Project Canterbury

Memories of Mashonaland

By G. W. H. Knight-Bruce
Sometime Bishop of Mashonaland

London and New York: Edward Arnold, 1895.

Chapter X. The Matabele War.

The Matabele war came as an episode in the life of our mission, and as such only could I say anything about it. Into the rights or the wrongs of the case I cannot enter. It is a very difficult question, and one that must come up constantly in the progress of the white man; but as it has been virtually decided in this case by the responsible powers in England, this is hardly the place to discuss it. I notice, however, that in one book it is said that my "presence as one of the columns forms a very emphatic contradiction ... to the ridiculous allegations that the war was one of conquest, and not of self-protection." My presence formed a contradiction to nothing, and proved nothing, that I am aware of. I am much obliged to the writer for the kind things he says, but this [220/221] does not alter the fact that, had he known more about the case, he could never have made it necessary for me to say that I went as the Bishop of the country in which the war took place, and not as chaplain to any force. Both the combatants, the Matabele and the British South Africa Company's troops, were my people, and the fighting was all in my diocese. Wherever a large mass of Europeans were collected, it was obviously the duty of our church to send a clergyman, more especially as some of the men would probably be killed, and it seems rather to be the duty of the Bishop than of anyone else to go first in such cases; and so, though others would probably have done the work better, I went myself.

This seems to be sufficient answer also to those who take the opposite side to the writer whom I have just quoted, and say that I ought not to have been there at all. Magnis componere parva--no one would argue, I think, that because the first Bishop Selwyn was present at the engagements between the Colonists and the Maoris, he was siding with the one against the other.

Perhaps an extract from a letter written home by me from Fort Charter before the war will [221/222] explain the position as well as would anything else.

'Here there are already more than three hundred men--quite the largest congregation of white people in the diocese. The Administrator has come, and I have decided to remain with the men; but it is a difficult position, as I must entirely dissociate my doing so from agreement with any action that may be taken in one direction or the other. I have explained to the officials that I am not going as chaplain to the force, but as Bishop of the country in which both the contending parties live, and I wish to do all I can for either of them--for the wounded (should there be any) or for peace.'

For some time I did not think there would be a war, but on hearing at Umtali that men were actually massing at Fort Charter, I put some things into my waggon and sent it off, riding to catch it a few days' later, and then riding on to Fort Charter, leaving the waggon behind. Here my black men put up a grass shelter for me, and I had a small patrol tent, so I was quite happy and comfortable for about a fortnight, while everyone was waiting to know what would come next. I find an extract in one of my letters home about my first Sunday [222/223] among the men, which may interest someone

'Last Sunday was a day to repay one for many journeys. There was church-parade in the morning, and a voluntary service in the evening, when every man in camp was said to be either inside or outside the temporary sailcloth we had put up. This was not the case, as one mess were having their dinner, but they say they will change the hour next Sunday. The singing was really grand. I distributed a good many of the copies of the Gospels and Testaments given by the Bible Society; but as I had gone there with three carriers and a pack pony, our arrangements for Sunday were very primitive. Next Sunday we intend to have the service for Holy Communion, church-parade in the morning, evening service, and, as there are a large number of half-castes here, a special service for them in the afternoon.'

When it was finally settled that the force was to march to Matabeleland, I rode back to Umtali to give some last directions about the mission, and then came on. Towards the end of this journey, as my horse could go no farther, I had to walk for two or three days much faster than I liked, and even then reached [223/224] Fort Charter to find the camp deserted; and I had to follow after my waggon, which had gone on in the track of the troops. Thanks to the great kindness of Mr. Maurice Gifford, I caught them without much trouble, not far from Iron Mine Hill. The columns were to march westward on nearly the same track that I took some years before.

