This article was written by Nick Baalbergen
The establishment of the original settlement of Umtali resulted from two significant developments. The discovery of gold in the Penhalonga valley spurred a "gold rush", as numerous prospectors were drawn to the area. Simultaneously, both the Portuguese and British colonial powers were vying for the attention and favour of Chief Mutasa, the dominant chief in the area. The ultimate objective of both colonial powers was to extend their respective spheres of influence over this area and its strategically important chief. The name "Umtali" derived from the Chimanyika "mutare", meaning "piece of metal".
As early as 1888, numerous hopeful individuals arrived in the area of Chief Mutasa, seeking his permission to prospect for gold. A R Colquhoun, a member of the Pioneer Column making its way to the interior, left the Column at Fort Charter with a group of fellow Pioneers, setting out for the area of Chief Mutasa with the intention of setting up a permanent settlement. Following the granting of concessions to A R Colquhoun by Chief Mutasa, this group of Pioneers and a contingent of BSA Co Police under Captain H. M. Heyman established a fort in November 1890. The fort, built close to the kraal of Chief Mutasa, was the first site of Umtali. The remains of the fort are located near the town of Penhalonga.
In 1891 the unchecked pegging and excavation of prospecting claims across the site of the settlement, prompted the relocation of Umtali to the second site, about 6 kilometres northwest near the Mutare River in the Penhalonga valley. The new township site of several hundred stands was surveyed; the first stands being sold in July 1892. A Police Camp was established and administrative buildings were erected in the township. In 1893 a township administrative structure was set up, headed by a Civil Commissioner. By March 1895 the township of Umtali could boast a population of just fewer than 100. The Standard bank had set up its first branch in a thatched hut, soon to be followed by the National Bank. By 1900, the Standard Bank was operating from a wood & iron building. The Meikle Bros had set up a trading store and fuelled by a boom from gold mining, Umtali soon enjoyed all the basic services of an established settlement, including a handwritten newspaper. Several years later, no fewer than 4 hotels had been set up in the rapidly developing township, two of which, the Royal and the Masonic survived well into the following century.
The need for a rail link from the east coast to Umtali had been foreseen as early as 1891, when it was formalised in an Anglo/Portuguese treaty. The Portuguese would undertake the construction of a rail line from a point on the Pungwe River, some 80 kilometres from the coast, to a point on the boundary of the British territory. This monumental task faced a multitude of difficulties about which volumes have been recorded, not least of which are the chronicles of the contractor George Pauling. The railway construction rights had been ceded a number of times, slowing the progress of work. Eventually the BSA Company acquired the construction rights itself, forming a company for the purpose and engaging the services of George Pauling, a British contractor who had successfully completed several rail lines in South Africa. At the height of construction some 1200 men were employed. The Pungwe flats exacted a heavy toll, as a third of this number died during every year of construction through malaria and blackwater fever. The original concept as outlined in the treaty, envisaged the use of the navigable Pungwe River to ferry goods for the first 80 kilometres from the coast to the inland railhead terminal point on the river. This proved to be unworkable and a further 80 kilometre link to the port of Beira had to be constructed. Pauling & Co had completed the line from Beira to a point on the boundary of British territory (as outlined in the treaty), when Pauling became aware of the final hurdle in this project. The train would not be able to negotiate the steep gradient of 'Christmas Pass' to the township of Umtali, which lay 10 kilometres northwest of the Pass, in the Penhalonga valley. Pauling advised Cecil Rhodes of this dilemma and suggested that as the railway could not be brought to Umtali, the solution may be to bring Umtali to the railway. This prompted a visit to Umtali by Cecil Rhodes, then Prime Minister of the Cape.
