The Siege of Deary’s Store at Abercorn June 21st – July 13th, 1896
This almost unknown site today was the scene of a desperate fight that took place in June / July 1896. Similar scenes had occurred in Matabeleland in late March 1896 when the Matabele uprising or first Umvukela broke out. At Edkins’ Store, Cumming’s Store, Ingwenya Store, at Inyati where Native Commissioner Graham and his courageous comrades were surprised and overwhelmed and at Thabas a Mambo where the West Brothers fought on until the last cartridge.
In Mashonaland, at the Alice Mine at Mazoe and Hartley Hill, small parties of besieged Europeans managed to hold out until relief came. At the Deary's Store, at Abercorn (now Shamva) here described, the seven survivors held out for 23 days, although John Rowland died of dysentery on the return journey to Salisbury.
There are many tales of massacres and sometimes hairbreadth escapes by small parties of Europeans; but this feat at the Deary Store for simple courage and endurance in view of their isolated position exceeds all others, although at the time the incident appears to have been treated as of no great consequence.
Take the (A2) Enterprise Road, passing through Newlands and Chisipite and continuing until the tollgates. Distances are from the tollgates. 0.2 KM turn left on the (A13) Shamva Road; 15.4 KM pass Ewanrigg turnoff on the right, 21.6 KM reach Bally Vaughn entrance on the left. 44.0 KM reach Murmurgwe rock art site on the left, 68.8 KM reach the Bindura road and turn left. There are 4 KM of very broken up road until 72.4 KM cross the railway line. Drive onto the excellent double-tar road (the old Tafuna hill road joins from the left) and continue past at 74.6 Km the entrance to the GMB depot / signpost to the Ming Chang Sino Africa Mining and Milling Company. At 75 KM turn left onto a track just short of where the tarred road ends.
Continue down this dusty track, which is very slippery and muddy in the rainy season, and continue past the first road that joins from your left after 450 metres. After 1 KM turn left onto the second road going east and after 170 metres joins the old Tafuna hill road. Continue on another 200 metres and park. The iron grave marker for John Fletcher’s gravesite is visible about 20 metres from the road south looking to Tafuna hill.
The siege site is 70 metres west of the grave marker, but all local signs of the siege have been lost as the area was bulldozed by gold seekers and in the rainy season is dug up for growing maize.
The old Tafuna Hotel and Store is just 180 metres to the north west of the siege site and several footpaths lead to the cluster of huts on the prominent rise. The cement floor and broken bricks are visible.
The site of Alex Kay’s grave is well hidden in the grass and still covered in blue quartz stones, but the grave marker seen by Col. A.S. Hickman in his photograph has gone.
GPS reference for John Fletcher’s grave: 17⁰20′15.49″S 31⁰30′41.41″E
GPS reference for the Deary's Store siege site: 17⁰20′15.44″S 31⁰30′39.16″E
GPS reference for the Tafuna Hotel and Store: 17⁰20′10.79″S 31⁰30′35.21″E
GPS reference for Alex Kay’s grave: 17⁰20′11.49″S 31⁰30′38.44″E
The story is told in the The '96 Rebellions published by thr BSA Co. but the details would habe become lost if Col. A.S. Hickman had not written The Siege of the Abercorn Store in Rhodesiana No. 9 of December 1963 which is highly recommended reading.
In 1896, there was a small community of prospectors, miners and traders at Tafuna Hill, some six kilometres southwest of modern day Shamva town, but then called the Abercorn District, after James Hamilton, 2nd Duke of Abercorn and Chairman of the BSA Company.
Deary and Co. had established a trading store at the site of the subsequent siege north of Tafuna Hill and on the track of the old road to Salisbury (now Harare) When the Matabele uprising, or First Umvukela had broken out in late March 1896; nobody suspected similar trouble in Mashonaland. However, it was noticed there was a general increase in lawlessness, especially in the Mazowe district where the police had withdrawn from their camp and this and other mining camps had been broken into. The Acting Administrator Mr Justice Joseph Vintcent issued a Notice to Prospectors and Others through the Government Gazette of 15th April 1896 which said: “..although his Honour the Acting Administrator and the Council have no reason to believe that there is any probability of a similar rising of natives in Mashonaland, yet they consider it desirable to point out that, should the natives of Mashonaland take advantage of the present crisis and attack isolated stores, mining camps and farms, it is important to impress upon such persons as are in outlying and isolated positions the necessity of vigilance.” On 24th April the Mazowe residents petitioned for ammunition...”most of us have rifles, but are short of ammunition…a precautionary measure…we feel perfectly safe” and one thousand rounds were issued to them.
