Eileen K. Wade, The Piper of Pax:
The Life Story of Sir Robert Baden-Powell
, 1924


"Go where his pickets hide
Unmask the shapes they take."
R. Kipling.

Special service again—troubles in Matabeleland—Sir Frederic Carrington arrives—scouting in the Matoppos—the Wolf that never sleeps—the case of Uwini—home with Rhodes.

AFTER a few weeks with the 13th in Ireland, B.P. received the following letter:

WAR OFFICE, 28th April, 1896


Passage to Cape Town having been provided for you in s.s. Tantalon Castle I am directed to request that you will proceed to Southampton and embark in the above vessel on the 2nd May by 12.30 p.m., reporting yourself before embarking to the military staff officer superintending the embarcation.

You must not ship more than 55 cubic feet.

I am further to request that you will acknowledge the receipt of this letter by first post and inform me of any change in your address up to the date of embarcation.

You will be in command of the troops on board. I have the honour to be, etc.


And, as B.P. remarks in his book on the Matabele Campaign, "What better invitation can one want? I accepted it with the greatest pleasure."

The Matabele were Zulus under Umzilikatzi who had settled in Matabeleland (now a part of Rhodesia) early in the nineteenth century, after being driven out of Zululand by their own King. They found Matabeleland a country just suited to them and settled there, systematically raiding the surrounding countries for such cattle and corn as they periodically required. In 1890 a body of white pioneers came into Mashonaland, under Mr. Rhodes, took possession there and established their capital at Salisbury. The Matabele King rose to protest, and his consent to the occupation of the white people had to be bought with ammunition and rifles (which came in very useful in their rebellion).

When the Matabele tried to resume their old game of raiding Mashonaland they found police established to drive them out, and Rhodes formed an expedition against them, advanced into Matabeleland, seized Buluwayo and drove out the King who died in exile. Such Matabele as were at home at the time were conquered; but unfortunately the greater part of them were away raiding in another part of the country, and when they returned they were astonished to find their country in the hand of white people and their King dead.

Their astonishment turned to disgust when they found that the white invaders meant to remain in the country, and in 1895 they felt that the time had come to turn them out.

Everything was going badly for the Matabele at that time. First came a drought to destroy the crops; then a swarm of locusts of a kind they had never before seen; and last, but not least, came rinderpest to kill all their cattle. All these misfortunes were, of course, attributed to the coming of the white man, and when an opportunity occurred to raise a rebellion and get rid of him the Matabele were quick to seize it.

Through the priests of their god "Mlimo" the leaders of the rebellion issued orders to the people that on a certain night—at new moon—all the men were to arm themselves, and the regiments to assemble in the neighbourhood of Buluwayo, go into the town and kill every white person they could find. When the work of slaughter was complete they were then to attack the outlying farms and townships and destroy them.

All might have gone well with these pleasing plans but for one thing. In their keenness to get the white people cleared out, some of the warriors attacked the farms and homesteads on their way to Buluwayo instead of waiting till their return. Although they succeeded in murdering a good many of the inhabitants, some managed to get away, and among them was Mr. Selous, the famous naturalist and big game hunter, who, with his wife, rode into Buluwayo and gave warning to the inhabitants. These, to the number of about 1000, immediately " went into laager "; in other words, they fortified their market hall and formed a rampart round it of a double line of bullock waggons, stocked the place with food and ammunition and organised a defence force among the able-bodied men of the town.

Two nights later the Matabele arrived, to find the place in darkness and all the houses shut up. They suspected that a trap had been laid for them, so instead of attacking they retired outside the town and camped around it on three sides to the number of about 10,000, leaving one side open for the whites to clear out by—once for all—if they wished to escape with their lives.

Meantime the news of the murdered farmers had got abroad, and on all sides other townships went into laager, while relief forces marched up to Matabeleland. From Salisbury came a relief column to Buluwayo; and Colonel Plumer (now Field-Marshal Lord Plumer), who was at the Cape with the York and Lancaster Regiment, raised a corps of mounted rifles and moved north by way of Mafeking. At the same time Colonel Robertson had organised a corps of "Cape Boys"—natives of Cape Colony.

While these reinforcements were coming up—and it was about two months before they could reach Buluwayo—the inhabitants of the town had meantime organised a field force and were doing their best to beat the enemy off, but with only partial success, owing to the difficulties of the situation. Captain McFarlane, formerly of the 9th Lancers, dealt one heavy blow which shifted the enemy back a few miles from the town.

