Bulawayo and the Matabele Rebellion (or Umvukela) – Part 1, the first few weeks and the patrols sent to rescue outlying farmers, prospectors and storekeepers


This article has been written from a white perspective because the references used were written by whites and many were blinkered by the myths and misconceptions of the period. However a more balanced view will be written in future articles guided by authors such as T.O. Ranger, D.N. Beach, R. Marston and others.

The first indication of rebellion for the people of Bulawayo was a hostile confrontation between the amaNdebele at the Umgorshlwini kraal under the induna Umzobo and eight native police on the north-west boundary of Essexvale Estate on the night of 20 March 1896 when a prisoner of the native policeman was shot dead and one of their young blanket carriers also shot dead and another murdered with a knobkerrie.[1] Selous writes he rode to Dawson’s store on the 23 March, having heard rumours of the incident the previous day, and met Native Commissioner Jackson who confirmed the murderers had fled into the Matobo Hills taking their families and cattle with them and he was only waiting a detachment of native police to follow them up…presumably this never happened.  

The same day Selous heard from one of his native staff that his amaNdebele wife had been told of white men being murdered on the other side of the Mulungwane Hills, one being a Native Commissioner, probably Arthur Bentley murdered near Edkin’s store at Filabusi.  

On Tuesday, 24th March, assistant Native Commissioner Hubert Pomroy Fynn, found the bodies of eight members of the Cunningham family. The first murder may have been that of Thomas Maddocks as he sat smoking with two miners, Hocking and Hosking, outside his hut near the Nelly Reef Mine, three miles from Filabusi.[2] His wounded companions took refuge in a corrugated-iron hut and then escaped at night to Harry Cumming’s store three miles away, to learn that natives in the Insiza and Filabusi districts were in open rebellion and killing white settlers.[3] Those survivors were compelled to form laagers for protection. Cummings rode sixty miles through the night to Bulawayo for help, yet Ransford states there was nobody at the police camp to listen to his story, so he went to the Market Square, jumped on a wagon and shouted out the news.[4] When other news of armed outbreaks reached Bulawayo it was realised that the rebellion was not merely local, but of a general and widespread character and very serious.

Throughout the first week or so, “it was murder, not fighting; there would be an approach on some pretext, a beginning of conversation, perhaps a request for help or advice, then the sudden attack, a blow on the head with an axe or a knobkerry. Sometimes the man of the family would be led away from the homestead on some pretext and killed when far from guns and horses, the wife and children being then murdered at leisure; sometimes this precaution was not considered necessary and all were killed together.”[5]

Earl Grey, the Administrator of Matabeleland was away on leave; the Surveyor-General Andrew Duncan was acting Administrator and formed a council of defence made up of the individuals below. Fortunately, they all had a good deal of military experience.[6]

NAZ: Top (L-R) Capt Macfarlane (Intelligence Officer) Capt Brown (Staff Officer) Capt Nicholson (Military Secretary)

Capt Grey (Grey’s Scouts) Gen D. Willoughby (Chief of Staff) Capt Newman (Staff Officer) Capt Carden (Adjutant)

Seated (L-R) Col Napier (Commander Troops in Matabeleland) Mr Duncan (acting Administrator)

Col Spreckley (Commander Bulawayo Field Force)


Marshall Hole makes an interesting comment on General Willoughby.[7]

Did the Matabele Rebellion come as a complete surprise to whites?

One message that reached Duncan before news of the murders arrived came from a settler, Ranger does not say who, that reported ‘our old guide, Munisi,’ who guided the Victoria and Salisbury columns in the 1893 invasion of Matabeleland. Munisi reported that the Mwari’s messengers were moving amongst both the amaNdebele and Mashona and, “he informed them to go and put handles on their assegais – those who had hidden their arms when the country was taken, to take them from their hiding places and clean them as he was going to kill all the white people after the corn was reaped…”[8]  

His messengers continued, “had sent him to tell all the Matabeles to arm at once. The God had stated that he had an army of his own coming but would not bring it in before the corn was reaped. The whites had destroyed his power - now he intended to destroy them.” The letter continued, ‘Your police (native) must have all this information, but do not tell you of it -they are not faithful to you.’

The letter arrived too late for precautions to be taken and although the message’s correctness was soon confirmed, the answer to the above is probably yes.   

Selous discusses the rumours that floated around Matabeleland about a rising and says they were reported to Native Commissioner W.E. Thomas, but were too vague and unsubstantiated, and no action was taken.[9] The one exception was William Fulmer Usher, an old Matabeleland trader who from conversations with his long-time local contacts maintained loudly and consistently to the B.S.A Company officials that an amaNdebele uprising was inevitable; the response of the administration was that he would be clapped in gaol if he continued to spread alarm and despondency.[10]

NAZ: Native Commissioners in 1896. Front row (L-R) HMG Jackson, WE Thomas, HJ Taylor, A Lawley, JW Colenbrander

Middle row (L-R) E Armstrong, B Armstrong, CB Cooke, V, Gielgud, T. Fynn

Top row (L-R) T Hepburn, DH Moodie, CG Fynn

News reached Bulawayo that the rebellion has now become widespread

In a memorable paragraph Selous writes, “From the Umzingwane, the flame of rebellion spread through the Filabusi and Insiza districts to the Shangani and Inyati, and thence to the mining camps in the neighbourhood of the Gwelo and Ingwenia rivers, and indeed, throughout the country wherever white men, women and children could be taken by surprise and murdered either singly or in small parties; and so quickly was this cruel work accomplished, that although it was only on 23rd March that the first Europeans were murdered, there is reason to believe that by the evening of the 30th not a white man was left alive in the outlying districts of Matabeleland. Between these two dates many people escaped or were brought into Bulawayo by relief parties, but a large number were cruelly and treacherously murdered.”[11]

In the last week of March one hundred and twenty-two men, five women and three children were murdered, nearly all in isolated homesteads or camps in Matabeleland; during the first week of April, five men, three women and five children. [12] 

A public meeting is held at the Bulawayo Court House

At noon on the 25 March Duncan spoke of the serious situation and called upon every able-bodied man in Bulawayo to prepare for active service in their defence. It was now fully realised that a widespread rising had taken place and difficult fighting would be necessary to regain law and order. The news of the brutal killing of women and children left most men eager to mete out harsh punishment to the perpetrators.