When the news of the murders at Hartley on 15th June and Beatrice on the following day reached Mazowe by telegraph, the residents decided to withdraw to Salisbury, but it was already too late and they were forced into their laager at the Alice Mine.
Even before the siege of Abercorn began, a party of four prospectors who had taken the track through Mazowe and continued down the Mazowe Valley, were fired upon whilst passing Chipadzi’s kraal; Joseph Francis Deane and James Stroyan were wounded, with John Fletcher and George Holman unhurt, and they brought news of the uprising to the scattered mining community and when they reached Deary’s Store at Abercorn on the evening of Saturday 20th June. Deary’s Store had not been designed for defence; it was in a bad position on the level; with rising ground on every side, particularly the lower slopes of Tafuna Hill, but there was no other choice. Only 180 metres to the north was the future site of the old Tafuna Hotel and Store, which would have made a much better defensive site, but there was neither the time or resources to locate their laager at this site.
Edward Broadbent says the local people had been very friendly and the uprising caught them by surprise. However, he stated that for some time before these events there had been a big demand for powder and caps for muskets, but that just before the Hartley murders, trade had suddenly stopped.
The settlers quickly prepared for their defence and fortified Deary’s Store and remained in a state of siege for 23 days until relieved by a patrol from Salisbury under AHF Duncan, the acting Administrator for Southern Rhodesia then standing in for Dr Jameson. Edward Charles Broadbent is described as a prospector working between the Mazowe and Pote rivers and seems to have taken charge of the group, and later wrote an article for the Rhodesia Herald after their rescue.
At that time, the store buildings consisted of two store huts with a kitchen and mess huts in line on either side, and the group decided to set up the laager about 15 yards to the north od Deary’s Store. It was in the form of a half-circle with the flat side to the north, furthest from the store. The men burned down the store hut to the south east as the long grass came up close and provided cover for the attackers. “The foundations of the laager were made from sacks of mealies; cases of corned beef, liquor, and pickles were used for the breastwork. We loopholed it as well as we could, and filled up surplus holes with limbo, bundles of socks, clothing, etc.” said Broadbent.
The inside measurements of the laager were about fourteen square metres (150 square feet) and the initial occupants consisted of nineteen persons comprising nine European men, five Zambezi men, one woman, a girl, and three young boys, together with six dogs that later proved most useful in their warnings of rebels approaching. Twenty-five other Zambezi employees deserted when the first shots were fired.
Louis Hermann had a horse and volunteered to ride to Salisbury to report on their situation. He left early the next day, Sunday 21st June, but was overpowered and murdered at Makombi’s kraal. Three of the Zambezi Men were also sent with notes to Salisbury, but may have deserted as they were never heard of again.
That same morning before the laager had been completed, Mashona fighters came in force from the Pote River side on the west and opened fire at 9:30am. They were driven off by volley fire, and moved through the long grass south of the store and also blocked the road to the north. Edward Broadbent was injured with a dislocated shoulder in this first exchange of shots, and several Mashona were shot dead, including their leader. The remainder swore vengeance before retiring into a kopje overlooking the store to the southeast where a noisy council-of-war was held, during which time the defenders completed their laager.
The Mashona shouted that they wanted to parley, but no notice was taken of them, except by John Fletcher, who against orders and advice, walked to the edge of the long grass, held up his arms to show he was without firearms, and was immediately shot dead. His body lay where it fell, and is buried at the same spot where his grave may be seen to this day about 70 metres east of the the laager site on the farm “The Carse.”