About this time Sir Frederick Carrington was sent for to take command of the troops on the spot, and with him, as Chief Staff Officer, went Baden-Powell.

His first letter home from Buluwayo is dated June 6th, 1896:

"I am getting on splendidly here. Grand climate, most interesting time. I am Chief Staff Officer to Sir F. Carrington and am overcrowded with work, all office work at present, alas. I have all the business of sending off columns to reconnoitre instead of being sent off with them Such is the penalty of my rank. However, I hope the General will himself take the field very shortly and that we shall have at least one good fight."

That B.P. did not have to wait long for the fulfilment of his desire for a scrap will be seen by his next letter:

June 7th.—" I broke my last letter off suddenly because a report just then came in of enemy being near by. Well of course I got sneaking about to look at him. I was fiddling around all that night more or less, and by daylight was away out in the camp of an outlying column. This lot I got under weigh and sent a message in to Buluwayo for all the available troops there to come out and join me —and they came—and we had a grand little fight. 1500 enemy took up a strongish position in thorny bush but I went at them with the mounted troops, 200, and instead of stopping to fire when they fired we charged straight into them. It was splendid—they bolted and we followed up for three miles fighting all the time.

"These Colonials are grand at it, enjoying it all like a lot of boys playing polo."

"We afterwards found out," wrote Baden-Powell in a later account of this fight, " that this impi or regiment was formed of detachments representing all the other impis of the rebels. They had been told by the Mlimo (their god) that the white people in Buluwayo were nearly dead of rinderpest and that they were to come and sit on this rise outside Buluwayo and lure the survivors out to them, and that, as soon as the whites attempted to cross the stream, the Mlimo would cause the stream to open and swallow them up. The impi was then to take possession of the town and to keep it in good order for Lobengula (their late King) who was about to come to life again. This yarn was most thoroughly believed by the rebels, and when the stream failed to swallow us up they became quite dazed with astonishment. But that was the sort of belief in which they fought on all occasions. They were fanatics, they believed everything Mlimo told them and this really accounted for much of their courage. On various occasions they attacked us with the greatest bravery in spite of the Maxims and other fire we brought to bear on them; often they attacked right up to the muzzles of the guns, simply because their old Mlimo had told them that our bullets would turn into drops of water on striking them."

This will show you the sort of people with whom the British army had to contend.

"Our horses are getting fearfully done up from want of food," he wrote. " However, an installment of forage arrived to-day, and we hope that more things will begin to come up now. You see we are 600 miles from the Railway. Rinderpest has killed all the oxen which used to pull the waggons and they are trying to put donkeys to the work; we passed 900 waggons deserted on the road on our way up here; consequently prices are rather high—pint of champagne £1 10. Eggs 37/6 per dozen; messing per month £20 for three very bad meals a day without wine or extras."

The difficulties in regard to food supplies for the troops were very great, owing to the difficulties of transport; and the dual task of getting supplies in and getting the enemy out was a fairly strenuous one.

The long office hours were rather tedious to B.P., who was longing for something more active; but it was, after all, in Matabeleland that he found his first great opportunity of putting into practice his knowledge of Scouting. And very valuable this knowledge proved to the conduct of the campaign.

"Lots of work, chiefly in the office," he wrote, "but I have had a few outings and have just returned from a three days’ reconnaissance which I have most thoroughly enjoyed. I went with one companion, the very celebrated American Scout, Burnham. We went and reconnoitred the enemy’s main position in the Matoppo Hills—where we shall have to attack them when we get our forces together. At present we have them divided in four columns moving through the country driving off the various regiments of enemy that have been trying to get together: but they are fearfully handicapped, having no food for the animals and very little for the men, rinderpest having killed off all the oxen which served to bring up all supplies for this country and eventually became beef. The country is covered with their carcasses, and the air is—ugh!

"Eggs are 40/- a dozen, beer 2/- a glass, no milk, even tinned, jam 3/-. We live on bread, jam and coffee chiefly. We have got a nice little house for the General and Staff— under the curious system they have here of commandeering. The Government can seize on anything they like, horse, saddle, cart, house, belonging to anybody, use it and pay him a fair price for it. This house looked as if it would suit us and was accordingly commandeered, the owner having two rooms left for himself.

