EXPERIENCE OF RICHARD LE SUEUR FISCHER DURING
THE MASHONALAND REBELION
The Race for life, read by Reg Dawson under the shade tree where the original homestead was builti in
1896, when the grim specter Rinderpest with his attendant train of bald and hideous vultures stalked though the land, leaving a trail of bleaching bones and rotting hides, where formerly thousands of cattle browsed contently in the sunny pastures, the witch doctors, encouraged by the diminution of the Police Force, owing to the recent Jameson Raid, raised the standard of Rebellion in Matabeleland.
The power and influence of these Native Priests was still enormous, and their frenzied exhortations met with a ready response from the warlike Matabele who were still chaffing under the peaceful conditions imposed by their British conquerors, and were soured and discontented, owing to the loss of almost all their worldly wealth through the ravages of rinderpest. The white men shall be driven into the seas, said the witch doctor, for by our spells and enchantments their bullets shall be turned into water, wherefore your spears shall be dipped in the life blood of your oppressors and their possessions shall be yours.This was the fire kindled, which laid many an isolated homestead in smoking ruins and sent many a peaceful family to that borne from which no traveler returns.
From Matabeleland, the rebellion soon spread to Mashonaland, where the Mashona, although inferior in courage and physique to their belligerent neighbours, had even more implicit faith in their witch doctors, and were easily persuaded to embark in a campaign of murder and pillage.
The Governmenty took prompt measures to deal with the outbreak and dispatched Messengers to the outlying settlers, informing them the Natives had risen, and warned them to come into the laagers, that were formed at Salisbury, Marandellas, Headlands and Umtali.
At that time I was farming alone at Fischers Vale about four miles from the Headlands laager, my nearest white neighbor being a man named Watson, who was the proprietor of a trading store about seven miles from the Laager.
The Government officials throughout the Colony were, of course, appraised of the position of affairs, and Mr. Ross, the Native Commissioner of my district, who was a friend of mine, immediately sent a Messenger advising me to join the Headlands Laager, as whole families in the neighbourhood of Salisbury and Marandellas had already been cruelly murdered.
I was very busy reaping forage and trying to save a remnant of my cattle, which were stricken with rinderpést, and, as my experience of the local Natives had causes me to form a very low estimate of their fighting qualities, I disregarded this friendly warning and replied that I would hold on until the situation became more serious. I also wrote to Watson informing him that there was no immediate cause for alarm and there was, at the moment at all events no need for him to abandon his store and seek safety at Headlands.
A few days later, the entire male Native population in the Marandellas district took the field and it was therefore decided to evacuate the Marandellas Laager and concentrate on Headlands, a decision which involved a forty-mile trek through hostile territory. In the grey dawn, the party set out on their perilous
journey, the women and children in mule wagons, the men, some on foot and some on horseback. They were heavily attacked on route, but each time succeeded in beating off the enemy and finally arrived at Headlands that night without the loss of a single life. The Natives however pressed close on the heels of the
settlers, their numbers growing more and more formidable, owing to accessions from the various kraals situated on the line of the march.
At six oclock that evening a breathless and perspiring messenger brought another note from Mr. Ross For
Gods sake, and as you value your life, come in at once, said the message. The Natives in the whole district have risen to a man and it is expected they will try and rush the laager tonight. Hurry, hurry, hurry.
This was an SOS that could not be ignored, so after dispatching a fleet of Native runners with a similar message to Watson, I had a wash and some dinner and prepared to leave the farm.
It was clear moonlight and I was about to mount a mule, my only other means of transport being a riding donkey, when I heard firing in the direction of Headlands, and not unnaturally concluded that the threatening assault on the laager was taking place. I felt quite sure that the attack would be repulsed and
reckoned that the Natives would then make for the nearest farm, on looting thoughts intent.
Now the nearest farm was mine and it was abundantly clear that if I attempted to reach the laager by the road across the open veldt I should run right into the main body of the enemy, whereupon my earthly career would come to a sticky and unpleasant end. The alternative route was along a range of kopjes, but as these were all occupied by Native kraals, this method of escape was far too dangerous to contemplate.
I decided therefore, that the safest course would be to lie doggo during the night in the kopje adjoining the homestead, in the hop. that a mounted relief party would be sent from the
Laager in the morning.
My supply of labour for the farm consisted of about fifteen Mashona, who lived in a small kraal near the homestead and it was certain that these Natives would join their black brethren as soon as they discovered the state of affairs, I informed them that the Matabele were out on a raiding expedition and were murdering all and sundry. They must therefore, send away their women and children to hiding places in the hills, while the men would remain with me to do battle with the invaders.
