The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging


by Chris Ash

My name is Christopher Ash and I am going to talk to you about the Matabele War of 1983, and the role Dr Jameson played in it.


The year is 1893. The Rhodesian Pioneers have been in place for 3 years and the area marked in pink is (roughly) Rhodesian / British territory. The area in Orange is Matabeleland, but the Matabele lay claim to a much wider area. The Rhodesian capital is Fort Salisbury. Other notable settlements are Fort Charter and Fort Victoria. Matabeleland's capital is Bulawayo - the aptly named 'place of slaughter'.


Time to meet to main protagonists in our tale. In the pink corner, this is Dr Leander Starr Jameson - a Scotsman, medical doctor and right-hand-man to Cecil John Rhodes himself. Known as 'the Doctor' or 'Dr Jim', Jameson is the Administrator of Mashonaland - essentially the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Judge, Jury and executioner all rolled into one. An enigmatic fellow, Jameson met Rhodes in Kimberley in 1878 and was quickly drawn into his web of intrigue, helping to negotiate the agreement to settle Mashonaland with the Matabele, and riding in with the Pioneers in 1890.


And in the orange corner, we have Chief Lobengula. This was the man Jameson negotiated with for many weeks, and who even made the 'docktele' an 'Induna' of one of this impis after Jameson treated his gout with morphine - and as a sufferer myself, I can tell you just how grateful Lobengula must have been. The two had formed something of a friendship.


This was the area where the settlements of the newly arrived Rhodesians abutted the territory of Lobengula's Matabele - and a clash was inevitable sooner or later. The orange line marks the 'border' which Jameson referred to in several communications with Lobengula and which he was fastidious in insisting the Rhodesians respect.

Many 'politically correct' modern writers insist that Rhodes and Jameson were determined to force a war on the Matabele and to seize their lands, though - like many other claims inspired by political correctness - there is little evidence to actually support this claim.


As this slide shows, far from jumping at the first excuse to force a war on Lobengula, Jameson actually failed to react to several raids. Indeed, for this pacific attitude, he was roundly criticised in the local press, with many settlers demanding action to stop the ongoing raids and threatening to withdraw capital from the nascent colony. Those who blame Jameson and Rhodes for the war simply ignore this, and the fact that the Matabele were regularly raiding, looting and plundering into Mashonaland, and yet all Jameson did was send messages to the King to remonstrate with him.


The raid on Fort Victoria was the straw that broke the camel's back. They actually started in December 1892, when some telegraph wire was stolen near the town and Jameson sent an emissary - Captain Lendy - to meet with Lobengula and request that he make his people respect the border. This ended peacefully, but in May 1893, another 500 yards of wire was stolen. The theft was traced to a local (Mashona) chief who paid his fine by handing over cattle which actually belonged to Lobengula. Again, as soon as Jameson discovered this, he sent a message of apology to Lobengula and the confiscated cattle were returned. In fact, the wire thefts are well known, but actually unimportant to the story.

Nevertheless, on the 11th of June, a 70-strong Matabele impi fell on the Mashona kraal of Bere about 10 miles from Fort Victoria and set about plundering, murdering, driving off cattle and capturing womenfolk. The justification was to 'punish the Mashona over a dispute about 30 cattle'. A 3-man BSACP (the fore-runner to the famous BSAP) patrol under Captain Lendy (who was by then Chief Magistrate of Fort Victoria) rode out to investigate and the Matabele raiders scattered, leaving behind the captured women. Again, the Rhodesians displayed extreme leniency, Lendy describing the incident as 'an inter-tribal dispute' and merely demanding that the Matabele respect the border and release their captives. Jameson sent a message, approving of Lendy's 'judicious action'.

Are these the actions of people desperate for a reason to start a war?

