On this date in 1897, the British captured, then summarily tried and shot, one of the most persistent native rebels of the Second Matabele War — or (since that’s the colonial British designation), the Chimurenga, or revolutionary struggle of what would become present-day Zimbabwe.
At this point, it was “Rhodesia”, named for imperialist wizard Cecil Rhodes. It was his British South Africa Company, relentlessly pursuing mineral exploitation,* that had pushed the Union Jack into this land.
For natives, of course, that meant dispossession by white settlers, with all the attendant conflicts.
Chief Chingaira of the Makoni district was one of these: “what annoyed him most was the pegging-out of the whole of his territory for farms or gold claims.”
That’s the sort of thing to annoy a man right into outright hostility — resource conflicts, after all, would soon put British and Dutch settlers into their own war, with memorable results for death penalty history.
Not the less affronted, Makoni rose in the Ndebele-Shona chimurenga of 1896-97.** Though the revolt was defeated, its progress ultimately would claim the lives of 372 settlers — one-tenth of Rhodesia’s white settler population.
Chingaira Makoni and a few dozen of his supporters were besieged from the end of August 1896 in a cave, and forced out after several days by dynamite and pledges of safe conduct. Makoni emerged into capture in the dark of night September 3-4, but as described in this public-domain history of Rhodesia, initial plans for some regular trial were hastily discarded upon the escape of some of his fellows.
… [after capture] it was feared that if Makoni should escape … the whole district would be in a blaze, and that the safety of Umtali itself might be endangered. A court-martial was therefore convened to try him, one of the native commissioners being appointed to act as interpreter, and as his defender. In spite of his assertion that he was innocent, he was found guilty of being a rebel, and of having caused the murder of the three traders; he was therefore sentenced to be shot, and the sentence was carried out at once. He was placed with his back to a corn-bin, on the edge of the precipice on which his kraal stood, and died with a courage and dignity that extorted an unwilling admiration from all who were present. One of the best known men in Salisbury, when talking to me about it, said, “I know of nothing grander than Makoni’s death, than the quiet way in which he spoke to his people, and told them to abstain from further resistance; for himself he only begged that he might be buried decently. ‘And now,’ he said, ‘you shall see how a Makoni can die.'”
As with so many entrants in these dolorous pages, the end of the vital signs were not the end of the story. In consequence of Makoni’s martyrdom:
The officer who ordered his drumhead trial and execution was himself court-martialed — but acquitted
Makoni’s head was allegedly (pdf) hewed off as a trophy (legend has it being sent to Cecil Rhodes† himself)
Chingaira Makoni was elevated into the national mythology of (eventually) Zimbabwe
Though it does not deal in any great detail with our day’s principal, this narrative of the campaign by one of the white soldiers involved makes topical reading.
* Rhodes also founded the De Beers diamond mining colossus.
** Actually (and this is a scholarly pdf),
Academic historians have debated whether or not Chingaira Makoni was really a resister, or whether he did not merely stumble into confrontation with the whites, or whether, indeed, he did nothing at all and was merely a victim of white paranoia. These revisionist debates are very remote from the terms of the Chingaira myth in Makoni in the 1970s. In the myth Chingaira was unequivocally the embodiment of resistance; the hero ambiguously slain; buried, no-one was quite sure where; maybe to come again.
The source cited for this entry’s description of Makoni’s death actually upholds the “he didn’t actually rebel at all” position in its chapter on Makoni.
† Rhodes’s disastrous Jameson Raid on the neighboring Transvaal Republic had itself set the stage for the second Matabele Rebellion by depleting Rhodesian troop strength. It also got brother Frank Rhodes sentenced to death — a sentence later commuted.