  Bulawayo, Historic Battleground: Mass meeting in Main Street, Bulawayo, March 1896

The Native Police join the rebels

News came in that many native police had deserted to the rebels with their rifles and ammunition and taken an active part in the killings. As they were not seen as trustworthy, those remaining were disarmed as a precaution, but over two hundred were unaccounted for.

Selous writes that Native Commissioner Jackson once said to him, “…if there should be an insurrection those are the devils we have to fear, “ pointing to his squad of native policemen, sitting round about their huts all armed with repeating Winchester rifles.[13]

Generally the amaNdebele were now much more proficient with firearms than in 1893. The native police were familiar with rifle-drill and many warriors had firearms ranging from modern breech-loading rifles taken from their victims to old Tower muskets purchased from the Portuguese sometimes loaded with, “fragments of quartz with lead melted around them and fired out of smooth-bored guns, the glass stoppers of soda water bottles, slugs and even curb chains.”[14]

  Bulawayo, Historic Battleground: a Company of Native Police in 1895  

The panic on the night of 25 March

During the evening a drunken rider galloped through the streets shouting “the Matabele are coming” that led to widespread panic in the belief the town was being attacked. Men, women and children rushed in panic through the streets crying that the amaNdebele were attacking and were shepherded into the Bulawayo Club for safety. Adding to the confusion the police bugles sounded the “alarm” followed by the “double” a sound that added to the confusion and reinforced the belief that an attack as taking place.  

Once the women and children were considered safe in the Bulawayo Club, the men rushed wildly for the government store to get rifles, whilst those who had firearms rushed blindly to and fro without any plan in mind but hoping to shoot a few attackers before they were overwhelmed.

Activity at the government store was intense; rifles and ammunition were given out as fast as possible by the officials, but the scene was one of utter confusion and panic. A few made a rush for the Market Hall where the women and children had collected and attempted to push the officer on the door aside, but he drew a revolver and told them to return to the laager, saying any who attempted it again would get shot.

   The ’96 Rebellions: Melton Prior sketch, ‘A false alarm in Bulawayo: Townspeople rushing for laager’

The signal for the pickets to fall back on the laager was three rifle shots, but a dynamite charge exploded in one of the town’s wells by an officer caused confusion the next night with citizens believing the town was under attack. Fortunately less panic ensued as the men, armed with their rifles, took up their allotted positions inside the laager and waited for the expected attack that never came.  

Great uncertainty was caused by these false alarms amongst the women and children who crouched together in dread expecting the first volley of shots to tell them the attack had begun. However once the cause of the explosion was explained, the situation calmed down.   

   Bulawayo, Historic Battleground: The siege well at the laager, 1896

Bulawayo’s defences are strengthened

Selous states, “Of the old Mounted Police there only remained forty-eight officers, non-commissioned officers and men in the whole of Matabeleland, under Inspector Southey. Of these, twenty-two were stationed in Bulawayo and the rest distributed over the country at the police stations of Gwelo, Selukwe, Belingwe, Inyati, Mangwe, Tuli, Matopos, Umzingwani and Iron Mine Hill.”[15]

From the next day a determined effort was made to strengthen the town’s defences. All empty wagons in the town were requisitioned and drawn up around the Market Square and chained together and at each corner was placed a quick-firing gun or seven-pounder. Available artillery included a Gardner, a Gatling, a Nordenfelt, the balance being Maxim guns or seven-pounders, but of the dozen guns, at least six were unserviceable.[16] Barbed wire entanglements were laid out and then a belt of broken glass from the line of wagons making up the laager with bags of meal being laid under them. All the women and children were collected together at the Market Hall whose entrance was within the laager. All the men not away on patrol, or on picket duty, slept within the laager. All bars were ordered to close by 8pm. Mr Issels supervised the digging of a well that gave a reliable water supply.

   Bulawayo, Historic Battleground: Vickers-Maxim corner, Bulawayo laager, 1896

Throughout the country there were 456 Lee-Metford rifles and 124 Lee-Metford carbines and about a million and a half rounds of ammunition, but only a hundred horses fit for service.[17]

Bulawayo’s population was about fourteen hundred men and eight hundred women and children, of whom about eight hundred men were available for military duties, plus another one hundred and fifty Cape Volunteers.[18] Many women volunteered for nursing duties and boys as young as thirteen years were used as messengers. About two thousand Africans stayed in the town.[19]

Photo Ian Cross: 0.45 cal Gatling Gun on its tripod and fitted with the circular Accles magazine.
Photo taken at Bulawayo during the Matabele Rebellion in 1896

Other defensive measures are taken

The Rhodesia Horse Volunteers were disbanded and a new force recruited from all the men in the town capable of handling a rifle. The Bulawayo Field Force (BFF) is made up of fourteen Troops with Col William Napier in command and Jack Spreckley as second in command.[21] The force included an Artillery Troop, an Engineering Troop, the Grey’s Scouts,[22] the Afrikaner Corps,[23] Dawson’s Scouts and one hundred and fifty Cape Volunteers[24] under the command of Johann Colenbrander. Numbers totalled about six hundred and fifty; but as various patrols were always out, the numbers left guarding Bulawayo was much smaller.  

