The small White nation of Rhodesia was founded in 1890 by the Pioneer Column, which
marched across country from South Africa and erected a fort at what later became
the city of Salisbury. By 1893 the new colony, at first called Mashonaland, was elbowing
the territory of the warlike Matabele tribe, an offshoot of the Zulus who used the
same tribal military system of impis or regiments as the Zulus. In October of 1893,
at the beginning of the rainy season, war broke out between the White settlers and
The settlers, commanded by Cecil Rhodes's associate Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, marched
into Matabeleland and quickly burned the Matabele King Lobengula's kraal or village
up on a flat-topped mountain called Thabas Induna. Lobengula himself fled into the
bush with his warriors and the English determined to pursue him. Up until that point
the Whites, who were armed with modern rifles, Maxim machine guns, and a few light
artillery pieces, had easily defeated the blacks who had only spears, but at this
point, for reasons which have never been fully explained, the whole campaign went
to hell in a handbasket.
To begin with, it was the worst time of year for such a campaign in what is known
as the low veld in Rhodesia—tsetse fly country, deadly for horses. The rains had
broken, malaria would soon be rampant and the waterlogged veld would make progress
difficult. In addition, the infernal dissension which is the curse of our race had
manifested itself, and there was quarreling and intrigue and division among the officers
of the Rhodesian forces.
On November 9th, 1893, Jameson decided to send a strong patrol to reconnoiter the
country between Inyati and Shiloh and if possible bring Lobengula back a prisoner.
His call for volunteers met with a good response, and the force of 320 men was composed
of volunteers from the Salisbury and Victoria Columns and 150 men of the Bechuanaland
Border Police and Raaff's Rangers who had reached Bulawayo ahead of the main body
of the Southern Column. With three Maxim guns and two hundred native carriers and
with Major Forbes in command, they rode out of Bulawayo shortly before sunset on
The first two days and nights it rained almost continually and the horses, which
were in poor condition after the main campaign, found the sodden country heavy going.
Forbes made for the London Missionary Society's station at Inyati, which had been
established before the days of Thomas Baines, and found it a sorry sight. Its normal
occupants had abandoned it at the beginning of the invasion and it was now occupied
by a party of Matabele in charge of a large herd of cattle. They fled. The Matabele
had vented their wrath on the missionaries' houses, which had been wrecked in an
orgy of destruction. The veldt was littered with torn books, broken furniture and
ruined personal belongings.
Leaving a force of eighty men to garrison the station, Forbes went on with the remainder.
This part of the country had been heavily populated and in the numerous kraals they
found cattle and grain. The grain was a welcome addition to their meager diet. The
force had left Bulawayo before the arrival of the main Southern Column with its food
supplies, and their rations, small enough when they had started on the pursuit, were
by now almost exhausted. They had kept going with what they could find in Matabele
corn bins, but now this source was almost at an end. When they reached the last of
the kraals and realized that the further they went the shorter they would be of food,
many of the men became discontented. They considered that the pursuit should be postponed
until the food position was corrected and did not see why they should have to endure
hardships that could be avoided.
Major Forbes saw their point of view, but knew that if they gave up the chase now
they would never overtake Lobengula. He paraded his force and ordered the malcontents
to step forward. Most of Raaff's Rangers and the Salisbury Horse did so, but the
Victoria Column stood firm. The detachment of Bechuanaland Border Police, being regular
soldiers, was not consulted. Forbes thereupon sent a messenger to Bulawayo asking
for food and instructions and received a reply from Dr. Jameson that reinforcements
and wagons carrying more ammunition and what food could be spared were being sent
to Shiloh. There Forbes reorganized his force.
The new provisions were sufficient to provide three-quarter rations for three hundred
men for twelve days and to see the disaffected section back to Bulawayo. Forbes composed
his new force of Captain Borrow and twenty-two men of the Salisbury Horse, Major
Wilson and seventy mounted and a hundred dismounted men of the Victoria Column, Captain
Raaff and twenty men of the Rangers and Captain Coventry and seventy-eight men of
the Bechuanaland Border Police.
