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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

The Shangani Patrol-December 1893

I’ve often wondered if the Shangani Patrol plinth in the photo I’ve posted above, is still standing, or if it too, has been relegated to the dust of history through vandalism. Like so much else of historical value in Zimbabwe. The photo of myself, and standing at left the late Capt. John Brandt USN retired, from New Mexico, was taken in mid-1993, when during a safari in the Gwayi Valley, Matabeleland, he and I visited the plinth at the actual battle site. Even at that time and as can be seen in the photo it’d been badly damaged, so I’m pretty sure 29-years on there’s nothing left.

The patrol, comprising 34 young men under Major Allan Wilson died in the rain sodden Matabeleland wilderness on 4th December 1893 between 06hr00 and 10hr00. Their death was violent, and caused by the assegais and bullets of the Matabele impis still in the fight, and keen for vengeance after the fall of Bulawayo to the Chartered Company, the aged Matabele King Lobengula’s seat of power.

After the fall of Bulawayo, Lobengula and his remaining followers fled north into the wastes of the mopane forests towards the Zambezi River. Dr Jameson and his co-Directors of the Chartered Company felt there was only one way to handle the situation. Send out a patrol with orders to capture, and if necessary, kill Lobengula. Time was of the essence if they were to catch up with the fleeing Matabele. Ignoring vital logistical factors like lack of supplies, shortages of food, the reluctance of many volunteer soldiers to continue, the oncoming rainy season, and the difficult bush country that lay ahead, in their haste to deal with the King they took a gamble. And it was a costly one.

The hastily put together Shangani Patrol (all of whom were volunteers) departed Bulawayo on the 14th November, and if one reads the historical records in books like Robert Cary’s meticulously researched A Time To Die, and Alexander Fullerton’s novel based on fact, The White Men Sang, it soon becomes obvious the patrol was a disaster waiting to happen. There were a series of chronic errors of judgment, constant personality clashes between patrol leaders, and most importantly an arrogant misreading of the enemy’s strengths and intentions.

The Matabele impis lurking in the vicinity of the Shangani River heavily outnumbered the patrol, and soon realised Wilson’s patrol had further weakened their position by allowing themselves to become separated from what the Matabele referred to as ‘Sigwagwas’. The new Maxim guns that had been used during the Matabele uprising for the first time ever in battle. Their devastating firepower bringing down the Matabele as a nation.

Once the fighting had commenced on the banks of the Shangani River, the Matabele cleverly wore the patrol down, constantly advancing and then retiring, whilst the desperate and surrounded patrol continued losing men, and exhausting valuable ammunition. However, and with the odds turned against them the patrol stood firm and died steadfast. One of the Matabele warriors who fought against them would later say, ‘They were men of men, and their fathers were men before them’. Those poetic words by a humble warrior who understood battle, provide the perfect epitaph for an act of great heroism.

As author Carey so rightly points out, and I quote; As is often the case in history, the men who sent out the Shangani Patrol – The Chartered Company and in particular Dr Jameson – were not guided by the same sort of principles as those men who were prepared to die for them …

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