Almost my first duty on joining them was to bury Captain Campbell. He had been wounded in a small skirmish among the rocks, and an amputation of his whole leg was necessary. From this he never recovered. An entry in my journal alludes to it:

'The Victoria men had a small engagement yesterday, when about twenty Matabele were killed. This afternoon Captain Campbell died. Humanly speaking, his reckless courage cost him his life, and he rode nearly two miles with his hip-bone badly broken. I was thankful to have got here, and to be with him, though I had no idea the end was so near. About five hundred men attended the funeral; three volleys were fired, and I said a few words. . . . The next night another man died in the Victoria Camp, and we laid him quietly in his grave by lantern-light. After I got past the [224/225] sentries on my way back, even by moonlight it was hard to find anything- among the sleeping masses of humanity and horses.'

On Sunday, October 22, about five days after Captain Campbell died, Edward Burnett, one of the scouts, was killed. There was a curious incident in connection with this. Just before I had joined the columns, as we were walking along the road, we saw vultures settling round some dead body. One of our party at once suggested it might be Edward Burnett, who had ridden on ahead with another man. It was not he; but his time was not very far off, and on this Sunday the scouts came into camp saying he was wounded. I got the bed in my waggon ready for him and waited. Presently he was brought in strapped on to his horse, quite dead, and we buried him by moonlight. I had been talking to him quite a short time before, and I remember saying to him, 'If God wills that we come out of this, what do you intend doing next?' and he told me his plans, into which the idea of his being killed never entered. He was one of the best of the scouts.

It never seemed to me that the danger of the scout's work was sufficiently understood. [225/226] I considered it required more courage than any other department of the expedition; though probably nearly every man would have been quite ready to have acted as scout had he been sent. The wonder was not that any were killed, but that any escaped. To go ahead into an unknown and often broken, roadless bush country, sometimes to sleep out for a night, and then again to find the column coming on in a rather uncertain direction behind, seemed difficult enough; but when the country belonged to the enemy, who knew every gully and rock, and the scouts frequently knew none, the risk of the whole proceeding was greatly increased. When Captain Williams was killed soon afterwards, to judge from the description of the way in which the Matabele came down on the scouting party among the hills, and were able to fire at them at close quarters as they galloped past, the strange thing was that only Captain Williams's horse was hit; and if that had not run away, humanly speaking, even he might have escaped. It always seemed to me a far more dangerous branch of the work than what the rest had to do; but the scouts did not see it in that light.

Then there came the fight at the Shangani [226/227] river on October 24. It has all been described before, but one or two notes from my journal may give the view of a non-combatant:

'October 24.--About four o'clock I was woke by the first shots and shouts, "Here they come." I jumped . . . out of my waggon just as one of the first bullets whistled past. Then I was met by a wounded man, who had been surprised by the Matabele while cattle-guarding with some natives a quarter of a mile from camp. How he got in with the Matabele behind him and the machine-guns in front is a mystery. The friendly Mashona had fought well and retired with him. When the Matabele were first seen, some were only about sixty yards from the waggons, and their fire seemed to come from all directions.

'The doctors throughout were splendid. Happily the moon gave some light, but there was bush within a hundred yards and hills beyond that shadowed the ground. I was getting water and helping the doctors at first, which was much less unpleasant than walking up and down.

'The fighting went on with frequent intermission for about four hours. The casualties of the Matabele it is impossible to guess at; [227/228] they are supposed to carry away their dead and wounded. The loss of Europeans was strangely small, and most of the wounds were comparatively slight. The great loss in killed and wounded was among the Mashona allies.

'Just as the Matabele began to fire from the bush near the east side of the laager, we saw a wounded native trying to reach it; the poor fellow had to sit down every few yards, and at last seemed unable to move. ... As soon as possible I went down to the kraal, where the Matabele had first surprised the Mashona "cattle-guard." Here among the dead I found three wounded women, terribly gashed with assegais, one with a cut through her lungs, and at first I thought she could not be moved. Not far away was one little boy assegaied. The troopers were very good in helping them and getting water for them; indeed, it was one of these men who came for me. We got stretchers for two of the women, and one I carried in with blankets, and three Mashona to help. The doctors were most kind to the natives--men and women--and worked for more than ten hours. One little baby was found, and the Fort Victoria column doctors tell me of a little girl of six with her jaw broken [228/229] in two places by the Matabele, who, however, seems to take things cheerfully.'