On the 9th of July, the Matabele returned, this time 3,500 warriors descended on the farms and kraals around Fort Victoria. The Anglican Minister at Fort Victoria, the Rev. A.D. Sylvester, described the scene in a letter written shortly after the raid: 'One Sunday, July 9th, at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, whilst I wos holding my Sunday school, I found my church and parsonage surrounded by an impi of Matabele, who were on all sides massacring the Mashonas without mercy, simply out of thirst for blood ... To Europeans who know little of the situation it would be a sickening sight to see the number of human beings lying dead on all sides, mutilated by the Matabele ... No Christian people can simply fold their hands and allow hundreds of their fellow creatures to be murdered wholesale'. And yet this is what modern day critics of Jameson feel he should have done.

The slaughter was terrible and wide-spread, with many Mashona begging for protection in the police fort. When Captain Lendy permitted this, a deputation of Matabele raiders demanded the refugees be turned over - promising to murder them away from the town so as not to contaminate the water supply.

Lendy immediately telegraphed Jameson, who was 190 miles away at Fort Salisbury. Jameson greeted the news with a degree of scepticism; merely sending a message to be conveyed to Lobengula at Bulawayo, demanding he get control of his men and get them back over the border. Jameson also told Lendy to 'use his tact to get rid of the Matabele without any actual collision' and warned him against 'exaggerated reports'.

Jameson also telegraphed Rhodes (who was down in South Africa) to tell him 'the Victoria people have got the jumps' and that he hoped to get rid of the Matabele without any trouble. Again - are these the words of a man desperate to provoke a war?


The butchery around Fort Victoria continued and it was not until the 1?th that Jameson finally decided that the situation was serious enough to require his personal intervention. By the time Jameson arrived in Fort Victoria on the 1?h, it was reckoned that 400 Mashona had been slaughtered by the raiders.

He had passed heart breaking sights as someone who travelled with him recalled:
'The Mashonas saw the Matabele coming 111 miles off, and took refuge in the rocks. They were in hopes that the Matabeles would not attack them as they had left one of their prettiest girls on the rocks with a calabash of food'

Jameson arrived to find Fort Victoria in a state of siege. The white residents had taken refuge in the small police fort. Drastic pre-war cuts to the BSACP meant that there were only 7 officers based in the region and only 40 horses. Again - the idea that Rhodes and Jameson were planning a war of conquest is quite simply at odds with the facts. Lendy had, however, formed the white settlers into a volunteer unit 400 strong - though the lack of horses meant this was only any use for defending the town and couldn't possibly take the Matabele on in the open.


Jameson called a meeting with the raiders at midday on the 18th, the long and the short of it being that he demanded they start to leave within an hour, or he would drive them away. The Matabele not having a clue what an hour was, this was indicated to them by pointing out the position of the sun.


Again, Jameson showed no inclination to spark a fight, and it was only somewhere between 2Y2 and 4 hours later, that this fine looking gentleman - Captain Lendy - was sent out with a fighting patrol of 40 horsemen to drive them off. Jameson told him:
'You have heard what I told the Matabele. I want you to carry this out. I do not want them to think this is merely a threat. They have had a week of threats already, and with very bad results. Ride out in the direction they have gone to Magomoli's kraal. If you find they are not moving off, drive them as you heard me tell Manyao I would, and if they resist, and attack you, shoot them'.


Lendy's fighting patrol came across elements of the Matabele raiding party still busily attacking Magomoli's kraal, giving Lendy little choice but to drive them off. The action was short, sharp and decisive. Lendy shook his men out into a firing line, they dismounted and opened fire on the Matabele. After a short time, the trumpeter signalled the cease fire and all firing stopped. It was reckoned about a dozen Matabele were killed and the rest fled.

It was this action which has led some modern day writers to claim Lendy was a psychopath - but I see nothing in it to indicate this - you can make your own minds up.

It was at this point where Jameson seems to have finally decided that he had little option but war. There was simply no way the new colony could survive and flourish with the spectre of regular Matabele raids hanging over it.

He telegraphed Rhodes to this effect, only to be counselled not to start a war which could bankrupt the colony. Jameson argued his point, so Rhodes - the clergyman's son - tried an ecclesiastical route, insisting that Jameson read Luke XIV, 31- Jameson called for a bible, andĚ read the passage:
'Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?' and simply informed Rhodes he had read it.

