1896: Chief Uwini of the Maholi

1 comment September 13th, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1896 during the Second Matabele War saw the execution by field court-martial of the rebellious Chief Uwini.

This war, in present-day Zimbabwe, featured a revolt of the Matabele (Ndebele) people against Cecil Rhodes’s* British South African Company.

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.”

-Baden-Powell (Source)

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Zimbabwe

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1896: Chief Chingaira Makoni, Rhodesian rebel

27 comments September 4th, 2010 Headsman

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions,Zimbabwe

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