Page last updated 18/04/12

Mr Richard Knight wrote the following article in 1987 for “The Journal of the Rhodesian Study Circle” (the society of specialist collectors of Rhodesian stamps and postal history)




"Active Service" entires from the Matabele War of 1893/94 are not common, and it was pleasing to be able to acquire one recently. While showing signs of age (not to say "being tatty"), it is nevertheless an intriguing item.

The cover, addressed to England, is endorsed (top right) "On Active Service/bulawayo/ No stamps procurable". As is frequently the case with such covers, it has been taxed 6d in blue crayon and bears the "6d" handstamp of, probably, the British Post Office. It is cancelled "Palapye NO. 25.93" and backstamped in British Bechuanaland (probably Vryburg) on DEC. 7 1893.

Matabele war letter envelope

 The letter is reproduced below. It has not as yet been possible to establish when the writer George Rattray went to Rhodesia; his name does not appear in the Roll of the Pioneer Column. The letter is written on 8 sides of notepaper, of which 6 are crossed, making 14 sheets in all.

The contents of the letter have been compared with two other descriptions of the occupation of Bulawayo: "The Memoirs of D.G. Gisborne: Occupation of Matabeleland"(1) and "The Matabele War" (Chapter six of "Rhodesian Genesis")(2); the three descriptions tally reasonably closely. What may be described as "Editorial Notes" have been added by the writer of this note to expand some of the remarks made in the letter. ( - - - indicates that words are indecipherable due to the depredations of fishmoths, (?) indicates doubt as to the correct word).

By way of background, for the invasion of Matabeleland one Column of men was recruited in Salisbury by Major Forbes (250 men) and one in Victoria by Capt. Allan Wilson (400 men). The Columns joined near Iron Mine Hill, thereafter, travelling parallel all the way to Bulawayo, the Salisbury Column keeping the right flank, Victoria the left.

Nov. 11th 1893


"My dear Mamma

 I take this opportunity to write to you as a carrier goes to Tati tomorrow. I would have written before but have had no chance whatever. We crossed the Shashi on the 15th October and have had a fairly lively time ever since. The Salisbury column joined us about six days after(3) and we have laagered side by side ever since. The day before we met our scouts had the first skirmish and captured six hundred head of cattle, the Salisbury scouts capturing 250.(4) Two hundred and fifty of the best were picked out and sent back to Victoria as loot,(5) the remainder we ate in a couple of weeks. Captain Campbell of Salisbury had his leg shattered(6) by a lump of iron the beggars load their guns with, and had to have the limb cut off, he died the same night and was buried with military honours. We had two or three brushes with them later on and shot a good many but nothing serious occurred till we got to the Umshangaan River. We had to outspan in a bad spot as the oxen were knocked up having to trek a long way for water. There was a good bit of bush about and a rise or small Kopje about 400 yards on our flank. About 4 o'clock in the morning(7) the outlying pickets commenced firing. The alarm was sounded and every man was at his post on the wagons. In the excitement our pickets were mistaken in the dark and had a regular volley of bullets sent into them from both laagers, but fortunately none were hit. The maxims (8) were turned on a lot of our Mahalakas, (9) the useless brutes coming rushing towards the laager with assegais and guns and consequently being mistaken for Matabeles. Seven or eight were killed and a numerous lot were wounded. When they were shot they had the sense to lie still till the fight was over. The Matabele got on the Kopje and commenced a galling fire on us as they got behind anthills and stones. There were two regiments we afterwards found out about 5 000 men. As soon as it commenced to get light we could see them and then they got it, directly one showed himself about twenty bullets were after him and one always told.

As soon as the sun got up we were ordered to mount and clear them from the valley and flats. As soon as they were seen from the laager trying to surround us, the Maxims and shell guns opened on them. We soon cleared them out though I can tell you the bullets were coming thick. Reins were cut, shoulder straps taken away, hats bored, horses shot underneath their riders yet strange to say not a man was wounded. The one pounder killed twelve in a lump not far from us and the seven pounder shelled the Kopjes all round within 4 miles. The latter gun did tremendous damage, killing them by fifties. They couldn't make it out at first as they saw the smoke miles off and heard the report and presently another report in the middle of them and dead and dying all round. They call it the "by 'n bye" gun and at first it was amusing to see them fire volley after volley at the shell directly it dropped thinking if they hit it they might kill it.(10) We moved from that place the same afternoon and laagered two miles further on in a good position.

