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The Weird Aryan History Series

Lesson #50: The Shangani Patrol (1893)

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 Matabele.

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 November 14.

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 return.

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 greatest difficulty.

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."