From then onwards there would be no relaxation for the besieged. On the 24 / 25 June, very determined attacks were made with Broadbent estimating between 70 – 80 attackers armed with guns and battle-axes and assegais. Late on 25 June, the majority of the rebels left, leaving sufficient men to maintain the siege and keep up a harassing fire on the laager. When the rebels crept up close through the long grass to the south and southwest, the defenders threw out plugs of dynamite with short fuses.
The defenders had plenty of tinned foods and made bread using beer; but had only beer and sweet red dessert wine to drink. The most serious problem was the lack of water as they were about 900 metres from the Pote River to the west. The first trip to get water was successful, but in the second, none of the four Zambezi men ever came back. For the third trip, the remaining Zambezi man, a boy and the girl went out. The man returned with bad assegai wounds and died, the boy returned the next day and the girl was not seen again. In the fourth trip, the unwounded Europeans, Pickering, Ragusin and Rowland and a young boy successfully managed to bring water from the Pote River, but their footprints were discovered and the besiegers: “built a cordon of scherms (bush fences) around us, and pretty effectively cut off any chance of egress on our part.”
Their attackers shouted out that they knew there was no water in the laager and they would soon force them all from the laager. They added that if they handed over the goods and guns they would let them go; but when the small party took no notice of the offer, they added they would kill them all as they had killed their leader.
Broadbent says their sanitary arrangements were “pretty well as defective as they possibly could be” as nobody could leave the laager and Holman and Rowland suffered from dysentery throughout the siege. This combined with the stench of dead bodies “made things horribly unpleasant” and they all suffered from fever.
As Col. Hickman says in his article it is amazing that they managed to keep up their morale in such awful circumstances. They were fortunate in having medical dressings and managed to keep their wounds healthy, plenty of tinned food and ammunition from Deary’s Store.
The occupants of the laager were now in a desperate situation with Fletcher dead and Broadbent, Deane, Stroyan and Holman wounded; only Pickering and Ragusin were not wounded; although they were all suffering from fever, and Rowland had acute dysentery. All the Zambezi men and the young girl had disappeared, or were killed; the young boys and the woman had tried to escape, but were prevented from doing so as Broadbent feared that if the attackers learned of their perilous state, they would rush the laager and overwhelm them. Four of the six dogs had been killed and one wounded.
Their attackers kept up a desultory fire throughout the siege and shouted over constantly that the amaNdebele had captured Salisbury and killed all the occupants and they would not be rescued. Broadbent said by the morning of the 13 July; “things were looking very gloomy indeed, it was our twenty-third day in laager; our water, wine and stout about finished, and just about enough beer left to bake one loaf. At about 10:30am we were all lying down in a semi- somnolent, exhausted condition, when we suddenly heard a clatter which we at first took for a rattle of shields, and thought the Matabele were on us. We sprang to our guns, and beheld the never-to-be forgotten sight of the relief column cantering round the corner. Our delight can be better imagined than described. We set up a hysterical cheer which was answered by loud hurrahs by the advancing men.”
The relief patrol commandeered by AHF Duncan with forty mounted men of the Natal Troop and 25 men from the Salisbury Field Force with a Maxim gun and ambulance had set out on the 11th July. The patrol arrived by a route close to the present Shamva Road, the journey of nearly 100 kilometres taking 36 hours, and then returned along the Mazowe and then by the Tatagura River past Mt. Hampden. The different route was probably chosen to avoid being ambushed, but also to assess the military situation of as much of the countryside as they could.
It has been suggested that the photograph below may be of the six European survivors of the Abercorn Store siege; although this has not been verified. The man seated has a double-barrelled rifle; the others have Lee-Metford, or Enfield, or Martini-Henry rifles.
A table of those in the laager includes:
Broadbent, Edward Charles
Tpr Salisbury Field Force 1896
Deane, Joseph Francis
Tpr Salisbury Field Force 1896.
killed in the siege on 21st June and buried on site
murdered at Makombi's kraal whilst riding to Salisbury (now Harare) for help
Tpr Salisbury Field Force 1896. Guide Rhodesia Horse
Tpr Salisbury Field Force 1896
Tpr Salisbury Field Force 1896
Rowland, John Robert
died from dysentery and pneumonia on the 14th July, the day after Duncan's relief force arrived
Served in the Warren Expedition of 1885. Joined the B.B.P. Pioneer Column No.6 Attested 18/4/1889 appointed to “A” troop 27th May . Transferred to Transport Troop 4th June appointed as conductor with rank Sgt. Served as Trp with the Victoria Rangers in the 1893 War. The roll shows him with the 1896 bar.