After driving my cattle and sheep as far as possible away from the homestead, I armed several of the Natives with shotguns and proceeded to take up a strategic position in a kopje about two hundred yards away from the farm house among some rocks which commanded a view of the house and where Watson joined me.
Here, on a cold winters night, we dared not light a fire, nor could we even smoke the weary vigil commenced and time seemed to stand still, as with every faculty strained to its utmost tension, we watched and waited for the advent of our enemies, every now and then peering cautiously over the rocks for any sign of their approach.
The intolerable suspense was relaxed about midnight when the first batch of the marauding Natives signified their arrival by loud whistling on one side of the farm house. As soon as this signal was answered from the other side of the house, the two parties yelling and brandishing their weapons like men possessed, rushed the building battered down the doors and commenced a wild scramble for the loot which consisted mainly of trading goods, such as blankets, salt and assorted kaffir truck.
Having divided the spoils, the Natives made a huge bonfire by the side of the house over which they basted an unfortunate sheep which had wandered back to the homestead, where it was warmly welcomed.
While these culinary operations were proceeding, clad in many hued blankets and bedecked with gewgaws taken from my store, the Natives danced around the fire, shouting and singing and working themselves into such a state of frenzied excitement that the spectacle closely resembled an orgy of demons from the nether regions.
As I was watching their weird contortions and wondering what this moonlight entertainment would cost me, the Mashona I had collected who had been whispering excitedly amongst themselves, came to me and said, Baas, these are not Matabele, for we can by their speech that they are our people, let us go nearer
in order that we may learn the truth. Believing that they intended to betray me, in which case I should most certainly be murdered, my reply was more forcible than polite, The first man that attempts to move from this spot dies.
Just as day was breaking, the raiders moved off in the direction of a kraal, about 2 miles away, with the intention, as I thought of procuring kaffir beer and enlisting new recruits. As soon as the last man disappeared into the bush I went down to the house to ascertain the extent of my losses and found that every door and window had been smashed and every article of value I ossessed looted. While engaged in this melancholy survey, I noticed six Natives, dressed in white blankets, coming up from the river towards the house in front of which a wagon was standing. I marshaled my armed Natives behind this wagon and with the object of killing the whole party in one fusillade, told my followers not to fire until I gave the word.
In the meantime, Watson very wisely decided that it would be foolish to delay any longer on the farm and that now was the time to endeavor to reach the comparative safety of the laager at Headlands. I thought I knew better but while I was waiting for the six Natives to come closer, a Cape boy, who was standing on a higher ground called out Look to your right Baas and to my dismay I saw a horde of Natives emerging from the bush, about 250 yards away, rushing towards the house. Then indeed I knew that the hunt was up and my only chance of escape lay in an instant and speedy flight.
By the Grace of God, the Natives, who were with me bolted up the kopje behind the house and being dressed in European clothes, the Mashona thinking I was in the party followed hot foot on their track, while I sprinted like the devil along a path at the foot of the kopje. However, I did not get much of a start for when the pursuers had run a short distance up the kpoje, they spotted me and with triumphant yells immediately gave the View Hallo to the rest of their companions who tore after me like a pack of eager fox hounds in full cry. Then the grim four mile race began, with life the prize and death the forfeit, and well for me it was that I was in good training, hard as nails and able to outrun any Native.
I was, however, handicapped by the heavy load of cartridges, with which I had filled my pockets, so reckoning that a few packets of cartridge would be of little service to a dead man, I began to throw them away as I ran, reserving a packet or two for present use, and if necessary, for a last desperate stand.
As soon as I reached the open veldt I turned about, faced the swarm of Natives who were about two hundred yards away and fired at the nearest man. This checked the pursuit for a few moments, as the pursuers paused to give me a volley from the ancient flintlock guns with which some of them were armed. Fortunately, they were poor marksmen and the short range of their obsolete weapons rendered them almost harmless. From time to time I repeated this performance until I came up with Watson about two miles from the laager.
Watson, who was in no form for a Marathon race was beginning to tire but my arrival revived his flagging energy and we hurried on together as fast as our legs could carry us, halting every now and then to fire at the enemy and obtain a brief respite for our throbbing lungs and aching limbs. Gradually, the Natives decreased the distance between us and then the hum of the slugs and the peculiar singing noise made by the pot legs as they hurtled through the air from the barrels of our adversaries blunderbusses and trade guns began to get unpleasantly close.
The situation rapidly becoming critical, I had fired my last cartridge and the Natives were fast closing in on us when we sighted the laager and I called on Watson for a last desperate spurt. He responded nobly and putting forth in one supreme effort every ounce of energy that remained in us, we staggered breathless and exhausted into the laager. We had won the race.