by “Ace”

Painting of Barretos Expedition byNorman Yule

“BARRETO’S EXPEDITION” from a painting by Norman Yule

In order to follow clearly the events which led to the British occupation of Manicaland, that part of Southern Rhodesia which lies along the Portuguese border, it is necessary to turn to Matabeleland, the western portion of what is now Southern Rhodesia, to the time when Lobengula, King of the MatabeIe, put his seal to the famous “Rudd Concession”, the basis of the Royal Charter granted by the Imperial Government to the British South Africa Company on 29th October, 1889. A pioneer force was organised in the Cape by Rhodes, and in 1890 set out to occupy Mashonaland, in terms of the concession.  At Fort Charter, Dr. Leander Starr Jameson (Rhodes’s great friend and his chief agent in his plans of British territorial expansion), Archibald Ross Colquhoun (Administrator-designate of Mashonaland) and Frederick Courtney Selous (the well-known hunter who was acting as guide to the expedition), with an escort of fifteen men, left the Column and travelled across country to Umtasa’s kraal, the head­quarters of the paramount chief of the Manica. Jameson was thrown from his horse on the way, breaking a rib, and had to return to the Column, but Colquhoun and Selous pushed on.

They were aware of the presence of the Portuguese in the district, and Umtasa was therefore closely questioned as to his status and as to whether he had ever made his country over to the Portuguese by “giving an elephant tusk filled with earth”, which was the traditional symbol of submission. He denied having done so at any time, and in these denials he was supported by his indunas. Colquhoun therefore concluded a treaty on 14th September, 1890, by which Umtasa ceded to the British South Africa Company all land and mineral rights in Manicaland in return for guaranteed protection, twenty rifles and an annual payment of £100 in gold or its equivalent in goods.

Colquhoun has given an amusing description of his interview with Umtasa. “It must be confessed that the appearance and presence of the hereditary and reigning monarch of the ancient kingdom of Manica were not quite all one would desire to see in a great ruler. No doubt the utmost resources of his wardrobe had been taxed and brought into requisition for this interview. About midday he appeared attired in a naval cocked hat, a tunic (evidently of Portuguese origin, but of ancient date), a leopard skin slung over his back, the whole toilette being completed by a pair of trousers that had evidently passed through many hands, or rather covered many legs, before assisting to complete the Court uniform of the ‘roitelet Mutassa’, as the Portuguese termed him. He was preceded by his Court Jester, who danced around him, uttering strange cries and ejaculations and singing his praises, in which Umtasa cordially joined. The retinue was completed by a few girls carrying calabashes of kaffir beer, and by a crowd of indunas (or counsellors) and other loyal subjects.”

Motoring on the Cashel-Melsetter road 1936

Motoring among the beautiful mountain scenery on the Eastern border of Southern Rhodesia


When the news of the treaty reached the Portuguese, Andrada, together with Rezende and a half-breed named da Souza (generally known as Gouveia, who was supposed to have received a concession from Umtasa), set out for Umtasa’s kraal, supported by about 300 armed natives, with the intention of compelling the chief to repudiate the treaty. Captain (later Major) Patrick William Forbes, who had been placed in temporary command of the British South Africa Company’s Police, notified Andrada that any such movement would be opposed by force. An interview took place between Umtasa and Andrada on the 15th November, and, while it was in progress, Forbes and ten men crept silently up the hill on the outskirts of the kraal, broke in upon the meeting and arrested the Portuguese officials present. He then took possession of Masa-Kesa (Macequece), the Portuguese headquarters, about sixteen miles away. Rezende was here released on parole but Andrada and Gouveia were sent under escort to Salisbury, and later to Capetown.

Forbes then set out for the coast, with Beira as his objective, but on the way a message from Rhodes overtook him with instructions from the High Commissioner at Cape Town to proceed no farther.

Masa-Kesa remained in the hands of the British South Africa Company until 1891, when the present boundary was defined by an Anglo-Portuguese Convention, which gave it to the Portuguese and the Penhalonga valley to the Company.

A site was now set aside for a permanent settlement, to which the name of Fort Umtali given. It was found, however, that all the land in the immediate vicinity was highly auriferous and enterprising prospectors came along and pegged out the whole camp, including the fort, so a new site had to be found. The township was therefore moved in 1891 to a site seven miles farther west. This choice also proved unfortunate, for later on it was found impracticable to bring the railway to it from Beira through the difficult mountainous country, and Umtali was moved a third time.