Tpr Salisbury Field Force 1896, Tpr Umtali Volunteers 1897.
Zambezi natives (5)
one was wounded and died, the remainder were killed, or ran away
Shona boys (3)
killed, or ran away
In his article in Rhodesiana No. 9, which I have quoted extensively, Col. Hickman says they found John Fletcher’s grave, which was probably dug near where he fell; seventy metres from the laager site, beside the road to the old Ilex Mine before it climbs up Tafuna Hill.
At the time of Col. Hickman’s visit the round memorial plaque read: “---Fletcher, BSAP, --96, For Queen and Empire” and in addition had a square piece of tin with the following painted: “Murdered in the Rebellion. 23.03.96. RIP” Clearly the details were wrong; John Fletcher was not a member of the BSAP when he was killed and the date was 21 June 1896.
Behind the grave marker can be seen the hill that overlooked the laager site where their Mashona attackers held their council-of-war and kept up a harassing fire, in the background Tafuna Hill.
The laager site itself, is against and on the south side of the modern gravel road. Although there is nothing left of Deary and Co.’s store which was built of pole and dhaka; Col. Hickman found plenty of broken bottles of Holbrook’s sauce, Eno’s fruit salts and pickles, all favourite foods in 1896, extending for 3-4 metres parallel to the road and marking the laager spot and he picked up many old rusty nails in the dust of the road that presumably came from the packing cases that were used for the breastwork on the laager.
North of Fletcher’s gravesite and the laager site is a small kopje where the old Tafuna Hotel and Store was located and 80 metres east and at the foot of the kopje is a cemetery with one named grave; that of Alex Kay who died on 20th March 1894, two years previously. Kay’s grave is covered in blue quartz rocks and covers the large area of 4.5 x 2.7 metres with an elaborate cross of galvanised zinc at its head. There are other graves here, probably victims of fever, but all records have been lost and I can find no information on Alex Kay. In between this cemetery and the Tafuna Hotel, Col. Hickman found a litter of bricks and broken bottles, including a bottle of “Kirker’s Special Liqueur Scotch Whisky,”
Amazingly, the same broken bottle with lettering on the neck reading “Kirkers” Special Liqueur Scotch Whisky” was purchased at a local Harare auction by Tim Rolfe. Kirkers is no longer produced, but Mitchell Bros Ltd of Glasgow, have found the record of a company meeting held in 1893 by the directors of Messrs. Kirker Greer & Co Ltd.” Inside the neck is a note written by Col. A.S. Hickman saying: neck of Whisky bottle found on the site of the Abercorn (Shamva) laager of 1896. Found in 1958.”
The Tafuna Hotel was on the summit of the small kopje and its foundation features in the photographs. The Store was at the foot of this kopje and consisted of two buildings that were moved down from the Ilex Mine on Tafuna Hill about 1915 and converted into one building that became the hotel, before becoming the store. In 1916, William Samuel Whaley came to Tafuna Hill with his wife and two small children prior to building a house at the Trio Mine and says: “there was a hotel of sorts at Tafuna Siding, one and a half miles from the mine, but it was run by a man whose ideas of cleanliness were so primitive that Josie after one month refused to stay there any longer.”
Col. Hickman adds that the Tafuna Hotel was owned by Galante, then by Mannheim and Weiss, and from 1927 to 1941 Mr and Mrs Marketos ran the store at the base of the kopje. They were aware of the grave, but had not heard of the siege of Deary’s Store
The area now called Shamva was in the 1890’s known as Abercorn after the 2nd Duke of Abercorn, then Chairman of the BSA Company, but the name was altered to avoid confusion with postal addresses in the Abercorn District (now Mbala) in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. At the time, local people wanted the area to be called “Tafuna.” The name Shamva is derived from Tsamvi, a tree common in that region and was named after the Shamva Mine, which was registered in 1907 on the site of the 1895 Lone Star Hill claims.
