TOPIC: McAlister - A Melmoth R.A. and Zululand Mounted Rifles man
McAlister - A Melmoth R.A. and Zululand Mounted Rifles man 3 months 4 weeks ago #65357
Robert Henry McAlister
Member, Melmoth Rifle Association – Anglo Boer War
Corporal, Zululand Mounted Rifles – Bambatha Rebellion
- Queens South Africa Medal to R.H McAlister, Melmoth R.A.
- Natal Medal (Bambatha Rebellion) with 1906 clasp to Cpl. R.H. McAlister, Zululand Mtd. Rifles
Robert McAlister was born in Pietermaritzburg in the Colony of Natal on 29 May 1875, the son of James Simpson McAlister and his wife Elizabeth Ras. James was, by all accounts, quite a character and, having moved the family to Melmoth in Zululand, became the first white Police Constable there, appointed on 1 June 1889.
Tragedy dogged McAlister’s at an early age – his mother passed away on Christmas Day, 1881 when he was a mere 5 years old and an only child. His father remarried in May 1887 when he was 12 years old and soon added to the numbers in the household with siblings for Robert coming along in the form of Susanna Theodora, Peter William, Phoebe Harriett, John Hugh and James Simpson.
At some point in time McAlister senior ceased to be a Policeman and took up the pursuit of farming, purchasing “Hillside” in the Melmoth area of Emtonjaneni which was to become the family farm for many generations. Melmoth in the early days was a rough and ready little township and a stone’s throw from the Zulu King’s capital, Ulundi. This brought with it its fair share of problems with stock theft by the local tribesmen and animosity from the Zulu King, Dinizulu, topping the list.
Initially a Native Levy was raised to counter marauding Zulus – this under the command of James McAlister, which gradually gave way to the creation of a Rifle Association for the area. This was in keeping with developments elsewhere in the Colony, which had seen a number of R.A’s formed – primarily, according to the Rules of the Melmoth Rifle Association, “for the purposes of Colonial defence, and for the encouragement of rifle shooting.”
The Rifle Association came into existence in 1895 on the back of a Proclamation by the Colonial Governor and “would cease to exist if its numerical strength falls below 15 registered members.” It was to this organization that a young, you had to be at least 16 years of age, McAlister gravitated when he was 20 years of age.
The township of Melmoth had, in the meanwhile, gradually grown with a number of businesses making their appearance in the dusty streets that had been laid out by the Magistrate, Mr. Knight. This growth had also been fueled by the discovery of gold on some of the neighboring farms – prospectors, keen to stake their claims, descended on the town in their droves only to find that the gold, such as it was, was only to be found in small quantities, not commercially viable to mine. This created a false economy which, once the excitement had dissipated, led to financial hardships for the locals.
As the township expanded the need for quality roads to service the community became more pressing and in 1893 a youthful McAlister (he would have been only 18) was put in charge of the government work party in the district, seeing to the repair of all roads. During the next two years he built a new road to Eshowe which improved road communications with the administrative centre of Zululand.
The Anglo Boer War which erupted in South Africa in October 1899 provided the Rifles Association and its members with the opportunity to show their mettle. Although the fighting was initially focused very much to the north and west of Melmoth that soon changed and Boer parties under Potgieter and others infiltrated as far as Babanango and other proximities close to the town. Unlike the larger centres where a Town Guard or District Mounted Troop had been raised, Melmoth had naught but the 20 members of the Rifle Association, armed with their government-issue rifles and 100 rounds of ammunition with which to fight off any incursion.
The instructions were clear, at the first sign of danger the residents of Melmoth were to retire on Eshowe. The feared Boer invasion from nearby Vryheid reached as far as an attack on Nqutu which led to a decision on 2 February 1900 to withdraw the British Forces stationed at Nongoma, Nkonjeni and Nkandla to strengthen the garrison at Melmoth. The Boers, however, did not attack Melmoth but moved on to occupy Nkandla, capturing the magistracy there on 19 February 1900. The occupation of Nkandla was however, short-lived for on 24 February it was reoccupied by the British forces.
