The Matebele and the Matopos

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Matabeleland today is a province of Zimbabwe in Southern Africa, and in the 19th century it was the kingdom of the amaNdebele, the 'people of the long shields'. The kingdom was founded by the chief Mzilikazi who had fled north into Zimbabwe from Shaka's Zulu empire and the Boer voortrekkers in South Africa, but it was soon under British rule.

In 1896 the Matabele (the name given to the amaNdebele by the Sotho people) revolted, and took their last stand in the Matopo hills - some very difficult military terrain, consisting of masses of hills, koppies, and boulders.

The young Colonel Baden-Powell, not yet famous from Mafeking which was 3 years in the future, joined the British force. He proved a very useful scout - seeking out hidden enemy positions and gathering information. It was one of Baden-Powell's first military experiences in Southern Africa.

Folk dancing through the Matopos[edit]


Campfire Yarn No. 17 from Scouting for Boys

When I was a fairly active young bounder I went in for skirt dancing. It amused people at our regimental theatricals and it was a good exercise for me. But I came to realize a new value in it later on when I had to carry out some scouting on service against the Matabele in South Africa.

I had climbed into their mountain fastnesses in the Matopo Hills and was discovered by them. I had to run for it. Their great aim was to catch me alive as they wanted to give me something more special in the execution line than a mere shot through the head; they had some form of unpleasant torture in line for me. So when I ran, I ran heartily.

The mountain consisted largely of huge granite boulders piled one on another. My running consisted largely in leaping down from one boulder to another, and then it was that the balance and foot management gained in folk dancing came to my aid. As I skipped down the mountain, I found myself out-distancing my pursuers with the greatest of ease. These, being plains men, did not understand rock-trotting and were laboriously slithering down the boulders after me. So I got away. And with the confidence this engendered, I paid many successful visits to the mountains after this.

- Baden-Powell in Scouting for Boys

The Scout Hat - from Bulawayo[edit]

The first Scout hat came from a shop called Beasley's in the town of Bulawayo in Matabeleland. Soon after he arrived in Bulawayo, Baden-Powell visited Beasley's to replace his military headgear with a 'Boss of the Plains' stetson. Instead of denting the hat in the middle, he poked four fingers into the crown. B-P's hat became his trademark, and later became part of the official Scout uniform.

The lace around the hat began as a good fortune thong given to Baden-Powell by a native of Mafeking.

The Kudu Horn[edit]

The Kudu Horn used by scout camps all over the world also came from Matabeleland. The Matabele had a unique method of military signalling, using the deep note of a kudu horn to carry coded signals over long distances. After the campaign, B-P took one of these horns home as a trophy - the horn had belonged to the Matabele officer Siginyamatshe.

Primary sources[edit]

  • Baden-Powell, Scouting for Boys, Campfire Yarn No. 17
  • MacDonald, Sons of the Empire: the Frontier and the Boy Scout Movement
  • Ransford, Bulawayo: Historic Battleground of Rhodesia