THE MATABELE WAR 1893-4 – THE SHANGANI PATROL – A TALE OF TWO MAJORS
THE MATABELE WAR 1893-4 – THE SHANGANI PATROL – A TALE OF TWO MAJORS
Call it what you like it conjures up an interesting epic in Rhodesian history.
I have been following the discussion on this item with some interest and thought as an old Rhodesian, who is now a registered Guide for the Battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal, I might be able to contribute. I have a long time interest in history and particularly the Victorian era and this part of the world and in the 60s and 70s in Rhodesia I read with interest the stories and articles written by Tim’s Dad Tony.
Part of studying to become a Guide meant learning some of the principles of research and acceptance and one of them is that it requires at least two corroborating independent sources before an item can be considered as a possible fact. This is usually not too difficult after a battle as all the officers at least will have made out reports and although there is often some confliction it is possible to bring a reasonable picture together. The exception is when there are few or no survivors and even when there are survivors, such as at Isandlwana, we know that they could not have been on the firing line at the climax of the battle. So we then have to seek our evidence from the records of the opposing force and when that force turns out to be natives who are unable to read or write we are left with only the spoken word recorded by an intermediary source and we are left wondering how well that intermediary could understand what was being told to him. Also if the information is given long after the event then there is a very good chance that it will have been embellished to improve the standing of the teller. We also have to understand that the Matabele were originally Mzilikaze’s Khumalo people, an off shoot of the Zulu, who consider it good manners to tell the questioner what he thinks they would like to hear and not necessarily the whole truth, especially when the truth is bitter.
So let us start with what do we know of the Shangani Patrol, unfortunately being so far from the National Archives I have only the few notes and memories I have from when I lived in Salisbury so maybe some of our readers can help out a little.
Wilson and his men were lionised because it was the Victorian era when it was considered an honour to die in battle. The Victorian officer’s wife understood this and almost wanted the honour of being the widow of a gallant officer who had lost his life in battle. In fact if we look more closely at the events as we know them Wilson probably brought about his own death and that of his men. Sacrilege I hear Rhodesians saying but look at the facts.
Forbes was short on men and supplies before he set out after Lobengula. The going was tough, and being December in the rains even tougher. He realised that in order to catch up with Lobengula he would have to drop some of his baggage train. Twice he reduced his force to try and pick up speed until he was down to something like 270 men by the time he reached the Shangani and they were all tired and the horses were worn. Forbes was a professional soldier and tried to maintain some sort of military order which did not go down well with the independent, colonial, volunteers that made up his force, but he was more acutely aware of the risks they were facing and knew that tight control was necessary under the circumstances. Wilson by comparison was a populist and although he had a fair amount of military training was by nature an adventurer and possibly impetuous, hence the men liked him.
We know that on the evening of Dec 3 1893 Forbes ordered Wilson to cross the Shangani and reconnoitre the opposite bank but to be back before nightfall. I think a time of 18h30 was set. Wilson did not return and it is from here that a certain amount of speculation enters the story. Two men returned around 21h00, their horses too tired to go on. What are their names and what did they report? Is this the first time that we hear of Wilson having met some Matabele and was being lead to Lobengula? Was the Matabele man that was leading Wilson to Lobengula’s isigodhlo the Msutu man or was he the so called captured Matabele warrior that escapes that Mhlahlo refers to? Whatever, it is clear that Wilson broke his order to return by dark and went on in the dark to find Lobengula, taking his small group, I think at that time 17 men, further from the main body, in the darkness, into unknown enemy territory. The story tells us that he apparently finds Lobengula’s wagons and that around 23h00 three of his men arrive back in the main camp to tell Forbes to bring the main force to join Wilson so that they can attack the Matabele in the morning. Do these three men tell Forbes what has transpired? Is Forbes fully aware of the situation at this time? Wilson has made this request and taken his action without taking into account the difficulties and dangers of moving the main force with the Gatling’s mounted on carriages, in the dark, into unknown territory and finding him. Again who were these three men and what was their actual report to Forbes? Whatever it was it put Forbes in a spot of having a divided force in a dangerous situation, and possibly appreciating that Wilson was now out on a limb he decided that the best he could do before daybreak was to send some men to reinforce him. So he sends Capt Borrows and about 20 troopers to reinforce Wilson but no Gatling. In hindsight Forbes should possibly have sent a smaller group with instructions to Wilson to fall back on the camp until they could all cross. But that did not happen. In fairness what neither Major knew at this time was that the Matabele were in the process of mounting an attack on them and that during the night a force had already crossed the river, possibly the rising river had prevented more from crossing. It is likely that early the next morning on Dec 4th Wilson became aware of his predicament and the story has it that after the fire fight starts his first fall back point is a large anthill (this is partly in contradiction to Mhlahlo’s statement but fits in with the Msutu man’s but I do not know where we got the story that the first fall back was indeed to an anthill) and it is here that he sends three men back to Forbes, two of whom are his American Scouts, one I believe was Burnham but I am at loss to find the names of the other two, but the folk lore has it that he tells them this is not their fight. If this is so one gets the impression that Wilson already knew he had no chance. Possibly he could hear the gunfire on the other side of the river where Forbes was engaged. We have to remember that Wilson’s men probably had no more than 50 rounds each.
Back to the Msutu man’s story and knowing how large our Rhodesian ant hills can be and how wooded, it would be easy enough for a black man to conceal himself, especially if there was an ant bear hole, when the rest of the group made their next fall back, and certainly the Matabele would follow the men falling back and not bother with searching the ant hill. So the Msutu man could have escaped. But the only way we would know that Wilson’s men had fallen back from the Anthill, or were ever at an anthill, would be from surveying the ground after the action or from a Matabele other than Mhlahlo whose story does not fit this information, so unless there are other Matabele sources that came forward, which I believe there were, or that one or more of the three men sent back provided the information that they had left Wilson at an anthill, there seems no proof. Holding their rifles with their feet is plausible as black powder weapons were notorious for overheating and there is a report from Rorke’s Drift that the rifle barrels actually glowed in the dark, so if Wilson’s men did not have wet rags to wrap round them holding them with ones feet makes sense. It would also apply if they were wounded in the upper body. Did they sing “God save The Queen” or is this just Victorian romance, like some of the stuff in the film Zulu – The Defence of Rorke’s Drift?
What we do know is that the Matabele also engaged Forbes shortly after they opened the engagement with Wilson and so prevented Forbes from reaching Wilson. A well co-ordinated action that required leadership and control. They also harassed the remainder of Forbes’ column all the way back to their last base, which also required leadership and control on the part of the Matabele. Hardly a force not being lead by their Indunas.
It would be great to be able to read the reports, if there are any, from any of the 8 men that came back from Wilson’s patrol before the final action.
The irony of this tale is that Wilson became the hero while Forbes took the flak. Wilson in my opinion put the column in jeopardy by not returning as ordered and so dividing the already critically small force.
But where does that leave Mhlahlo’s story? The first thing that has been picked out is that if the date of 1896 was put in by Whitney then he was already confusing the Matabele War of 1893 with the Rebellion of 1896 so how much more is inaccurate? Certainly there is enough information to corroborate some of Mhlahlo’s story but the bit about the Chief’s not wanting to fight seems a bit far fetched because the simultaneous attacks on Forbes’ and Wilson’s columns was too well orchestrated not to have been carried out without the Chiefs and without Mtjaani so I am afraid it must remain hearsay but probably correct to a point.
This sort of situation is often referred to as the “Tour Guides Dilemma”, what tale do you tell your clients?
Just my take on the story
The Shangani Fight:
Major Wilson's Last Stand on Shangani River -1896.