In 1901, during Botha’s second invasion of Natal, the Boer presence led to the battles at Fort Itala and, closer to Melmoth, Fort Prospect but both were driven off with loss to the Boers and the town itself wasn’t penetrated or occupied by the Boer forces.
McAlister, as a member of the Rifle Association under President Hulley, was awarded the Queens Medal – one of only 14 awarded to the small unit – off the roll dated 18 September 1901 for “being actually present at the operations for which the medal was claimed.”
The war over, McAlister took up farming, no doubt enjoying the relative peace and tranquillity this occupation provided after the recent disturbances. This was to be short-lived however, the dawn of 1906 brought with it a myriad of problems. The Colonial government, stretched to the point of bankruptcy as a result of the Boer War, hit upon a controversial way to augment their empty coffers – the imposition of a Poll Tax of £1 on all Black males (this was in fact levied against males of all backgrounds) of 18 years of age and older.
This met with grudging acceptance by most of the Chiefs who were required to collect this tax and hand it over to the various Magistrates. There were, however, pockets of dissent and blood was shed and lives lost in some places when the day dawned for the payment of this tax. The local Militia was mobilised and succeeded in quelling the flare-up of revolt wherever it happened. Dealt with successfully, or so the authorities thought, the militia were stood down and returned home.
This was but the prelude to a far greater rebellion – Bambatha, a petty and recently deposed Chief of the Zondi clan near Greytown, went about inciting open rebellion and was soon joined by others in his rejection of the tax and what it stood for. His other motive was a more sinister one – he perceived this as a chance to rid Zululand of the white mans’ presence and took his followers into open revolt, murdering a number of Europeans in the process. This led to the call-out of the Militia yet again which, on this occasion, included the 105 Officers and men of the Zululand Mounted Rifles, among them was McAlister, with the rank of Corporal.
The Z.M.R. had come into being in 1903 and was headquartered at nearby Eshowe. Bambatha, having created an uproar and, leaving a trail of destruction behind him, had fled to Zululand near the Nkandla Forest to a place called Mome Gorge. Enter then the Z.M.R. to the fray – they were mobilised and sent to Empandhleni to await further instructions. All the while feedback from Sigananda, a Chief from the area, was being awaited. He had been instructed to arrest Bambatha and bring him into the Magistracy. It was rapidly becoming apparent, as the days passed, that this was not going to happen and that Sigananda had thrown his lot in with Bambatha.
By the 9th April 1906 the Z.M.R. had been joined by the Natal Police and Nonquai (around 350 men), what followed was a waiting game. On the evening of the 23rd April news reached the small force that Bambatha was in the vicinity of Ntingwe, the Police and the Z.M.R. then made a night march over the most impossible terrain imaginable, in search of him, but the sortie proved unsuccessful.
A further 500 men from various units reached Empandhleni on the 25th April by which time the Government had decided to adopt a multi-pronged approach to driving the rebels out of the Nkandla forest but still no order came to engage the enemy – instead the force was instructed to clear a radius of 6 miles from their base of any cattle and other impedimenta.
All the while the number of rebels grew, their ranks swelled by new arrivals from other Chiefs. The number of Z.M.R. had been reduced to 90, based now at Ntingwe. On Monday, 21 May, the Z.M.R. was part of Colonel Mackenzie’s force ordered to Macala where Bambatha had been spotted with about 500 men. This proved, again, unsuccessful as the elusive Chief had moved 15 miles further away. On the following day Mackenzie divided his troops into two columns, keeping the Z.M.R. under his direct command, moving to Nomangci later that day where the Z.M.R. formed the rearguard.
Large bodies of rebels could be seen moving about the top of the nearby hills singing war-songs. A night march was planned for the 24th with the object of surrounding the forest by daybreak; the force proceeding along an exceptionally narrow footpath. Despite the difficult terrain day broke and the mist cleared with the forest surrounded by a cordon of men, only to find that the enemy was not there.