Rhodes had recognised the necessity of having completely under his control an outlet to the sea for the new territory and he decided to make a bold bid for Gazaland, the stretch of country lying between the coast line and the mountain ranges, ruled by Chief Gungunyana, which the Portuguese alleged he had made over to them. Accordingly Dr. Aurel Schultz was despatched to the Chief to ascertain the truth in respect of the alleged grant to the Portuguese and to secure a concession. Gungunyana declared himself willing to come under British protection and to grant full mineral and commercial rights in return for an annual subsidy and a present of 1,000 rifles, but he refused to ratify any agreement until the first instalment of the subsidy and the rifles had been delivered. Jameson, who had now recovered from his accident, therefore went post haste to assist Schultz to pacify Gungunyana, and his arrival at the Chief’s kraal on 2nd March, 1891, after an adventurous journey through dangerous swamps and dense forests, coincided with the delivery, via the Limpopo river, of the price of the concession. Gungunyana was completely won over and confirmed the agreement. He selected a very fine elephant tusk for presentation to Queen Victoria and appointed two ambassadors to visit her in London, Denis Doyle accompanying them as interpreter.  Rhodes’s efforts to obtain a seaboard were, however, sacrificed on the altar of international politics.  In the final convention between Great Britain and Portugal, signed on the 11th June, 1891, Gazaland was restored to the Portuguese in return for the Manicaland plateau and the extension of the British sphere of influence in other parts of Eastern Africa. The new colony was left completely land-locked.

Umtali district was admirably suited to agricultural pursuits and Rhodes, therefore, invited farmers to inspect its possibilities for settlement. Commissions of prominent farmers from the Cape and Orange Free State visited the Colony in 1891 and on their return reported so very favourably that large treks were organized. The first was under the leadership of Tom Moodie who left Bethlehem, in the Orange Free State, on 5th May, 1892, with 37 men and 31 women and children, 16 wagons and 350 horses and cattle. Several members, however, broke away en route and settled in other parts of the country, but Moodie was determined to reach his goal and eventually arrived on the high plateau near Chipinga on 3rd January, 1893, his followers now reduced to 20 persons, with seven wagons and 150 head of cattle. He settled on the farm “Waterval” and named the district “Melsetter” after an old home of the Moodies in the Orkney Islands. He died on 30th April, 1894, and his resting-place is marked by a simple stone beside the present Melsetter-Chipinga road.

Moodie’s example was quickly followed by others. Marthinus Martin arrived with a party and settled in Mid-Melsetter in October, 1894, and Johannes Gerhardus Steyn, with a party, in North Melsetter in December, 1895. There were others also, but these were the pioneers. Their faith in the country was justified, as the many smiling homesteads in the district today bear witness.

Rhodes had a deep appreciation of the natural beauty of the eastern part of the new country he had acquired. He established a private estate in the Inyanga district where he built himself a home, now the Rhodes Inyanga Hotel. It is on record that he suggested to Jameson to take up his residence in Umtali. Umtali’s beautiful natural park was a gift from Rhodes to the town, and it is to his foresight that it owes the beautiful scarlet flamboyants lining its main street, which he imported in 1901 from Durban. In mid-summer they are the delight of the townspeople, and a joy to the visitor.

Cecil Rhodes grave in 1938

Cecil Rhodes’ grave in the Matopos Hills near Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia


Rhodes visited the Umtali district four times. His first visit was on 10th October, 1891, and he arrived in the town – Old Umtali – on foot from Beira. On this occasion he arranged for a hospital to be built for Bishop Knight-Bruce, the first Anglican bishop of Mashonaland. Sister Rose Blennerhasset and Lucy Sleeman, the first white women to enter Manicaland, took charge of it from the beginning. When the township was moved a new hospital was built and this was opened on 4th November, 1897. The townspeople celebrated the occasion and Guy Fawkes day by making a huge bonfire of the old buildings.

The abandoned town-lands of old Umtali were given to the American Methodist Episcopal Church, conditional upon the establishment of an industrial mission for natives and a school for white children in New Umtali.

When Sir Alfred (later Lord) Milner, who was High Commissioner at the Cape, made his official tour of the Colony after the opening of the railway from Vryburg to Bulawayo he stayed at the Residency, the official residence of the Magistrate and Civil Commissioner, and Rhodes met him there on 23rd November, 1897. In the winter of 1900 he spent five months in the Umtali district during which time he trekked through the whole of the Eastern district from Inyanga to beyond Melsetter.

