The Matabele Uprising

13 Oct

I’m currently going over my notes on Maurice’s diaries to find relevant snippets for the new paper I’m writing about how the collection was collected. Writing a paper is proving to be pretty slow and hard work for me, and doesn’t give me anything very interesting to share. But reading my notes again reminds me of how much I’ve already found out, and how exciting it will be to carry on researching after this paper is written. So I’ve gone back to the beginning to diary No 1 from Maurice’s trip to Matabeleland to share some interesting stories with you.

I thought that Maurice travelled there with his father Alan de Tatton, but Maurice never mentions him in the diary. But as he often says ‘we’ did this and that I’m assuming he is referring to them both. His safari starts on March 9th as he goes out with several others on horseback in search of game. The safari is very self-sufficient, and the game caught is primarily seen as ‘meat’ rather than an object to be collected. Maurice kills his first animal, a Duiker, on March 10th and says that he goes back to camp hungry for it’s liver.

Maurice is only 21 at this stage, but already believes that he fits in with the safari lifestyle and older more experienced men in the group. He uses their language with ease, using terms like ‘spoor’ (meaning animal tracks or traces) and later on in the uprising ‘kraal’ (cattle enclosure) and ‘laager’ (mobile fort). This always makes me think of one of my favourite stories from Roald Dahl’s autobiography where he describes the strange language spoken by the strange breed of the ‘Empire Builder’ that is indecipherable to him as an outsider. I’m keeping a glossary of these terms and it is like I’m learning a new language! Maurice is also critical of other men who don’t fit in as well as he does. He talks of them leaving two men behind because one is afraid of lions and is a ‘nuisance and encumbrance, although he gave much amusement’.

On March 25th he hears that the natives have risen and murdered several Englishmen. Maurice’s excitement (not sure this is the right word given the threatening circumstances?) bubbles over and his writing in the diary becomes frantic and almost illegible. He joins an encampment in Gwelo and describes the inexperienced nature of his companions who are walking around with dangerously loaded rifles swinging about. One man accidentally shoots off his own hand, and another shoots his friend in the foot. The diary makes for strange reading. One minute he describes the day’s list of casualties and various amputations in his matter of fact reporting style, the next he describes the scores of the cricket games played between various encampments and musical concerts. It doesn’t appear that he ever leaves the laager, and does not have to fight or put himself in danger. I wonder if this is due to his status, or young age? He does have to patrol the laager, and on April 24th the Lieutenant accuses him of falling asleep on duty and neglecting his post. When he has reported other similar incidents, the accused men received heavy fines and many hours of hard labour. However, Maurice just has to call up one witness and his case was dismissed. This seems to be more evidence of his receiving preferential treatment!

There is much anticipation of a visit from Cecil Rhodes, who eventually rides into their encampment on May 5th. However, Maurice seems disappointed with him, stating that he is smaller and older than he imagined and his speech was quite inaudible to nearly everyone. It must be sad, but common, to be let down by your heroes when you meet them in the flesh!

On May 14th he is finally allowed to go out on a march and is glad to be out of Gwelo after being cooped up for so long. I’m struck by the contrast in the way he views the native people before and during the conflict. Before the uprising, Egerton takes photos of ‘natives’ playing instruments and dancing is interested in their lifestyles. During the uprising he makes derogatory comments about the now re-named ‘niggers’, who are very much the enemy, and takes part in pulling down their huts and looting their kraals. I’ve been interested reading through the diaries about his descriptions of the habits and customs of native peoples. He holds so many superstitions and false opinions about them- such as believing that if a black person bites you it causes fingers to drop off, and even that they don’t need as much sleep as he does. It can be a bit uncomfortable reading these clearly racist comments- but to Maurice these opinions were part of a general way of life.

After marching to Bulowayo, the conflict ends for Maurice on May 31st, just 68 days after it started. On this day he could be found at the silver grill dining on welsh rarebit and potatoes, almost as if nothing had ever happened.

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