    The ’96 Rebellions: The Afrikaner Corps

In addition to the Bulawayo laager, an outpost was fortified with a Maxim gun mounted on the roof on the edge of town, in an unfinished double-storey building being erected called William’s Buildings, that had excellent views over the surrounding countryside and was connected by telephone to the main laager. The clubhouse was fortified and served as the Grey’s Scouts barracks. The Stock Exchange building was converted into a hospital. 

Laagers were erected at Gwelo (Gweru) 94 miles (150 kms) to the north-east, Mangwe 55 miles (87 kms) to the south-west and Belingwe (Mberengwa) 90 miles (145 kms) to the east-south-east. The road Bulawayo to Mangwe road was vital for supplies and reinforcements and so a series of small forts were built along its length. Bulawayo, Dawson, Khami, Marquand[25] Molyneux (Figtree)[26] Halsted[27] Luck and Mangwe[28]

AmaNdebele strategy changes

Almost unknown to the whites, the voices of Mkwati and the Mlimo[29] had preached death to all the whites in the country from their shrines at Manyanga (Ntaba-zika-Mambo) and Njelele and sent messengers between amaNdebele indunas, Rozwi and Shona chiefs and Kalanga headman to co-ordinate their plans. The rising was planned for Saturday 28 March when the moon was full and was directed mainly at Bulawayo. The servants of the town’s residents would kill their masters and then be joined by amaNdebele warriors supported by Kalanga tribesmen from the Matobo and along the Umguza river.

In fact the premature killings from the 20 March at Essexvale, Insiza and Filabusi meant the surprise to overwhelm the whites was not achieved and support for the uprising amongst natives was not universal. Gambo, Lobengula’s son-in-law did not join, neither did the Mlimo oracle near Mangwe who advised Faku’s people to remain neutral.     

If they had lost the initiative and failed to wipe out all the whites in a pre-emptive strike, they were now prepared to take up positions that threatened Bulawayo, Gwelo and Belingwe and wait for the whites to try and dislodge them. They would fight from defensive positions, or ambush patrols and then withdraw after inflicting as many dead and wounded as possible, thus wearing down the whites until the numbers allowed them to occupy Bulawayo.

   The ’96 Rebellions: A patrol at Mangwe pass, native ‘friendlies’ in the background

The sequence of patrols sent out to rescue survivors and establish amaNdebele locations

24 March – Gifford’s Patrol to Insiza and the attack on Cumming’s store

Maurice Gifford led a patrol of thirty mounted volunteers with fourteen Matabeleland Mounted Police (MMP) under Inspector Southey for the Insiza district to relieve the civilians who had gathered at Cumming’s store before Cumming’s went to Bulawayo for assistance. They left after dark and about 25 miles from Bulawayo the patrol came across an abandoned wagon, its sixteen donkeys all assegai’d. The wagon load was undisturbed, but the driver and voorlooper were not seen, they were later found murdered in the bush. Armed amaNdebele were seen on nearby kopjes in the broken countryside, but the patrol continued unmolested and reached more open country without any opposition.

On the morning of 26 March[30] Cumming’s store was reached much to the relief of the thirty-eight besieged men, a woman, Mrs White and a child, many being unarmed, so the combined party had about fifty rifles. The store was a one-storied brick building with a corrugated-iron shed and a few pole and dhaka huts behind; fortunately immediate preparations were made for strengthening the defences. The thatched roof was removed and loopholes made in the walls, earth bags placed in the doors and windows. A bush scherm was built between the two buildings for the horses and oxen; armed vedettes stood watch on the high ground during the night. The few friendly natives were locked for safety into the corrugated-iron shed. The major weakness was that the store was dominated by a rocky kopje at the rear.

  The ’96 Rebellions: Lieut Nicholson’s sketch of the action at Cumming’s store, Insiza

At 4:15 am next morning the vedettes fired warning shots. The moon had set and it was dark, but soon after firing was directed at the store from three sides by about three hundred amaNdebele led by Induna Msindazi. Sgt-Major O’Leary of the MMP who was firing from behind a tree in front of the store was shot dead; Inspector Southey carried his body into the store. Corporal Strutt was assegai’d in the arm before he could get into cover. The attackers reached the store’s verandah attacking with great determination and were only driven off after volumes of rifle fire at point-blank range; one attacker was shot endeavouring to climb through a window; six bodies were left behind, but it was later established that twenty-five attackers were killed.[31]      

   NAZ: Sketch from the Illustrated London News of the attack on Cumming’s Store

After nearly an hour of attacks and with daylight approaching the rebels abandoned their assault. The oxen were inspanned at 6:30am and the return journey began. Rebels were seen on the hills, but they were not attacked over the nearly three days journey.  Messengers were sent ahead for Duncan to send out a small force to meet them with a wagon for the wounded and a doctor.     

In addition to Sgt-Major O’Leary being killed, six other defenders were wounded, one seriously.

24 March – Col Napier’s patrol to Armstrong’s store

Napier left the same night as Gifford as far as Armstrong’s store where the Salisbury road crossed the Umguza river where he had to wait for a supply of ammunition.[32] When the ammunition came he fought his way to the Tekwe river and brought fifty rescued whites back to Bulawayo.