With this, Rhodes consented the war, and preparations began. Despite the fantasies of some modern day writers, the Rhodesians were in absolutely no position to fight a war, and these preparations would take many months.

Men had to be recruited, horses and saddlery purchased, weapons, ammunition and stores obtained. It took months to assemble the invasion forces.


The invasion of Matabeleland would be led by Major Patrick Forbes, ex 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons. The leader of the Rhodesian Pioneers - Frank Johnson - was over looked for the role, and refused to take part in the war. Perhaps with more than a touch of sour grapes, he declared that Forbes was:
'a typical British Bulldog, with about as much brains'.


The Bishop of Mashonaland (Knight-Bruce) accompanied the Salisbury Force.


Jameson and Willoughby (his military advisor and later comrade in the Jameson Raid) marched with the Victorian force.


Not too relevant for our tale - did not play a large part and we will not cover that aspect of the campaign tonight.


This is how a large section of the Rhodesian force would have looked. There were also plenty of un-mounted men too, though, and enough wagons to form the laagers.


These are some of the Victoria Column.


These were the real game-changers though - the Rhodesians had half-a-dozen of the new Maxim guns - each roughly equal to 30 magazine rifles.
Nevertheless, Lobengula's army was 20,000 strong and had plenty of rifles of their own too.


The two forces would enter Matabeleland separately, but RV at Iron Mine Hill. The British High Commissioner finally gave Jameson the go-ahead for the invasion on the 5th of October after a few border clashes which mayor may not have been fictitious - we shall never know. Jameson travelled with the Victoria column.
Whether or not the border clashes were fictitious, they certainly came at a suspiciously convenient time.


This might just show it a little more clearly. The RV was done without incident on the 16th of October - after which time the Matabele would have to take on both columns, rather than facing them one at a time - they had seriously missed their chance of landing a knock-out blow. It was more typical that a British colonial war would start with a cock-up and end with a string of victories. The Matabele War of 1893 did the opposite - the victories came first, and the cock-up came at the end.

There had been some skirmishing and cattle raiding, but the first battle would be known as the Battle of Shangani. The combined columns had spent the day of the 24th crossing the river and the Matabele had missed another chance to catch them on the hop. Instead, the Rhodesians were able to prepare their laagers and bed down for the night. In a remarkable piece of generalship, the Matabele general, Mjaan, had managed to assemble about 6,000 warriors within striking distance of the Rhodesians and planned to attack them in the middle of the night to negate their firepower. Unfortunately for him, his warriors were spooked by some signal rockets which were sent up that they refused to attack on time, and it was only at 0400 hours that the attack was launched.



The attack came in from the north, but the Rhodesians were alerted when the Matabele blundered into the encampment of the Mashona auxiliaries to the north of the double-laager. The Rhodesians reacted quickly, and soon there was a terrific fusillade flying into the bush. Every minute it was getting a little lighter, and the Matabele had missed their chance.


This is highly stylised, but probably gives a reasonable idea. The American tracker, Major Frederick Russell Burnham, who would later help Baden-Powell set up the Boy Scouts, described it as 'one of the most spectacular night fights I have ever taken part in' going on to vividly describe: ' ... the roar of the Maxims, and the continuous crack of several thousand hostile rifles that rimmed our entire laager. Over and above the din of the firing rose the shrieks and yells of the friendly natives as they were stabbed and slaughtered by the onrushing Matabele ... '

The Matabele simply had no answer to the rapid, accurate fire from the Rhodesians. Another witness remembered: ' ... Immediately we stood to arms, and looking through the darkness we saw thousands of niggers rushing towards us. When the Maxim Guns started firing, there was a sudden check. They could not believe it, made another rush and were checked again, and so on till daylight broke, and some of the most ghastly objects it has ever been my lot to see - and I was in Egypt - were visible, bodies literally torn in pieces, and lying as near as ten or twelve yards from camp ... '

Jameson was apparently in the thick the action, cigarette in mouth as he made his way around, encouraging the men. At one point he demanded Major Wilson to take cover:
'Get off that box, you silly ass, you are much more use alive than dead' .

