Finnie must have been a fascinating teller of stories having experienced so much in Africa when it was at its most untamed, savage best.
John Pulsford Finnie
Corporal, Gwelo Volunteers – Matabele Rebellion
- British South Africa Company Medal (Rhodesia 1896 reverse) to Corpl. J.P. Finnie, Gwelo Vol.
John Finnie was born in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland on 14 October 1859 the son of John Finnie, a Lawyer’s Clerk at the time, and his wife Isabella, born Wadsworth. According to the 1861 Scotland census the family were resident in Gardner’s Crescent, St Cuthbert’s, Midlothian. Mrs Finnie, at the age of 31, was a good seven years older than her husband. Aside from a 1 year old John and his parents the only other member of the household was 60 year old Elizabeth Wadsworth, Mrs Wadsworth’s mother.
Ten years later at the time of the 1871 Scotland census the family had moved to 3 High Street, Rosemarkie, Ross and Cremarty. The family had grown incrementally in the intervening years and the house was rather a full one with John (11) joined by siblings Frederick Wadsworth Finnie (7), William Davidson (5), Isabella (2) and baby Gerard (1). As was befitting a prosperous household – for Mr Finnie was now not only a Solicitor but also the Town Clerk of Fortrose – there was a servant as well in the form of Mary Ann Kelly, Scots born despite the Irish name.
Another ten years passed and the 1881 Scotland census enumerator called round. The Finnie family had been on the move again – this time to 27 Victoria Street, Old Machar in Aberdeenshire. Tragedy had struck the family with Mr Finnie senior having passed away on 24 February 1873 at the age of 36. He must have been an astute man who wasn’t about to leave his family destitute in the event of his demise as his wife was now an Annuitant of independent means as was her 80 year old mother who had moved back in with the family. John Finnie, having received an education at both Fortrose Academy and Kings College in Aberdeen, was now a 21 year old Clerk in the office of the Advocate General. In fact the entire family seems to have done rather well for itself with brothers Frederick (17) a Pupil Teacher and William (15) a Clerk in an Advocate’s Chambers. The other children were yet too small to make their mark and were at school.
In 1885 at the age of 25 Finnie took the plunge deciding to emigrate to South Africa. After a short stay in Natal and then the Transvaal he became one of the early pioneers of Rhodesia. Rhodesia in those days was a rough and tumble place inhabited in the main by two black tribes – the war-like Matabele and their more placid neighbours, the Mashona. People of European descent were few and far between and were, when found, near to the few settlements that had sprung up. Others, of a more adventurous disposition, had established trading stores in the deep rural areas or busied themselves with transport riding and big game hunting.
It was into this environment that Finnie stepped setting himself up in business as a labour agent and contractor based in the small settlement of Gwelo. In 1890 he was part of the expedition led by Sir John Willoughby to forge a passage to the coast at Beira. Transportation of goods in and out of Rhodesian territory had long been a problem for traders and the community there. On the one hand Beira was a lot closer geographically than was Cape Town and yet to get goods from Beira was five times more expensive than transporting them across country from Cape Town. The Portuguese in control of the port and surrounding country were recalcitrant and, seemingly, unwilling to “play the game” and things came to a head in 1891 leading to Willoughby’s infiltration, at the behest of Cecil John Rhodes, into the territory.
At the beginning of April 1891 three vessels of the Union Company loaded with goods and large stores of provisions to be delivered to traders in Mashonaland was despatched from Durban. Among the passengers of the leading ship “Norseman” was Sir John Willoughby and five Englishmen (of which it is presumed Finnie was one) and one hundred natives. Willoughby had been charged with making a road from the highest navigable point on the Pungwe River in the direction of Mashonaland.
The little flotilla arrived at Beira on 13 April at 09h00 and was escorted into the bay by a Portuguese warship and two other gunboats. The port was full of excited soldiers and the Portuguese authorities were in a state of high tension. The situation was not improved by the arrival of a Portuguese armed tug with two British Prisoners on board who had been taken on the Busi River on their way from Mashonaland to Sofala.
Despite having been instructed not to disobey the Portuguese authorities some of Willoughby’s flotilla went about a quarter of a mile up the mouth of the Pungwe before being tackled by the Portuguese gunships one of which opened fire with a blank shot. These attentions convinced Willoughby to give it up and he ordered the expedition to stop. Once ashore Willoughby and his party were held in custody until he and the Governor General of the territory had, heatedly, talked the matter over. Ultimately Willoughby and his men sailed back to Durban in high dudgeon. This led to a flurry of diplomatic notes being exchanged and the presence shortly thereafter of many a British man-of-war in the Beira harbour. Finnie and company do not seem to have been any the worse for wear after this episode which hardly warranted a comment in the history books.