25 March - Dawson’s patrol

James Dawson took a patrol of sixteen men from Bulawayo about 73 miles (115 kms) to rescue those at his store at Manzi Munyama, in the Gwanda area. Everything was normal when they arrived at Spiro's store, thirty-seven miles out of Bulawayo. The Africans in charge had gone to Bulawayo, taking the coach mules, but leaving the cattle. On reaching Dawson's store, they found a bloodstained shirt, belonging to Dawson’s storekeeper Munsberg and a sock soaked with the blood of Stracey.[33]

Next morning when they reached the Blue Hills, they met a small force of men under Inspector Southey, out to investigate the reason a Zeederberg coach had not arrived. Dawson had not seen the coach, so it was agreed that it must have turned back to Tuli. They all returned to Bulawayo, arriving a few hours before the coach miraculously arrived too.

25 March - Selous’ patrol to Essexvale (Esigodini) and the Mulungwane Hills

Thirty-five men left with Selous for Essexvale where the amaNdebele were said to be up in arms. After crossing the Tuli road and about eight miles south-west of Spiro’s store, they came into contact with a large armed group and withdrew. Troopers Stracey and Muntzberg were wounded.

26 March - Grey’s patrol to Stewart’s store at the Tekwe river

A mounted patrol of twenty-three went to rescue six men and two women trapped at Stewart’s store on the Tekwe river between Bulawayo and the Shangani river.[34] They arrived at the store on the afternoon of 27 March just as the tiny garrison was about to be attacked by armed rebels. Their arrival scared the attackers away and on the following day Colonel Napier’s patrol turned up and the combined force returned to Bulawayo. Forty three civilians were rescued who would otherwise have been murdered.

28 March - Captain Pittendrigh’s patrol to Inyati

Fourteen men of the Afrikaner force left for Inyati[35] in the Bembesi district to rescue Graham, the assistant Native Commissioner and five others at Inyati and another group at Jenkin’s store. The store was reached on the afternoon of 30 March and ten men were rescued who had been making preparations to meet an attack at any moment, even removing the thatched roof. The combined party went on towards Inyati,

At the Elebeni Hills they were fired upon by rebels under cover of rocks. The party turned to engage but saw at once a large force approaching them in crescent formation favoured by the Zulu. They fell back into a wooded area and began engaging the attacking force with rifle fire. Two men were badly wounded and the whole party retreated towards the road, being closely followed by their attackers for a period, before they reached the Bembesi river.          

  The ’96 Rebellions: Officers examine the remains of assistant N.C. Graham, Sub-Inspector C Handley, Tpr Case, Corke and Hurford killed near Inyati on 26 March 1896

A halt was made at Campbell’s store where they learned that assistant Native Commissioner Graham, Sub-Inspector Hanley and four others had been killed after holding out against overwhelming odds, only a miner named Madden, managed to escape to Campbell’s store. They heard the Ingubo Regiment with twelve hundred warriors was at Inyati and knew that three hundred they had just encountered were behind them, Captain Pittendrigh decided they should fortify Campell’s store as effectively as they could. The thatched roof was taken down, openings were cut between interior rooms to allow rapid movement and the outer walls were loopholed on every side. Dynamite mines were laid around the store and dynamite hand-grenades were manufactured – between them they had about two thousand rounds of ammunition and felt safe for the moment, but Troopers Fincham and Mostert rode off to Bulawayo to request a relief party be sent out.

  Section of 1:1,000,000 1897 Edward Stanford map, courtesy of Harvard University showing the Location of Campbell’s store

In the early morning of 31 March those at Campbell’s store heard heavy firing in the distance that drew closer. Reinforcements had arrived with thirty-five men from the ex-Rhodesia Horse Volunteers and the Afrikaner Corps under Captain Macfarlane and Commandant van Rensberg. The relief force was attacked near the future site of Queen’s Mine and a running fight ensued that lasted thirty minutes. None were wounded, but Troopers Henderson and Celliers were reported missing.

The combined party left for Bulawayo and a running fight ensued in the Shiloh Hills before the rebels retreated in the face of the accurate fire, one horse was wounded. Late in the night of 1 April the combined force arrived at Bulawayo with the cheers of the outlying pickets ringing in their ears. Sgt-Major Haden and Trooper Carter were wounded.  

The two exhausted missing men arrived back at Bulawayo on 1 April. Celliers had his horse killed under him and was wounded in the knee so he could barely stand. Henderson dismounted and put Cilliers in the saddle while he walked alongside and they hid in the bush surrounded by thousands of rebels moving only at night. Henderson could have escaped but chose to stay with the wounded Cilliers who died of his wounds in Bulawayo hospital on 16 May. Herbert Stephen Henderson was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry.[36]

30 March - Inspector Southey’s patrol

Sixty men go down the Tuli road to safely escort in the coach. No opposition was met.

2 April - Captain Brand’s patrol to Manzi Inyama, Gwanda

Fifty mounted men each from C Troop of the BFF and the Afrikaner Corps  commanded by Captain Brand and Captain van Niekerk with a mule wagon and Dr Levy and a ‘galloping’ carriage 0.45 Calibre Maxim gun left Bulawayo on 1 April heading south for Manzi Inyama eighty miles (130 kms) away in the Gwanda district to bring in any civilians still alive. When they reached Nicholson’s Camp Doel Zeederberg and three men rode towards Tuli and overtook the West Nicholson people, who told them that the Gwanda contingent was twelve hours ahead of them. Zeederberg went on to Tuli, and sent a telegram to Bulawayo, asking for more reinforcements and another Maxim gun to be sent out, but these were refused.

The patrol set off to return on 9 April[37] the second night camping at Grainger’s store. Shortly after they came upon a trap set up by the rebels. Some cattle were left grazing, an unbelievable sight in those troubled times. The men were suspicious, and sure enough they sighted amaNdebele, crouched in hiding who scattered when the Maxim gun was fired on them, and the patrol continued on its journey.