After considering a number of options and financial implications, Rhodes opted for the relocation of Umtali to the southeast of 'Christmas Pass', a distance of some 15 kilometres, where the railway could service the settlement. An agreement between Rhodes and the property owners association was finalised and signed. Significant compensation would be paid to the inhabitants of Umtali who agreed to the move. A government notice in the name of Queen Victoria, published on 1 October 1896, detailed the conditions for the relocation of the settlement of Umtali. The new township would be laid out in exactly the same manner as the old Umtali, with the owners occupying their same relative positions. Kingsley Fairbridge and his father were engaged to carry out some of the survey work. A substantial number of the wood and iron buildings in 'Old Umtali', were dismantled and carried over 'Christmas Pass' to be re-assembled on their relevant sites in 'New Umtali'. The site of 'Old Umtali' with the remaining buildings and infrastructure was handed over to the American Methodist Church, who established the St Augustines Mission there. Between August and September 1897, the Umtali township administrative board officially moved to resume their duties at the new site.
On 4 February 1898 Pauling & Co had completed the 2 ft. gauge railway line from Beira to "New" Umtali, their next task was to replace this with the 3 ft. 6 in. standard gauge of Southern Africa, which was completed on 1 August 1900, six months after the inauguration of the Salisbury/Umtali line. Initially the Umtali/Beira line was leased back to Pauling & Co, who operated the train service. The Rhodesia Railways maintained a strategic interest in both the Umtali/Beira railway line and the port of Beira until the early 1970's. In 1899 a tramway was laid by the Umtali Tramway Company, connecting the railway station to the centre of the town by way of Main Street, making Umtali the first and only town in Rhodesia to have this means of public transport. The Umtali Tramway operated until 1920. The name of Pauling lived on, reflected not only in the name of the substantial railway workshop complex established in Umtali, but also in the "Paulington Post Office" which served the residential area of "Paulington", established to house employees of the Rhodesia Railways. Until 1910 Umtali was home to the Railways headquarters, when it was decided to relocate to Bulawayo. Likewise, the locomotive workshops for the entire system were based at Umtali until after the 1914/1918 war, when this function was also transferred to Bulawayo. The Umtali workshops continued as the centre for the overhaul of all diesel-electric locomotives.
Umtali now occupied a site surrounded on three sides by mountains. To the northwest lay 'Christmas Pass', through which the future national road would pass, this ridge of mountains stretched around to the north and east of Umtali. The eastern mountains straddled the border between Rhodesia and Mozambique, and the rapidly growing township would soon extend to within sight of the border. Only to the south of Umtali was the land relatively flat. Main Street ran roughly in a north/south direction, with the railway station being at the southern end and the Police complex at the northern end. To the north of the parade Ground/drill Square, adjacent to the Police complex, was the Zeederberg Coach Station, in what was to be Third Street. The Zeederberg Bros had obtained a number of identical wood & iron buildings from the British Army in India. They were dismantled and transported to Rhodesia, where they were assembled at a number of Zeederberg Station locations to serve as station offices. In common with several of Zeederberg stations, the Umtali station was located adjacent to a hotel, the Masonic, which stood on the corner of Main and Third Streets. The mainly wood and iron structure of the Masonic was restored and maintained. By the early 1970's it had long since ceased to be a hotel, but with its distinctive open, wide verandahs and green roof, it still occupied its original site, having served as a club building amongst others. The Zeederberg Coach served the community of Umtali until, with the advent of the automobile and the extended road network; it was eventually replaced by the RMS (Road Motor Service) operated by the Railways. The redundant Zeederberg Coach Station building was sold and was subsequently used as a house, occupied by numerous families well into the 1960's, when it was sadly demolished without consideration being given to its historical significance.