From 1891 until 1893 he was shooting big game between the Pungwe and Zambesi Rivers managing to find time in between – in 1892 – to meet up and hunt with no less a luminary than Frederik Selous, the famous hunter and scout in the region of Sacramento. Big game hunting was not a sport for the faint hearted and it came attendant with risks of its own. Finnie found this out the hard way when he was severely mauled by a lion in 1893 and obliged to return to Natal for treatment and recuperation.
In 1894 Finnie returned to Gwelo in Matabeleland resuming life as an agent and contractor where ere long, he became embroiled in a dispute involving the importation of Italian labour. Finnie was a supporter of the scheme and, being a recognised labour agent and associated with the Matabeleland Development Company; it was supposed that he knew what he was talking about. Basing his argument on the successful introduction of Italian labour in Latin America Finnie was of the view that they would solve a growing Rhodesia’s labour problems and be a “blessing to the country”. For not only was he (the Italian) redeemed before the white Colonist public by his racial origin but also because the Italian came from a “hardy race” used to working “under a boiling sun”.
He could do the work of “at least two average Kaffirs” Finnie argued, and worked better than other white races based on the assumption that Rhodesia was “the dumping ground for all the most unreliable white labour from other parts of the world.”
But it was the events of 1896 that caused the most trouble in the region. The two black tribes alluded to previously had steadily been building resentment towards the white intruders into their country. In March of that year the Matabele, taking advantage of the lack of any effective police force, broke into open rebellion, murdering all settlers who could not reach one of the hastily arranged laagers on time. Fortunately the road to the south had been left open and supplies not to mention reinforcements could get through. In June the Mashona rebelled and even more murders were committed on defenceless groups of settlers and miners.
An Imperial force was collected which came up from the Cape reaching Salisbury via Beira in August but the bulk of the force which bore the brunt of these attacks were colonial volunteers in the small centres where laagers were created. One such was the Gwelo Laager which led to the creation of the Gwelo Volunteers of whom John Finnie was one. Life in Gwelo was largely uneventful until 25 March 1896 when rumours of the native uprising were fired from Bulawayo. A public meeting was held in the morning and one of the those present was tasked with going round to warn all eight families (this was what comprised Gwelo!) to be prepared to go into laager with the men not waiting but springing into action and moving wagons etc. into place to form the laager. The inhabitants in the surrounding areas including Selukwe began to come in over the course of the week that followed and final preparations were made.
After a period of time an Imperial Officer arrived per coach with some men and maxims and immediately set about enrolling volunteers. But for a more graphic account of quite what the Gwelo Volunteers got up to reference is made to the Yorkshire Evening Post of Saturday, November 7, 1896. Under the headline The Unseen Marksman – Exciting Adventure in Rhodesia – How a British force was compelled to retire, the following appeared:
“The Daily Graphic’s special correspondent in Rhodesia sends an account of an exciting episode during the recent fighting:-
We did not feel elated as we started on our return journey with our severely wounded man borne on a stretcher. The mist had cleared but the weather still remained grey. The Gwelo Volunteers led the way over rough, stony paths. We came to down slope where a group of boulders and rocks impeded progress, and a little below 200 yards or so, was a little rocky kopjie, where parts of thatched roofs peeped from the bush and trees growing thickly around it. The Gwelo and Victoria Volunteers were carelessly riding past a stockade fence enclosing some cultivated patches when a dog jumped onto a bit of granite protruding through the entangled bush in the kraal and barked furiously, a challenge replied to by a careless shot from one of the leading men, which sent him yelping out of sight.
As I neared the fence I was rather astonished to notice that the advanced party had passed on without stopping to inspect the kraal, and being within 50 yards I took closer stock, at once observing that the stockade was new, the freshly cut ends of wood shining white. Before I had come around there came the bang of a heavily loaded gun from the enclosure, and turning my head I saw a horse standing riderless, and commotion in a little lot of horsemen about 50 yards ahead.
It was not difficult to read the situation and I promptly made for the nearest bullet-proof rock and dismounted, a manoeuvre which everyone undertook accompanied by some shouts of warning. It was wonderful to behold how these careless fellows suddenly realised that their conduct had been foolish, and made for cover back on the ridge helping along the man that was hit in shoulder and shoulder blade.