Seven miles from Spargo’s store[38] on the afternoon of the 10 April the road ran through five miles of very broken country and they came under heavy fire from the amaNdebele in the kopjes overlooking the road. The Maxim was at once brought into action forcing the rebels into nearby cover. The patrol moved forward once more before arriving at a narrow pass between two hills where an ambush was suspected and sure enough, heavy firing commenced from the western flank as the patrol approached.

Fire was returned, but the rebels were in good cover and well-protected in the rocks. The Maxim once more was brought into action at short range sweeping the bush. As the patrol negotiated the pass opposite Latijan’s Farm, the disselboom of the mule wagon broke when a sudden burst of fire in front of the mule team caused them to swerve violently. This brought them to a stop in the middle of the ambush position and needed to be repaired before the wagon could move on and was under a constant sniping fire. Fortunately the Afrikaner Corps included many experienced and seasoned campaigners who kept their heads and returned fire.

Once the pass was negotiated and more open country reached the force was able to spread out in skirmishing order and engage the rebels, estimated at one thousand strong under the Induna Babayan, who took every advantage of the cover afforded by a succession of undulating ridges and attempted to come to close quarters with the horns of a crescent outflanking the patrol, but heavy and accurate firing prevented this manoeuvre from taking place. The patrol managed to keep moving slowly forward despite the rebels ten to one advantage, the Maxim doing good service, and this skirmish continued for about three hours with the amaNdebele putting up a hot fight and strong resistance the entire time, one eyewitness saying, “they often showed pluck verging on lunacy.”

At last a small kopje was sighted, actually a huge flat-topped rock about fifteen feet (5 metres) above the surrounding bush on the left-side of the road, and both the advance-guard and the amaNdebele made a dash to seize the kopje first. The mounted advance-guard managed to get their first followed by the main body of the patrol. The Maxim now covered the road to the east, the Afrikaner’s on the right, the rest under Lieut Pursell on the left. The amaNdebele took cover in the surrounding bush and an estimated four charges took place over the next six hours, some of the attackers getting within thirty yards (27 metres) of the firing line before being beaten back. The Maxim did good work, but the thick bush prevented more effective use. Captain van Niekerk with twenty-five of his men made a counter attack and pushed the rebels from the thick bush into more open ground where they inflicted heavy loss on them. Five of the patrol were killed, fifteen wounded, two of whom subsequently died of their wounds and thirty of the one hundred horses had been killed.[39]

The ’96 Rebellions: Lieut Nicholson’s sketch of the action during Brand’s patrol to Manzi Inyama, Gwanda

Two hundred and fifty rebels were estimated killed and wounded before they retired into the Matobo Hills. The patrol still faced danger with another sixteen miles (26 kms) or so of hilly country, especially near the Gabalozi river, to negotiate with rocky kopjes overlooking the road and the wounded slowing down their progress. Fortunately the amaNdebele did not seem keen on further fighting and no further attacks took place. Two men rode ahead and they were met at Gumtree Hills by Macfarlane and the combined party with Bulawayo reached on 11 April and the wounded were transferred to hospital.

Captain Brand had requested Captain van Niekerk of the Afrikaner Corps who had good experience of native warfare to take charge of the patrol and his coolness inspired the little force of one hundred men.            

4 April - Gifford’s patrol to Shiloh

This patrol made up of thirty men from F Troop of the BFF under Captain Dawson, seventy-seven men from Gifford’s Horse and eleven men of the Grey’s Scouts under Lieut Crewe and forty-nine Cape Volunteers under Captain Bisset, a total of one hundred and sixty-seven with two wagons and one ‘galloping’ carriage Maxim.

    Photo Ian Cross: Victoria 1893: 0.45 Cal Maxim gun on a galloping carriage. Charles Lendy on the horse

Their instructions were to clear the Khami river area and then move north-east to Inyati before looping back to the Gwelo road at the Bembesi river and return to Bulawayo. However things did not work out as planned. The force left Bulawayo on 4 April going west and had not gone far when two farm workers reported a large amaNdebele impi about fourteen miles (23 kms) away at Holm’s Farm on the Umguza river. They turned north and shortly before the main force reached the Umguza the sound of firing on the right of the column indicated the scouts had come into contact with the rebels. Soon afterwards the rear-guard came into contact with a strong force of about three hundred who were only beaten back after some fierce fighting lasting about an hour.

The main body of the patrol laagered for the night in an open area on Wessel’s Farm and the rear-guard joined them after the engagement. Next morning after a short distance the advance-guard under Captain Meikle was attacked by five hundred rebels. Firing took place across both banks of the Umguza river and only halted when the Maxim gun was brought into action, scattering the rebels. The Cape Volunteers under Captain Bisset made a flanking movement and unexpectantly came across a group of rebels, killing around thirty. The patrol then moved onto Fonseca’s Farm for the night without further fighting, although the scouts reported a strong body of rebels were moving in parallel to them.

The following day 6 April (Easter Monday) the scouts under Lieut Rorke stumbled upon an indaba taking place; the rebels rushing to attempt to try and cut the scouts off. With the shooting Lieut Rorke’s horse threw him, making it likely he would have been killed if not for the timely intervention of the Cape Volunteers, enabling him to retreat on foot and rejoin the main body.

With the sound of firing Captain Dawson’s F Troop were ordered forward to the fighting to cover the Cape Volunteers and to deliver a counter-attack; whilst B Troop under Captain Fynn took up positions in some kopjes on the right flank of the main body. The fighting now became widespread, the amaNdebele showing a very determined opposition with the brunt of their attacks on the Cape Volunteers and F and B Troops. Dawson and the Cape Volunteers were forced to fall back on the main body; the Maxim gun finally checking the rebel advance and then forcing them to retreat.

