Burnham the scout

Burnham the Scout  (1901) 
by Curtis Brown

From: Pearson’s Magazine (US) v 6 #5, November 1901; Front cover claims Vol. XII, No. 71. (1901)

Burnham boer war.jpg

The First Authentic Account of Some of the Remarkable Exploits of Major F. R. Burnham, the Famous Scout, who, it will be remembered, was called post haste to South Africa by Lord Roberts In the Early Stages of the Boer War.

- - - - -

IT is safe to say that the experiences of Major Frederick Russell Burnham, the American scout, would make one of the. most fascinating books that could be wished for by those who love tales of adventure. Good old-fashioned hair-breadth escapes have been scattered by Fate with a lavish hand all through the exciting story of his life -a story not yet half told, let us hope. He was born into his career, one might say, for while he was yet a baby he could look from his father 's door on the wild frontier of Minnesota and see the flames rising from the burning town of New Ulm, a terrible funeral pyre for the murdered women and children lying there in their dismantled houses, the victims of Chief Red Cloud's braves.

Burnham played at hunting Indians before he could read, and the game became reality with him at a time when most boys are in school. He could manage a rifle effectively when he was eight, and was a first rate shot by the time he was twelve. When he was only thirteen he was shifting for himself, and came within an ace of capturing Vasquez, the most famous bandit in Southern California, who had killed a hundred white men in his day.

In the next few years he was in the thick of some of the fiercest and bloodiest of the cattle-wars that stained red the history of the American South-west in the early eighties. He followed the trail of the red men in many Western States, tracked white outlaws in Arizona , and fought bandits in Mexico until the West became too quiet for him. The quick blood of imperialism was in his veins. and he sought out a country that was still reaching for new and unconquered territory. The prospect of trouble between the Chartered Company's handful of troops in Matabeleland and Lobengula's 10.000 warriors in 1893 attracted him and carried him off to South Africa, which has been the scene of most of his exploits ever since.

Many stories have been told of one or another of these adventures in the newspapers from time to time, but they were usually more or less apocryphal, or else they partook of the stiff and official character of the Government reports from which many of them came. They lacked, too, the cumulative interest that they might have had if strung together in one narrative. Time and again attempts have been made to persuade Major Burnham to set down a record of these incidents in his own words and with the details that should clothe, as with flesh and blood, the bare skeletons of facts already known. But such efforts were unavailing despite all inducements. He would say ‘that writing was not in his line,’ or give some other excuse. His thoughts never seemed to concern themselves in the least with spectacular effects or with popular applause. He had courage enough and to spare for all the perils of war, but when it came to facing what looked like autobiography his heart always failed him. The difficulty of getting from such a man, little by little, the details of some of the more exciting events in his career has been considerable, but the result has proved well worth the effort.

Fort marquand 1896.jpg

Major Burnham's most talked-of achievement was his mission to the sacred cave of the M’limo. That dare-devil trip had far reaching results, and went a long way toward putting an end to the Matabele rebellion of 1896. The story of it was told far and wide at the time, but the current accounts left out many details that could ill be spared, and beyond his official report Burnham was loath to talk about it. One reason for his reticence was that he always insisted he got more than his share of credit for the adventure, and that the real engineer of the affair was Armstrong, who is now Commissioner of the very district in which the M'limo's mischief came to a sudden end.

After the downfall of Lobengula the country had settled down to a quiet growth. The Kaffirs lived on good terms with the settlers, nobody carried arms, and all seemed contented. But in the breast of the savage there is always hidden what no white man can read, even though the white man is born and raised among them. The Kaffirs of Africa are largely governed by their secret priesthood, each district having its local head acting on instructions from the chief M'limo, who is supposed to be the mouth-piece of God and to talk directly to Him in certain sacred caves.

It was at the suggestion of this high priest that on a certain night when the moon was full, every servant was to kill his master, and every white man, woman, and child was to be exterminated throughout the whole of Rhodesia. But some of the young bloods to whom the orders had been given began the slaughter a few days too soon in the outlying districts on the Insezi river. Some of these settlers, escaping to Bulawayo, gave the alarm and enabled many others to concentrate in Bulawayo and form a rude laager before the big impii (regiments) of the Matabele were ready to sweep through the town. In the siege that followed, rinderpest added to the ordinary terrors of starvation, and among the many children who perished was Burnham's little daughter, the first white child born in Bulawayo.

With her sufferings fresh in his mind, the scout was more than ready to undertake the desperate trip he was called upon by General Sir Frederick Carrington to make-to travel miles through a hostile country, get into the very heart of one of the great Matabele camps and capture the man who had planned the massacre, who was directing the rebels subsequent operations, and who was their spiritual as well as military mentor-the outward and visible manifestation of the great spirit they worshipped.