There used to be a lot of excitement in Umtali’s early days, and lions provided the “star” turns. On one occasion practically the whole town was besieged for days, and the settlers dared not leave their reed-and-thatch homes for fear of being dragged away by lions, which became so venturesome that they would bound over the camp-fires. They even appeared in broad daylight and chased the police horses across the commonage. For ten whole days there was a reign of terror in Umtali, the roads were covered with lion-spoor and no one would venture out after dark. One night a lion and lioness invaded the main street and forced their way into a cattle-kraal behind one of the houses. The terrified cattle stampeded and the sound of bellowing aroused the inhabitants. The marauders, however, took no notice of the bullets which were rained on them in the dark. The next day, one of the townsmen who was a good shot, followed up the spoor and came upon them in an open glade. He killed the lion with one shot, but the lioness escaped, and peace reigned once more in the town.

Car on Christmas Pass, Umtali, 1936

Umtali from the Christmas Pass


The terms of the Anglo-Portuguese Convention included the right of both powers to construct roads, railways, bridges, and telegraph lines, and Rhodes took immediate measures for the construction of a railway to connect Umtali with the coast, the contract being given to George Pauling, well-known throughout Southern Africa as a pioneer railway builder. The story of the Beira-Umtali line is probably unique in railway construction. The original line was a two-foot gauge track from Fontesvilla to Chimoia, extending afterwards from both ends to Umtali and Beira respectively. The difficulties met with were unprecedented even among tropical railways, chief among them being the inordinately large loss of life due to the deadly tsetse-fly and malaria. The construction staff had to be maintained in triplicate owing to the un­healthy nature of the country which had to be traversed. The complete line took five and a half years to build and it achieved the dis­tinction of being the longest narrow-gauge line (222 miles) in the world.

The first train steamed into Umtali on 4th February, 1898, and was an occasion of great festivity locally. The engine, covered with flags, bore the optimistic message “Now we shan’t be long – to Cairo.”

Pioneer railway travel in Rhodesia was not the comfortable business it is to-day. This is how a passenger from Chimoia to Fontesvilla described the journey just after this section of the line had been opened. “What smiles of joy lighted the countenances of my companions when, at dawn, the scream of the locomotive announced that we were on the move. Is this real? Is this the long-looked-for, the long-hoped-for, the long-prayed-for, the long-promised Beira Railway? It is true that the gauge was only two feet, and that the open car on which we rode was scarcely wide enough for three portly men to sit abreast. It is true that the sparks from the engine set our clothes on fire, and that we were continually slapping our arms and legs and backs to prevent our skins from being burned; but what cared we for that? What though our eyes were filled with cinders, and we wept. Were not our tears those of joy? When the little engine went laboriously puffing and snorting up steep grades, we ran along beside the train, and playfully pretended to lend a hand by pushing. And what fun it was when we began to coast down hill. At times we actually reached a speed of eleven miles an hour!”

The above feature with original illustrations first appeared in the The British South Africa Annual 1938-39 which was among a number of publications acquired by my father during his four years assisting with training aircrew during the Hitler war whilst serving with the RAF VR.

The maps above from 1895 and 1900, at a scale of 1 : 1 000 000, show the Eastern District when it was first being opened up.

That from 1895 is probably the first ever large scale map of the area and the “road” made by Thomas Moodie is shown as a single line crossing the Sabi at Moodie’s Drift and the Tanganda at New Year’s Drift before eventually reaching Melsetter Settlement.  At this stage most of the boundary with Portuguese East Africa had not yet finally been agreed.

The second map of the same area and scale shows some changes as at 1900.

Notably the building of a road and telegraph line from Umtali to Melsetter village and from there a road to what must then have been an extremely remote BSAP post near where the Mt Selinda Mission was later established.

In 1898 a border agreement with Mocambique had been signed with Portugal at Macequece more or less along present lines. Sadly for Rhodesia in many places the line was to the west of what had been hoped for. The final, present day, boundary was not finally agreed until late 1940.

The other points of interest on both maps are the descriptions which actually well convey the nature of the land concerned.  That for the area around the Tanganda River between Middle Drift and New Year’s Drift being marked:  “Fine Country well watered”. Click on the links to see the maps in detail.