We continued our march straight for Bulawayo capturing cattle as we went, burning every Kraal we came near and destroying the grain, the niggers having left everything behind. I suppose we have burned about some six thousand huts, one Kraal alone having 150 huts in it. The next place we were attacked was at Bembezi(11) about 21 miles from Bulawayo, and by the two crack regiments, the regiments that have never known defeat, the "Imbezi" and the "Ingobo", the Kings own. They (12) had just laagered up at dinner time when they(l3) were seen trying to drive off the horses and cattle. The seven pounder stopped that little game and all the horses and cattle were got into laager. They then came on from the other side where there was a bit of bush, coming within 100 yards of the laager, squatting down and coolly firing at us on the wagons, but they were soon silenced, the maxims started then on those in the bush. You could see them mown down just as if with a scythe but they were there by the hundreds and thousands ............

The seven pounder started firing shrapnell, a shell that bursts in the air pouring down a regular rain of bullets. That silenced them a bit and then our two foot regiments,(14) the redoubtable foot sloggers, were orderd out with fixed bayonets to clear the bush.

This they did in about twenty minutes, the firing on both sides being heavy but strange to say not a man of ours was hit while the Matabele dropped in all. directions. The enemy then retired leaving over 1 500 dead. I was not in the laager at the time being posted vidette on a hill about a mile off and had a good view of it all.

I was by a burning Kraal and the smoke hindered one from seeing what was going on on my right till a bullet came unpleasantly near my head. I thought it was time to be moving so mounted my horse and rode off. Another bullet landed in front, so I had a look round and there was a Matabele squatting behind a stone coolly practising at me. I couldn't stop as the niggers were closing round towards the laager, so galloped off and got in all right. I was lucky as two other videttes posted from the Salisbury column both got assagaied and shot. From our laager no one was killed or wounded but the Salisbury lost 3 killed(15) and seven wounded. By jove, but the ground was strewn with Matabeles up in the bush.(16) We took about twenty rifles from the dead, rifles of all kinds, elephant guns or(?) gas pipes, blunderbusses, Martini Henry's and Repeating Winchesters which they have got from hunters going into the country. We heard next day from a M'be the scouts captured that 1 700 Imbezi went to the King and asked leave to go and catch the white man and bring them in for the King to play with. The King said "You can go, but I'll eat a live dog if you beat the ......." The Imbezi ...... and 200 returned to the King. Lo Ben said 'Well, where are the wagons of the white man, I don't hear them.' The remnant said 'They are over there still.' 'Well where is the Imbezi, where is the Ingobo?' 'They are finished' answered the 200. I believe Lo Ben was said to say 'Well, then, if they are finished I am too. So giving the word to his indunas he packed his wagons and all Bulawayo trekked north, Lo Ben blowing up his house behind him(17) so that when we arrived in Bulawayo the next day(18) his house was in ruins. I can tell you we are living rough now, half rations, double work and now today they tell us all the meal is finished. We have been living mostly on Kafir corn, which is beastly unpalatable and indigestable but we can get as much meat as we want.

Fever was pretty brisk about forty miles back and I had a couple of attacks in a week, but the country there was very low and a lot. of stagnant water knocking about.

Bulawayo is as healthy a place there can possibly be but at the same time the dust is such a nuisance, volumes of dust sweeping through camp every minute, getting in the grub that is being cooked, let alone one's eyes. I believe we are being disbanded next month. A hundred BBP(19) and fifty of the Tull Column arrived yesterday and together with 100 of our chaps started in pursuit of Lo Ben last night. They are to travel all night and come upon the niggers at daybreak. They have taken maxims and 2 seven pounders as Lo Ben has taken up a very strong position on a Kopje with thick bush round it for miles.(20)  The day after we got up here we rushed up to Lo Ben's house or rather ruins to see if we couldn't find some of the talked-of riches, but bar a silver elephant and  two Jubilee(22) shillings nothing of any value was found, but the collection of things was amusing, but of course everything was destroyed by the explosion. There was beads by the ton, cartridges of all kinds blown to bits, I should think there must have been quite 40 000 rounds destroyed, Musical boxes, opera glasses, guns and toys of all descriptions. The house was built of bricks and stood in the centre of a big oblong ...... around which were about 200 huts belonging to his wives and head indunas. Bulawayo is a big place. There was a sale here of the stuff in the white man's store, (23)b bacon fetching 8 and 9 shillings a pound tobacco 10s and preserved meat and fish ...... 5 and 6 shillings a tin. A small tin of pearl barley went for 26s and compressed vegetables 21s a tin. The chaps made more money that day than they had taken ever since they started trading in Bulawayo. Raafs column with 50(?) wagons is expected in today togethe; with the remainder of the BBP. Two companies of the Black Watch,(24) two companies of Dragoons(25) and a company of the CMR(26) are ten days behind and will bring full rations for us all. We have heavy work now building a fort, three hours fatigue a day let alone guards and videttes. No gold has been found in the country yet so farms are fetching low prices at present, 100£ being the highest price paid for a right up to now (?) very few are (?) off as everyone knows the country is bound to go ahead. I am expecting a big bundle of letters from Victoria when the carrier comes as I have not heard from you for a couple of months. I must now end up hoping you are all very well and with best love to all I remain,

Your affectionate son,

George Rattray"



1.               "Rhodesians" No. 18, p.1 - 21 (The Rhodesians Society, Salisbury, July 1968) referred to as "Gisborne."