Soon after leaving Shiloh the scouts found Lobengula's wagon tracks and followed
them for eight miles through thick bush. There were other signs that they were hot
on the trail - camp fires whose ashes were still hot, pots and calabashes hastily
abandoned, the charred remains of two of the king's wagons which had broken down
and been destroyed. It was evident that Lobengula and his warriors were making for
the Shangani River.
The further they went the more difficult conditions became. The Whites were drenched
by storm after storm, and the veldt became so waterlogged that the oxen pulling the
wagons carrying their provisions gave up the struggle and collapsed. Forbes decided
that the wagons were a hindrance. Forming a flying column of a hundred and sixty
men, he sent the rest with the wagons to a place called Umhlangeni to await their
The flying column pushed ahead with greater speed. On the evening of November 30,
Johan Colenbrander, who had been scouting, brought in an induna he had known when
he had lived at the king's kraal. The induna said the Matabele had become dispirited
through defeat, starvation, exposure to the constant rain and the ravages of smallpox
and most of them wanted to surrender. But remnants of three of Lobengula's best regiments,
the Insukameni, the Ihlati and the Siseba, were still loyal to the king and were
covering his retreat.
On December 3 the column reached the bank of the Shangani River. They were very close
on the king's heels now. Across the river they could see a number of natives frantically
driving the last of their cattle in the wake of an impi. They had evidently only
just crossed, for on the column's side was evidence of a Matabele encampment with
the fires still smoldering. But had the king himself crossed the river or had he
gone further along the bank? It was essential to know. Forbes decided to form a laager
on open ground about two hundred yards back from the river while a small patrol went
across the river to reconnoiter the further bank. He selected Major Allan Wilson,
commander of the Victoria Column, to lead a patrol of twelve men.
When Wilson and his men had disappeared into the bush on the other side, Forbes interrogated
a captured native. From him he learnt that Lobengula was ill and that with him were
some three thousand warriors from different regiments who were determined that he
should not be taken prisoner. If reports that the Matabele morale was low were correct,
Forbes planned to make a rush the next day, capture the king and at once turn back
for Bulawayo. They had now been out for nine days, their rations were dwindling and
if they were to get back to their wagons and food supplies in time they would have
to move swiftly.
He expected Wilson and his men to return in a couple of hours, but the afternoon
wore on and darkness came without a sign of the missing patrol. In the meantime Forbes
had received a report that the bulk of Lobengula's warriors, under his chief induna,
Mjaan, had turned back and intended to attack the column that night.
It was a dark night and rain fell at intervals. At about nine o'clock an alert picket
heard the sound of horses and aroused the laager. Two men rode in who told Forbes
that the patrol had followed Lobengula's wagon spoor for some five miles and that
Wilson considered the prospects of capturing the king were so good he had decided
not to return that night. He wanted Forbes to send more men and a maxim in the morning.
Two hours later Captain Napier and two troopers reached the laager and reported that
the patrol had got close to the bush enclosure protecting the king and his wagon
but had had to retreat to prevent themselves from being surrounded and had taken
up a position in the bush to wait for daylight.
On neither occasion did Wilson state exactly what he wanted, although Napier said
he thought he expected the rest of the column to cross the river and join him so
that they could make a daylight raid on the enclosure at dawn. This Forbes refused
to do. He expected a Matabele attack on his position, and he could not endanger his
whole force by crossing the river in darkness, cutting off his retreat and presenting
his back to the enemy. He did not want to recall Wilson since he was obviously in
a good position to capture Lobengula, and if this opportunity were lost it would
never recur. He compromised by sending Captain Borrow and twenty men to reinforce
the patrol, and thus made his mistake. The patrol was now too large to be merely
a reconnoitering force and too small for the dangerous task of trying to capture
the king in defiance of the Matabele impis. But it strengthened Wilson's resolve
to undertake his suicidal mission.
At daybreak Wilson and his thirty-two men approached Lobengula's enclosure. The wagon
was still there, but when Wilson called on the king to surrender there was no answer.
In the ominous silence they realized that during the night he had continued his flight.
All hope of capturing him had gone.