It was a thing that could be done only by a large force or by a party small enough to have hope of escaping observation. The large force was out of the question. for the English troops in the Bulawayo district amounted only to about 2000, and they were outnumbered at least five to one by trained warriors armed to a considerable extent with modern rifles.

The enterprise would have been foolhardy to a degree if it had not been so necessary. The two men who undertook it had perhaps one chance in a hundred of returning alive. But if they were killed -why, they only anticipated the fate that threatened the others in Bulawayo, whereas if they should succeed, the blow that would be struck at the Matabeles would be the most effective possible in the circumstances, for it was the M’limos appeal to the superstitions of these savages that made them such reckless warriors.

One of the preparatory ceremonies performed by the fighting impii to render themselves invincible was to skin an ox alive and eat a piece of its raw flesh. The M’limo had promised the warriors that the while man's bullets should be turned to water, but artfully added a proviso that all the loot taken from the white man should be brought to him, otherwise his charm would not protect them.

He knew the hearts of his people well, and that it was impossible for a Kaffir to keep from stealing some of the loot. It was the M'limo who foresaw that the black man could never hope to defeat the white in equal numbers, and the only hope of the future lay in wiping out the intruder while the old superstitions were still strong, hoping that there were no more white men in the mysterious north from which they had come, or if there were that they would not dare follow.

But the M'limo had aroused the hatred of one of the Matabeles -a hatred so fierce that the warrior deliberately revealed the high priest's whereabouts to Armstrong, who had lived so long in the country that he could speak the language like a native. Armstrong hastened with the information to General Carrington, who lost no time in acting upon it.

Baden-Powell, who was then stationed in Bulawayo, and had recognized a kindred spirit in Burnham, had counted on going with him in this expedition, but other duties claimed B.·P.'s attention, and the scout and Armstrong set out alone on horseback in June of 1896, three months after the time set by the M'limo for the massacre. The following is the report given by Major Burnham, to Earl Grey, the administrator of the country at that time – a report which the Government has given Major Burnham permission to publish -

Burnham mlimo.jpg

His Honour the Administrator, Lord Grey, at Bulawayo,

SIR,-- I have the honour to report that, upon the information obtained by Native Commissioner Armstrong, and laid before me here, we believed it possible to get into the Matoppo and get M'limo in his cave. It was found there was to be a big indaba about the fall of the moon, and almost with certainty we would be there some time previous. After several attempts that Were failures, on the 23rd of the month we succeeded in catching the M'limo in the act of going through his incantations in the cave. Our orders from General Carrington were to capture him if possible, but on no account to allow him to escape us. We were surrounded by Kaffirs in all directions. The ground "as very rough-huge granite kopjes and boulders and dongas. We hid our horses as near the cave as it was possible, and with great difficulty got ourselves into the cave.

M'limo was going through a preparatory indaba this day, and the women and the old men were carrying beer and utensils for the big indaba to come off on the following day. The impii was supposed to be behind the big granite hill.

Just as M'limo had finished his dances in the smaller crevices and pathway leading to the main entrance, and was starting into the main cavern, I shot him with a Lee-Metford rifle, killing him instantly. We left his body at the entrance to the big cave. He is a man sixty years old, with short cropped hair. He was not dressed with any snake skin, charms, or any of the ordinary equipment of the witch doctor, neither had he any article of white manufacture of any kind. He was not a Ring Kop, be was a Makalaka. His features are rather aquiline for a negro, very wide between the eyes. His skin is more red than black.

Immediately after killing him we rushed down the side of the mountain. Just at the foot there is a large kraal of over one hundred huts, built of woven grass, no dagga being used in construction. The huts are conical, with low doors, and were used as temporary resting. places by the people coming to hold indabas with M'limo. We fired these huts. The wind, blowing strongly against the kopje, carried a huge sheet of flame and volumes of smoke far over the top. The Kaffirs saw us, and shouted and shrieked as we got to our horses. For two hours we were hotly pursued, and were nearly exhausted. Fortunately the Kaffirs abandoned the chase after we crossed the Shashani river. We arrived at Mangwe at 6.30 p.m.

I would say that all the trails leading to this cave have been worn and beaten down several inches or more in depth by constant travel this year. The dust on all the trails is an inch or more in depth, showing that this was the great Konza place for the whole country. The Kaffir information by which Mr. Armstrong was enabled to discover the movements of the M'limo was obtained under strict bond of secrecy never to betray their names to the white Government or anybody, as it would mean absolute and certain death to all of them. I do not know even any names myself, but as I heard the ceremonies with my own ears and saw the preparations of the M'limo myself, I am convinced that the information given was absolutely correct, and that this was the principal M'limo of the nation.