  The ’96 Rebellions: Lieut Nicholson’s sketch of the action during Gifford’s patrol at Fonseca’s Farm, Umguza river

The main body fell back on a donga that formed such a good natural laager[40] that Gifford sent out orders for the entire force to regroup in that position. This was done successfully, but the Troops had difficulty in fighting their way past the amaNdebele who were pressing their attacks and who would have followed them up as they escaped into the donga but were checked by the steady rifle fire and then fell back into the cover of the bush about 600 yards (550 metres) away to escape the Maxim’s deadly fire. However, they maintained a steady accurate return fire – it seemed there were many of the ex-Native Police amongst them and it was now that Gifford was wounded in the right shoulder, ultimately losing his arm. Several troopers were killed or wounded before the firing stopped and the fighting was at an end for that day.  

The Maxim gun mounted on its tripod on a wagon attracted much rebel fire and Corporal Reynolds was mortally wounded near the Maxim and Captain Gifford was hit in the shoulder on the gun wagon. Captain Lumsden assumed command until he was mortally wounded the next day and Captain Bisset took over command. The horses were sheltered within the donga.

Early next morning, 7 April the Cape Volunteers, who were out scouting, came under heavy attack and were driven back again under fire to the laager. That was followed up by a rebel charge using the head and horns of the conventional Zulu attack, but heavy return fire from the laager blunted the attack and opening up their ranks the amaNdebele attacked the laager from every side. Fighting continued on and off until midday when the amaNdebele broke off and melted away from the scene.

About 2am messengers brought news that a relief force was just five miles (8 kms) away and in the late afternoon these reinforcements under Captain Macfarlane arrived at the laager. The return journey to Bulawayo began the next day and Bulawayo was reached by nightfall without any further incidents.  

6 April - Captain Macfarlane’s patrol to reinforce Gifford’s patrol

Sixty men and a galloping carriage Maxim were sent out on 6 April as reinforcements to relieve Gifford at Fonseca’s Farm. Both patrols returned on 8 April. Four killed, seven wounded, including Captain Lumsden who died of wounds and Col Gifford who lost his right arm.

10 April - Captain Macfarlane’s patrol to relieve Captain Brand’s patrol

One hundred mounted men, one hundred infantry, thirty Grey’s Scouts, a Hotchkiss and Nordenfelt left to reinforce Captain Brand’s patrol on the Tuli road. There was some firing from rebels when they met up, but no serious opposition. Both patrols returned on 11 April.

11 April - Captain Molyneaux leaves to build a fort at Figtree, Captain Selous to build a fortified post at Mabukatisani

Bulawayo becomes encircled by amaNdebele rebels

By mid-April 1896 the amaNdebele were almost on the outskirts of Bulawayo, getting bolder and sneaking under the cover of darkness to rustle cattle and kill the herders where they encountered resistance. On the 12 April cattle kraals were raided just two miles from the half-built Memorial Hospital.   

About this time Captain Tyrie-Laing sent in news from Belingwe (Mberengwa) that all the local inhabitants had gone into a fort they had constructed that was strongly defended. Rebels had raided their cattle, but the news they were safe was very welcome. Unfortunately there had been many killings in the Filabusi / Belingwe district.

16 April - Captain Grey’s skirmish on the Umgusa river

Captains Grey and van Niekerk were leading a patrol of forty-five men along a tributary of the Umguza river to the north-east of Bulawayo when they encountered a large impi below Umhlabatine Hill who opened fire at about 800 yards (730 metres) range. The mounted troops of the patrol at once opened out into a skirmishing line and cantered directly towards the rebels and the stream was forded at two places. From the stream bank  the nearest amaNdebele were about 200 yards (180 metres) away and the Troopers made for them. These amaNdebele fired a wild volley and took to their heels, but as the patrol rode forward they could see that the amaNdebele sighted were just the advance-guard of a much stronger body who now ran forward on either side of the patrol to outflank them in the Zulu crescent formation and prevent a retreat back towards the stream.

The numbers were too great, so the horsemen retreated, being closely followed up by the rebels who grew in courage as they saw the retreat taking place. However, the patrol made it to safety, their pursuers eventually gave up and the Troopers returned to Bulawayo with one Trooper wounded and three horses killed.

Bulawayo, Historic Battleground: Grey’s action on the Lower Umguza, 16 April 1896

19 April - an Afrikaner Corps scouting party of three Troopers are cut off and killed whilst patrolling the northern outskirts of Bulawayo between Government House and the Salisbury road

19 April - Captain Macfarlane’s patrol to the Matsheumhlope road

Ninety-four mounted Troopers and one galloping carriage Maxim gun leave to bring in a wagon reported being attacked on the Matsheumhlope road, but when they arrived the attack has already been beaten off and the patrol continued north coming into contact with the rebels along the Intindita stream, a tributary of the Umguza river. At the ruins of Colenbrander’s farmhouse, near the stream’s confluence with the Little Umguza, rebels were seen and Siginyamatshe’s kudu war horn could be heard calling for rebel reinforcements. Selous was ordered to take men across the stream to the farmhouse to draw the rebels onto the Maxim gun. This was carried out perfectly, but the Maxim jammed when a cartridge became caught in the extractor[41] and Macfarlane was forced to withdraw in a hurry. The amaNdebele in turn halted their attack when a springhare crossed in front of the advancing impi; this was taken as an unfavourable sign by their commanders, and their attack called off. One Trooper was killed and one wounded.

