Monday 12 December 2022

Monday 12th December - To the Memory of Brave Men

 I'm under a heated blanket with the dog but I am beginning to feel vaguely Christmas-y.  We even started to watch Christmas films yesterday, by which I mean I watched Zulu.  Okay, it's not a traditional Christmas tale, there isn't really any snow and no-one gets any presents but a bit like The Great Escape, Sound of Music and Star Wars, it is a film I associate with Christmas because that's when it's on telly.  Anyway, that leads me on to today's massacre...

'To the Memory of Brave Men' (1897) Allan Stewart

This is another painting from the exhibition at the Russell-Cotes at the moment, all about narrative art and pictures that tell stories.  The story of Allan Stewart's 'To the Memory of Brave Men': The Last Stand of Major Allan Wilson at the Shangani, Rhodesia, 4th December 1893 is not exactly a jolly one (marvellous) but the painting had a very interesting afterlife. The title comes from a carving on a tree, made by the man who supervised the burial of the soldiers - To the Memory of Brave Men, but the sentiment says much more about England's Empire ambitions at this time.

To start with, this is a huge painting at over 2 metres long and a metre and a half tall. It is an autographed copy of Stewart's original, which was gifted to the people of Rhodesia (how kind) (and also, yes, that would be the white people) and hung in Bulawayo City Hall for many years.  It is now missing, which is interesting but if you consider the subject matter, unsurprising, especially as the people of Rhodesia have lived in Zimbabwe since 1980 (I was surprised it was that late).  So, who was Major Allan Wilson?

Major Wilson and moustache

Wilson was Scottish, but soon travelled to South Africa to join the Cape Mounted Rifles and fight the colonial fight for which he was decorated. When the First Ndebele (Matabele) War (1893-4) erupted, Wilson was perfectly placed to lead men, reaching the rank of Major and taking command of the Shangani Patrol in pursuit of King Lobegula...

The King and one of his wives on the front of The Sketch (1893)

The pursuit in December of 1893 was a difficult one through hard terrain and difficult weather. Wilson led 34 soldiers in a patrol, aiming to capture the King or at least bring information back to Major Patrick Forbes's column who were following. They had travelled down a river but were ambushed by 3,000 Ndebele warriors after their attempt to capture the King.  It did not go well...

A cigarette card of Wilson's Last Stand

The patrol was hopelessly outnumbered, and in a last-ditch effort, three of them fled in order to get Forbes to send back up, but all too late and the remaining soldiers were all killed in what became known as 'Wilson's Last Stand'. You will notice the difference between the cigarette card and Stewart's painting in that the locations are difference.  Wilson was ambushed on grassland by a river (where the scouts escaped) but in Stewart's painting, the soldiers are circled in a forest clearing, preparing to meet their doom. The forest surroundings make it easier not to see the on-coming Ndebele warriors - isn't it odd that we don't call the Ndebele men 'soldiers', we call them 'warriors'? I have a suspicion it's racist because we wouldn't dream of calling any other occcupied force that.  'Warrior' has positive connotations too, but it is really just something we call chaps of colour or people we consider less civilised than what we are, thank you very much.  While we are on the subject of the Ndebele, where are they?

Hello?  Ndebele?
In Stewart's painting, and on the cigarette card too, the gentlemen of Ndebele are somewhat absent. They are shadowy presence, figures in the gloom of a shot-up forest towards which the men of Wilson's troop are directing fire.  Technically, we the viewer are where the Ndebele are, so are we meant to be the ambusher as well? I very much doubt that, given that the intended audience was Victorian England who weren't exactly conflicted over the matter of Empire. Maybe then we are in the position of the rescuing force from Forbes?  Unlikely too, as the whole point of the picture is the last stand of Wilson and his men.  We are just there to witness ther heroics of Englishmen because otherwise we might start asking questions like Henry Hook in Zulu (1964) who asks why he's there because it's not like he sees Zulus coming down the road in England. I think we don't see the Ndebele as it might make the viewer think 'oh, they are just men, so why didn't we beat them? Why are we not better because I thought we were the best!' Hmmm, we can't have that sort of introspection, that never ends well.

There Were No Survivors (1900, from Stewart's 1896 painting)

Like many of the defeats and disasters of Empire, the Shangani Patrol were soon rolled into legend and the defeat seen in the light of a sort of heroic martyrdom. This is not the last time we'll see this during Stabvent, but I find this really, really peculiar, not just the fact they did it, but the scale of it.  In the year before Stewart's painting, Augustus Harris wrote Cheer, Boys, Cheer! in which the climax was a re-enactment of Wilson's Last Stand.  It sounds absolutely revolting, involving singing 'God Save the Queen' and killing vast quantities of Ndebele before walking towards the spears and dying heroically just before the reinforcements, led by a girl (an actual girl, no, really), arrive.  Seeing as the Ndebele were armed with Martini-Henry rifles as well as spears seems to have escaped the writers of the patriotic fluff pieces. The presence of the spears is very evident in all works, littering the foreground of Stewart's piece, together with one of the long shields. Stewart's celebrated painting came hot on the heels of this, much to the pleasure of the newspapers. 

 The East of Fife Record reported that most of the figures were actually portraits and the uniform and surroundings were rendered as realistically as possible (even though the forest is inaccurate as the location).  The lack of colour or gore was noted by several papers, praised as bringing a verisimilitude to art of battle scenes.  The painting was purchased by the Fire Art Society after its appearance at the Royal Academy, where it was displayed in Bond Street for those who had not seen it at Burlington House. In the newspaper reports of the painting, it seems impossible not to include all of the lore of the scene - how the brave band of 34 held back the thousands of Ndebele for two hours, how they were cruelly cut off by the rising of the river and how they fought on bravely, when all hope was gone, from behind the dead bodies of their horses and fallen comrades etc etc.  All of these things cannot be proved as help was sent for before the last stand and all that was found was the bodies of the patrol.  Moments like this, in the grand scheme of Empire, have to be placed in a context that stops people questioning and so the myth of heroes rises and is repeated. Before the end of the century, a film appeared, showing Wilson's last stand, and Robert Baden Powell gave directions in his handbook for scouts on how to re-enact it as a jolly patriotic play.  Blimey, the past is a weird place...

This won't be our last foray into Empire and it is indeed a very difficult place to understand now, but the need of normal people to interpret the mistakes and horrors of what we were doing in other people's countries is essential to understand.  In many ways, it might help us see it in our own media today.

See you tomorrow...

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Kirsty. People are always going to make mistakes, but we never seem to learn from the past. Marching in to another country and trying to take it over is never a good idea...ever.
    Best wishes


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx