Part II of The Frontier Partisan Podcast series on Frederick Russell Burnham is up. You can listen here or on Spotify and a variety of other podcasting platforms.
This episode focuses on Burnham’s role as a scout in the Matabele War of 1893 and the Matabele Rebellion of 1896.
Burnham’s actions in these brief but intense colonial conflicts earned him fame — and no small share of controversy. The podcast addresses both.
Venturing into the Matabele Wars in the current cultural climate is volunteering to walk out into a minefield. The pioneering of Mashonaland and the conquest and holding of Matabeleland is a case study in settler-colonialism, which is now thought of as A Very Bad Thing. And there is no question that white supremacist views — ranging from paternalistic to violent — held sway in the conquest of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and for decades thereafter.
But before we simply invert the triumphalist trope of “civilization triumphing over savagery” and replace it with “rapacious white racists despoiling and displacing indigenous people,” it must be recognized that the amaNdebele (aka the Matabele) were themselves a militant imperial power of an extraordinarily bloody-handed stripe. They can hardly be considered “indigenous” — they had invaded the country known as Matableleland at assegai-point only a generation or two before the war, and they claimed a particularly brutal kind of lordship over the Mashona people, who had been living in the region for centuries (at least).
Historian Peter Baxter describes the amaNdebele economy:
“It was based on the husbandry of cattle and the parallel husbandry of any unfortunate neighbors less warlike than themselves. The striking difference between the two systems of stock management was the cattle were nurtured and humanely treated while human prey was used and butchered in the most cynical in the most cynical and inhumane manner imaginable.”
As usual, frontier conflict cannot be reduced to an ideological morality play.
In my recent return to the story of Frederick Russell Burnham, I paid rather more attention than I have in the past to his remarkable wife, Blanche Blick Burnham. She was a true woman of the frontier — resourceful and capable. She was proud to be considered as able as a man when it came to handling a rifle. She would have fit right in at Boonesborough, or on some lonely homestead on the frontiers of Comancheria. She truly believed in and bought into Fred’s dreams, and she understood and accepted his restlessness, wanderlust, and treasure-hunting compulsions. But she also suffered crushing loneliness during his many long absences, and she endured terrible tragedy.
I have immensely enjoyed compiling the first two episodes of this podcast series. Part III will chronicle Burnham’s Klondike adventures, his service in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, and his attempt to found an agricultural colony in Mexico. The man was a whirlwind.