"It is a grand climate here, neither too hot nor too cold, always fine and such starlight nights! Lots of excitement, enemy near us and seen or fought every day."

"I wish we were more out campaigning," he wrote on 2nd July, " but as we have to pull the strings in so many directions (this command stretches over 670 miles in a straight line) we have to sit here at the head of the telegraph line. Fortunately the enemy are not far off even here, and I can ride out any night and have a look at them."

Many of the fugitives from the impis broken up by the British forces in the north made their way down to the Matoppo Hills, about twenty-five miles south of Buluwayo, and it became Baden-Powell’s duty to go down and reconnoitre these mountains. This had to be done by night, and it took him about a month of night Scouting to find out where the enemy were posted. The Matoppo Hills were a very broken bit of country; mountains about 800 feet high, consisting of piled-up masses of rock and great big boulders, some of them smooth and dome-shaped, as large as a house, others blocks. These hills were honeycombed with caves and overgrown with bush, and among them the enemy had taken up their position.

On the 26th July. B.P. wrote from the Matoppo Hills:

"To-day I’ve been out II hours on a patrol into the enemy’s stronghold. It is not the distance that tires one but the constant tension of being on the alert. It is grand fun, very exciting, and so far I have been most lucky and successful. But it is an awful country to fight in and we have not one quarter enough men—-but if we had more we could not feed them. I am most thoroughly enjoying myself now that we are in camp and out of the office life of Buluwayo. We have no tents, simply sleep in the open with glorious log fires at our feet, and saddle at our heads to keep off the draught. Of course we never undress (except occasionally to wash) and we turn out every morning before daylight ready for an attack.

"Our kits would amuse and astonish you. We are very much like Buffalo Bill’s cowboys, no uniform. Even I who ought to show a better example go about in a most ragamuffin but very comfortable kind of dress."

"On his night Scouting expeditions B.P. usually went alone, accompanied only by one reliable native to hold his horse and keep a look out. He has himself written fully in the Scout and elsewhere of his many adventures and narrow shaves, and of the value of Scouting—that is to say, of observation, deduction, keen eyesight, sense of smell and the Sherlock Holmes methods of putting two and two together.

"The Matabele got to know him only too well and named him "Impeesa"—meaning "The Wolf that never sleeps."

Now also his knowledge and practice of the art of skirt-dancing came in most usefully, for without it, he says, he would have been unable to dodge his pursuers successfully and would have certainly been taken prisoner and tortured to death.

Just as the reconnoitring of the Matoppos was completed and attacks were being prepared, news came that the rebellion had spread into Mashonaland, that Mashonas were busy murdering farmers and that the towns were hastily going into laager. This was due to a party of Matabele who, after being defeated in a fight, had made their way into Mashonaland and proclaimed the "news" that all white men had been destroyed, that no Matabele had been killed since the god Mlimo had turned all hostile bullets into water. They therefore advised the Mashonas to rise also in rebellion and to drive the white men out of the country into the sea.

This outbreak of the Mashonas put another 20,000 men into the field against the white forces, whose total number in Mashonaland was under 2,000.

Sir Frederick Carrington therefore called for Imperial troops from the Cape, and columns were immediately sent up under Colonel Alderson, Captain Ridley and Colonel Paget respectively.

Meantime attacks against the enemy in the Matoppos were proceeding, and after about three weeks’ fighting, with losses on both sides, the Matabele came out of their hiding-places and surrendered. There still remained forces of the enemy in the north-east and east parts of Matabeleland, and the Imperial troops, having arrived on the scene, were sent up to clear these districts. B.P. was put in charge of the column of Mounted Infantry and Engineers brought up by Captain Ridley, strengthened by Colonials, Boers and Cape Boys—a very mixed lot, but they pulled wonderfully well together.