By 0830, the battle was over and one of Lobengula's finest regiments, the Insukameni, was shattered. The Rhodesians had lost one man killed and a few wounded, though their Mashona allies had suffered much worse in the chaotic, savage hand-to-hand fighting in the darkness, with many women and children speared to death. The disgraced commander of the Insukameni killed himself, and was found hanging in a tree.


Forbes pressed on later that day, and by the 1st of November, was just 25 miles from Bulawayo. Despite the proximity of the Matabele capital, and the never-ending skirmishing, Forbes was caught wrong-footed at lunchtime on the 1st. His men relaxed and took their lunch, the laagers were not properly formed (not chained together, no zaribas built), were not mutually supporting, and the horses were scattered, as they drank down at the river.


Again, the Rhodesian scouts had failed to appreciate the thousands of warriors who were so close. 7000 warriors pushed their way through the thick bush to the north of the Rhodesian position, with 1700 of Lobengula's royal guardsmen forming the centre of the line - the chest of the buffalo. When these men had heard of the defeat of the Insukameni, they laughed and said they would simply walk into the laagers, and take the Rhodesians as their slaves.

These doughty guardsmen surprised a picket and then burst out of the bush, surging into the open, rapidly bearing down on the laagers. Others regiments (including the luckless Insukameni) forced the horns, pushing out on the flanks to encircle the position.

The Rhodesians had been well and truly caught napping. Lunch was thrown to one side, rifles and bandoliers were grabbed and the men sprinted to their fighting positions. Within seconds, about hundred rifles were brought to bear and the main attack was checked and forced to ground about 200 yards short.

The king's executioner - an enormous giant of a man - carried on alone, and was finally shot down in a hail of gun fire just 30 yards short. Jameson was in the Salisbury laager, and thus was in the thick of the fighting again. He picked up a rifle and casually remarked to the man beside him:
'I have never shot a man in my life. I wonder what it is like' before losing off some shots into the onrushing hordes.


Due to the axis of attack, the men in the Victorian laager couldn't bring their rifles or machine guns to bear, so were ordered out into the open, pushing forwards like a line of grouse beaters as they shot and re-Ioaded on the move. There was a brief moment of panic when the horses - which were being watered at the river - stampeded, but a couple of officers galloped after them and turned them round. The attempted flank attack was broken up by artillery and vanished before it ever really got going, with the Insukameni taking to their heels quickly.

The battle lasted just 40 minutes, and cost the Rhodesians just three men (all shot in the Salisbury laager). Matabele death can only be guessed at, but must have been 500+.

Forbes was lucky he did not preside over a second Isandlwana. His command was scattered, ill prepared and taken by surprise. Not for the first time in British military history, the mistakes of the commanding officer were saved by the steadiness and resolution of his troops.


Another artist's impression. The main problem at Bembesi, as at Shangani, was that the Matabele seemed caught between using their newly acquired rifles, or attacking in traditional style with their spears. They were terrible marksmen - and believed that the higher one set the sights, the faster the bullet went - and thus they would have been far better served in charging with their spears as normal. If you remember the dreadful BBC TV series from the 1990s, 'Rhodes', the BBC showed the Rhodesians massacring the wounded Matabele after the battle. Indeed - they even show Major Frank Johnson (the leader of the 1890 Pioneer Column) doing this - despite the fact that he wasn't even there. There is no evidence to support this myth and it seems to have been peddled by opponents of the BSAC of the time, merely to discredit them.


The Battle of Bembesi was a crushing defeat and essentially signalled the end of the war. With his Royal Regiments defeated and shattered, Lobengula knew the game was up. He blew up his magazine in Bulawayo and took to the hills as a rather unlikely guerrilla. To the skirl of the bagpipes, the Rhodesians occupied Bulawayo on the 4th of November, Enormously overweight, gout-ridden and a lover of comfortable living, Lobengula was not cut out for life as a fugitive and Jameson made the mistake of waiting in Bulawayo for him to return, sending out messengers to coax him in and a light-force until Major Wilson (who had commanded the Victoria Rangers) to chase him down.


