This date in 1896 during the Second Matabele War saw the execution by field court-martial of the rebellious Chief Uwini.
In the field, it was a short-lived affair.
Ndebele rebels slew over 200 white settlers in Matabeleland and Mashonaland during the first week of the surprising rising in March 1896. But most settlers were able to hunker down in he town of Bulawayo behind makeshift breastworks.
Up to 15,000 Ndebele warriors menaced this little citadel, but were deterred from storming it by the settlers’ modern weapons — artillery and the legendary Maxim gun** — until relieved in May. (Rhodes himself led one of the relief columns.) At that point, the rebels retreated to their strongholds, fragmented from one another, and generally got picked off or bought off group by group over the ensuing months.
One of the men arriving with Rhodes’s relief column was Robert Baden-Powell, an army scout who will bring us to this date’s feature execution.
Baden-Powell was dispatched with a squadron of cavalry to pacify the area northeast of Bulwayo. When he arrived there, one of the main rebel chiefs in the Somabula Forest, Chief Uwini, had just been taken prisoner.
“He was badly wounded in the shoulder, but, enraged at being a prisoner, he would allow nothing to be done for him; no sooner had the surgeon bandaged hi than he tore the dressings off again. He was a fine, truculent-looking savage, and boasted that he had always been able to hold his own against any enemies in this stronghold of his, but now that he was captured he only wished to die.”
This prisoner put Baden-Powell in a conundrum. He had written orders to turn prisoners over to the Native Commission for civil handling (whether trial or otherwise).
Uwini had been induced to surrender by another officer’s promise to spare his life. However, this wounded chief could not be escorted five days back to Bulawayo by a force large enough to protect against the likely rescue attempt by his followers without abandoning his mission. Neither could Uwini be brought along on the patrol.
Something had to give.
Baden-Powell decided it would be the safe-conduct promise.
“I have taken another step, which I hope you will not disapprove of — viz. — trying Uweena by Court Martial,” Baden-Powell wrote his superiors on September 13. “He is the big chief of this part, we have lots of evidence that he instigated rebellion and murders of whites, he is badly wounded, we cannot send him to Buluwayo, and I must be leaving this with some of the senior officers tonight. So if the court find him guilty and sentence him to be shot I shall take on myself the responsibility of confirming it. The effect too should be very good for being carried out promptly and at his own stronghold — and we have a good number of rebels, prisoners and refugees, here to witness it & report it to the remainder.”
Another letter dated later that same day confirmed that the expected sentence had indeed been rendered, and Uwini had been ceremoniously shot that evening at sunset before the walls of the enemy fortress, in the presence of as many witnesses as Baden-Powell could find.
This quasi-juridical field execution put Baden-Powell in front of a court of inquiry after the fact. The court exonerated him, citing the circumstances and the purported effect of the execution in cowing the local insurgents.
Despite leaving the court of inquiry “without a stain on my character,” in Baden-Powell’s own words, this incident can’t help but throw a morally questionable shade for later observers. And this agent of empire does have later observers — because Lord Baden-Powell (as he eventually became styled) would go on to found the Scout Movement.† His 1907 boys scouting camp and subsequent book laid the foundation for the ensuing decades’ Anglo scouting tradition.
And this very Matabele War contributed crucial parts of the scouting backstory. It was in the course of this campaign that Baden-Powell became acquainted with the American scout and adventurer Frederick Russell Burnham. The two struck up a lifelong friendship, and Baden-Powell cribbed notes from the ranger’s guile (like wood “scoutcraft”) his counterpart had picked up on the dwindling American frontier. It was also in Rhodesia that Baden-Powell first wore the Stetson hat and neckerchief combination that would become a distinctive look both for Baden-Powell himself, and for the scout movement he launched.
* As of this story’s setting, the place in question had just begun to be called Rhodesia.
** It is in the context of Great Britain’s colonial adventures in Africa in this period (though not specifically just those of Matabeleland) that Hilaire Belloc published his 1898 poem “The Modern Traveller”. In it, a character named “Blood” gave this early machine gun its definitive literary tribute: it’s the couplet highlighted below, but the larger excerpt may be illuminating.
Blood understood the Native mind.
He said: “We must be firm but kind.”
A Mutiny resulted.
I never shall forget the way
That Blood upon this awful day
Preserved us all from death.
He stood upon a little mound,
Cast his lethargic eyes around,
And said beneath his breath:
“Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”
He marked them in their rude advance,
He hushed their rebel cheers ;
With one extremely vulgar glance
He broke the Mutineers.
(I have a picture in my book
Of how he quelled them with a look.)
We shot and hanged a few, and then
The rest became devoted men.
And here I wish to say a word
Upon the way my heart was stirred
By those pathetic faces.
Surely our simple duty here
Is both imperative and clear;
While they support us, we should lend
Our every effort to defend,
And from a higher point of view
To give the full direction due
To all the native races.
And I, throughout the expedition,
Insisted upon this position.
† Baden-Powell also counseled scouts to be unflinching should the “duty” arise to hang a man.