Colonel Johan Wilhelm Colenbrander CB

To most of us the momentous Great Indaba in the Matopos on 22 August 1896 is well-remembered. It was taught at school and became an integral part of the folklore of Rhodesia from that date. In this the first of several meetings that would be conducted over five weeks with indunas of the amaNdebele rebels, four white men sat on an anthill, facing a group of men tired and hungry with defeat written on their faces. The drought, rinderpest and the bewildering might of the Maxim machine gun had forced them into their final refuge in the sacred hills of the Matopos.

Native Scout Jan Grootboom had, under a white flag, escorted the forty indunas down from the hills, to where Cecil Rhodes waited to commence peace talks. With Rhodes were surgeon Dr Hans Sauer, a companion and member of the Jameson Raid; a Mr De Vere Stent, War Correspondent with the Cape Times; and Johan Colenbrander, the interpreter. Colenbrander was reluctant to put his life at risk, but a payment from Rhodes of 1,000 guineas ensured his presence. Mollie Colenbrander, Johan’s wife and the only woman allowed in camp, handed out pistols to the men before they set out, with Sauer shoving one on each pocket, but Rhodes preferred to go unarmed. Frederick Courteney Selous in his book Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia mentions that, at the outbreak of the rebellion, Colenbrander had formed a regiment of “…about 150 Cape boys, Amaxosa Kafirs and Zulus”.

The Great Indaba, a sketch by Baden-Powell

But who was Colonel Johan Wilhelm Colenbrander CB?

Colenbrander was born in Pinetown, Natal, on 1 November 1856, the son of Dutch parents who had emigrated from Java to Natal in 1854. As a youth he spent most of his time on the veld, becoming highly skilled in shooting and horsemanship, as well as becoming fluent in the language of the Zulu, people he shared his early adventures with. At fifteen, he enlisted as a trumpeter in the Natal Mounted Rifles, and at eighteen, during the Anglo-Zulu campaign against Cetewayo, he suffered a serious head wound from a Zulu battle axe as well as several assegai wounds during a prolonged bout of close combat with an amaNdebele rebel.

After the war, Colenbrander briefly served as secretary in Zululand to the white chief, John Dunn, also becoming commander of his army. He then opened a trading store at Usibepu, but with in-house rivalry still prevalent in the area, he lost his business.

Johan Colenbrander and his wife Mollie. Photos National Archives of Rhodesia

In 1883 Colenbrander married Maria ‘Mollie’ Mullins who, herself an excellent shottist and horsewoman and almost as proficient as her husband in the Zulu language, proved to be a perfect partner. The couple moved to Swaziland where Colenbrander set up a trading store, but in 1888 he was again to face financial ruin when his oxen died from the tsetse fly-borne sleeping sickness while on a trek to Delagoa Bay.

Moving to Johannesburg to take up a position as a claims inspector, Colenbrander met a E.R. Renny-Tailyour, who asked Colenbrander to accompany him to GuBulawayo in Matabeleland and the court of Lobengula, from whom he was hoping to obtain a concession. It was here that Lobengula developed a respectful relationship with this forceful but bright and cheerful white man who spoke isiNdebele like one of his own. It was therefore to this trusted friend that Lobengula relied on to interpret the concession proposals submitted by Rhodes’ emissary, Charles Rudd, and indeed it was due to Colenbrander that the so-called Rudd Concession became a reality, paving the way for Rhodes to venture into this part of the hinterland.

To further satisfy Lobengula of his intentions, it was agreed that two of the king’s indunas, Babyaan and Umshete should visit Queen Victoria, with Colenbrander to go with as interpreter and, as it turned out, guardian from London’s Victorian society which revelled in the exotic, treating the unfortunate ‘natives’ as museum exhibits. Totally unaccustomed to anything beyond the veld and granite boulders of their homeland, the two indunas were thrust into morning suits with pinstripes trousers and top hats. Colenbrander spent a considerable amount of time trying to teach his wards table manners, let alone the proper use of bathroom facilities in hotel rooms. The two amaNdebele insisted on using the fireplace instead of the toilet.

One evening, after having put his charges to bed and going off to the theatre, the hapless Colenbrander was urgently called back to the Dover Street hotel where Babyaan had gone looking for his snuffbox. The problem, which led to much consternation was that, in all innocence, the induna did not deem it necessary to put on any clothes before wondering around the hotel. Colenbrander found, upon his rapid return, a drawing room full of near-fainting Victorian ladies and an almost demented hotel manager.

The cartoon above, depicting that London hotel in disarray, is from the very talented pen of former District Commissioner Alex Bundock, Commanding Officer, Chikurubi Training Depot. Alex sadly passed away quite recently.

Babyaan would later describe Queen Victoria to Lobengula as very small, no higher than a calabash, but terrible to look at! Cecil Rhodes deemed the London PR exercise such a success, that in 1890 he appointed Colenbrander as a representative of the Chartered Company.

Three years later, Colenbrander was given the title Native Commissioner, and so Intaf, officially the Ministry of Internal Affairs, was born.

During the taking of GuBulawayo and the subsequent pursuit of Lobengula, Colenbrander saw active service in the flying column led by Major Patrick Forbes. After the demise of Allan Wilson and his small band of intrepid but deserted troopers, Colenbrander was with Forbes and Raaff as the ragged remnants of the column staggered back into GuBulawayo.