Eric Rosenthal in his comprehensive survey of the contribution made by Jewish citizens to this country, notes that the young Roy Welensky who eventually became the second and last Prime Minister of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, worked at the Tafuna Hotel. Roy had an Afrikaner mother and a Lithuanian Jewish father, and described himself as "half Jewish, half Afrikaner and 100% British".
In 1920, a 13 year old Roy Welensky found his first job with an auctioneer with the unmistakable name of Ikey Cohen. This was followed by another with Sam Gruber, manager of the famous old firm of Charelick Solomon & Co. Merchants; they were Romanian born Jews and leading members of the Salisbury congregation. Mr. Gruber described Welensky when he first met him as: “a husky young chap, with broad shoulders and an unusually big stomach. Without a jacket, he did not look very presentable, and in his father’s footwear he looked anything but a Puss in Boots. I told him to sit down and, as it was my tea-time, to have a cup. He told me it was very different kind of reception to what he had received elsewhere. I asked him what work he wanted and he quickly said: “Anything, so long as I can earn a living”. I gave him a start and he got along very well, but in those days he did not seem able to settle down anywhere long and after a time he left me.”
His next job was working on a small mine where he met Isaac Benatar, a member of the Sephardic group, and three years older who had only arrived in the country in 1922. He said “Roy was about 16 at the time. Not long before I had come to Salisbury from my native island of Rhodes to work for a cousin of mine in a trading store in Glendale. I persuaded my cousin to take Roy to assist me, because there was far too much for one to do. The store was a small tin shack that could be shifted to another site if trade went sour on us, and there we sold everything from a needle to a side of sheep. Most of our customers were Africans, with whom Roy got on very well. They admired his huge frame and his gentle, considerate way. For this reason I gave him the counter job, while I delivered goods. Both of us slept in a little outhouse tacked on to the back of the store, and I could not help noticing how limited was Roy’s personal wardrobe. He had two well-worn shirts, three pairs of stained and tattered shorts and no pyjamas, he never in fact, owned a pair of pyjamas, or slept between sheets, until he got married! He just used to strip and pull the blanket over him and he turned 20 before he wore a jacket”.
It soon became plain that Roy was growing restless again and he took on the post of a barman at the nearby Tafuna Hotel, where the main clientele were miners from the Shamva Goldfield. “Every month they used to get 36 hours leave; 30 of which they spent at the hotel blowing their pay on a binge. But Roy had no throwing-out to do: his presence was enough. They just drank and horsed about, until they collapsed over a table in a drunken sleep. Roy then slung them one by one over his shoulders, carried them to a rondavel and left them to sleep it off. Most of his pay of £7 a month went back to his old father in Salisbury. In his spare time, Roy went into town with his brother, Isaac, finding plenty of opportunities to use his fists.”
His father, Michael Welensky, had a humble job as “Wacher” or Watcher over the Dead for the Jewish Congregation, who paid him enough, combined with his son’s remittances, to keep going. Eventually he found a haven in the Jewish Aged Home, Johannesburg, where he died and where a friend found his only belongings, an old tin box containing “good fors” representing loans of £14,000 which he had made during the course of a long life, in his generous moods, and which had never been repaid!
Roy himself had by this time found a post at Bulawayo, as a locomotive fireman on the Rhodesia Railways, where he shed, so he said, 70 lbs of surplus weight! His wages on the footplate of £23 a month for a working week of 100 hours were still supplemented by boxing purses, taken in the tougher parts of Bulawayo and Salisbury.
Col. A.S. Hickman. The Siege of the Abercorn Store. Rhodesiana Publication No. 9 December 1963 P18-27
The ’96 Rebellions. The British South Africa reports on the Native disturbances in Rhodesia, 1896-97. Schedule F. Rescue of the Abercorn party. P98-100
E.E. Burke. Mazoe and the Mashona Rebellion, 1896-7. Rhodesiana Publication No. 25 December 1971.
E. Rosenthal. Rhodesian Jewry and its Story. Part V. (www.zjc.org)
T. Rolfe for details of the survivors military records