B.P.’s next adventure was of a somewhat trying nature, as it involved condemning a man to death. He was with his new column, and this is his own account of how it happened:

"The first place we came to was Uwini’s stronghold, about IOO miles from Buluwayo. Two impis were immediately to the north of us and another one between us and Buluwayo, so that we were practically working on our own resources. Uwini’s stronghold consisted of eight koppies (a koppie being a small mountain of boulders and caves). The column took one of these koppies but had lost one man killed and four wounded in doing so, and they captured one man, and this was the Chief Uwini. Two of our men had very pluckily hunted him about in his own caves—it was like crawling about in a drain—they kept shooting at him and he at them in the dark, until at last he was wounded and captured. Uwini was one of the chief leaders of the rebellion and was supposed by his people to be one of the Chiefs appointed by the Mlimo and therefore immortal. When we got him out I asked him to order his people to surrender, but he declined. He said that he had ordered them to kill every white man and to hold out in their strongholds, and he was not going to go back on his order. He was a plucky old fellow, but we had no option. He was tried by Court Martial, proved to have taken a hand in murdering white people, and was shot in front of the stronghold where all his people could see it. The following day we had a thousand of them in camp: they all gave in. Had we not done this we should probably have lost a number of men, in addition to killing a large number of rebels; but the shooting of this one man had the same effect, and we were able at once to move on from this spot to tackle the other rebels to the north of us."

For this shooting of Chief Uwini, the High Commissioner ordered the General Officer Commanding the Forces (Sir Frederick Carrington) to place Colonel Baden-Powell under arrest, for trial by court martial. This General Carrington refused to do, but ordered a Court of Enquiry, which assembled on the 30th September, 1896. The Court, having taken all the evidence relative to the case, forwarded their proceedings to Sir Frederick Carrington. This evidence, together with the report of the Native Commissioner concerned, was ample to show that B.P. had been justified in his action.

Sir Frederick Carrington reported as follows:

"I am of opinion that the military exigencies of the circumstances in which Lieut.-Colonel Baden-Powell found himself at the time of Uwini’s capture were such as to call for strong measures, and subsequent events have, to my mind, clearly proved that the prompt punishment at his own stronghold, of Uwini, as a powerful and notorious instigator of crime and rebellion, exercised a very wholesome influence on the surrounding district and undoubtedly expedited its final pacification."

Another expert on South African affairs, General Sir Henry Smyth, wrote privately as follows to B.P.:

"I am real glad that you confirmed the sentence on Uwini, whether you gain or lose by it, because it was your duty so to do."

I have quoted the case of Uwini and its results at some length because it is an example of a man carrying out what he felt to be his duty even when that duty went so far as condemning a fellow-creature to death.

It cannot have been a pleasant task for any man, and it is a responsibility that few of us would like to take.

In writing of the case to his mother, B.P. said:

"Well, on looking back at it I should do exactly the same thing again (though it sounds brutal, doesn’t it?), but it was the means of saving a large number of white lives as well as of black. We must have gone on fighting in those caves for days, killing and losing many men before we could have induced the survivors to give in."

After Uwini had been shot and his people had surrendered, B.P. moved on with his column into the forest and, by dividing the column into three strong parties, hunted the enemy about until they were tired of fighting and came out to surrender. This was not all done in a day, however, and it was done under extreme difficulties, owing to food shortage and, what was worse, water shortage.

I quote here from a despatch from B.P. to Sir Frederick Carrington, dated 16th September:

"Getting on well with our patrol. Food our only difficulty. Shot a koodoo for meat yesterday and expect to live on game next few days. Economising flour and coffee."

The last adventure in which B.P. took part, and the one which practically finished off the Matabele rising, was the capture of Wedza’s stronghold—a large mountain with half a dozen high peaks on it, each of which was fortified and occupied by the enemy. B.P. found himself not strong enough to attack it, and, as he did not like to leave it, played a game of bluff, surrounded it with small posts for two days and a night, kept up a continuous fire from all sides at once and lit up a chain of fires all round it by night so as to give the enemy the impression that he had a big force. This game had the desired effect, and after two days the enemy deserted their stronghold and, after being pursued for sixty miles, Wedza and the other chiefs surrendered themselves. Meantime, Colonel Paget’s column had cleared all the country round Gwelo.

Here is a short extract from a letter written home by B.P. on the subject of his attack on Wedza:

"After dark we lit a regular chain of watch fires all round the stronghold to make the enemy have some idea of the immensity of our numbers. The enemy attacked our fires once or twice. Jackson, the Native Commissioner, had a narrow escape. He came with me when I was riding round the outposts, when some of the enemy lying hid in the rocks by the path gave us a volley at short range. Jackson was grazed on the shoulder, his horse was shot through the head, and my hat was knocked off. We returned the fire and were immediately joined by the 7th Hussars under Prince Alexander of Teck, who quickly cleared the rebels out.