We have information of two minor priests whom we may be able yet to capture, but they are of slight importance in comparison with the great head priest who always practised in this particular cave.

I have the honour to be, Sir, Your obedient servant, (Signed) F. R. Burnham.

Less than two years after. this exploit Burnham made another expedition that turned out to be highly interesting. It was a five months' journey north of the Zambesi River, with ten white men and seventy armed natives. The object of this expedition was to explore Barotzeland and other countries to the north, and establish the boundaries of a large concession of five hundred square miles that, at the suggestion of Cecil Rhodes, had been granted by the British South Africa Company to Burnham, Colonel Maurice Gifford, and P. Ingram, a well-known scout, in recognition of valuable services in the war. Ingram, who is an American, accompanied Burnham in the northern expedition.

A treaty had been signed by the king allowing the B.S.A. forces to enter the country, and so on reaching the Zambesi river, which is the boundary of the Barotze country, Burnham's camp was established on the north bank of the river. The King 's son, Latea, who acted in his stead, had a large town at this point.

All former expeditions had been entirely dependent upon Barotze earners to get up country. These carriers were, under one pretext or another, withheld until the luckless trader either died of fever in this unhealthy valley or paid out all his gold, cloth and goods, which made it impossible for him to get further north. Knowing this, Burnham took donkeys and mules and pack outfits, swam them over the river and was entirely independent of the Kaffir carriers. When they saw the multitude of packages and headloads quickly lashed on to the animals by the diamond hitch, the Kaffirs made up their minds to stop the expedition by force in spite of having signed the treaty with the Government, giving free right of way, and although the expedition was paying in gold for everything it got.

“Just before daylight," said Major Burnham to the writer, "I found that Latea's men had surrounded my camp and were preparing to attack . They were well armed, and outnumbered my force so greatly that it looked like a bad case. Just across the village from my camp lived a missionary. Taking three men I went to his house and got him to come with me to the king's hut. I wanted him not only as interpreter but as a witness, for he was on good terms with the king and I knew his life would be spared. whereas it did not seem likely that we should come out of the affair alive.

"When one is in a tight place, his only hope usually lies in doing the unexpected thing. And I was planning to do something that wasn't expected. We kicked a hale in the fence around the king's hut, and before he knew what had happened, the four of us were in his presence and my rifle was covering his heart. He had only three headmen with him, and they were quite unprepared. I told the king that if he gave any alarm I would shoot him. I said to him: 'Now, is it peace or war? If it is war I shall begin by shooting you and all your headmen. When my men hear the shots, they have orders to open fire at once, and we shall sell our lives as dearly as possible. But if it is peace, you must keep the treaty you have signed and send two of your men with messages from me to Bulawayo to give a full account of the steps I have taken with you.'

"The missionary who had to translate this to the king knew that I meant business and was in great fear, for he believed that the black brother was as good as dead. He begged and implored the king to abide by the treaty, and was so evidently frightened, not for his own safety but for that of the king, that Latea, who had looked into the mouth of my rifle calmly enough at first, began to weaken, and finally ordered off his warriors who were covering our men in the camp beyond.

"The expedition had many minor adventures after entering the Mashaklumbwa country. The mineral grants were located on a large copper field whose ores carry both gold and silver. They are now being worked by a company. Rhodesia is a wonderful old country. We found thousands of mortars the ancients had used in crushing quartz, and there are many great ruins built of granite blocks, the walls being often fifteen feet in thickness, beautifully laid without mortar.

The country is seamed with quartz veins, thousands of which had been worked by these ancient people. It was their custom to build fires on the ledges and then dash cold water on the hot rock, which cracked it, after which stone hammers and gads were used to further remove the quartz. In some of the ruins quite large sums of gold have been found, Ingram and myself obtaining 641 ounces from one ruin about fifty miles from Bulawayo."

One of Burnham's famous adventures in Matabeleland was part of an incident that has been told in song, story, and drama, and will soon be perpetuated in marble, for he was one of the three men who saw all but the final bloody scene of Major Wilson's last stand. He would have been one of that handful of heroes who sold their lives so dearly to Lobengula's warriors on the morning of December 4th, 1893, if, at almost the last moment, after two hot fights, Wilson had not sent him and two companions back through the Matabele on the desperate chance of getting the reinforcements that should have been sent before.

