The Last Stand of Major Allan Wilson - British Empire 1815-1914

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To the Memory of Brave Men:
The Last Stand of Major Allan Wilson at the Shangani, 4th December 1893

Allan Stewart was a late Victorian painter in the journalistic mode who looked upon his painting as  a form of reporting, and also an extra source of money for the illustrated press. Paintings of imperial scenes no longer necessarily sought to create heroes. With the advent  of the illustrated newspapers and magazines like The Graphic and The Illustrated London News, there was a new appetite for pictures which helped to tell a story.

To do this Stewart used the methodology of the journalist. He interviewed survivors and borrowed memorabilia from the campaign to create an authentic image that brings to the observer the immediacy of the event.

This painting shows the destruction of a group of soldiers fighting for the  British South Africa Company, cut off during a campaign against the Matabele but standing strong - disciplined and resolute. It does show the view that the public liked to have of soldiers in the empire -doing their duty against a disorganised foe and only going down because of the sheer numbers opposing them. A scene of defeat is transformed into one of victory.
There were no survivors amongst the British soldiers although the only eye-witness accounts we have are from Matabele warriors who have said that
The scene is from the First Matabele War in 1893 when forces of the British South Africa Company, headed by Cecil Rhodes,  invaded Matabeleland and Mashonaland to acquire land for those settlers who has settled in Mashonaland but found the land particularly unproductive. Rhodes was determined to destroy the Matabele as a force and when Jameson contrived to secure an excuse to invade, Rhodes sold sufficient shares in the British South Africa Company to pay for an invasion of Matabele land using three columns  of men. Major Wilson of the company’s police signed up recruits who were guaranteed land for their troubles. The eventual  force of over 600 men was equipped with the latest Maxim guns. The Matabele leader, Lobengula tried to sue for peace but Rhodes wanted nothing but a war.

Jameson’s force was initially surrounded by a large Matabele army of over 5,000 as soon as it crossed the Shangani River, but Lobengula’s army was forced to retreat under heavy Maxim fire. Jameson’s victorious men marched into the Matabele town of Gubulawayo but Lobengula had escaped.
On 3 December, a forward reconnaissance patrol under the command of Major Wilson was sent across the Shangani River to ascertain in which direction Lobengula had gone. Wilson was to report back before nightfall but in the event he pushed ahead looking for Lobengula. Early on the morning of 4 December he reached Lobengula’s  camp but was forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds. The patrol was soon surrounded and the entire patrol of seventeen men died fighting.

The men became a legend and  were subsequently buried in the Matopos Hills alongside Rhodes. The skirmish was commemorated in paintings, verse, prizes and medals, and the legend was embellished with the men taking off their hats in the face of the last Matabele  charge and singing ‘God Save the Queen.’
The painting was first exhibited at the Royal  Academy in 1896 and later donated to the people of Rhodesia and placed in the town hall at Bulawayo. The painting inspired two films, Major Wilson’s Last Stand (1899) and The Shangani Patrol (1970).
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