When the last of the wounded women were being brought to the waggons I was thinking how they would be carried, when I found the doctors had packed all that there were on to a waggon, and so they were carried to the end. I find in my journal this note:

'I did not see a single wounded native left behind, and I went carefully over the ground near the two laagers after all the waggons had gone on.

'The brutality of the Mashona to their wounded is very great; they would not bring one along with them if they were not made to do it, and when they have to lift them off the waggons they ask, "Why should we carry these things?" One Mashona, wounded, prefers being bumped along on the waggons to being carried, as he is afraid of his friends leaving him behind. Though there are hundreds of refugee Mashona with the camp, the wounded ones would have no food except for the hospital; and one night when they had to be carried from the waggons to their own quarter, which was between the two columns, and it was supposed that the carriers could be [229/230] trusted, the poor things were only carried about a third of the way, and then put down about thirty-five yards from the Nordenfeldt gun, where they would have been in the line of fare if the camp had been attacked. About sunset I found them, and with trouble kept four Mashona carriers going until the wounded were all in a safe place.

'Moving the wounded natives here on and off the waggon twice a day for laagering is very painful, but the troopers are very kind. "Aren't you about tired of your job?" one said to me as I was trying to pack them up on skins and blankets. But they would do anything they were asked, and helped the doctors in every way.'

I find some more notes on wounded natives: 'October 27.--'I am writing with one eye on the sky-line of the rise in front (the Matabele were supposed to be on the other side). An abandoned baby has just been brought in. It is about eight months old, and its mother has been killed; it was then abandoned with a wound in its leg. There is a wounded Mashona woman in camp who has apparently lost her own baby, so she is to take charge of this one.'

[231] On November 1 came the fight at the Imbembezi river. So unexpected was the Matabele attack, that one man of a mounted picket was killed about five hundred yards from the waggons; the other escaped on foot, covered as he ran by the fire of the Gardner gun, and fell exhausted close to me. However, he was none the worse.

The fire of the Matabele seemed to a great extent directed at one spot. Out of a single waggon, I think, three men, Cary, Siebert, and Barnard, were taken during a very short time; the two former died soon afterwards and were buried together.

I have a note about the machine-guns at this battle:

'It was a nasty ten minutes, especially as the Matabele shooting with the rifles was much better than it had been, and they came on with wonderful courage to within eighty yards of the waggons. Then they wavered and went back to the bush, but from that they were not dislodged all day. When I went down to see if there were any wounded, I found none (at this especial place there were only dead); it all made one realize what those terrible machine-guns mean. It must have required [231/232] extraordinary courage to have come up the hill against the fire.'

The bush alluded to was some five hundred yards away, and men with glasses said they could see the whole face of it quivering as the rain of bullets struck it. The power of concentrating the fire from a fixed stand seems as great a factor in the deadliness of the machine-guns as their rapidity of fire. And another point does not seem to have been generally noticed. When the elevation is accurately obtained for a body of men, if they are at all in line, the gun has only to be passed along the whole line. I remember Captain Lendy telling me of one man he found who had evidently been retreating when the line of fire from the Maxim gun crossed his back, and I think he said there were seven bullet - holes from shoulder to shoulder in a row. I noticed, too, that some of the dead seemed to have been hit with two bullets. Again, there is less danger of continually firing high, which seems so common with rifles; and though it is theoretically quite possible to keep a rifle as steady as a machine-gun during action, it is not so in practice. Again, the best shot out of many men can be chosen for working [232/233] the machine-gun, and every shot is fired by this man.

I think the general impression left on one's mind by the actual working of a machine-gun is that if they can only be sufficiently improved, and all drawbacks to them removed, it will be practically impossible for any troops to face them, and it may be a factor in keeping off wars altogether. Without going into the question of how many Matabele were killed in the war, I think that many more might have been killed on both sides if machine-guns had not been used. In the two engagements the impossibility of facing these guns--at least, in the way in which the Matabele did it--was shown, and complete demoralization ensued.

A few days after the fight at the Imbembizi river the columns were close to Buluwayo.