Burnham, like the rest of that glorious party of thirty-five men, had surrendered hope of life, and was bent merely on doing what he could before the end came. He says it did not occur to him until he was nearly back to the 'main column again that it might be possible to escape through the thick cordon of blacks, numbering several thousands, that surrounded Wilson and his men. For two hours they were chased and under fire, and it took all of his knowledge of woodcraft to elude the different bands of warriors that clung to his trail. Finally, by swimming the Chungani river, which was in flood, he succeeded in carrying the tidings of the fate of Wilson's men to Forbes, the commander of the column.

After the Matabele were finally conquered in 1896, Burnham started out for the goldfields of the Klondike on the other side of the world, taking his family with him.

But his wife had not fairly set her far-traveled household goods in place in Alaska before the Boer War broke out, and when Lord Roberts was made Commander of the Forces in South Africa, one of his first acts was to send for the American scout.

Burnham's many adventures in this his third campaign in South Africa are too recent and well-remembered to need repeating here, except for a few details that doubtless escaped publication. He entered the Boer lines almost exactly a hundred times. and was captured once, but got away in three days.

At Zand river he spent an afternoon inside a Kaffir hut, while on a bench outside were ranged a number of Boer officers watching the movements of the British in the distance. The scout, with his eye at a hole in the th in mud plaster wall, an inch from the head of the nearest Boer, was likewise watching the proceedings.

There was only one room in the hut, and when some of the Boers decided to come and sit inside, the scout had to jump for a pile of skins in one corner and lie motionless underneath one of them for two hours, while one of the Boers sat so close that he could have touched Burnham without rising from his seat.

The incident illustrates one of Major Burnham's maxims. "Invisibility," he says, .. is immobility; but," he adds, " it is not easy to remain motionless unless you can keep an eye on the man you wish to avoid. When you lose sight of him your imagination is likely to get the upper hand of your judgment -- and your nerves have to be in good condition then."

At another time he lay two days and two nights in an ant-bear hole, just big enough to keep him concealed from a neighbouring commando. He was accompanied by one black boy laden with explosives, who also had to use the same kind of shelter.

The diet and the hard travelling were too much for the black boy, who had been chosen for his great strength and endurance. So Burnham took the gun-cotton with which his companion was laden and went on alone, while the boy struggled back to the British lines.

When the Boers moved on, Burnham blew up the railroad between Pretoria and Johannesburg, enabling the British to capture a number of engines and cars at Johannesburg. He was twelve days' on the expedition, living the last four days on raw mealies only.

Burnham railroad.jpg

Another exploit, which nearly cost his life, was to destroy the railroad east of Pretoria and prevent the Boers getting the British prisoners away by train. But when some distance from the line, he rode into a commando, who promptly opened a very heavy fire upon him. Not a shot of the shower of bullets that followed him struck him; but when he had dashed back some 500 yards his horse was shot and fell, with Burnham underneath. The scout lay several hours insensible, but the night was so dark that the Boers never found him, and at daybreak he recovered consciousness, saw that the Boers had gone, dragged himself to the railroad, placed his gun-cotton and blew up the cars. For two days and nights, without food, and more dead than alive with his wounds, he lay hid, then started to crawl to Pretoria on his hands and knees, being unable to stand upright. He was soon overtaken by a stray British patrol and carried to Pretoria, where it was found that he had been dangerously wounded internally.

Unfortunately I am not permitted to print the personal letter which Major Burnham received from Lord Roberts on being invalided back from South Africa. It is the famous scout's most cherished possession. He would even surrender the lucky nugget of gold, that he has carried for years in his pocket as a sort of talisman, before he would give up that letter which testifies in Lord Roberts's own handwriting to the Commander's belief that no other man in the force could have accomplished the same work in South Africa, work demanding "the training of a lifetime, combined with exceptional courage, caution, and powers of endurance."

The restless nature of the man is indicated by the fact that he had scarcely recovered from his injuries before he cut short the lionising, of which he was somewhat astonished to find himself the object, and plunged away towards Ashanti. I received a letter from him not long ago which contained this curious explanation: "A sudden spasm seized me, and I have struck off to the jungles of West Africa. Just why I am off to this coast I don't know, except perhaps that I always said I would never go there."

He returned to England in July, but by the time this article can be published the chances are that he will be off again to some remote corner of the globe-maybe to Patagonia, on which he has had an eye, so to speak, for several years.

Major Burnham's wife has been with him in most of his adventures, and their eldest boy, a remarkably sturdy youth of fourteen, also went through the Matabele campaigns, and likewise journeyed to the Klondike. The boy has just entered Wellington for a military training, and is being carefully instructed by his father in the art of scouting. He expects to follow in his father's footsteps some day.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).