Given that Umtali had its origins in early gold mining activity, it is not surprising that one of the earliest official appointments in Umtali was that of a mining commissioner, who assumed duties in 1890. By default, he also acted as civil representative until a civil commissioner was appointed in 1894. In 1895 the official title for the appointment was defined as "Mining Commissioner for Umtali", with an area of jurisdiction extending over the native districts of Umtali, Melsetter and Makoni. In June 1891 the first magistrate for Umtali was gazetted, while the post of Assistant Native Commissioner for the native district of Umtali, was gazetted in December 1894, the district itself was only defined some months later, in May 1895. A former prospector, J Nesbitt, was appointed as the first Assistant Native Commissioner Umtali. J Nesbitt died at the outbreak of the rebellion and T B Hulley succeeded him as Assistant Native Commissioner Umtali. He was later to become a well-known and respected Native Commissioner in the province of Manicaland. The first Native Commissioner for the native district of Umtali was appointed in October 1896 and his area of jurisdiction became part of the magisterial district of Umtali. The post of "Superintendent of Natives Umtali" was promulgated in December 1907, with an area of jurisdiction defined as extending over the native districts of Melsetter, Makoni, Inyanga and Umtali. This was the forerunner of the future Provincial Commissioner Manicaland and first defined the area of Manicaland. Penhalonga became the seat of the periodical court. Umtali was only officially proclaimed a "Municipality" on 11 June 1914. The proclamation of "City" status was on I October 1971, the result of a special Act of Parliament, initiated by petition.
The Umtali district of the early 1970's was characterised by extensive commercial forestry operations. Commercial agriculture specialised in production of both coffee and tea, while the cultivation of a range of deciduous fruit was of increasing importance. The tribal areas of the Umtali district stretched from the northwest to well southwest of the city, there being a combination of traditional Tribal Trust Lands (TTLs), African Purchase Areas (APAs) and irrigation schemes. There were numerous TTLs - Mutasa North & South, Maranke, Manyika, Rowa, Chinyuwera and Zimunya. The primary APAs were Tsonzo and Mukuni. One of the larger irrigation schemes, located west of Umtali, drew water from the Odzi River.
The City of Umtali itself was strategically located at the rail and road crossing point into Mozambique, the Forbes Border Post being the official Customs and Immigration point at the border.
Umtali was the commercial/industrial centre of the Manicaland Province, a wide range of business activities being represented in the city. Timber production and manufacture was represented by the likes of the Rhodesia Wattle Co and others, a car assembly plant operated in the city until sanctions ended operations. Umtali was the terminal point of the strategically important oil pipeline from the port of Beira, with refining facilities at Grand Reef. Both Caltex and Shell had substantial operations located at Umtali.
From the early days Umtali was the location of both the district and provincial structures of Intaf, this applied also to the Police. In the early 1970's Intaf in Umtali was spread over two locations. The "top office" located near the Police complex in the centre of the city, accommodated the Provincial Commissioner Manicaland and his support staff, as well as the District Commissioner Umtali and some of his support staff. Most of the traditional functions and activities of the District Commissioner were carried out at the "bottom office", located at the southern side of Main Street near the old "Customs House". There was an almost continuous 'Civil Court' run in rotation by one of the DOs. Births & Deaths registration, firearms registration, workers travel documents, deceased estate administration as well as many more of the traditional functions, were carried out here. To cater for expansion, an old school building was taken over behind the "bottom office", this allowed for the transfer of some of the DCs staff from the "top office" to accommodate additional staff at the Provincial Commissioners office.
For a very junior cadet, a posting to Umtali was a unique experience. Unlike in the majority of districts where government accommodation was provided for cadets at a nominal rental, in Umtali this was not the case. As a cadet you were pretty much left to fend for yourself and make your own arrangements for accommodation. My very modest salary just covered a room and meals in a boarding house; fortunately my fellow 'boarders' consisted of a wide variety of young people in similar circumstances. The same restrictions applied vehicles, where in most districts cadets had access to a station Land Rover, in Umtali key staff such as the DC, ADC, PDOs AOs etc had issue vehicles, and cadets did not. This required some planning, as vehicles had to be booked and picked up from the CMED pool for specific tasks and returned again on completion of the tasks.