Early on the 29th May the force was again sent out to drive a nearby valley where the rebels were thought to be. The Z.M.R. with Native Levies, moved down the western side of the valley with the remainder of the force descending down the east side. The descent had hardly begun when 600 cattle were seen being driven on the slopes of the valley, having reached the bottom where the river flowed, the action commenced with small parties of rebels, evidently sent to waylay the force, springing up from behind boulders and appearing from the inside of thought-to –be abandoned grass huts. They flung their assegais at the Z.M.R. and levies and were promptly shot.
Intelligence was at the same time received that a much larger impi had gathered further down the ravine and reinforcements were sent for but at 2 p.m. word came that the men were to return to camp and not engage the enemy although they were within sight.
On 1 June Mackenzie’s Zululand Field Force moved out along the ridge of the Esigqumeni Forest in the direction of the Mome Gorge – had the day of reckoning for Bambatha come? As the forest was driven a number of women and children with white flags emerged but where were the rebels? Traces of recent extensive occupation were everywhere but no enemy. The next day the camp was moved up the Mome stream with the Z.M.R. remaining behind in camp until it was dark when, having lit fires to confuse the enemy, they were to withdraw.
On the 3rd the force moved out again with the Z.M.R. occupying a kopje one mile east of where the drive was proposed to cease; the remainder of the force was now tasked with driving the bush towards the Z.M.R. This they did but encountered an impi lying in the grass and hiding in thick bush. A sharp action followed wherein many rebels and a number of the Z.F.F. were either killed or wounded.
At last the action at Mome Gorge was about to take place – this was the seminal battle of the rebellion and the one in which Bambatha lost his life and his head and the back of the rebellion was broken. Having received intelligence that Bambatha and his main impi were in the Gorge, Mackenzie arranged his force in a pincer or encircling movement so as to surround the enemy and cut of their escape routes at the same time. The Z.M.R. were dismounted and, together with the Durban Light Infantry, marched in single file towards a waterfall where Sigananda was said to be hiding, with the object of driving it.
These men were lining the edge of the extremely thick and steep forest, awaiting the order to move into the bush when the loud fire from the Z.F.F. guns burst forth. Having spotted the enemy, the troops ran down to the Mome effectively cutting off any fugitives attempting to escape.
Once this had been accomplished the men were ordered to drive, down the Mome through the scrub. The enemy realized it was caught in a trap with no escape. The Z.M.R. and supporting troops were then ordered to regain the high ground where they joined the rest of the encircling force. What followed was a burst of shell and rifle fire down on the trapped enemy below. With nowhere to run, they fell in their masses.
Bambatha’s head, as proof of his demise, was brought out on a stick. This action, once the full ramifications had filtered through to the various Chiefs, virtually put an end to the rebellion although there were still a number of incidents thereafter.
McAlister for his part, was awarded the Natal Medal with 1906 clasp.
Returning to normal life once more, McAlister purchased “Harmony” which he continued to farm until his death at the age of 61 years 7 months on 10 January 1937. He seems to have dabbled as a Building Contractor as well. He was predeceased by his wife Martina Erica and was survived by his two sons – Robert Kenneth and Allan James McAlister.
The following user(s) said Thank You: djb, QSAMIKE, jim51
McAlister - A Melmoth R.A. and Zululand Mounted Rifles man 3 months 4 weeks ago #65358
Thank You Rory..... Hope you had a good and restful holiday...… Mike
Military Historical Society
The following user(s) said Thank You: Rory
McAlister - A Melmoth R.A. and Zululand Mounted Rifles man 3 months 4 weeks ago #65360
That is a very nice pair, Rory, the Zululand MR were a particularly interesting corps.
The following user(s) said Thank You: Rory
McAlister - A Melmoth R.A. and Zululand Mounted Rifles man 3 months 4 weeks ago #65363
A very interesting read, Rory, and a lovely pair of medals.
Dr David Biggins
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