      Bulawayo, Historic Battleground, Macfarlane’s action on the Umguza river, 19 April 1896

20 April - Col Napier’s patrol to the Umguza river

Colonel Napier collected together two hundred and thirty men from the BFF and one hundred Cape Volunteers, together with a ‘galloping’ carriage Maxim gun, a Hotchkiss[42] and a seven-pounder RML[43] gun. This was the strongest force that could be assembled without weakening Bulawayo’s defences.

An estimated impi of three thousand rebels was seen on the northern Umguza riverbank. Napier had his bugler sound the retreat and a dejected force withdrew to the sound of rebel taunts and the blasts of Siginyamatshe’s kudu war horn.

22 April - Capt Bisset’s patrol to the Umgusa, Selous’ narrow escape

One hundred and ten mounted men, sixty Cape Volunteers to whom Selous was attached, one hundred friendly natives under Chief Native Commissioner Herbert Taylor, a Hotchkiss and galloping carriage Maxim went north-west of Government House and came under fire from rebels on the Umguza’s northern bank close to where it was joined by the Bulawayo spruit. The Afrikaners on the left flank crossed the river and held a knoll despite a heavy counterattack. Bisset ordered the Cape Volunteers in the centre to advance and they crossed the Umguza, turned right and pursued the rebels along the northern bank; the Grey’s Scouts moved in parallel along the southern flank also pursuing those rebels that had crossed to the southern bank of the Umguza river.

  Bulawayo: Historic Battleground, Bisset’s action on the Umguza river, 22 April 1896

However Bisset did not bring the Hotchkiss and Maxim into action and the uncommitted men did not support the advance. The Cape Volunteers and Grey’s Scouts found themselves in danger of being cut off. When the bugle sounded recall and the Grey’s Scouts began to fall back, the rebels plucked up courage and charged forward. At this time Selous had a narrow escape. He had dismounted, and his horse bolted at the firing, leaving him stranded at some distance from the column. The amaNdebele saw him isolated and began to charge down on him. Fortunately, Lieut Windley, who had attempted to catch Selous’ horse, recognised the perilous situation he was in and rode up to his side and double-mounted they made their escape, the amaNdebele firing on them.

Trooper Baxter earns the Victoria Cross for gallantry

When the bugle sounded the recall, Trooper Wise of the Grey’s Scouts turned his horse in response but was badly wounded at that moment, and his horse galloped away leaving him on the ground. Trooper Baxter, also of the Grey’s Scouts, saw what happened, at once dismounted and placed Wise on his own horse and led him back to the main column. Spotting this, the amaNdebele turned their attention on the pair, but Captain Grey and Lieut Blair Hook galloped to their rescue and almost at once both were wounded. Other Grey Scouts turned back to help and Trooper Long rode up to Baxter, who took hold of his stirrup-leather, but as they made off, Baxter was wounded in the chest and fell. Selous, writing of the incident in Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia wrote, "Hook got on his legs and was hobbling forward when Crewe said to him. Why don't you pick up your rifle? I can't: was the reply, I'm too badly wounded. Are you wounded, old chap? said Crewe, then take my horse and I will try to get out on foot." The Troopers were now nearly surrounded, Lieut Fred Crewe covered their retreat with his revolver; no further attempt to rescue Baxter was possible and he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.[44] 

Rhodes commissioned the painting by Frank Dadd of Lieut Fred Crewe holding off the attacking amaNdebele and presented it to the Durban Art Gallery.[45]

  Bulawayo, Historic Battleground: Lieutenant Fred Crewe’s “A Gallant Deed“ on the Umgusa River by the war artist Frank Dadd




I.J. Cross. The Ordinance and Machine Guns of the British South Africa Company 1889-1896, Part 1. http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol162ic.html

I.J. Cross. The Ordinance and Machine Guns of the British South Africa Company 1889-1896, Part 2. http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol163

L.H. Gann. A History of Southern Rhodesia; Early Days to 1934. Chatto and Windus, 1965

N. Gomm. Further Notes on Early Rhodesian Military Units. Military History Journal Vol 1 No 4 - June 1969. http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol014ng

H. Hensman. A History of Rhodesia compiled from Official Sources. William Blackwood and Sons, London 1900

A.S. Hickman. Men who made Rhodesia. The British South Africa Company, Salisbury, 1960

H. Marshall Hole. Old Rhodesian Days. Books of Rhodesia, Silver Series Vol 8, Bulawayo 1976

The ’96 Rebellions: The B.S.A. Company Reports on Native Disturbances in Rhodesia 1896-7. Books of Rhodesia Silver Series Vol 2, Bulawayo 1975

P. Mason. The Birth of a Dilemma: the Conquest and Settlement of Rhodesia. Oxford University Press, London, 1958

T.O. Ranger. Revolt in Southern Rhodesia 1896-7. Heinemann, London, 1971

O. Ransford. Bulawayo: Historic Battleground of Rhodesia. A.A. Balkema, Cape Town, 1968

F.C. Selous. Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia. Books of Rhodesia Vol 2, Bulawayo 1968

S. Shinn. The Early European Settlement of the South Western Districts of Rhodesia, Part 2. Rhodesiana Publication No 31, September 1974, P1 - 21



[1] Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, P19-21

[2] The Early European Settlement of the South Western Districts of Rhodesia, P15

[3] Some background to the killings are described in the article the Filabusi Memorial and the Edkins Store killings under Matabeleland South on the website www.zimfieldguide.com

[4] Bulawayo: Historic Battleground of Rhodesia, P83

[5] The Birth of a Dilemma, P197

[6] For example, Robert Baden-Powell said of Jack Spreckley “that he was endowed with the dash, pluck, and attractive force that make a man a born leader of men, he is also steeped in common sense.”