In late 1972, the war was in its infancy - we were still driving standard Land Rovers, before the universal mine proofing of all Land Rovers had begun. Within 15 months this was all to change. Although "Operation Thrasher" was only officially declared in February 1976, a significant military presence in the province of Manicaland dated from about 1973. 3 Brigade (Manicaland), based in Umtali, initially set up operations within the premises of the Cecil Hotel, which was located directly opposite the imposing BSA Police complex. The Police complex, dating back to the early days of Umtali, occupied a city block at the northern end of Main Street and the Cecil Hotel occupied the block immediately adjacent to and south of the Police complex. A new Cecil Hotel was being built next to the original structure and once completed, 3 Brigade HQ took official occupation of the entire "Old" Cecil Hotel building. The location was significant, as it facilitated the establishment, functioning and daily operation of JOC Manicaland. The Intaf Provincial Commissioners Manicaland was located in the same area. The core structure of JOC Manicaland conformed to the other JOC structures. The Intaf Provincial Commissioner was a permanent member, as was his counterpart in the BSAP (PROPOL) and of course the appointed military representative(s). The BSAP member would usually co-opt SB representation. The military representation on JOC could include several arms of the service, if actively involved in operations. In addition to the core members of JOC, further members representing a wide range of interests, could be co-opted for a specified time or task, as required. Co-opted members could come from other government departments and para-statals such as Roads, Parks & Wildlife, and PTC etc. Members representing local farming and business communities could also be co-opted for specific tasks. The core membership of JOC was usually reflected in the districts in which the military had a permanent presence, for example in the Inyanga district, where 3 (Indep) Coy RR had been based since about 1973. The District Commissioners complex, the BSAP camp and Army complex were in close proximity, for ease of communication and co-ordination of activity.
Although the command and control functions of 3 Brigade (Manicaland) was in the hands of career/regular officers, many of the day-to-day service functions, such as signals/comms, were carried out by territorial members of the army, resident in Umtali. Adams Barracks, to the east of the city centre near the border, provided the military accommodation.
For the people of Umtali, Wednesday 11 August 1976 marked the start of a new phase of the war. A 30 minute mortar attack was launched on the southern suburbs of Umtali by Mozambican troops from the ridge of mountains straddling the border, overlooking the city. It was claimed that the attack was in retaliation for an external operation carried out by the Rhodesian military on a ZANLA training camp (Pungwe Camp) inside Mozambique. The attack, concentrated mainly on the suburbs of Greenside, Palmerston and Darlington and although there were no deaths or injuries, it served to highlight that the citizens of Umtali were totally unprepared for this new development. An article in the "Umtali Post" of 13 August quoting BSAP Inspector Leppan clearly illustrated this point. The Charge Office telephones were jammed with unnecessary calls and Charge Office staff were tied up attending to panic-stricken residents inundating the office. Anecdotal accounts of residents in the affected suburbs standing in their gardens "watching the fireworks" or standing in front of large glass windows, further illustrated the point. Both the citizens of Umtali and its Civil Defence structures faced a steep learning curve improving levels of preparedness under this new threat.
Umtali was subjected to a number of further mortar attacks. The use of 122mm mortars, newly acquired by the Mozambican Army, brought the whole of the city within range of subsequent attacks. The most sustained attack was on 17 October 1978, a 50 minute barrage of rocket and mortar fire, during which 50 shells landed over a 10 square kilometre area of the city, injuring 5 people. I remember an account of an unexploded 122mm mortar shell being removed from the road near the Police complex. An attack was also attempted on the oil refining facilities at Grand Reef. By the late 1970’s, the foreign media routinely referred to Umtali as a "garrison town", a not inaccurate description.
Despite its city status, Umtali with its tightly knit community remained a town with city pretensions.
Pungwe / Mtarazi Falls January 1974
The Honde Valley to the north of Umtali was extremely volatile and DC Hamish Peters was specifically tasked by Intaf Head Office to deploy there to try and sort out the problem.