"During the night the rebels escaped out of the stronghold into the mountains, which with our tiny numbers we could not prevent.

"The effect of the engagement was the taking of a stronghold to which Wedza had invited all rebels to come, as it was impregnable. It had in the old days even defied successfully Lobengula. However, it is cleared now, and the rebels round about are beginning to come in to surrender to the Native Commissioner….

"I am as well as possible, though I must say the two days and night work against Wedza sewed me up for a few hours."

On 14th November he wrote:

"At last I have rejoined Sir Frederick after two months’ delightful wanderings on patrol with an independent command of my own. We covered some 700 miles of country and had a round of adventure day by day."

In the meantime the Imperial troops had arrived in Mashonaland with ammunition and food supplies, and had succeeded after some fighting in subduing the rebel chiefs of that country. By November 25th these had all surrendered and the whole rebellion was at an end.

All that remained now to be done was to garrison the country with a newly raised force of armed police, 1200 strong. These were distributed about the country in twenty-seven different forces, placed in the best grain-growing districts, so that they might command the food supplies of the people and administer the country generally.

"I do believe we are on our way home at last," wrote B.P. on 12th December. "We hope to catch the Dunvegan Castle sailing from Cape Town on the 6th January, but we have got to get to Cape Town first, and there are many slips between cups and lips in this country.

"We leave here (Umtali) to-morrow and hope to reach the Beira Railway in three days’ time. Then a day will get us to Beira if they give us a special, which they will, as Rhodes and the Ladies Grey are going too. Then we go in the Pongola, a dirty little coast steamer taking three days to Durban, then on to Port Elizabeth, there take the train to Cape Town, where we may be kept a week talking things over with the High Commissioner."

The voyage to the Cape and home, in company with Cecil Rhodes, are described by B.P. as full of interest, in view of the wonderful receptions which the maker of Rhodesia received wherever he showed himself.

For his good work in the Matabele campaign, Baden-Powell gained a further step in promotion—to Brevet Colonel. In his official despatch, Sir F. Carrington said of him:

"As Chief of the Staff his services were invaluable, and I cannot speak too highly of the assistance he has rendered me. He commanded the advanced force during the whole of its attack on Babyan’s stronghold, 20th July. Performed excellent service in the rescue work of locating the various impis in the Matoppos by day and by night. Commanded successful patrols in clearing the Shangani, Wedzas and Bellingwe Districts. Acted as Staff Officer to Colonel Plumer throughout the operations in the Matoppos."

From: Eileen K. Wade, The Piper of Pax: The Life Story of Sir Robert Baden-Powell, 1924. Chapter X: Old Places with New Faces.

  A group of Matabele Warriors during the Campaign of 1896-1897

  Eileen K. Wade, The Piper of Pax: The Life Story of Sir Robert Baden-Powell, 1924
Foreward and Contents
    Chapter VII. Swaziland, Malta and Home. A shooting trip to Knysna—first encounter with an elephant—a mission to Swaziland—an interview with Oom Paul—life in Malta—adventures in many countries—maneuvers in Ireland.
    Chapter VIII. Ashanti. The Ashanti Expedition—experiences of a native levy—the wages of a king the nigh] march to Bekwai—hoisting the British flag— how to avoid fever—Kantankye receives promotion.
    Chapter IX. Matabeleland. Special service again—troubles in Matabeleland—Sir Frederic Carrington arrives—scouting in the Matoppos—the Wolf that never sleeps—the case of Uwini—home with Rhodes.
    Chapter X. Old Places and New Faces. India revisited—Officer Commanding 5th Dragoon Guards—work and sport in plenty—a shooting trip with Sir Baker Russell—on special service to South Africa—ready for war.
    Chapter XI. The South African War, 1899-1902. The declaration of war—beseiged in Mafeking—seven months beseiged—the story of the stamps—food shortage—arrival of the relief column.
    Chapter XII. The South African Constabulary. The hero of Mafeking—Lord Roberts’ despatch—a new job—the South African Constabulary—home at last—an interview with King Edward—appointed Inspector-General of Cavalry.

  The Baden-Powell Library. A Selection of excerpts from the works of Sir Robert Baden-Powell and works relating to his life and career
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