Then came the development they had all been expecting and dreading. In the half-light
they heard the clicking of rifle bolts and from behind a tree stepped a warrior wearing
the induna's headring. He fired his rifle. It was the signal for a scattered volley
which intensified as more warriors came running through the bush. Most of the shots
went over their heads, but two horses went down. A trooper, Dillon, ran to them,
cut off the saddle pockets carrying ammunition and regained his horse as Wilson gave
the order to retreat to an antheap behind which they had sheltered the previous night.
They reached it without losing a man. As horses were shot down their riders jumped
up behind men still mounted or ran alongside holding the stirrup irons. The volume
of Matabele fire steadily increased and the exposed position of the antheap became
untenable. Wilson ordered a retirement into the trees, and as they went the rearguard,
firing with cool accuracy, kept the Matabele at bay. But the Matabele were in no
hurry. They had the white men at their mercy and could take their time.
Several men had been wounded and a number of them were dismounted. Wilson grouped
these in the centre and started off slowly for the river in the hope that some at
least might reach the main Column. For nearly a mile they marched without harm, their
progress dogged by warriors keeping pace among the trees. Then they saw that their
path was barred by a line of warriors waiting for them to come closer. An attempt
to break through that barrier would mean sacrificing the wounded. That was unthinkable.
They would face it together.
Three men, however, got away. An American and two Australians galloped unscathed
through the Matabele line, threw off their pursuers by doubling on their tracks and
reached the bank of the Shangani in safety. Shortly after leaving the patrol they
heard heavy firing and the shouting of hundreds of warriors as they attacked Wilson
and his men. When they reached the river they saw that there was no hope whatever
for the patrol. Heavy rains upstream had swollen the waters of the river and now
it was in flood, and rising every minute. They managed to get across only with the
The subsequent fate of the Wilson patrol, whose bones now rest beneath their memorial
on the Matopo hill on which Cecil Rhodes lies buried, was gathered afterwards from
Matabele sources. They had selected a clearing among the trees for their last stand
and, some standing, some kneeling, poured a hot fire in all directions. The Matabele
had the advantage of better cover and took time to aim accurately and make their
shots tell. But so calmly and steadily did the patrol fight back that in spite of
the bush and the trees they took a heavy toll of the enemy.
At one stage in the fight, said the Matabele, they had offered the white men their
lives provided they laid down their arms and surrendered. Their offer was scornfully
rejected. There would be no surrender.
The patrol used their dead horses as cover, but their number steadily dwindled. Many
were killed outright, and the wounded went on fighting until they lost consciousness.
The fight went on until late in the afternoon. Just before the end the few surviving
white men staggered to their feet, sang a few bars of "God Save the Queen", shook
hands with each other, and waited for the end. It was not long in coming. The Matabele
charged them with their assegais, and gave no quarter. One last man escaped for a
few precious minutes, gained the top of an anthill a few yards away and shot down
several Matabele before a bullet smashed his hip. He was still firing a revolver
as the assegais ended his life.
There were no survivors, and this is the proud epitaph on their memorial. No one
knew of their fate until two months later, when James Dawson, the trader, was led
to the spot by a party of natives and found their skeletons. The trees all round
were scored by bullet marks. The Matabele spoke of them reverently and had been so
impressed by their bravery that they had refrained from mutilating their bodies and
had left them where they fell. Dawson dug a large grave and gave them temporary burial
close to a tree on which he cut a cross and the words, "To Brave Men". Their bones
were later interred at Zimbabwe, since they had all come from Fort Victoria, and
in 1904 removed to the Matopos, to the hilltop "consecrated and set apart for ever
for those who had deserved well of their country."
A question that intrigued the pioneer population when the fate of Allan Wilson's
patrol became known was why so many officers were permitted to accompany him across
the Shangani River. Major Forbes had granted him the privilege of picking his own
men, and it was only natural that the officers of the Victoria Column - many of them
his own personal friends, men he had known in civilian life - should clamour for
the honour of helping him to capture Lobengula. Dr. Jameson paid Allan Wilson a tribute
when he reported officially on the Shangani episode.
"Major Allan Wilson was one of the most gifted leaders of men I have met. Personally
brave to rashness, yet extremely careful and considerate of the men under his command,
it followed that the men would go anywhere with him. It is to this hero worship of
Wilson, so well deserved, that I attribute the large number of officers who accompanied
him on that last fatal reconnaissance."