, a man came up to me in Cape Town and asked: "Did you ever get that C.M.G. for the execution of Uwini ? " And when I laughingly told him " No " he drew from his wrist a common iron wire bracelet which he handed to me and said: "Here it is then—the bracelet Uwini had on him when we shot him. I was one of the firing party."

I have quoted the case of Uwini rather fully because it illustrates the fact that there is an itch which sometimes attacks men in authority and incites them to keep pulling at the strings when they have virtually handed over responsibility to the man on the spot for working the show.

One has seen it occasionally with Generals, where it may be a little more excusable, but it is not merely laughable but actually harmful when governors butt in as they did on occasions like those in Zululand. delaying our attack on Dinizulu, wrongfully accusing an officer of killing subjects of a friendly power, and then in Matabeleland ordering arrest of officers and criticising the tactics of the General Officer Commanding.

Even popularity-seeking politicians sometimes feel the itch and are allowed to have effective say in such cases as that of Colonel Dyer in India and General Gough in France.

It would not matter if there were only a ridiculous side to it, but there is the danger, of course, that the possibility of being hauled over the coals and professionally ruined by some such outside influence, cannot fail to influence a good many officers when dealing with a situation, where they have one eye on the consequences to themselves instead of concentrating whole-heartedly on the right conduct of the matter in hand.

Joseph Chamberlain was a model to others who profess and call themselves statesmen, in that he said to me, when dealing with difficulties in South Africa: " Don’t be afraid to do what you feel is right. We (i.e. Colonial Office) shall back you up."

That is as it should be. When you have selected a ~ for a trust, trust him. If he does not turn out a success don’t make him the scapegoat for what is actually your own error in making a bad selection.

In the end the Matabele gave in, but their surrender has been made by some of Cecil Rhodes’ biographers a rather more dramatic affair than the actual facts of the case warranted.


Just when we had repressed the rebellion in Matabeleland it broke out anew in Mashonaland, putting some twenty thousand more men in the field against us, while the armed white men in that country did not exceed two thousand; but regular troops arrived from Cape Colony, under Colonel Alderson, and before long the whole rising was put down just before the rains came on.

In this little campaign we had lost 187 dead and 188 wounded, while 264 white people had been murdered.

At the conclusion of the campaign the General and I traveled down from Mashonaland to the coast with Cecil Rhodes. An interesting incident occurred when we arrived at Umtali. This town had been built and settled on the understanding that as soon as possible the railway from Beira would be brought to the town, but it had now been discovered that engineering difficulties would prevent the line from coming nearer than eighteen miles.

This naturally upset the inhabitants, and when we arrived there they let Mr. Rhodes know that they proposed to attack him on the subject.

He, however, dealt with the matter in his usual original way. One after another he invited householders into his room, ascertained from each how much he had spent on his property, and handed him a cheque for the amount and sent him off to set himself up in the new township which was planned on a site adjoining the railway.

When he came in to lunch that day Rhodes asked: " Does anybody want to buy a town ? I have just bought this one complete with houses, hotel, church and jail. What offers? "

Lessons from the Varsity of Life, Chapter VI. Matabeleland. Farewell to the 13th Hussars. Fifth Dragoon Guards. Manmastership. Quick Mobilization. Indian Cavalry. The Northwest Frontier.
Lessons from the Varsity of Life is Baden-Powell’s most complete autobiographical account. Here he presents interesting and enjoyable stories of his "two lives" in Soldiering and in Scouting.
Major Frederick Russell Burnham, D.S.O. Military scout. Friend and admirer of Baden-Powell. It was on patrol, scouting in the Matopo Hills, that B-P first met Major Frederick Burnham, an American military scout in the employ of Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company. The meeting made a lasting impression on Burnham. Burnham’s description of their scouting days together is one of the earliest pictures of B-P’s military exploits and his thoughts about the future.
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