It was fortunate that we were not greeted with a heavier fire even then, for man and horses presented a fine target at close range from the kraal which, in turn, became a target itself, but nothing was seen to move within, though once more the hero with the gun fired, this time without effect, except that of drawing upon the rocks an uncomfortable pattering of bullets from the rifles of the whites.”
For his efforts in the campaign Finnie was awarded the British South Africa Company medal as a Corporal with the Gwelo Volunteers. This was issued in response to the Claim to a Rhodesia 1896 Medal which he completed on 14 August 1899. The form also provided a more thorough account of his movements - providing his address as P.O. Box 46 Gwelo, Rhodesia he stated that his rank on leaving the service in August 1896 was that of Sergeant and that he was leaving for the purposes of proceeding to England. In the section detailing what actions he had taken part in he stated that he had served for six months under Captain H. Ware and had been at Indemas, Munundwana, Insisa, Umgusa , Monogolas and Bongeni. Despite being in the Gwelo Volunteers he claimed to be a Sergeant in G Troop of the Rhodesia Horse. He also confirmed that he was not eligible for the "war medal for 1893"
Finnie returned his confirmation of receipt of his medal on 19 December 1899 on a Union Steamship Co. Ltd. letterhead from Gwelo - he was an agent for the shipping line.
The rebellion over he took himself back to the north of the old country in 1897 presenting a series of lectures on Rhodesia and South Africa in general. An article in The Aberdeen Weekly Journal of Wednesday, April 14 under the headline “A Rhodesia Pioneer” read as follows:-
“Mr J.P. Finnie whose portrait is given herewith is one of the numerous band of gallant Scotchmen who have done such splendid work in Rhodesia. Mr Finnie was in Aberdeen last week – his first visit for fifteen years – and was much interested in the many changes that have taken place during his absence, but more so in the old familiar landmarks which remain unaltered. Mr Finnie was born in Aberdeen but in his early youth moved north to Fortrose where his father became town clerk and where his mother still resides. Fifteen or sixteen years ago he went out to South Africa as the representative of a commercial house and since then he has been actively engaged as a prospector and pioneer.
He has shot big game with Selous and other hunters. On one occasion he was laid up for a year through being attacked and mauled by a wounded lion. He was on intimate terms with the late Major Allan Wilson and he has been associated with Mr Rhodes, Dr Jameson, Mr Dawson and other well-known colonists. Mr Finnie was employed as a scout in the Gwelo district during the recent rebellion in Matabeleland. On the conclusion of the war he came home and received a very warm welcome from his many friends in Fortrose and district.
He has recently delivered in the northern towns a series of very popular lectures on his experiences in South Africa. He left Aberdeen on Wednesday on his way south, previous to sailing on the 17th to the Cape. His headquarters are at Bulawayo where he is engaged as a mine-owner and prospector.”
Finnie’s biography which appeared in the South Africa’s Who’s Who of 1908 also mentions that he was President of the Chamber of Commerce and that he was a member of the Labour Commission set up by Government in January 1906 to enquire into the cause of the periodical shortage in the supply of Native Labour required for industrial and other purposes. He was also a member of the Gwelo Club and a senior partner of the firm Finnie & Finnie, Agents and Brokers, Gwelo, Rhodesia.
This interesting man passed away at Luanshya in the Northern Rhodesian Copperbelt on 26 July 1913 at the age of 53. He was survived by his wife, Kathleen Margaret Craig Moore whom he had married on 30 October 1901 and their five children. His residence at the time of his death from cardiac failure due to dementia was “Lal Bagh”, Gwelo.
The following user(s) said Thank You: djb, Brett Hendey, QSAMIKE
Thanks to the family I am able to post a photo of a silver flask Finnie won in a shooting competition at the Gwelo Rifle Club. It is engraved to him and dated "Xmas 1899" - an appropriate time of the year for this post!
It's always hugely rewarding to be able to unearth more information or even a photo or two of a recipient whose medal(s) one has.
Thanks to a researcher in Zimbabwe I am now able to add a photo of Finnie hard at work behind his desk at the Gwelo Ofice of the Rhodesia Native Labour Bureau along with a very blurred photo of him as part of the chaps involved in the Somabula Diamond Diggings in 1906.
Sadly this last doesn't have captions for all those in the photo but I attach the list showing those who are named.
Left to right, standing: Major R Cashel (extreme left); ----; B "Matabele"
Sitting: PG Smith; Rt Hon. W St J Brodrick, PC; Mrs Brodrick; [-] Boggie;
Lord Selborne; Lady Selborne; Mrs Finnie; Mrs Boggie; JP Finnie