The policy of laagers, machine guns and artillery was forgotten, however, and Wilson's men were sent out with little in the way of heavy weapons and insufficient wagons to make a laager. Whether this was over confidence or due to a lack of men is debatable. Wilson's force initially drew just three days rations and 100 rounds per man and set off. After a few weeks of chasing shadows, Wilson reduced his force still further, and soon was commanding only around 150 men, and just two Maxim guns - the rest having been sent back to Bulawayo. This ill-fated force was known as the Shangani Patrol and was blessed with far more Chiefs than Indians from the very beginning. There was a very confused command structure and without a man like Jameson to take control, it was always going to end in tears.

We don't have the time to cover the patrol in detail- it really deserves a talk all on its own - so please forgive my brevity.


Essentially, on the 3rd of December, a small part of the Shangani Patrol (including Wilson himself) bumped into an enormous force of Matabele. Cut off from their comrades on the other side of a flooded river, these men were attacked affirst light the following day and fought like tigers for hours.


38 men, including Major Wilson and no less than 4 captains and 2 lieutenants, were cut off and surrounded by an estimated 500 Matabele. Their horses shot, ammunition exhausted and all hope of escape gone, they carried on fighting with their rifle butts and bayonets.

During a lull in the fighting, Wilson had sent three men on good horses off to try and fetch help. These were the only survivors of the action. When one of them was later asked why no others tried to escape, he replied simply:
'they were not the sort of men to leave their chums'.


No one knows for sure, but accounts from the Matabele say the last few men shook hands, then sung 'God Save the Queen' as a final act of defiance before being over-run. The huge figure of Major Wilson was one of the last to die.

The episode would become famous as the Last Stand of the Shangani Patrol.


Over on the far side of the flooded river, the balance of Wilson's command was also in serious trouble. Riven by infighting and squabbling, short of ammunition, many of their horses killed and under constant attacks, they limped towards Bulawayo.


Jameson personally led the relief column which went out to meet the tattered survivors of the rest of Wilson's command, who were brought back in the safety. Lobengula would die shortly after in unexplained circumstances and the war ended.

Had Jameson ridden out with the Shangani Patrol in the first place, it might have all been different. Who knows?


But the loss of Wilson's patrol shouldn't detract from the achievements. In some ways, the defiantly un-military Jameson had fought a near perfect colonial war and Matabeleland was incorporated into Rhodesia.

The Rhodesians had been practical and logical and even the loss of the Wilson's Shangani Patrol was ultimately a positive, becoming the Rhodesian equivalent of the Alamo or Gallipoli and fostering an early sense of a Rhodesian identity.

In these enlightened times, it is fashionable to consider Lobengula as the victim of the piece and Jameson's Rhodesians as the baddies, but that is probably not how the white settlers or the Mashona would have seen it at the time - several deputations of Mashona headmen travelled to thank the Rhodesian authorities for breaking Lobengula's power.

Indeed, after living in constant fear of being 'smelt out as a witch' or summarily executed for some other spurious reason, even many of the Matabele themselves were delighted to be rid of the tyrant and for the chaos to be replaced by the rule of law. Whatever one's view on Rhodesia and Colonialism, the fact is that Lobengula's regime was not a pleasant one - it existed only by raiding and looting its neighbours, stealing their cattle and enslaving their women folk and it is bizarre that modern writers seek to pretend otherwise.

Though not written about the Matabele War, Kipling's poem, the Widow's Party gives a different, and less politically correct, way of looking at the war:
'We broke a King and we built a road,
A court-house stands where the regiment goed,
And the river's clean where the row blood flowed'.


I would love to have gone into far more depth, but the time is too short and the subject probably too big, but I hope I have at least given some insights into this remarkable conflict. If anyone is interested in reading more, my biography of Jameson, "The IF Man", is available for purchase.
Now I would like to invite any questions.

Notes of paper presented to MHS on 9 May 2013

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