My notes run:

'On November 3 we came to a place about eight miles east of Buluwayo. There we saw it burning, and heard that the king had blown up all his ammunition, had retreated northwards himself, and sent four thousand men against Major Gould Adams. He had left the two white traders in the town under a guard to protect them. This ought to be recognised.

[234] 'November 4.--We reached Buluwayo. The king had burnt his own house, and as much of the town as possible; but he has not touched any white traders' houses, and we believe the mission stations are uninjured. Where he is gone no one knows.

'I went up to the burning town soon after our arrival. It is all very sad. One's pity for the people in trouble almost makes one forget the iniquity that had its origin here, though for the last twenty years there can scarcely have been a place on earth that has seen more murders. Even to the last the tradition has been kept up by a young woman being left hung in one of the huts. I believe she was a royal wife.

'Before leaving, Lobengula seems to have destroyed nearly everything given him by white men. A silver elephant . . . was found in the ashes of his kraal, and the revolver given him by ... he gave to a trader. The Queen's picture had hung in his first room, and he had been especially annoyed when the glass was cracked; but before he left the picture was shattered, and the crown on the top knocked off. ... The king is somewhere in the north, but it appears that scarcely even his own people [234/235] can approach him with any message from the Company's officers. I have offered to go and see him, telling Dr. Jameson that I think he would trust me; and also that he would understand, from my having been with Sir Sydney Shippard, when the first negotiations took place five years ago, that I should only suggest what English responsible authority would countenance. But Dr. Jameson will not agree to my going, thinking that though Lobengula would not hurt me, I should be killed before I got to him. I would do anything possible to see this business at an end, and have told Dr. Jameson so. Just before going from Buluwayo, the king asked where I was; he calls me the "Induna of the Teachers." "Is he with the white fighting men?" They did not think I was; and when they told him I was at Fort Salisbury (as they thought I was), he seems to have said something to the effect that he knew I was not with his enemies. Of course he could not understand my position of neutrality, but this is one reason why I wish to go to him.

'To-day I buried a man who had been shot in the last fight, and a quarter of an hour later his bed was occupied again by a man wounded through the accidental bursting of a rocket. [235/236] Near him lies the doctor's assistant, wounded by one of his own bottles; it was hit by a bullet, and a piece driven right into him. There are only sixteen Europeans actually in hospital to-day; others are "day-patients," and there are about twenty injured natives.

'The hospital alluded to is one of the traders' houses, which had been left standing by Lobengula.

'Brutal though Lobengula has been in his treatment of his own people, and of the Mashona, his treatment of white men and of white men's property has been most honourable. A trader tells me that he distinctly owes his life to Lobengula, and it shows his extraordinary control over his own people that . . . he was able to keep every trader's house and every missionary's house untouched. He said that he had given his word, and an old saying of theirs is that "a hedge is built round the word of a chief."'

'November 9.--I am trying to send word to Lobengula that I am here, and ready to go and see him, but the difficulty is to find a messenger.'

'Sunday, November 12.--We had full church parade in the morning, and I preached to the [236/237] men on the extraordinary mercies that had been given them. Their health and freedom from accidents and escapes have been most extraordinary. . . . There are very many high-minded men in the columns who are very fair to the Matabele, and would gladly see peace, and on very just terms. Immediately after the parade about eighteen of us met together in a room for Holy Communion. I think it was one of the most beautiful services I have ever known--the perfect peace after the life of fighting and noise, and dust and heat; the looking back into the plunge into the unknown, that had been made by the men; the strange end to the long series of unexpected acts that only culminated here--all affected us very strongly. I have never seen a more utterly-reverential body of men gathered before their God.'

In the evening again we had a large service in the open air. I had brought some hymn-books with me, and the first Sunday in Buluwayo was as happy as a Sunday under such circumstances could be. Happily I had brought, too, New Testaments given by the British and Foreign Bible Society, and some of these I gave for the use of the hospital. As the only [238/239] books were either brought by the men among their scanty supply of clothing, or had belonged to the traders, these Testaments were most useful, and some time afterwards one of the troopers, who had stayed at Buluwayo after I left, said to me: 'The books you left for the hospital were well used.' So someone profited by them.