The Colenbranders then set up a permanent home in the ‘liberated’ Bulawayo, consisting of a few large huts, from where they hosted Bulawayo society! Feeling that his role as Chief Native Commissioner was confined to the mundane recruitment of labour and the collection and disposal of loot cattle, in 1895 Colenbrander resigned his post. His position, which had been dubbed ‘Collar-and-brand-em’, clashed with the empathy he had for the amaNdebele nation, a tribe he had lived with for many years. Colenbrander was, however, in a position where he could foresee rebellion, undertones of dissent very evident to his ‘native’ ears.

Colonel J.W. Colenbrander. Photo National Archives of Rhodesia

On 28 March 1896, the amaNdebele nation, deprived of a king and devastated by locusts and rinderpest of Biblical proportions, rose against the vulnerable white settlers. It was during this time, as mentioned at the start, that Colenbrander led a band of mainly black irregulars. With the capitulation of the rebels, it is said that an old amaNdebele woman, in response to overtures of peace, was sent to Fort Umlugulu to enquire of the officer commanding at the post if ‘Johwane’ was with the white people who wish to parley. The reference was to Colenbrander, who the amaNdebele still trusted with his fluency in their tongue to interpret the right words. The indunas would only come down from the Matopos hills if ‘Johwane’ was there.

Those present at the second indaba were in awe of Colenbrander’s eloquent use of the native tongue, with the usual indigenous phraseology and flowery use of idiom or quip. This was Colenbrander’s finest hour. He diffused a still belligerent atmosphere, leaving the now convinced amaNdebele indunas to refer to him as umhlala n’yati – the tickbird (white egret) that removes irritations (from the skin of a buffalo). In a dramatic reversal of his views on women, Rhodes was persuaded to allow Mollie Colenbrander to attend the second indaba, but she remained seated on her horse a short distance away, ready to race back to Fort Usher should events turn bad.

Subsequent to this, and before the third indaba, the Colenbranders moved their camp deeper into the Matopos, thereby allowing the amaNdebele easier access to discuss matters they were not yet certain of. It was during this uneasy interlude, typified by the apparent African disdain for time, that Rhodes had asked one of the indunas if they had any chance of succeeding against the settlers, the grizzled old man responded by admitting that yes, they had really felt they could rout the white man, but they now knew they could no more beat the white man than lick their own elbows. After the chief had left, both Colenbrander and Rhodes tried to lick their elbows – with no success.

The imposing memorial to Mollie Colenbrander in the Bulawayo Cemetery. Photo thanks Alan Bryant

Mollie Colenbrander, unable to have children, died of heart failure on 9 October 1900, aged 36.

To get over his difficulties during this time, Colenbrander, now with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, raised a mounted corps in South Africa called Kitchener’s Fighting Scouts, to fight in the Anglo-Boer War. Operating in the west, in early 1901 Colenbrander led 830 troops deep into the Graaff Reinet area of the Cape Colony as British forces pursued the elusive Commandant Scheepers. In April that year, Colenbrander was back in the theatre to the north and east of Pietersburg in the northern Transvaal, enjoying successes against the van Rensburg and Venter Commandos. By the end of the year, Colenbrander had been deployed to the west, as combined British forces tried to corner General Koos de la Rey.

For the first half of 1902, Colenbrander and his unit were engaged in chasing down Commandant Beyers. Now dubbed by Transvaal Republicans the scourge of the Northern Transvaal, the tenacious Colenbrander hounded his enemy in the vast expanses of the Highveld from Pietersburg to Warm Baths. By 5 May 1902, Colenbrander had secured substantial tracts of territory, the defeated Republicans reeling under the systematic persistent onslaught of the British forces.

Colenbrander’s marriage to his second wife, Yvonne Nunn, was short lived, as she died in 1905, only three years after they were married.

The 59 year-old Colenbrander later offered his services at the outbreak of the Great War but, understandably, the British War Office turned down his offer. He then settled in Johannesburg, where he was to become technical adviser as well as actor in a I.W. Schlesinger production of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. During a scene shot at the Klip River near Johannesburg, Colenbrander, playing the role of Lord Chelmsford en route to saving the beleaguered garrison at Rorke’s Drift, fell as his horse caught its legs in some wire as they were crossing the river. Freeing himself from his mount, undaunted Colenbrander started to swim to the bank of the river, only to be trampled to death in the mud by the cavalry of horses that he had been leading.

It was Sunday, 10 February 1918. Colenbrander was 61 years old. A tragic end to the man described as a soldier, businessman, interpreter, agent and hunter. Colenbrander is buried in the Brixton Cemetery, in Johannesburg.

Colenbrander was twice mentioned in despatches. The first on 12 March 1897 for his contribution to the rebellions in Rhodesia, and the second on 8 April 1902 as the Commanding Officer of Kitchener’s Fighting Scouts during the Anglo-Boer War. On 27 June 1902, the following appeared in the London Gazette, as Colenbrander was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath:

“The King has also been graciously pleased to give orders for the following appointments to the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (additional), To be additional Members of the Military Division of the Third Class, or Companions of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, viz.:

Lieutenant-Colonel J.W.Colenbrander, Kitchener's Fighting Scouts.”

The Companion’s Breast Badge of the Order of the Bath, Military Division

The Rhodesian Soldier