2.               "Rhodesian Genesis", written by Neville Jones for the Rhodesia Pioneers and Early Settlers' Society (The Society, Bulawayo, 1953) (referred to as "Genesis").

3.               According to both Gisborne and Genesis the Columns joined up on 16th October.

4.               Gisborne says 240.

5.               According to Genesis (p.83) "the Forces were unpaid but each man was to get a farm of 3 000 morgen, the right to peg 20 gold claims and a share in the loot, such loot being Lobengula's personal cattle". The term "Lobengula's personal cattle" was probably rather widely interpreted.

6.                "In a paltry attempt to surround three or four head of cattle" (Gisborne p.3). He was rescued by 20 men with a scotchcart and Dr Jameson, who was with the Columns, amputated the leg.

7.               25th October 1893

8.               The Columns had with them two seven-pounder guns, one Gardener (one-pounder?) gun, one Nordenfelt and one Hotchkiss (maxims)(Genesis p.83). The frequent references in all three accounts to the "maxims" (single-barrelled quick-firing water-cooled machine guns (O.E.D)) and their usefulness reminds one of:
"For whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun and they have not".

9.               The Columns were accompanied by about 500 native levies "who could not be counted on to fight their late oppressors but were useful in carrying thornbush to protect the laager in open country against a rush" (Genesis p.83).

10.            Gisborne (p.6) also refers to the Matabele firing at the shells.

11.            On 1st November 1893 (Gisborne, p.6)

12.            i.e. the Columns

13.            i.e. the Matabele. Rattray's use of pronouns is sometimes somewhat confusing!

14.            A troop of dismounted Victorians (Gisborne, p.7)

15.            Both Gisborne (p.7) and Genesis (p.88) say one killed, but two died later in the day, whom Rattray may have counted as killed.

16.       Gisborne (p.7) gives the estimate of Matabele losses as from 500 to 1 000.

17.       "It was the kings magazine (which had been) shifted to the town of Bulawayo where one of the chiefs, acting on the king's instructions, had blown it up" (Genesis p.89)

18.       4th November 1893.

19.       Bechuanaland Border Police. A force of 225 officers and men of the BBP and 225 officers and men of a force known as Raaffs Rangers (under the command of Commandant Raaff, C.M.G. who had fought in the Zulu War (1879) and the Boer War of 1880) all under Major Goold-Adams, was advancing on Bulawayo under Major Goold-Adams from the South, guided by F.C. Selous (see Genesis, p.91 - 92). The force also had 130 mounted and 1 800 unmounted Bechuanas.

20.       This force, which Gisborne (p.10) puts at 320 men, became based on Inyati and for 21 days, during which the "Shangani Patrol" was annihilated, was out in the bush.

21.       This may refer to the discovery by Bain of "the seal, a silver elephant, presented to Lobengula by the Tati Concession Coy which Mr Rhodes secured from him and placed in Groote Schuur" (Genesis, p.90)

"There is at Groote Schuur an embossing machine for producing a design in the manner of a seal", but this seal was in the custody of Trader James Fairbairn and not "found buried" by Bain.

According to a note in the National Archives of Zimbabwe, a seal ring with a design of a shield resting on two crossed assegais was found by Dr Jameson's personal batman on 4th November 1893
in one the the "Queens" huts. " This seal is in the Rhodes Memorial Museum at Bishops Stortford." (see "Africana Notes and News," Dec 1955, Vol Xl, No. 9)

22.       i.e. 1887.

23.       Owned by Fairbairn & Usher (Genesis p.89) but possibly Dawsons store, on top of which Fairbairn and Usher spent the night of 3/4 November 1893, with their rifles, plenty of ammunition and a pack of cards. A contemporary account says:      "They (i.e. the first troops to arrive in Bulawayo) found them playing poker on the roof" (see "White Man's Camp: Bulawayo" by O.N. Ransford in "Rhodesiana," Vol 3, p.13).

24.       i.e. Bechuanas (see note 19)(unmounted?).

25.       Possibly mounted Bechuanas: the allusion is not clear, but no Imperial troops were with the Southern Column.

26.       Cape Mounted Rifles - this may be rumour, since as far as the writer of the note has been able to ascertain, the Cape Mounted Rifles (a Cape Colonial Regiment) was not involved.