There was one 'mess' among the men of which I saw a great deal. They were always ready to help in any good object. As far as I remember they were the most prominent in the very small services that we held on Sunday during the march. They were almost the last men that I saw before I left Buluwayo, when I took them some little addition to their rather scanty 'table.' They were all public schoolmen, and they were all, except Mr. Ralph Batley and Mr. Gisborne, killed at the Shangani River. Their names were Watson, Money, Brown, Kinloch, Vogel. When I last visited them round their camp-fires I little thought that five out of the seven were so soon to leave us. But there were so many men that one would wish to see again that it seems almost invidious to mention any names at all. I am not in any way speaking of the rights [238/239] or wrongs of the beginning of the war, and it may be no business of mine to allude to the subject at all, but I believe that an expedition carried out with greater determination and skill could hardly be imagined. But then there was so unusual a collection of men with which to carry it out. I know that there was a rough element, but most of those in command were in every sense picked men. I suppose it would be difficult to suggest an improvement, as a means to gain an end, on any work undertaken by Dr. Jameson. His skill as a doctor was no greater than his skill as an organizer, and we in Africa could not say more.

And then the system of getting 'seconded' officers from English regiments to take posts of command seems eminently successful. They had the energy that made them leave England for rougher work, and they usually had a good deal besides. There is a particularly happy side of soldiers' life to be seen among the seconded officers in Africa. I do not suppose they are a higher class of soldier than those in any other country under English control, but in Africa their influence for good is a very important factor in the country. Sir Frederick Carrington, Major Gould Adams, Major Forbes, [239/240] are names that occur to me as I write. Then there were the retired officers, as Sir John Willoughby and Captain Owen Williams, who did a great deal to keep everything on a high level.

Captain Lendy's name again can never be forgotten among English soldiers in Mashonaland, and it brings to my memory the discussion that rose about his action towards the natives before the Matabele war. The question seemed so simple a one. He was serving under a company. Did he disobey them in doing what he did do? If so, I presume it was their business to deal with the case. If he did not disobey them, but carried out their orders, it is hard to see how he was to blame. If he ever were told to carry out an order that entailed his doing what he did do, he had no alternative between doing what he was told to do, or refusing to do it, or giving up his appointment. Whichever was done, whether it was right or wrong, it can hardly be said that Captain Lendy was responsible. He was such a magnificent specimen of a man that now he is gone I feel that those who valued him should do their share in removing any possible imputation on him.

[241] Having other work to do in Mashonaland, I left Matabeleland soon after the occupation of Buluwayo, and rode down with Mr. Gerald Paget and two despatch riders, Dr. Jameson very kindly lending me a horse. It took rather over four days to ride the two hundred miles from Buluwayo to Macloutsie. I was able to hold a service on the road at Tati, and from there Mr. Gerald Paget and one despatch rider branched off for Palapye. The first part of the journey was tiring and unpleasant. We had to ride all through the night to get as far out of the Matabele country as possible before it was light; and twice during the next day, when we off-saddled, we were disturbed by seeing natives. I remember when first we tried to stop for any time a conversation, something like this, going on:

1st Speaker: 'This is the way the Prince Imperial was killed.'

2nd Speaker: 'Yes.'

1st Speaker: 'In this country.'

2nd Speaker: 'Yes; and by these people.'

1st Speaker: 'Yes.'

2nd Speaker: 'Hadn't we better saddle up?'

1st Speaker: 'Yes.'

And so we came to Macloutsie, where [241/242] everyone was packed into the fort, having heard that the Matabele were coming on. I knew that this was practically impossible, as we should have seen or heard of their 'impis' on the road had they been near. However, we all slept in the fort, and the Macloutsie officers, as always, were kindness itself. The ride had been tiring, but I had come back into comparative civilization, and it was a great rest to have the next three or four hundred miles in a post-coach before riding across to Umtali and getting back to my work again.


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