[7] Hugh Marshall Hole writes (P124) that Digby Willoughby was ‘a handsome man of debonair appearance and great personal charm.’ He appears to have been appointed a General in the Madagascar army and ‘designed for himself a gorgeous uniform which completely put into the shade that of an ordinary Ambassador.’ He goes on to say, ‘ He had an enormous fund of anecdotes about his own experiences and was in great request at social functions; but when Bulawayo settled down he was out of his element, and after a brief period as an auctioneer he passed out of sight.’

[8] Revolt in Southern Rhodesia, P156

[9] Sunshine and Storm, P13

[10] Fort Usher was named after him. See the article Fort Usher No 3 under Matabeleland South on the website www.zimfieldguide.com

[11] Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, P32

[12] The Birth of a Dilemma, P197

[13] Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, P14

[14] Bulawayo: Historic Battleground of Rhodesia, P91

[15] Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, P52

[16] A History of Rhodesia, P80

[17] Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, P54

[18] Ibid, P59

[19] Bulawayo: Historic Battleground of Rhodesia, P88. These included the induna’s Gambo, Mjaan, Faku and families, some Maholi (amaNdebele serfs) and others from Hope Fountain mission

[20] Ian Cross notes the Gatling fired a 0.45 cal cartridge that was not compatible with the 0.45 cal Martini-Henry cartridge

[21] Bulawayo Field Force officers also included Major Scott, Captains Bissett, Dawson, J. W. Lumsden, Fynn, Windley, Wrey, R. Macfarlane (formerly of the 9th Lancers), Molyneux, Nicholson, Howard Brown, Cardigan, Meikle, Taylor, Knapp, Lieutenants Webb, Holland, Pursell, Jobson, Boggie, Claude Grenfell, Moffat, Walsh, Rorke, Hulbert, Tyndale-Biscoe, H. H. Blocker, Hook, Mullins, Howard (formerly of the Bechuanaland Border Police), Parkin, Stewart, Sinclair, Frost and Jackson. Source: Further Notes on Early Rhodesian Military Units

[22] Grey's Scouts was formed on 26 March 1896 by George Grey, a mine owner with properties on the Shangani river about 70 miles northeast of Bulawayo. The unit had a nucleus of 23 picked men. Officers were Lieut Stuart, Hodgson and Fred Crewe. Source: Further Notes on Early Rhodesian Military Units

[23] The Afrikaner Corps was formed on 5 April 1896 under the command of Commandant Van Rensburg consisting of three companies numbering 76,64 and 73 men. Officers were Commandant Barnard, Captains Van Niekerk, Pittendrigh and Brand. Source: Further Notes on Early Rhodesian Military Units

[24] The Cape Volunteers were mostly natives from the Eastern Cape and Zulus

[25] Fort Marquand. This fort was constructed by H Troop under Lieutenant Marquand on the road between Bulawayo and Mangwe

[26]  Fort Molyneux construction by Captain Molyneux on a small kopje about 200 yards from the Fig Tree hotel and telegraph office

[27] Fort Halsted constructed by E Troop under Captain Halsted about one-third of the way down the pass leading into the Shashani Valley.

[28] Fort Mangwe under Commandant Cornelius van Rooyen with Major Armstrong and Captain Luck. There was also a garrison at Matoli.

[29] The Mlimo cult had once formed an important part of the Rozvi empire. The amaNdebele came as conquerors but quickly transferred their religious allegiance from Nkulunkulu, the Zulu high god, to Mlimo the Karanga deity. This may have been because the amaNdebele recognised the Karanga ties to the land as the amaNdebele ancestral graves lay far to the south.   

[30] Bulawayo: Historic Battleground of Rhodesia, P87

[31] The ’96 Rebellions, P26

[32] Sir Hercules Robinson, the High Commissioner for Southern Africa, delayed an urgent request to open Bulawayo’s magazine for twenty-four hours

[33] Neither Munsberg nor Stracey are listed in The ’96 Rebellions as reported murdered or missing

[34] The Bertelson family of parents and four sons at the Shangani in March and the Fourie family of parents and five children at Tekwe in the first week of April had already been murdered

[35] The Rev Bowen Rees the resident Inyati missionary and his family were allowed passage into Bulawayo, although their African drivers were murdered, the experience causing Mrs Rees to give premature birth

[36] Full details of Henderson’s Victoria Cross award are contained in the article The Victoria Cross (VC) medal recipients connected with this country under Mashonaland West on the website www.zimfieldguide.com

[37] The four day delay at Nicholson’s Camp gave the amaNdebele plenty of time to set an ambush on the patrol’s return

[38] Spargo’s store was six miles (10 kms) out of Bulawayo

[39] The ’96 Rebellions, P28

[40] This is a laager not in the sense that it is an encampment formed by a circle of wagons, but a position in a dry riverbed, or donga that gave good cover and could be defended against the amaNdebele rebels

[41] In the 1906 version of his book Small WarsCharles Callwell says of machine guns: "The older forms are not suitable as a rule... they jammed at Ulundi, they jammed at Dogali, they jammed at Abu Klea and Tofrek, in some cases with unfortunate results."

[42] According to Ian Cross two one-pounder 37 mm QF (Quick Firing) Hotchkiss guns on field carriages were taken from the Portuguese at Massi Kessi (Macequece) in 1891 and were still in the possession of the B.S.A. Company in 1896

[43] RML stands for Rifled Muzzle Loading

[44] Full details of Baxter’s Victoria Cross award are contained in the article The Victoria Cross (VC) medal recipients connected with this country under Mashonaland West on the website www.zimfieldguide.com

[45] Fred Crewe’s bravery is told in the article Reminiscences of Percy Durban Crewe of Nantwich Ranch, Hwange under Matabeleland North on the website www.zimfieldguide.com

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